It was a cold November evening when approximately 110 members of the African American and Jewish communities packed into a multi-purpose room on the second floor of the CC Jackson Recreation Center on Park Heights Avenue. The gathering’s objective was to enhance dialogue between the two communities living to the north and to the south of Northern Parkway in northwest Baltimore City.
While many participants appreciated the opportunity to come together and discuss shared issues and concerns, others expressed their feelings that there is still much to do toward building community.
Titled “Bridging the Two Park Heights,” the Nov. 12 event came on the heels of an announcement in September by the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development that Baltimore City has committed $68 million for a redevelopment project in Park Heights. According to a statement released at the time, the project (which has a projected completion date of 2025) will include 288 housing units, a large neighborhood park, pocket parks, community garden space, and an urban plaza. A public subsidy is anticipated to support the new public infrastructure required and for the affordable housing.
The event included a 50-minute panel discussion with Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott and 41st District State Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, who took turns fielding questions that included discussing local challenges and opportunities, and envisioning Park Heights in five years. The discussion was moderated Lisa K. Budlow, CEO of Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Politicians in the audience included State Senator Antonio Hayes.
Movement out of the Upper Park Heights section of Baltimore City has been forestalled partly thanks to the work of CHAI. The community development and housing arm of The Associated, CHAI promotes homeownership for people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, develops housing, and carries out other activities that support community stability and neighborhood improvement. While the agency has built senior housing facilities in Baltimore County, CHAI’s primary focus is Upper Park Heights, home to a large number of Jews and African Americans.
Both Scott and Rosenberg shared that they each grew up in Park Heights. “Many of the things I saw and experienced aren’t normal,” said Scott. “And, but for the violence, there was a strong sense of community pushing you to change.”
“Tonight’s turnout says a lot about our neighborhood, our community,” said Rosenberg. “We will work together as best we can with this potential, and with the racetrack redevelopment.”
Scott highlighted that it is critical to include the people living in the area in the redevelopment process. “You cannot redevelop Park Heights without its most important asset – the people. We cannot forget those people,” he said. We want to be included in the renaissance.”
Rosenberg remarked that he has been meeting with neighbors on the racetrack redevelopment and he will continue with that process. Additionally, he said Sinai Hospital of Baltimore has committed to a $100 million investment toward the creation of an outpatient unit to provide local care.
“This is a process and we need to be able to listen to each other honestly,” said Rosenberg. “The politicians won’t decide what happens here, but we can help facilitate the discussion.”
“This is just a starting point,” Scott said to the group. “Park Heights is a place where inequalities in Baltimore are in full display. With the opportunities that will come with redevelopment, we must get it right and help people to thrive. Tonight, I hope is a start towards that goal,” he continued.
Straight Talk From the Community
Small breakout sessions followed the panel discussion, and participants were candid in their comments.
“Don’t sit here like there isn’t a problem here,” said Michael Eugene Johnson, a resident of Park Heights and a professor at Stratford University. “As the community got more brown, services left. There was an uproar when 15 horses died at the racetrack, but not when 47 men died around the racetrack.”
“We all lived together at one point, but someone made a decision to move. We don’t even have a high school in this area,” he added.
Pastor Troy Randall, CEO of At The House, Inc. and President of the Cuthbert, Hayward, Cordelia Neighborhood Association, encouraged attendees to “stop talking about two Park Heights.” After the meeting, he told the JT: “There is only one Park Heights and we need to stop dividing the community between them and us. If we don’t deliberately change the way we view each other, change the way we communicate with each other and erase the imaginary border wall […] we have educated our next generations that exist to divide us.”
“We need mixers and gatherings of all parties in the neighborhood, to collaborate in all the community. He continued, “Our motto should be ‘We, Us, and Ours!’, purposefully changing the narrative of Park Heights so that all people — Jewish, African American, Hispanic, and the islanders — could be one in mind, body and soul.”
Pam Curtis, a Park Heights resident and president of Park Circle Community Association, found fault with the organizers of the event.
“If true unity is desired, with good motives, I would have loved to see a flyer that is truly inclusive and representative of both the African American community and the Jewish community as one,” she said. “In the future, the George Mitchells of the African American community would need to be a part of how the dialogue is structured so that finally Park Heights can comprehend that although we may differ in opinions, the ultimate goal is to rebuild a place together that has been forgotten.” George Mitchell, Curtis shared, is the founder of the Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center.
“I think that all of us agree that we need to stop talking about ‘two Park Heights,’ and our language needs to become just Park Heights,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council (one of the sponsors of the event). “The provocative title of the program helped to bring people out on a very cold night to engage in dialogue, and I am a grateful that we had such an energetic turnout. This was definitely not intended to be just a one-time conversation.”
“We don’t want to pretend to be the ones who have all of the answers. We want to help people to engage and help to bring their ideas to life. I think that the proposed redevelopment of Pimlico, and the exciting possibilities that it offers, makes this a particularly critical time for all of us to be looking at the broader Park Heights community and how we can work together.”
“The Jewish community has deep roots in Park Heights,” added Barak Hermann, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. “It is part of our history and our continued story. This evening was important because we want to ensure an inclusive, safe and welcoming neighborhood for everyone. The JCC is an anchor in the area — we are part of the community and want to support Park Heights and all activities that advance the neighborhood.”
In a surprise encounter, two attendees who had not seen each other in 50 years perhaps best represented at the micro level the distance between the two groups, juxtaposed with their shared history.
Dr. Rosalind Griffin and Harry Kozlovsky crossed paths 50 years earlier, when Dr. Griffin was a young teen, and Kozlovsky a boy of four or five years old. Kozlovsky’s parents were Holocaust survivors and owned a store at the corner of 24th and Guilford Avenue —Leon’s Food Market — where Dr. Griffin and her mother shopped frequently.
When they met again that night, “I cried and gave her a big hug,” said Kozlovsky.
“It pains me that because of lack of knowledge, education, stereotyping, and politics on both sides, there are many issues preventing a true understanding between African Americans and Orthodox Jews,” observed Kozlovsky regarding the event. “Hopefully meetings like this can start in making a real difference.”
Griffin echoed Curtis’ earlier words about including the African American community in how the dialogue is structured in the future.
“We need to look at each other’s strengths and decide how we will partner with each other based on those strengths,” she said. “I am interested in the follow up to see who will be engaged and involved, and in asking the affected communities how they want to structure that interaction.”