Just imagine. Nearly one-hundred years ago a Park Heights resident could have breakfast in their kitchen at 7 a.m. and arrive to work in their New York City office by 9 a.m. If they worked closer to home in downtown Baltimore, they could leave Park Heights after 8 a.m. and arrive in Baltimore’s central business district before 9 o’clock.
The unfortunate deterioration the Park Heights community has experienced in the last half century has obscured the groundbreaking civic innovations combined with technological advances in transportation that defined the neighborhoods’ first one hundred years.
The Baltimore Airways Company operated from Handler Field, a roughly 72-acre triangular parcel bounded by Park Heights Avenue to the west, Stevenson Road to the east, and what is now Interstate 695 as its northernly border, offered daily 90-minute commuter flights to New York. The facility was so robust that it also housed the Park Heights Flying School and the Baltimore Aero Club.
So brisk was air travel commuting from the Park Heights area that two other nearby airfields provided services as well. City Line Airport, a 53-acre commercial airfield operated by the Aircraft Corporation of Maryland was located along Seven Mile Lane between Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road, and the Curtiss-Wright Airport, which was located on Smith Avenue near Greenspring Avenue.
For Park Heights residents conducting business closer to home, trolley service to downtown Baltimore was available along the Reisterstown Road and Park Heights corridors with interconnecting routes at major cross streets designed to require a less than five-minute walk from homes in the neighborhood.
With Baltimore City’s westward growth expanding rapidly towards the end of the 18th century, Park Heights began its official annexation as the city’s northwesternmost neighborhood in 1888, located roughly 10 miles from downtown, although many did not consider the expansion complete until the Park Circle tollgate was abolished in 1911 when it cost drivers .21 cents to continue traveling north and west into Park Heights from the inner city.
The geographic street boundaries of the Park Heights community as defined by the Baltimore City Planning Department has its northern boundary as Northern Parkway, bounded on the south by Park Circle, east along Greenspring Avenue, and Wabash Avenue on the western edge. The community is comprised of twelve smaller neighborhoods: Arlington, Central Park Heights, Cylburn, Greenspring, Langston Hughes, Levindale, Lucille Park, Park Circle, Park Lane, Pimlico Good Neighbor, Towanda/Grantley and Woodmere.
Despite Pimlico Racecourse’s symbolism as Park Heights’ cultural crown jewel, the track was built nearly 20 years before Park Heights officially joined the city, in 1870. The first Preakness Stakes was run in 1873, fifteen years before Park Heights became part of Baltimore City.
The wave of Eastern European immigration Baltimore experienced in the early 1800s resulted in large settlements of Jewish populations in Park Heights in the latter part of the century. The popularity of northwest Baltimore as a Jewish enclave enticed many Jewish immigrant’s offspring from other nearby communities in the city to relocate to Park Heights changing the character and culture of the area until 1960s desegregation policies developed a pattern where African Americans from west Baltimore began to migrate further west and north along Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue.
Despite Baltimore’s reputation for greater racial tolerance than many larger cities south of Maryland, there was discrimination and interracial friction caused by desegregation. A hundred years earlier, prior to the start of the Civil War, Baltimore had the largest population of free Blacks in the country. In 1860, when the city reached 212,418 people, there were 25,680 free Blacks and 2,218 slaves.
During the Civil Rights era, African American students, most from Morgan State University and Coppin University, along with activist church congregations, led the charge to desegregate housing and public accommodations in Baltimore City. A popular Baltimore Jewish restaurant chain based in Park Heights, Nate and Leon’s White Coffee Pot Jr., was picketed for offering Black customers takeout service only, no seating— a policy demonstrators forced them to rescind.
Five decades later, Park Heights has evolved from a community that resisted housing and public accommodations for African Americans to a neighborhood that is 96% Black and struggling with chronic poverty, drug addiction and gun violence. African American residents of Park Heights saw so much promise in the 1970s when hundreds were employed by Black businessman Henry G. Parks Jr. at the Parks Sausage Company located at Park Circle that today’s neighborhood conditions seem unimaginable.
Ironically, despite the controversy over relations between police and community members, Park Heights 5th largest employer, besides Sinai Hospital, other healthcare-related businesses, and Pimlico Racecourse, is the Northwestern Police District. One of the brightest stars on Park Heights’ horizon is Baltimore’s 52nd mayor, Brandon Maurice Scott, proving that Park Heights is neither gone nor forgotten.