I grew up in Park Heights, home to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I ventured with my college homies to undiscovered parts of the city, that I ever went to the horse racing event that draws tens of thousands each year.
Hard to imagine, especially since Park Heights has been my home for 20-plus years. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, especially the hype of the infield experience, with its live music and partying young people. But still, if I am to be completely honest, the guilt that suffocated me while leaving the infield fest was unbearable.
To party at Preakness is to be ignorant of the crime, death, poverty, broken homes, drugs, food deserts and urban decay that surround Pimlico Race Course. I have witnessed so much death and so many lifeless bodies close to Pimlico Race Track that at times it seems unreal that this national event televised across the country is held here.
Those boarded-up row homes that these national networks so often show are more than just images to me. That’s home.
National attention will be on Pimlico once again this weekend for the 147th Preakness Stakes, the first since COVID canceled fully attended live events. And once again, it will raise the age-old question Northwest Baltimore citizens have been asking for years: “What does Preakness really mean to and for (the real) Park Heights and its residents?”
I don’t have the luxury of ignorance like outsiders who come to Pimlico one day out of the year and leave before it gets dark. Yet after so many years, I still don’t know the answer or truly understand my people’s complicated relationship with Preakness.
I remember my first Preakness Day experience when I was 13 or 14 years old, just outside the gates of the racecourse. It sums up what it means to the neighborhood.
“Man, I got y’all lor n****s a cooler full of wardas and a shopping cart,” Big K, my homie K.T’s father, yelled while aggressively maneuvering through Preakness traffic.
“It’s no reason y’all shouldn’t make at least 200 by the end of Preakness!”
K.T’s father was what we would call a scammer in 2022. If universities were recruiting for trickery and deceit, then he’d go Division 1. Finessing was his superpower, and he could sell anything from socks to white tees to CDs and DVDs. He worked so hard at hustling the newest schemes that the average person revered him as an actual businessman.
“Ayoooo this most white people I ever saw in my life,” K.T blurted out from the passenger seat of his father’s beat-down Jeep Cherokee.
K.T and I did almost everything together in our early teens, from freak parties and kiddy discos to fist fights outside our favorite malls — and our first Preakness.
Big K understood that learning the grit of Park Heights was as vital to our survival as school. He showed us how to shoot dice, make fake bus passes, sell candy and flip the profit, squeegee car windows, drive illegally and cut grass. He taught us survival skills in a neighborhood that had been survival of the fittest from the jump. Our first Preakness was our best indoctrination.
“Dese white people came for a good time and to spend money and it’s a lot of it to be made, yo. Get your mind right, boy,” Big K said as he drove us through swarms of Preakness-goers walking in front of cars on Northern Parkway.
In the back seat I took it all in. Never in my life had I seen Park Heights so lit. Low key I was as excited as the tourists taking over my neighborhood. Suspense clutched my stomach, and it wasn’t for a horse race. In fact, most people from Up Top (the part of Park Heights that stretches from Coldspring Avenue to Northern Parkway) have never seen a horse up close. That feeling was about putting money in my own pockets for the first time.
Big K had the plan mapped out for us perfectly; all we had to do was execute. The truck came to a stop at our spot to set up shop. Big K unloaded the stolen grocery store cart from his trunk, dumped the semi-melted ice in the cooler full of water bottles, lit the half-smoked, wood tip Black & Mild from behind his ear and said, “Now go make some money before it’s all gone. These white people come here to get drunk, gamble and dip.”
“Wait, you not staying with us?” a slightly worried K.T replied. “And how can we make money with this busted-ass shopping cart and 20 lil ass waters?”
“Figure that shit out,” Big K said, jumping back in the truck.
We pushed our work from Northern Parkway to Park Heights Avenue to Rogers Avenue — to the congested Preakness crowd. I knew we would somehow figure it out.
All we had was a shopping cart, but that was all we needed to hit our target $200. I knew I couldn’t fail. We had our youth, and nothing gets you more paid at Preakness than being a hard-working young hustler, an entertaining young’un. And that’s exactly what me and K.T did at our first Preakness. We got paid.
Looking back at that first experience, I realize now how exclusionary the entire weekend is. I mean, don’t get me wrong. For the most part, 21215 outsiders are not rude and show interest in our neighborhood. And in return, we give it back: most bordering Pimlico rowhouses rent out their bathrooms and kitchens to Preakness-goers.
Sure, residents of all three parts of Park Heights — Down Bottom (streets from Coldspring to Park Circle), Up Top and what some Black residents have long referred to as Jewtown (any Park Heights streets after Northern Parkway, the great divider) can hear the infield concert from their steps. Airplane ads and national news helicopters parade over our heads telecasting the place we call home for an entire two days. And the Harbor is finally not the main destination for eager tourists.
But what I can’t wrap my mind around is the lack of inclusivity of Preakness, even though it is in the middle of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore City. It does not matter how big Preakness is, or which celebrities the event attracts. The truth will always remain. Preakness is simply not for the average Park Heights resident.
Even with the nostalgia I feel about Preakness, I have never been able to understand how an age-old Park Heights tradition, one dating to 1863, can be held there every year and still not be for or relevant to the people of Park Heights. I struggled to answer this complicated question as a kid, and I struggle with it even more now as an adult living close to the racetrack.
How can I not be resentful of an event like this? The truth is, the people of Park Heights could care less about horse racing or Preakness. Inclusion is not what we want. We want resources and help to an area of the city riddled with gun violence and crime. I challenge our city leaders and those visiting the track on Saturday to think about Park Heights more than once a year during Preakness.
Wallace Lane is a poet, writer and author from Baltimore. He is part of The Baltimore Banner’s Creatives in Residence program and a regular contributor.