Westport and the Casino: Three Short Stories

The following three short stories related to Westport are part of a series on the lottery and casinos in Maryland called "All In: Maryland's Big Bet on Gambling."

A Community Leader Calls Gritty Westport ‘A Hidden Jewel’


BALTIMORE—The residents of Westport were complaining: poor garbage collection, pothole-riddled streets, a pungent gas-like smell from a building under construction.

Presiding over this meeting of the Westport Neighborhood Association was Keisha Allen, who is used to hearing the residents’ grievances.

There’s much to complain about in Westport. The neighborhood is marked by boarded-up houses, vacant lots and trash-filled gutters. Residents are wary of leaving their houses after dark. Its unemployment rate is higher than the rest of the city’s, and so is its rate of shootings and homicides.

But Allen, the Westport Neighborhood Association president, sees potential here.

“Westport is this hidden jewel,” she said, “like a diamond in a rough.”

Westport, she noted, is close to Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and, with some help, it could be a healthy, growing neighborhood.

“People automatically think this is like ‘The Wire,’” she said, referring to the HBO series that told some tough stories about Baltimore life. “Not even on a bad day are we like ‘The Wire.’”

She is carrying that message into her newest volunteer role, as a member of the Baltimore Casino Local Development Council. The panel, named by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is in charge of recommending how to spend the millions of dollars generated by Baltimore’s new casino for neighborhoods. By state law, 5.5 percent of the state’s casino revenues will be returned to areas surrounding casinos to compensate for the traffic, trash and other problems the gambling centers generate.

“We sit and wait and wait”

Her fellow council members include representatives of wealthier communities, like Federal Hill, that are also near the casino.

Allen’s biggest aim is simply getting her neighborhood noticed. “We get tired of watching other neighborhoods get [resources],” she said.

“We sit and wait and wait. It’s making the city understand that we are ready.”

Allen, 38, who works at the Anne Arundel Medical Center, said she had no intention of even joining the neighborhood association when she moved to the community seven years ago. Raised in Anne Arundel County, the daughter of a bus driver and a beautician, Allen had been looking for a house she could afford to buy and found one in Westport.

She attended a few community association meeting, and then went to the annual block party, an all-day festival. Allen said she connected with her neighbors and started going to meetings regularly, then was asked to join the board and run for president.

She recalls thinking, “Sure, I’ll take over. This looks easy.

“Wrong. It’s nothing but not easy.”

Zane Kolnik, a Westport resident who attends the association meetings, said Allen is “definitely effective, passionate, and as a local homeowner values the properties.”

Deborah Guest, a neighborhood association board member at-large, called Allen “a go-getter, that’s for sure.”

Guest is impressed by Allen’s love for her community and the care she takes to keep in close touch with residents even as she serves on citywide committees, such as the Baltimore Police Department’s civilian review board.

Allen said her proudest achievement during her time with the neighborhood association was partnering with Rebuilding Together Baltimore to fix about 20 homes.

Allen contacted the organization, identified homes in the neighborhood that were in dire need of help, and worked with Rebuilding Together to fix the homes free of cost.

The project was simply about “making someone’s life a little better and just making the neighborhood more functional,” Allen said.

She also is determined to improve education. She worked with the Boys and Girls Club and Westport Academy to add educational programs, such as an algebra club.

She wants to start more programs aimed at improving children’s lives, and she said she knows where they can be based: in a new community center set to open by year’s end.

In Pigtown, Business Owners Want Gamblers To Stop By


BALTIMORE—It’s a rainy Wednesday afternoon, but Café Jovial on Washington Boulevard is bustling with customers picking up lunch and friends chatting over coffee.

Behind the counter is Dede Kassa, the cafe’s waitress/cook/barista—in fact, its entire staff. She opens her cafe at 6 a.m. most days. She has no commute. Kassa, 47, and her husband live in the apartment upstairs, overlooking the main street of the southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown.

Her cafe, with its exposed-brick walls, is narrow and cozy. A few tables fill the front of the shop. The works of local artists decorate the walls. Most customers are regulars, and she knows many of their orders by heart.

“It’s the kind of place where people can come together,” said Ben Hyman, executive director of Pigtown Main Street. “Every neighborhood needs a small meeting spot to bring people together. She provides it.”

From the sidewalk outside the cafe’s narrow entryway, Kassa can see the light standards of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The schools of the University of Maryland, Baltimore lie just a few blocks north. And less than a mile south, building cranes are working on the site of the Horseshoe Casino, set to open in late summer.

Kassa thinks the casino can help speed the revival of Pigtown—which got its name in the days when pigs were unloaded off rail cars and run through the streets to butcher shops. In recent years, the neighborhood was given the more dignified name of Washington Village, but many—including the local business association—prefer to call it Pigtown.

“Everyone is expecting the casino to contribute money to the community,” she said. “A lot of shops have been opening, and we think we’re going to benefit from the casino.”

“Great business potential”

Hyman says 10 new businesses have come to Washington Boulevard commercial strip in the last 18 months.

Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, opened the 2 Chic Boutique at the corner of Washington Boulevard and West Barre Street last winter. “I think the casino will absolutely help,” she said. On game days, “people walk by and stop in,” she said. “We hope the casino will help similarly.”

“There is a lot of great business potential in Pigtown,” Pugh said. “We need to bring in more business that the neighborhood really wants, more restaurants, retail, the high-quality services the neighborhood deserves.”

Hyman thinks the neighborhood will get some notice from casino visitors, perhaps from those “looking for something to do before or after they’re done gambling.”

Kassa certainly hopes the casino will help her cafe.

“Business every day is a struggle,” she said. “We need more traffic, so I’m hoping the neighborhood will change and bring in more customers.”

Some residents are worried that crime will increase with the casino’s opening, “but I don’t see it,” Kassa said. “We don’t get crime from the games, but we also don’t get fans to come visit and spend money.”

A diverse neighborhood

Since Hyman took over Pigtown Main Street in 2012, he said, he worked to bring more police patrols into the neighborhood. It has made business owners more comfortable, he said, and some are staying open later.

The 50-acre neighborhood is one of most diverse in the city. The neighborhood is about 50 percent black, 40 percent white, with Asian, Hispanic and other groups composing the rest, according to 2011 statistics compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

The ethnic diversity shows in the neighborhood array of business that feature international food and clothing.

Kassa, who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, moved to New York when she was 18. That was 1985, in the midst of a famine that the United Nations estimates killed a million people in Ethiopia.

She has also lived in Washington and Texas. She and her husband, Richard, who is also Ethiopian, left Dallas to be closer to family in Northern Virginia and to be in a market where her husband can work at construction jobs.

Kassa wanted to open up a cafe. The couple settled on Pigtown after hearing of a vacancy from Ethiopian friends here.

That was 2-1/2 years ago, and Kassa wants to stay forever. “I love the neighborhood so much,” she said. “The people here are great.”

A Nonprofit Casino Neighbor Wants A Higher Profile


BALTIMORE—When the Horseshoe Casino opens on Russell Street later this year, Noah Smock hopes his small nonprofit somehow benefits.

“All of the advance material that I’ve seen from the casino is talking about how important it is for them to be engaged in the community,” Smock said as he sat in his office at the Baltimore Community ToolBank. “So the first thought I have is, taking them at their word, I think that that’s an opportunity.”

The giant, glamorous casino would seem, at first glance, to have little in common with the ToolBank, which sits in a low building in the unglamorous Carroll-Camden Industrial Area across Russell Street from the gambling site.

The casino offers entertainment and the chance for riches. The ToolBank lends building equipment to churches, clubs, community groups—any nonprofit working on community projects. The ToolBank, Smock says, is a nonprofit created to help other nonprofits.

So if a church or another community organization needs wheelbarrows, hoes and rakes, the ToolBank rents them out.

Hoping for some notice

But a big part of Smock’s job is to let Baltimore know that the ToolBank exists. He’s hoping the casino’s presence helps.

“I think it’s going to bring in a lot of vibrant activity into the space because we’re in an industrial park,” he said. “And as dynamic as some of the businesses and the community interest are that are here, more activity should mean more positive exposure for Baltimore.”

The ToolBank, which opened in 2012, has 250 member agencies, and Smock said this number increases by two or three a week. Smock, 34, began his job as executive director in January.

“If we’re not doing good community work we’re not doing our job. We only exist to make other work possible,” Smock said.

To help with that community work, Smock sees the opportunity to recruit casino employees to volunteer at the ToolBank. The ToolBank isn’t lacking for things to do. Smock is one of only two who work full time there.

“If they’re sincere in their efforts and don’t just want window dressing, I know they’ll be happy to connect with us,” Smock said.

Horseshoe Baltimore and Caesars Entertainment Corporation, the casino owners, approach community work from two angles, said Noah Hirsch, vice president of marketing for Horseshoe Baltimore.

“Caesars Entertainment is committed to community engagement, not only as it relates to local job recruitment but in terms of long-term service through philanthropic efforts and volunteer initiatives through the communities in which the company operates,” Hirsch said in an email interview. He said the casino evaluates every proposal it receives from community groups.

Smock is slightly concerned that the success of the casino could lead to an increase in rents in his industrial park. “I cannot imagine a better space than this and I would never want to leave. So I want to make sure that our lease does not skyrocket.”

But he said he’s not worried about the increased traffic some neighbors have warned will start with the opening of the casino.

”If we have more people driving by our facility, more people aware of what we do, that’s just an opportunity for us to do more good work,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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