News & Community

DiverCity: Reason To Believe

Can an infusion of Muslims rescue a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood on the brink?

On a brilliant sunny day, Mercedes Eugenia steers her 2004 Acura sedan down Liberty Heights Avenue near Gwynn Oak. Not particularly attractive, the block has a seen-better-days quality, with a shuttered Super Pride market across the street from the long-darkened Ambassador Theater. Although the 4-G’s liquor store does a brisk business, as does the New York Fried Chicken carryout, it doesn’t look like the sort of place that would attract investment.

Here, in the heart of Howard Park, there’s no waterfront glitter and high-rise sparkle—qualities we’ve come to equate with urban development—in sight. Commuters driving this well-traveled stretch of road, connecting Liberty Road in Baltimore County to the city’s northwest corridor, probably aren’t aware that Howard Park is undergoing profound change, economically and socially.

The redevelopment going on here has been under the radar. It doesn’t involve any of the usual nonprofit funders or government programs. The people behind it haven’t issued a single press release. So motorists passing through wouldn’t even know to look for it. Still, they may have noticed more women wearing headscarves.

Eugenia, who grew up in Howard Park, has been president of the Howard Park Civic Association for the past three years. “If you drive down this main street, you have no idea what is actually here,” she says. “It in no way reflects what we have on these side streets.”

With that, Eugenia makes a few turns and lets up on the accelerator as she cruises down wide, tree-lined avenues. Skirting Hillsdale Park and the Forest Park Golf Course at the neighborhood’s southernmost boundary, she drives past three-story homes with wraparound porches, 1940s era cottages, vinyl-sided ranchers, and brick rowhouses—most of them exquisitely maintained with colorful flowers and shrubbery, close-clipped lawns, and, often, ornamental latticework on the doors and porches. “This is the flip side of Roland Park,” she says.

Some residents are out working in their gardens; others sit on their porches and raise a hand in greeting as Eugenia rolls past. Children race down the sidewalk on scooters. “Here, you have the ability to relax,” says Eugenia. “It reminds me of Charleston, South Carolina.”

Eugenia notes that Howard Park has more than 80 percent homeownership, and most of these homes sit on sizable lots, 7,000 square feet on average. But its population is aging, and with that comes instability as longtime residents pass away or move into nursing homes. “Upwards of 40 percent of our residents are senior citizens,” says Eugenia, “and we’re trying to make sure their needs are met, because we don’t want to lose this neighborhood.”

Factor an infusion of drugs, crime, and absentee landlords into the equation, and the prospect of losing Howard Park becomes all too real. “What you have here are pockets of drug trafficking,” says Eugenia. “There are some open-air [drug] markets. That’s nothing unusual for an urban area, but it’s unusual for the residents here, because they’ve never experienced that before. It’s not overwhelming or overbearing, but it’s a foothold we don’t want the drug dealers to have.”

She points to a house on the right that used to be a crack house, but a Muslim family lives there now. In the next block she points out another former drug house that’s been bought and renovated by Muslims.

Eugenia turns onto Maine Avenue. “Some people refer to it as Islamic Way,” she says. “It’s not completely Islamic, but there is a concentration of Muslims on this street. The houses here are beautiful, or they’re in the process of being redone. We’re quite pleased with what they’re doing.”

She stops beside an SUV that has just pulled to the curb in front of a huge house. A woman and three girls get out; the girls are carrying book bags—an Islamic school is located down the street—and they’re all wearing headscarves. Eugenia hollers to one of them: “Where are your glasses?”

The girl, about 13 years old, approaches the car window and explains that her glasses have been lost and she’s getting contacts. “But don’t you need to see in school?” Eugenia asks.

“I can see okay enough to do my work,” the girl responds, before asking Eugenia to come by later for a visit. Eugenia says she’ll do that, and the girl runs off toward the house and disappears inside.

A casual, seemingly inconsequential exchange, it’s nonetheless emblematic of what’s going on in Howard Park. “Around here, we have youth that you’re not afraid to talk to,” says Eugenia. “They are friendly, articulate, and educated. You can tell they are being raised in a family-friendly environment.”

She continues down Maine. “There is a revitalization occurring here on multiple levels and not just on the surface,” she says. “The catalyst has been, quite frankly, the infusion of the Islamic community.”

In the basement of a house in the 4100 block of Liberty Heights, Joshua Salaam cuts a length of copper wire.

Above him, the dilapidated home is almost completely gutted, a three-story shell of a building. Around him, workers come and go, some carrying debris. Wearing denim work clothes and a kufi (head cap), Salaam coils the wire and smiles. “There’s a lot of work to be done here,” he says.

The house, one of six adjoining properties purchased by an investor in Virginia, is in the process of getting new plumbing, electric, and drywall, along with a new roof, replacement windows, and siding, if needed. The investor is Muslim. The real estate company that made the sale and the contractor doing the rehab are Islamic. So is the roll-off company providing dumpsters to the work site. The three companies—The Development Group, Development Group Construction, and Roll-Off Services—are affiliated, and based in Howard Park.

Salaam is the manager of Development Group Construction. “They’re like sister companies,” he says of the three entities. “The investor who bought these properties from us is also using our construction company. Plus, a lot of the people who work for us live in the neighborhood. Ultimately, we’re trying to keep the dollars circulating in this area.”

Salaam’s cell phone rings. Someone working on the house next door needs an Allen wrench. With the coil of wire over his shoulder, he locates a set of the wrenches and hustles over to the other house, which is almost finished being rehabbed. Inside, the smell of paint hangs thickly in the air. Every wall, ceiling, baseboard, and molding sports a fresh coat of white paint. All the bathroom fixtures are new. “It’s looking pretty good, isn’t it?” Salaam asks, fully aware of the answer to that question.

“We’re not caught up in simply chasing a dollar,” he continues. “There’s money to be made everywhere, and if your intent is strictly to go where the money is, you might achieve that goal. But it might be at the expense of your own neighborhood. Our focus is bringing the money here and raising up this area.”

The cell phone rings again, and Salaam wanders outside to take the call. “Yes, I have it, 13 feet,” he says. “I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

With that, he places the copper wire in the bed of his pickup truck, and drives off to another work site.

Salaam’s boss, John Cason, is the man behind much of the redevelopment activity. Sitting at a conference table inside the Development Group offices at the corner of Liberty Heights and Granada avenues, he wears scuffed work boots, black sweats, and a Hasim “The Rock” Rahman jacket—Cason is the heavyweight champion’s father. One office wall is lined with books, including the Annotated Code of Maryland, William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, and multiple copies of a Qur’anic concordance. A sign over the door reads “Tactical Room.”

“One of the only things Howard Park has is the potential to develop solid community,” says Cason, “and that’s exactly what we, as a society, need more of. We have become a disjointed society, just looking for individual success and not realizing the collateral damage of not building and strengthening community. We live in neighborhoods as individuals, not community members. We care more about the value of our neighbor’s house than the person who lives in it. This happens to whites, blacks, Christians, and Muslims—you can go across the board.

“You probably live in a community where you have a certain amount of economic status, and you know people who live around you, but you don’t really know them. You say “hi” and “bye.” You talk about the golf course, or whatever it is you talk about. You are there solely because of your economic ability, and that’s it. As a result, you may not share the same morals and values. You may have nothing else in common.”

Cason, who has lived in Howard Park off and on since 1969, speaks from experience. The first member of his family to attend college, he got a degree in engineering and moved out of the neighborhood. He took a good job in Hunt Valley and relocated to Baltimore County. “For African Americans, it’s the typical upward and out story,” he says. “It’s the American success story—go to school, get a job, and start making good money so you can buy that nice car and house. I did that.”

But after getting out, he posed a series of tough questions to himself, questions such as: Am I welcome in my neighbor’s house? Can I rely on my neighbor in times of need? Can I trust my neighbor with my family and my property? Do I share common moral values with my neighbor?

Uncomfortable with the answers, he returned to Howard Park in 1998. By that time, Cason had converted from Christianity—both of his parents were Christian ministers—to Islam. “I always had some basic questions about the religion that I couldn’t resolve,” he says of his conversion. “But Islam, for me, provided all the answers.”

He formed the Development Group in 2001, with an eye toward facilitating more of a Muslim presence in the neighborhood, although his overall objective was broader. “Muslims and non-Muslims alike are looking for a suitable environment in which to work and raise their children, while worshiping God,” he says. “They want safety, peace of mind, and comfortable homes; an environment where they can grow, live with their children, and get old without feeling abandoned; and they want that environment to endure and be sustained over generations. Everybody wants that.”

Cason bought houses in need of repair—some were vacant, some were being used for illicit purposes—rehabbed them, and resold them to Muslim families. Because Muslims are forbidden to charge or pay interest, Cason describes how the sales were financed in accordance with Islamic principles: “Usually, I would buy the property, fix it up, and sell the property for an 80 percent profit margin over 15 years. That percentage sounds high, but it’s moderate.”

He explains: “Let’s say I buy a house for $50,000 and put $50,000 into it. Then, I have $100,000 into it, and I’ll sell it to you for $180,000. I’ll hold the note and not charge any interest. You pay me $1,000 a month for 180 months. It’s that simple, and I make money over that 15-year period.”

Upwards of 65 properties in the neighborhood have been purchased by Muslims in this manner. Cason estimates that 85 families, or about 300 Muslims—almost all of them American-born—have moved to Howard Park as a result.

Attorney Melvin Bilal purchased a home through Development Group and moved to Howard Park from Columbia, where he had lived for 30 years. Bilal, a former army lieutenant who currently serves on the board of directors at Provident Bank, says he “never imagined moving to Baltimore City,” but a visit to Howard Park during a business trip changed all that. “I was impressed with the friendliness and brotherhood of the Muslims here,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to be part of this kind of community.'”

Leon Faruq and his wife, Noni, sold their Mount Washington home and moved to Howard Park in 2003. “I wanted the opportunity to live close to other Muslims,” says Faruq, who counsels ex-inmates (see Baltimore, August 2003, “Wanted Man”). “Muslims present in their living space a wholesome environment, which is important for family life. Anything that runs counter to that, Muslims will work to correct.”

The neighborhood had a similar appeal for Joshua Salaam. A former law enforcement officer in the Air Force with a criminal justice degree, Salaam moved from Germantown with his wife and two small children in 2003. “I didn’t just come here to be part of a Muslim community, although that affords me a certain comfort level,” he says. “I also came here to be part of a Muslim community that has a purpose in effecting a positive change in the general community.”

These newcomers now occupy renovated houses that likely contributed to blight in their previous incarnations. It sounds like a win-win situation, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. “Seeing a substantial number of Muslims scared some folks in the neighborhood,” says Cason. “After all, it’s been a long time since Howard Park experienced this degree of change.”

Howard Park was booming in 1947, the year the Howard Park Civic Association was founded. In 1898, there were just three houses south of Liberty Road (Heights). But by the end of the Second World War, there were few building lots left as a steady stream of construction transformed Howard Park’s open space into a leafy suburb.

After developers pressed for rezoning that would allow higher density, residents banded together to form the civic association and successfully fought the change. The association also spearheaded efforts to build an athletic field for local children. When the field was completed in 1949, 4,000 residents attended the dedication, which featured a parade of cars, decorated bicycles, and a half-dozen marching bands. Over the next few years, the increasingly active membership sponsored softball and bowling leagues, an annual Spring Dance at the Dixie Ball Room, and “Howard Park Day” picnics at Gwynn Oak Park. By 1952, the group had 1,120 paid members—who were all white, like the neighborhood itself.

That changed in August 1959, when an African-American family bought a home in the 5500 block of Belleville Avenue. More blacks followed, prompting an exodus of whites. “Those who remained were sometimes reserved toward the newcomers because they had never known Negro neighbors, and had been exposed to rumors linking neighborhood deterioration to race,” wrote Henry Suter, in his 1971 history of Howard Park. “But when they found that most Negro householders began to improve their property almost as the moving van was driving off, the older residents slowly came to recognize the unimportance of color as between good neighbors.”

Despite Suter’s sunny outlook, whites abandoned Howard Park, and years later, its population was still hemorrhaging. Howard Park lost 20 percent of its population between 1980 and 2000 (outpacing a citywide decline of 17 percent over the same period), according to a Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies report. That number seemed to baffle the researchers, who took note of “Howard Park’s suburban characteristics,” “affordable single-family detached homes with yards,” and “low occurrence of crime.”

They also pointed out that families with children were the neighborhood’s most rapidly decreasing household type, dropping by a staggering 50 percent since 1980. “This trend is difficult to explain,” the researchers wrote, “as key indicators suggest this would be an excellent neighborhood for households with children.”

No one had to tell John Cason that. He knew Howard Park was an ideal spot for families with children. And he knew the neighborhood was in desperate need of such an infusion. “I saw Howard Park go down,” says Cason, “and I knew we had the ability to raise it up.”

The newcomers were initially met with suspicion and, in some isolated instances, religious bigotry or outright hostility. In one oft-told incident, a longtime resident supposedly said she’d prefer a crack house to having Muslims as next-door neighbors. Such sentiments and suspicions escalated after 9/11, especially after two sheiks—one from Sudan, the other from Morocco—moved into the area, and an Islamic Center was established on Gwynn Oak Avenue.

“Four or five years ago, there was a lot of suspicion,” says Eugenia. “You’re looking at people who dress differently. You’re looking at people that moved into the community in a very systematic manner. Most people operate out of a base of fear rather than a base of knowledge, and, of all the religions on the planet, people know the least about the Islamic religion. We have an innate fear of that which we do not know.”

As attendance increased at the Islamic Center’s daily prayer services, parking became a concern in the area. That issue, along with stalled renovations at the Center, strained the relationship between the Muslims and a few neighbors in the immediate vicinity. Some complained that worshippers occupied too much on-street parking, while others contended that the half-finished Center was an eyesore. [Apparently, both issues are being resolved—a parking lot will be built at the Center, and money is being raised to renovate the building in a more timely manner.]

But overall, the fears and suspicions receded, as the Muslims became active in the community at large. Far from insular, they are increasingly engaged, both politically and socially. Melvin Bilal even ran for City Council in 2004—as a Republican.

Eugenia estimates that, of the Howard Park Civic Association’s 350 paid members, 150 are Muslim. She also points out that Joshua Salaam is chairman of the association’s board of directors. “And it wasn’t the Islamic community that made the difference in voting him in,” she says. “It happened to be the senior citizens. They love him.”

“What we’re trying to create here is a positive, neighborly atmosphere,” says Salaam. “Being neighborly isn’t just Islam, it’s part of Christianity, too. But how many people actually practice those aspects of knowing your neighbor? We’re trying to bring that back. In Islam, it says that you shouldn’t eat if your neighbor is hungry. How would you know that unless you’re in contact with your neighbor? That’s why the community can come to us and say, ‘We need help with this problem.'”

When drug dealing proliferated at Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak last year, hundreds of Muslims participated in a rally that successfully drove the dealers from the corner. And when drug trafficking surfaced around a convenience/liquor store near Rogers Avenue, and the owner could not address it, Cason’s Development Group purchased the building. “I told him to move,” says Cason, “because he was a detriment to the community.”

“The Muslims are a dream come true for the president of a community association,” says Eugenia. “If there’s anything I need with regards to this association, I can call and get it. From protesting on corners and attending meetings downtown to circulating petitions and organizing clean-up drives, I’m able to call on them and get the job done. I can depend on them.”

Back at the Development Group offices, cason pulls a copy of the qur’anic concordance off the bookshelf. It’s a handsome volume, with a deep blue cover and gold lettering. Cason put together this edition—an alphabetical index of every word in the Qur’an that also notes the placement of each word’s occurrence in the text—which was an enormous undertaking.

Cason says that while studying the holy book, he searched for an English language concordance to help with his studies. He couldn’t locate one and was told that all the published concordances were in Arabic. Thinking it would be a useful tool for Engish-speaking Muslims, he went ahead and made one himself. “People ask me, ‘What gave you the right to do it?'” he says. “‘You have an associate’s degree in engineering. This is something a Ph.D. should do.’ “What gave me the right to do it is that no one else did it. There was a need for it. It’s just like what we’re doing in Howard Park,” Cason continues. “No one else was doing it, and there was definitely a need for it. So we’re doing it.”

He pulls a binder off the bookshelf, a binder containing copies of his companies’ payroll checks. “We don’t pay people under the table,” he says, turning the pages and noting that half of his 30 employees are non-Muslim. “We are employing the people of Howard Park, and you don’t necessarily have to be Muslim to be part of what we’re doing. We’re looking for people who want to come here and build community. We’d like them to respect Muslim values—that’s all we’re asking.”

Cason points out that no government money is involved. “This is bootstrap,” he says. “This is not some program, and we do not take a single dollar from the government. We’re doing this on our own.”

“Why did I do it that way?” he asks, anticipating a question he’s obviously heard before.

He re-shelves the concordance, letting the question hang in the air. He returns to the table, smiling. “Because I need to be able to say to others, ‘Go do it in your community,'” he says. “I want to set an example and show African Americans how to do it, and I want to show Muslims how to do it.

“But that’s not all. I also want to show Baltimore City that it can be done.”