NOBODY SEEMS TO REMEMBER quite how Whitelock Street earned its reputation, but the Reservoir Hill commercial strip has been one of Baltimore's most notorious drug bazaars since the late 1960s.
Neither government action nor changes in the drug culture -- with cocaine surpassing heroin as the drug of choice -- has managed to change the face of Whitelock Street.
Day and night, knots of people loiter in front of the battered buildings lining the 900 block of Whitelock St., the hub of the neighborhood's illicit activity.
Police say people come from throughout the Baltimore area to hover on the sagging stoops of the dilapidated apartment houses standing above the street-level carryouts, liquor stores and candy stores on the block.
Loiterers hang out on the corner of Whitelock Street and Brookfield Avenue, right below the police department signs declaring that loitering is prohibited because the block is a city "drug-free zone."
Of course, the signs lie. Drugs are big business on Whitelock Street.
Frustrated by past efforts, the city is convinced that the only way to change Whitelock Street is to drop a bomb. Almost literally.
The city Department of Housing and Community Development is in the midst of a plan to buy the properties in the 900 block of Whitelock Street and have a developer come in and rebuild. The city hopes to complete acquisition next year. It is a radical plan, one that harkens back to the early days of urban renewal. But it also comes after two decades of failed city efforts to revitalize the block.
Since 1971, there have been many efforts to improve the strip. They include plans to paint store facades, form a merchant's association, have merchants use city loans and grants to improve their businesses and build a parking lot for shoppers. All of those ideas died from either a lack of interest or lack of a consensus.
"It has been a problem area for a long time and we've never been able to get ahead of it," says City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "There is really no less radical move we can make to change the nature of the area."
Certainly, the Whitelock Street plan could forever change Reservoir Hill. But not everyone is convinced the change will be for the better.
"It's ludicrous just to come in and wipe out the heart of the neighborhood," says Father Tom Composto, a priest who runs a small chapel and an array of social programs in the 900 block of Whitelock St. "If you take out the commercial strip, you are destroying the neighborhood."
Father Composto has lived above his basement chapel on Whitelock Street for more than 20 years. He says there are many vital services provided in the commercial strip. For instance, he says residents need the laundromat, small grocery store and pharmacy that are among the block's businesses.
He agrees things need to be changed on the block, but Father Composto adds, "If somebody has intestinal cancer, you don't kill him. You perform surgery."
Father Composto recommends a modest operation: getting liquor stores not to sell "shorties" of liquor and broken six packs; removing the pay phones often used by drug dealers and requiring carryouts to close early in the evening.
"The drug dealers use [the carryouts] as an excuse with the police," Father Composto said. "They just step into the carryout when the police come by."
But the city plan for Whitelock Street calls for wholesale change. More than just a way to put a damper on the block's wide-open drug trade, the plan is an attempt to tilt the balance in the teetering Reservoir Hill toward the people who are restoring the area's impressive stock of Victorian town houses.
After all, there are notorious drug spots all around Baltimore that the city is not talking about tearing down: North Avenue and Pulaski Street, the 1500 block of East Preston Street, and Belvedere and Park Heights Avenues, to name a few.
But Whitelock Street is different, largely because of Reservoir Hill's unique dynamics and potential.
The once-fine buildings lining Eutaw Place and Madison and Park avenues are being reclaimed by residents who like Reservoir Hill's gritty, urban feel, its near-downtown location and its proximity to spacious Druid Hill Park. These people support the plan, and some think the future of the entire neighborhood is linked to Whitelock Street's fate.
They point out that not many people with options shop along Whitelock Street. They don't like the Plexiglass-enclosed stores, the loiterers and the litter.
The plan to put a new face on that tired commercial strip envisions a Whitelock Street frequented by the entire community. It also envisions a new image for the neighborhood. Those changes are necessary if the neighborhood is to ever completely turn the corner.
But the city plan also has problems. The first is whether the city can attract new businesses to a block with such a bleak history.