Residents of west side neighborhood take civic duties seriously

August 05, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

Lawrence Armstrong guides his big, blue Buick down a tree-shaded lane in Howard Park, peering over the steering wheel and searching for the unsightly pile of trash he had reported to City Hall.

"I want to see if they got that junk out of there," the retired postal worker says to Donald R. Crawford Jr., the man in the safari hat who is along for the ride.

But Mr. Crawford spots another menace -- diseased, dying trees. He frowns.

"I told the city about these two trees, and they never did take them out," remarks Mr. Crawford, who is president of the Howard Park Civic Association. "I have to go after them. It looks like I'm going to have to start walking house to house, Lawrence."

In Howard Park, the civic-minded do these things. They note sagging gutters, peeling paint, broken windows, overgrown grass -- and alert city housing inspectors. They dog absentee landlords about boarded-up houses and take them to court. They protest to zoning officials about troublesome businesses. They work with the police and patrol for crime.

When they call City Hall, they expect an answer.

It's a tradition of involvement that spans at least three decades, an ethic of community participation by the middle-class folks who live off both sides of Liberty Heights Avenue at the northwest edge of the city among stands of tulip poplar, oak, chestnut and hickory.

"For many years, Howard Park was a forgotten area of the city," says Evelynne Vismale, a school teacher who has lived 14 years in this neighborhood of rambling, porch-front Victorians, cozy shingled bungalows and squat, brick row houses.

"We are trying as an association to make the city realize we are citizens," Ms. Vismale said. "We are taxpayers. We know our representatives. They understand us and we understand them."

The ample lawns of Howard Park don't have political signs in this summer of listless campaigns. The people here don't readily show their political colors. But they know the importance of their vote because it can make sure they get answers when they call on City Hall.

"It gives you a voice, even though sometimes you're not heard," says June Parran as she deals a round of pinochle in the recreation room of the senior center on Liberty Heights Avenue. "If you get a representative that will go out and speak for you, it's a good day."

Voter registration material is readily available at the Forest Park Senior Center, which is located in the old Howard Park School.

The center's executive director, Josephine E. Lythcott, explains why. "Our elected officials are actively involved in our life. We know this iselection time. We are aware that that relationship is threatened," says Ms. Lythcott, who oversees a center of more than 1,700 members ranging in age from 55 to 106.

In those relationships, whether it's with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who held his July Cabinet meeting at the center, or with the veteran state senator in the district, Clarence W. Blount, a senior citizen himself, Ms. Lythcott says she is "very clear about what our needs are -- our needs are economic."

"We are not into the promises business at all," says the 34-year-olddirector.

Bordered on the south by the rolling hills of Hillsdale Park, Howard Park's main streets are busy Liberty Heights Avenue and the wide, tree-lined boulevard of Gwynn Oak Avenue. The intersection of the two is the commercial center of the neighborhood, "The Junction," so named because it served as a turnaround point for streetcars.

Over the years, neighborhood residents say, the Junction has become a magnet for burglars, loitering youths, stumbling drunks and, more recently, drug dealers. But drive a block or two off the avenue, and Howard Park reveals itself as a suburban enclave within an easy drive of the county line.

Built on land that once held a 19th-century powder mill, the gabled, Victorian homes give Howard Park its character -- deeds still contain references to no "swine" or "spirituous beverages."

However, the old houses also have been a vexing concern to the community. As older homeowners die -- at least 10 percent of the community's estimated 12,000 residents are 65 and over -- many of the so-called "barns" get divided into apartments or become vacant or rundown. The community association has consistently worked to clean up those areas and fought to keep the neighborhood filled with homeowners instead of apartment dwellers.

"Everything we've gotten for gain here in Howard Park, we had to fight for. Everything," says Mr. Crawford, the 69-year-old president of the civic association that began 44 years ago with a men's Bible study class at the stone Methodist church on Gwynn Oak Avenue.

But his friend and co-association member, Mr. Armstrong, is less harsh in his assessment of elected officials.

"One administration usually just continues with the same policy of the previous administration," says Mr. Armstrong, 73. "You just have different personalities. They all get the job done. They just have different ways."

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