Jean Spivey remembers an elderly woman who for more than a week paced back and forth at the intersection of Pulaski Street and Ridgehill Avenue in West Baltimore.
The small gray-haired woman was neat and conservatively dressed when Spivey first saw her earlier this summer. But something about the woman didn't seem right.
"Then I was watching her and I saw her give hand signals to the drug dealers," said Spivey, who lives near the intersection. "She gave motions that you almost couldn't notice. I realized she was a watchman for the dealers. She'd work with them to tell them if the coast is clear."
The woman has not been seen in the area for several weeks, Spivey said, and never appeared to have any contact with the drug dealers other than visual.
"She's stopped coming. Maybe she got nervous about being around here," Spivey said. "She should."
Drugs and their accompanying violence hold a strong grip on the communities near the intersection of North Avenue and Pulaski Street. Transactions at any hour are common, as is the sight of bleary-eyed users.
But some residents say their community anti-drug efforts have alleviated the problem.
For instance, blue lights in the windows of houses near the intersection at night signal cooperation between residents and police trying to rid the area of drugs.
So does the list of more than 100 three-digit numbers scribbled on a wall near Ann Nichols' kitchen telephone.
The numbers, Nichols explains, are the call numbers for the police clerks who take her call each time she dials the 911 emergency number to complain about a problem in her neighborhood. "They [police clerks] know me. When I see something, I call," said Nichols, who has lived in the 2000 block of Pulaski St. for 42 years and is the president of the Pulaski Street Neighborhood Association.
"This place, this area is mine. I have no place else to go. These young punks think they can run this area, but they can't."
Less than two years ago, Nichols said, the drug business on the side streets surrounding the North Avenue-Pulaski Street intersection was so brisk that dealers told users, "if you don't get in line I won't help you."
Now, children play on the sidewalks.
"We stay up on them [drug dealers]," Nichols said. "I sit on the steps and tell them, don't do it in my neighborhood, and they respect me. I'm not afraid of them and they know that. They jump at me but they don't scare me. I'm not afraid because me and God live here every night."
Col. Eugene Tanzymore, a West Baltimore resident and until recently the commander at the Western District police lockup, said the drug problem has abated somewhat, but not enough.
"The corners are clearing. We don't have the open-air markets that we used to have in that area," Tanzymore said. "But drugs are not just the concern of one area but of the entire country."
On the down side, residents said that many of drug users and dealers know the police patrol tactics and routine. For instance, the police department's "dummy car" ruse does little to deter drug activity.
"That's like when they come and park a police car and leave it there for a long time. What does it mean? Nothing," said one resident. "All it means is that a police car is there with no police officer."
Nichols said that when an officer is stationed at the Pulaski Street-North Avenue intersection, the druggies move to her neighborhood about two blocks north.
"So we have to push them somewhere else," she said. "Basically, they're going to try to sell [drugs], but we try to make it hard for them or make them do it somewhere else."
One of the triumphs for residents is being able to walk from a North Avenue bus stop to houses on Pulaski Street without having to weave through a sidewalk drug marketplace.
"After a while you get sick of hearing someone trying to sell you drugs," one resident said. "They could ask you the same thing every day and get the same answer every day. Now, those drug fools aren't around here. The trick is to keep it that way."