RATS: a War in the Streets East Baltimore neighborhood takes on brazen rodents

February 03, 1993|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Staff Writer

Marsha Shrewsbury hopes her next door neighbors won't come visiting any time soon. It's not that her neighbors are unfriendly.

It's the fact that they sneak around on all fours, eat from the trash, dig holes in garden beds, carry diseases and scare her to death.

Her neighbors are rats.

"I've been looking for another home because I'm afraid those rats will come into my house," said Ms. Shrewsbury, 30, of the 400 block of N. Ellwood Ave. "It's a bad problem and it's like no one wants to do anything about it."

Big, small and some exaggerated "cat-sized" rats have always existed in the McElderry Street-Decker Community, but lately the problem has gotten worse, residents said. However, plans to buy trash cans and rat poison to get rid of the unwanted neighbors are under way with a $3,000 grant the community association received recently from the Baltimore Community Foundation.

For the past four years, Keith Noel, president of the McElderry-Decker Community Association, has been buying rat poison and selling it to his neighbors at cost to help keep the problem under control. But even with his efforts, the population of rats in the neighborhood still grew.

"The city does respond immediately within a day or two," said Mr. Noel, 40, who has lived in the McElderry Street-Decker Avenue community for 12 years. "But because they can't bait people's yards and they don't have the manpower, it's not as effective.

"We're trying to keep ahead of the problem before it gets too bad," said Mr. Noel, who lives on the 3000 block of McElderry St.

It's time Baltimore communities took care of the problem themselves and a good way to start was with the grant, he said. It will be handy in alleviating the cost for many residents who cannot afford to buy poison on their own, he added.

Mr. Noel also works with other nearby communities to do volunteer cleanup in the city. Twice a month, they use trucks provided by the city to get rid of bulk trash in the neighborhoods.

The people running the city's Rat Rubout program couldn't be happier with Mr. Noel and his association's self-help attitude. Under the Baltimore City Housing Code, the occupants of a home are responsible for sanitation and pest control. The city can only deal with the rats infesting public areas like alleys and storm drains.

"It really does take a lot of people working on this to clean up the area," said Barbara A. Johnson, general superintendent of Rat Rubout. "I'm thrilled to death that they are taking things into their own hands.

"That's exactly how it should be," Ms. Johnson said. "We can't do it alone."

Especially with a staff of only 26 people. Rat Rubout receives about 4,000 calls a year from residents complaining about rats. Besides the administrative staff, seven educators travel the communities to teach people how to avoid or take care of rat problems and 13 people actually do the exterminating, Ms. Johnson said.

But even with Mr. Noel's efforts and the city's Rat Rubout Program, the rats still seem out of control and here to stay, neighbors said.

Joseph Altadonna swears that rats chewed through the bottom of his brand new car a year ago when they came out of a hole in the sidewalk.

"They made it [the car] their home," said Mr. Altadonna, 73, who has lived in the 600 block of N. Decker Ave. for 39 years. "I called up the city and they said, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it.'

"But they didn't do anything. I had to fix the hole myself and get rid of the rats from my car," he added.

A nearby neighbor, Frances Johnston, shook her head in agreement. Pointing out a decomposing rat on the alley's sidewalk, she said, "They're everywhere."

"The rats run all over the place at all times of the day and night," said Ms. Johnston, 50, of the 300 block of N. Ellwood Ave. "My son smokes outside and they come right up to our fence and stare at him all the time.

"They're not scared of us," she added.

Almost everyone has a squeamish at tale to tell.

One resident talks about rats in the central air conditioning unit. Another talks about catching 14 rats in one day with her backyard traps. And yet another talks about people sitting on their steps on warm summer nights while rats run past their feet.

"It's a growing citywide problem, not just in their community," Ms. Johnson said. "The last two years have been very mild and so the weak rats that would have been killed by the harsh winter stick around to breed during the spring."

But regardless of the weather, rats are drawn to unclean living conditions. The more people you have in a city, the more sanitation problems to be found; which in turn, leads to more rats, she said.

"There's this misperception that rats are the city's problem to take care of . . . it's not," Ms. Johnson said. "If people have roach problems, they wouldn't dare call up the city and say, 'I have roaches, come out and get rid of them.' Rats should be treated the same way."

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