Neighbors protest, sue drug-ridden apartments

February 22, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Where city government, the police and a landlord have let them down, residents of a West Baltimore neighborhood are pinning their crime-fighting hopes on a sheaf of papers.

The papers in this case are a lawsuit filed Friday in District Court against the owner of Carver Hall Apartments, at the corner of Division Street and Lafayette Avenue, by the Provident Neighborhood Association.

Neighbors claim the 33-unit building has become a haven for drug dealers in Upton. The lawsuit aims to have it declared a nuisance, and asks the court to order the owners, Joseph and Judith Benik, to make significant improvements.

It is an unusual step: The two-year-old state nuisance law has only been used a handful of times, according to the association's lawyers. But local residents -- who say they are weary of murder, of other crimes, of a steady stream of drug dealers and customers -- believe it may be their best hope yet of reclaiming the neighborhood.

"We're fighting back," said Marsha Johnson, who owns a rowhouse across from Carver Hall. "Block-watching here is a 24-hour job, but I don't want to throw up my hands and move. I'm a fighter. And so are the other good, hard-working people who live here."

Mrs. Johnson and about 20 other people trudged through the snow yesterday, circling the cream-colored, one-time Catholic convent, and shouting their protests before taping a symbolic "notice" of the lawsuit on Carver Hall's front door.

It was a modest showing, witnessed only by a handful of bystanders and the few apartment dwellers who poked their heads out the front door or out of windows. Several yelled to the protesters that they would have no place to live if the building were shut down.

"The residents have a misconception of our purpose," said James C. Washington, a high school teacher who is president of the association, a nonprofit group representing a six-block area of West Baltimore. "We don't want to close it, we want to improve conditions in and outside the building."

Police confirm that Carver Hall has been the focus for much of the drug-related crime in the area. Once a convent for the Sisters of Charity, its insides are a twisting maze of hallways and stairways with many exits and little security.

"The location attracts drug activity," said city police Lt. Odis Sistrunk, of the Western District. "Some people sell from the apartments and others from the hallways."

In 1991 and 1992, a total of 21 people were arrested on suspicion of possessing or dealing drugs in the building, and another 11 were arrested in connection with the same crimes outside the building.

In those two years, police have responded to 535 reports of problems at Carver Hall, not counting the 182 calls for service on the sidewalks or streets outside it. Combined, that's about one call a day.

"Gunfire associated with the active drug trade in and around 1411 Division Street [Carver Hall] has damaged the property and threatened the safety of residents of the 1400 block," according to the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Community Law Center on behalf of the neighborhood association.

"Drug paraphernalia, including vials and hypodermic syringes, are frequently found on the front steps, sidewalks, and in the plants and gardens," the suit claims.

Joseph Benik, the building's owner, said yesterday that while drug dealing has been a problem, he doesn't believe there is much he can do about it. He said he already has evicted people he had reason to believe were dealing drugs.

A landlord has no control over what people do outside his building or inside the apartments, Mr. Benik said. The police and the state's attorney are the ones who should be cracking down, but they have done little to help, he said.

"I haven't invited drug dealers in there, but how can you keep people out of the building?" he said. "It's all very well for some goody-two-shoes organization to say you have to clean up a building. Well, we already have, and I guarantee you that 99 percent of the drugs are out of the building."

Neighbors said they would like to see security improvements, possibly the posting of off-duty police officers in the building, but Mr. Benik said yesterday he can't afford that.

Association members said they would also like Mr. Benik and perhaps some of the tenants to attend their meetings, something the owner has declined to do.

In 1979, when Gloria and Ernest Green moved to Division Street, it was the kind of place where people sat on their front porch on summer evenings and gossiped. Three years ago, Mrs. Green said, she watched a young man get shot and tumble down the front steps of Carver Hall at 4 p.m.

In a neighborhood that is only two blocks from where the late Justice Thurgood Marshall grew up, it strikes her as appropriate to seek a remedy in court.

"At first, we had a nice quiet neighborhood," said Mrs. Green, a housekeeping aide at St. Agnes Hospital. "It's gotten so bad now that we've retreated to the back yard. It's too scary to sit out front."

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