'Miss Lottie' fights gunfire with gentleness In violent Barclay, she has won respect

June 21, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

A photo caption in yesterday's editions of The Sun reported incorrectly the address of city resident Lottie Commissiong, who lives at Greenmount Avenue and East 20th Street.

The Sun regrets the error.

Lottie Commissiong has a humane view of her East Baltimore neighborhood: When she sees a drug addict near her home, she sees someone who may need a meal. When she sees trash in her alley, she envisions a chance for youngsters with brooms to make money.

But there's another, more troubling view she has of the community where she has lived for three years: Young men involved in what she calls the area's "get high and shoot em' up" lifestyle who are hit by bullets -- something she has witnessed more than once.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"That's one I don't like to see," she says. "There's a lot of ways to see things, but you try to find something good in everything. That's what I try to do here. There's only so much that I can do, so why be negative."

Miss Lottie, as she is known in the neighborhood, is a 53-year-old grandmother who lives with her husband and four grandchildren in a rented corner rowhouse at Greenmount Avenue and East 20th Street -- a lime three-story brick structure that sits in the heart of one of the city's most notorious drug and crime areas.

Miss Lottie's community is one of nearly 4,000 residents, mostly in Barclay but with some in East Baltimore Midway. According to statistics from the city department of planning, the area is one of the city's poorest, where about 30 percent live in poverty and receive public assistance. The average household income is $20,593.

Of the community's 1,705 houses, 17 percent are vacant, and more than 80 percent of the dwellings are occupied by renters, according to the statistics.

Drugs and crime are dominant, with glass vials of cocaine -- each with a different colored top, depending on the dealer -- sold openly, and gunfire ringing out with an eerie frequency.

Some residents and police officers have dubbed the area "Little Beirut."

In April, 12 people were shot during a dice game in the 500 block of E. 21st St., about a block away from Miss Lottie's house. All the victims survived, and a 23-year-old man who lived nearby was arrested and charged in the shooting the next day. He spent 32 days in jail before prosecutors released him because the evidence against him was ruled questionable.

But Miss Lottie's community is also one of people who diligently work each day to eke out a living for their families.

It is a community where shootings are common, but so are helpful neighbors. It's an area where addicts and dealers crowd the sidewalks, but residents like Miss Lottie have no fear of sitting in their back yard or going for walk at twilight.

"People down living around here at first because of it [its reputation]. But it's home and a lot of people don't want to leave and would not leave," said an older man who sat on marble steps in the 400 block of E. 20th St.

Said Miss Lottie: "People are going to treat you the same way you treat them. I'm not going to do anything to anybody, and I can just hope they feel the same way. Give me the same respect. I'd say you've got more good people than bad people. It's just the bad ones who get recognized the most."

Community's backbone

To many of her neighbors, Miss Lottie is the backbone of the community -- a model of courage not only to have remained in the community for three years, but to have thrived there and challenged her neighbors to do the same.

Miss Lottie does occasional work at a nearby day-care center, but spends most of her time at home caring for her grandchildren and her husband, who uses a wheelchair.

Karen Washington, who also lives in the 500 block of E. 20th St., said Miss Lottie is more than just an inspirational leader in an area of "druggies and drug users."

"She knows how to deal with people and help people. She wants to help people out," Ms. Washington said. "I've seen her open her door to a lot of people who use her for things. But that's how she is."

Miss Lottie says she is happy in the "not-so-quiet" neighborhood and is content staying there to raise her family. Her grandchildren -- all girls, ages 6, 8, 10, 12 -- and scores of neighborhood children play in the tiny paved back yard of the house, while snowballs are sold over a chain link fence on hot days.

Friends and neighbors wander in and out, and people who only know her vaguely often knock on her door to inquire about a meal or a night's resting place. Few are turned away.

"Some people are scared here and want to move out, especially if you've got little children because of all of the drugs," said Ronnie Thurman, a 10-year resident of the area. "But she's the kind of person who says you've got to be happy at some point, and not to run from a situation.

"She brings a lot to the community from a friendly perspective and makes you feel comfortable. It don't matter who you are or what your problem is, she gives you a clean slate."

Caught in the traffic

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