Center St. struggles to change

January 30, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson and Lisa Respers | Traci A. Johnson and Lisa Respers,Staff Writers

Icicles festoon the jungle gym behind the apartments on Westminster's South Center Street. Winter tightens its grip, temporarily keeping children out of school, their parents away from work and drug dealers off the streets.

One year after a 22-year-old man was gunned down in the Carroll neighborhood as a result of a drug deal gone awry, people who live in the 100 block of S. Center St. have vastly different perceptions of whether the danger and the drug trafficking have abated.

"Oh, yeah, it's been much different. You don't have all them strange people coming in here as much as we did" before the killing, said Catherine Griffith, 72, who has lived in a townhouse on the street for 11 years.

The cluster of about 40 rental homes on both sides of South Center Street includes townhouses like Mrs. Griffith's and apartments in boxy, two-story, no-frills buildings. Mrs. Griffith said police have become more visible in the area in the past year.

"It's been much quieter at night, because they [drug dealers] used to be out there fighting and carrying on," Mrs. Griffith said. "We don't have the fear we did of going out in the parking lot and getting shot."

By age and longtime residence, Mrs. Griffith is unusual in this neighborhood, a largely black enclave in a predominantly white city and county. Most of the people who live in the rent-subsidized apartments are families with young children, nontraditional households getting by on below-average incomes.

It is a transitional place, where people go when they're down on their luck and leave when they get on their feet. There are relatively few drug dealers and many working people; they have in common that their work day often starts in the evening.

Unsavory reputation

The complex is clean and well-kept, not fancy, but a far cry from an inner-city slum. Nevertheless, residents recognize that it has an unsavory reputation.

"Everybody knows about Center Street," said Priscilla Carson, a mother of two young children who had visited the neighborhood frequently before she moved there in October.

"They know so much about it for drugs and so forth. Center Street is bad news."

Bad news or not, she moved there when she was pregnant because she had no car and the apartments were close to the hospital. "Plus my girlfriend being right next door," she said, "I had some place to take my [older] son if I went into labor."

In defense of her adopted neighborhood, she added halfheartedly, "If they had a police patrol around here 24-7 [around the clock], maybe that would make a difference. If they had more police protection, nothing would be going on."

The slaying of Gregory Lamont Howard on Jan. 28, 1993, did nothing for the neighborhood's reputation, but it proved to skeptical Carroll countians that drugs and violence are not confined to big cities.

Residents called for action, police produced it and Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown congratulated everyone involved in the speedy capture of three men who were later indicted in Mr. Howard's slaying.

On the night of the killing, a group of people who were upset at having been sold soap shavings instead of crack cocaine drove back to the South Center Street area to find the dealer who had cheated them.

Instead they found Mr. Howard, who, although not involved in the drug transaction, had walked to their car to "play peacemaker," according to some of his acquaintances.

Mr. Howard was killed by a single gunshot blast to the chest.

Two of the suspects, Samuel Allen Miller, 22, and Daniel Justin Leonard, 23, both of Reisterstown, pleaded guilty to the slaying last year and are expected to testify against Timothy Cumberland, 23. His trial is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

In exchange for Leonard's plea and testimony against Mr. Cumberland, prosecutors recommended a 10-year sentence for Leonard. But he will be free to argue for a lesser term when he is sentenced after Mr. Cumberland's trial.

Miller, who was the gunman, unsuccessfully argued in October for a reduction in his 30-year sentence for murder.

Business as usual

In the neighborhood "where everyone knows everybody, and what everybody's doing," Ms. Carson said it wasn't long until drug dealers returned to business as usual.

"That really shocked me," she said, leaning against the white cabinets in her kitchen. "People talked about it, yelled about it; but after two weeks, things were back to normal."

She and several other residents said their children must share the neighborhood playground, which stretches from one end to the other of the complex under their back windows, with drug dealers.

"Kids get mad when you tell them they can't go outside to play because there are drug dealers," said a nurse's aide and mother of four who asked not to be identified. "It's dangerous for our kids to play outside. If they can't play in their own neighborhood, where can they play?"

Lt. Randy Barnes of the Westminster City Police said officers have made frequent checks of the playground and have seized hidden drugs.

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