Clay Street: Many now trying to restore a faded jewel in Annapolis Neighborhood effort catches on

drugs are chief target Clay Street: RECIPE FOR REVIVAL

February 27, 1994|By John A. Morris and Kris Antonelli | John A. Morris and Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writers

Clay Street, only a stone's throw from the State House, has received scant official attention over the past 20 years, but ever since community leaders won a battle to reopen a local school last summer, their verve to revive the neighborhood has proved contagious.

Already, the Adams Park Community Alumni Association is planning fund-raisers for the school. Residents have organized a community association, and Annapolis officials have commissioned a study to develop strategies to improve life on the street.

"We just have to fight to get it back like it was 'cause the drug dealers have taken over everything," said Billie Smith Parker, 27, of Clay Street.

Once the heart of Annapolis' black community, the neighborhood around Clay Street began declining rapidly in the 1970s. Homes and businesses were replaced by parking lots and office buildings. Drug dealers moved in, and criminals ruled the night.

"It's not a dangerous community during the daytime," said Ms. Parker, who was awakened one night last November when a man was shot outside her front door. "It's at night that you don't know really what to expect."

Reopening Adams Park Elementary School, closed 22 years ago as part of a federal desegregation agreement, is an important step toward rebuilding a cohesive neighborhood capable of fending off the drug dealers, said Ms. Parker, vice president of the alumni association.

But what else is needed to revive Clay Street?

Residents and business leaders agree that the solutions won't necessarily come from City Hall, the Board of Education or the Police Department. The residents must take control of their neighborhood, they say.

"The police will help, but the police can't do it all," said police Capt. Norman Randall. "The police can't be in your neighborhood 24 hours a day. People can no longer be reluctant to step forward."

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And residents are stepping forward. They have organized a community association, set up neighbor hood watches through the police and asked the county Department of Social Services and other agencies for help in dealing with homelessness, unemployment, crime and substandard housing.

"No one is going to come in and put any money in here unless the drug dealing is dealt with," said Wendy Beaver, 37, of Pleasant Street, who is organizing a Girl Scout troop. "But I can see five years down the road, Clay Street will be a place people want to be, to move to. I'm very optimistic about Clay Street getting a brand new polish."

And chances are better for Clay Street than neighborhoods in large cities, experts say.

"Annapolis is more hopeful than other larger cities with high-rise projects where thousands of tenants live," said Melvin R. Levin, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland.

The advantage for Annapolis lies in its smaller size, which allows for a more cohesive group than in larger cities. "In theory, anyway, [revitalization] should be easier," he said.

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One of the first steps may be to dispel the public perception of Clay Street as a haven for crime. In a survey last spring, more than 60 percent of the residents said they felt unsafe on Clay Street. And at a recent Presidents Hill community association meeting, residents expressed concern that their children may have to walk through Clay Street to the refurbished Adams Park Elementary.

"The fear of Clay Street is greater than any other street in Annapolis," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a Ward 5 Democrat. "But I think it has gotten a bad rap. People forget that crime is committed downtown, too."

"All you need is one shooting and the public perception becomes that it is a bad area," said police Sgt. Sellman Wallace. "It really is not."

Most impressions of Clay Street are based solely on one intersection, at Clay and West Washington streets, said Tom Negri, manager of the Loew's Annapolis Hotel, which backs up to Clay Street. "Go back there, look at the number of [home owners] out painting their houses, sweeping their walks, fixing their yards," Mr. Negri said. "The South Bronx this ain't. This is a really caring community."

The community does have problems -- joblessness, an over-reliance on public assistance and public housing, drug abuse, prostitution and, frequently, a sense of hopelessness. But those problems are not unique to Clay Street or Annapolis, said Kathy Koch, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Community Development Corp. They reflect the problems of urban areas throughout the country.

The city hired Ms. Koch's nonprofit agency in October to meet with residents and develop strategies to improve life along Clay Street, including options to increase homeownership, rehabilitate rental units and attract new business. Her report, due this spring, is to include information on neighborhood home ownership, population and poverty.

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