Residents of a battered East Baltimore community told a swarm of city officials last night that last weekend's drug raid and neighborhood cleanup was a good beginning -- but that a lot more needs to be done to resurrect the area.
Even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, sweating in rolled-up shirtsleeves under the bright lights in the gymnasium at Greenmount Recreation Center, said it's going to take some time before drug dealers get the message to stay out of the neighborhood.
"These guys want to come back. The day after the raid, a guy drove up in a green van and was there to buy crack," Mr. Schmoke told the crowd of about 100 people. "The police officers stopped him, put him on the ground and just said, 'You're stupid.' "
The mayor also said that on Monday, he called police to alert them to a well-dressed man with a portable phone who showed up at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street. "I can assure you, he wasn't there to make legitimate phone calls," Mr. Schmoke said.
The "Operation Midway" raids in the Barclay-East Baltimore Midway neighborhood -- off North Avenue around Greenmount Avenue -- resulted in more than 50 arrests and sparked a cleanup effort that saw city workers haul away 140 tons of trash.
Last night, in a meeting aimed at encouraging residents to stay involved in keeping drug dealers off their streets, housing officials outlined plans for the demolition of vacant houses along the 400 blocks of Worsley and Heaver streets. The buildings have become crack houses and shooting galleries for addicts and pushers, they said.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said a crackdown also is under way to identify the owners of dilapidated buildings that are a blight to the area.
Residents were for the most part complimentary of the city's efforts, but some questioned why nothing was previously done to ease tensions in a well-known crime area.
"I don't want to rain on everyone's parade, but I have to ask: Is there a correlation between this highly publicized raid and the upcoming election year?" asked Kenneth Ivery, 23, who has lived in the neighborhood since he was a child.
"There have been houses boarded up since I was 5 years old and nobody's ever done anything about it," Mr. Ivery said. "It seems like this was something that should have been done four years ago, or 10 years ago. Why now?"
Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who in his two months on the job has stressed the need for community policing, flatly denied any political motivation for the raid.
"It's not political. It's the job I was brought here to do. As for what happened two months before I got here, I can't say. But this is the way we're going to do things from now on," Mr. Frazier said.
Mabel Harrison, 60, who has lived in the 400 block of E. 22nd St. for 40 years, told city officials, who lined up on the south side of the gym, that Operation Midway brought about a dramatic change in the neighborhood -- at least for now.
"I can't remember when I've slept so sound. I couldn't even hear a dog bark the other night," Ms. Harrison said. "But you know, you did all that in three days. I don't understand why it couldn't have been done before."
Perhaps the biggest fan of Operation Midway was Jimmy Witherspoon, 40, a U.S. Postal Service mailman whose delivery route takes him into the heart of the crime-ridden Greenmount Avenue area.
"I live in West Baltimore, but I feel something special for the good people in these neighborhoods," Mr. Witherspoon said.
"Life is tough around here. You see the drug dealers lined up on 20th Street, and it's worse than Vietnam," he said. "In Vietnam, you could at least carry a weapon, and you knew who your enemies were. Here, you're in the dark. You're defenseless."
But he said that since the raid, "I've been breezing through my route, delivering the mail without any trouble at all."