Activists take aim at crime

May 01, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Joyce Smith remembers when drug trafficking was so blatant at one vacant house in the 1700 block of W. Fayette St. that dealers would hang an "open and closed for business" sign at the entrance.

Since then, the city has razed the house. Now the site is occupied by a garden in the shape of Africa that blooms with tulips and daffodils.

Yesterday, the president of the Franklin Square Community Association described her successful campaign to rid her West Baltimore neighborhood of drugs and vacant houses during the Citizens Planning and Housing Association's second annual Neighbor-to-Neighbor Expo.

The event gives community organizations a chance to share their strategies to rid neighborhoods of drugs, crime and violence.

"It helps community organizations network, and it's a support mechanism," said Odessa Hampton, of the Neighborhood Grants Program, which finances small, low-income, grass-roots organizations in Baltimore.

Representatives from 200 community groups came to Western High School for the five-hour event, which featured workshops on subjects including fund raising, improving neighborhood safety and creating programs to keep youngsters off the streets.

Ms. Smith described how the Franklin Square Community Association and a group of lawyers used legal tools to banish drug houses from their neighborhood, bounded by Monroe, Carey, Mulberry and Baltimore streets, and Frederick Avenue.

With help from the Community Law Center, a nonprofit organization offering free legal advice to neighborhood groups, Franklin Square filed a drug-nuisance abatement lawsuit against the owner of a vacant house that had become a haven for drug users.

The community wants the District Court of Baltimore to require the owner to evict drug-dealing tenants and keep the property drug-free.

Residents also sent letters to 11 owners of vacant properties threatening to board up the houses on May 14 and sue for the cost unless the owners act immediately.

Ms. Smith said the neighborhood has improved since residents became involved with the Community Law Center and other agencies last year.

"We have more residents willing to get involved," she said. "People do come out; they do attend association meetings."

Denise M. Duval, staff attorney with the Community Law Center, said laws not only eliminate troublesome properties but help channel the energies of neighborhood groups that feel besieged by problems.

"Sometimes drugs are so pervasive that communities feel there's nothing they can do," Ms. Duval said. The drug-nuisance abatement law is "a great way to focus on solving a problem."

The 1991 state law enables residents to file lawsuits against owners of private residential properties -- and starting in October, owners of public properties and businesses -- that are nuisances. A nuisance can constitute almost anything -- noise, double-parked cars, honking or drug trafficking.

To put the law into action, residents keep a log detailing the frequency and nature of problems at the property. Under ideal circumstances, it takes three weeks from the time residents file a complaint with the District Court to the eviction of troublesome tenants.

Ms. Smith said she hopes her neighborhood's efforts to banish drugs and vacant houses inspire others to do the same.

"They can make a change," she said. "I encourage all communities that have drug problems to hang in there, keep the faith and overcome your fears."

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