An Activist's Dream: Peeling Away Blight

May 21, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

As she makes her way through her tiny Greenmount West community, Dorothy Johnson passes once-elegant homes on some streets and treads over glass-strewn paths on others, in a neighborhood that flickers with hope but is marked with decay.

Pointing this way and that, she rattles off the features that attracted her here from Baltimore County four years ago: the solid housing stock, the proximity to downtown, the vibrant city life.

Then she lists the things that one day may drive her away: trash that is dumped in an alley next to her home, young men who sit idly on the steps and drugs sold openly on the street.

"You smell that?" she asks, greeted by marijuana fumes wafting toward her in front of her three-story rowhouse. "That's what I'm talking about. Now, they will listen to me. If I tell them not to do that out here, they will stop."

But at other times, she says, drug dealers who loiter in the neighborhood call her names as she tries to chase them away. And she sometimes draws scowls from neighbors when she complains about litter or urges them to brighten the sidewalks in front of their homes, she says.

Ms. Johnson, president of the Greenmount West Community Association, believes drugs, loitering and blight mask the beauty of the neighborhood's 19th-century rowhouses, the potential that lies in its abandoned warehouses and its prime location.

She wants to polish her community, which has about 1,700 residents and is about 95 percent black, into a shiny jewel in the heart of Baltimore. So she tries to spread her vision to other residents while forging ties with the more upscale neighboring communities of Charles Village and Mount Vernon.

"I see a lot of energy coming out of Greenmount West in terms of their community association," says Denise Cellinese, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Improvement Association. "It's basically a wonderful neighborhood."

Problems can spill over

Ms. Cellinese believes problems from Greenmount West easily can spill over into neighborhoods such as hers -- or vice versa. The communities always will have separate identities, she says, but their leaders have come together over the past year to talk about common concerns.

"At this point, it's a matter of sharing ideas," she says. "They have a sense of community. There's a sense of hope that if you want to change something, you can."

One example: Greenmount West has just completed a neighborhood guide for prospective private investors. It lists the current use and zoning for each property and names of property owners.

Charles L. Smith, director of the Greenmount West Project Area Committee, says the community wants to recover without relying heavily on public funds. "I think Greenmount is one of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore, considering its location, housing stock and historical significance," he says, noting that the community once was a Baltimore suburb with homes and offices of professionals.

Some homes have regained their past glory.

Gilbert Jenkins, for example, has transformed a forgotten building into a dream house with a marble mantle, stained glass windows and large sliding doors that lead to a living room furnished with a blend of contemporary and antique furniture.

Mr. Jenkins, 42, a U.S. Military Academy alumnus who works from his home as a computer systems integration employee of Control Data Corp., also envisions a more blissful neighborhood of tree-lined streets and residents improving their community.

"I don't see people sitting on the steps all day long," he dreams. "I see nice, clean, manicured streets, birds chirping. And at night, it's quiet. You can talk on the streets, just converse."

The neighborhood doesn't have enough role models like Mr. Jenkins, says Ms. Johnson, a marketing consultant for the Sheppard Corp., a Columbia distributor of medical, office and janitorial supplies.

"When I was a kid, you would see people sweeping in front of their homes," she says, as she walks through the neighborhood. "They would say that they were getting their houses pretty. The value system now is in the toilet. It's immediate gratification."

Green replaces litter

Moving along, she approaches a small patch of open space that neighbors and outsiders once must have thought was a landfill. That's where they discarded everything from cigarette butts to mattresses. Now, the space is green, filled with grass and plants because of a community effort launched by Mr. Smith.

That's what Ms. Johnson would like to see -- more green space. "This is nothing but a grassy knoll, but doesn't this look better than a pile of trash?"

Her stroll is filled with praise about the big houses, the former Crown Cork & Seal factory that has been converted into artists' studios and the historic, but vacant, Benjamin Banneker School building that may be converted into moderate-income apartments.

But the downside includes corners such as Barclay and Lanvale, where police Officer Adrian Gillis has positioned her patrol car to scatter drug dealers.

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