Determined woman helps Villages of Tall Trees attack its woes

June 12, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

Jan Kelly, mother of three, grandmother of seven, was brought in to help clean up a drug problem and other troubles in the Villages of Tall Trees, a low-income apartment complex in Essex.

The first thing she did was have all the pay telephones removed. "Why do you need 13 pay phones in less than four blocks?" Ms. Kelly said.

And on a hot, muggy day in September 1990, less than two weeks after she took over as manager of the Villages of Tall Trees Condominium Association, she walked out alone onto Rickenbacker Drive, the main thoroughfare in Tall Trees, to confront a dozen grinning adversaries.

They were drug dealers who had converted the development into a 24-hour, open air drug market.

"There was a gang on every corner," she said. "They had the territories marked off. The residents were afraid to go on the street day or night."

What did she tell them?

"If you don't live here, or you're dealing drugs, get out or I'll have you put in jail," she said. "Pass the word."

What did they say?

"Some of them laughed, there were some gestures and crude comments, but they eventually left," Ms. Kelly said.

That wasn't the end of the drug problem, or other problems that beset low-income neighborhoods, but it was a start.

"I've been here four years," said Tall Trees resident Bob Owens, "and this is the best it's been."

Sociologists studying problems of society could set up a laboratory in Tall Trees, where symptoms of decay and slivers of hope abound, and build their reputations on the findings.

Tall Trees, on 55 acres about two blocks north of Josenhans Corner in eastern Baltimore County, has 105 buildings divided into six to eight apartments each. More than 2,400 people live in the complex, which gets its name from the lofty oaks scattered throughout the property.

The sturdy, brick buildings in Tall Trees were constructed about 50 years ago, during World War II, to house workers at the Glenn L. Martin Co. -- now Martin Marietta -- three miles away. Fifty-seven buildings recently were renovated by the landlords with low-interest government loans.

Over the years, the complex eventually became home to families classified as low income, a designation generally applied to a family of four with a yearly income of less than $15,000.

About 10 percent of the occupants are on the federally subsidized Section 8 program, which pays up to 100 percent of the rent, depending on family income. Many other residents receive Social Security disability or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Ms. Kelly estimates that about 50 percent of the adults in Tall Trees are unemployed.

Most of the rest are in low-paying jobs in or near Essex.

Tall Trees is racially mixed, with black, white, Asian and Hispanic families living side by side.

Ms. Kelly said she does not see the "problem" facing Tall Trees as one of "race."

"This is an economic problem," she said.

"These are basically very good people who might not have the education to improve themselves. I wish you would write about the 2,300 good people and not the 100 troublemakers."

Ms. Kelly, who grew up in the neighborhood around Barclay Street and North Avenue in Baltimore, has been managing properties for 30 years in some of the toughest parts of the metropolitan area.

As Tall Trees manager, she is paid by the condo association, which represents the 41 owners of the 105 buildings. She first was manager there from 1981 to 1985, left for another property management job, then was asked to come back in 1990.

"I managed property in Reservoir Hill in Baltimore and never had any trouble, although I feel more comfortable here," she said.

The Kelly theory is that if you treat people with dignity and consideration, you'll get their cooperation.

"If I ask them to do something, they'll do it," she said.

May people helping

Said Blanche Martin, president of the Tall Trees Landlord Association: "You have to work with the people and show them you care, and you have to help them with their problems."

A lot of people are working to make Tall Trees a better place.

Officer Mike Burton, who spent 18 months there, received an award for exceptional performance from the Baltimore County Police Foundation in March for his social and law enforcement efforts in Tall Trees.

The 27-year-old officer worked with residents and managers to form a community association to help deal with Tall Trees' problems. Ms. Kelly called him an "A-No. 1" officer who knew many of the children by name.

Officer Burton was transferred to the White Marsh Precinct, but keeps in touch with people in the complex and his successors on the beat.

One of these is Officer Bill Goodman, 33, a stocky, enthusiastic five-year veteran who has been in the Essex Precinct since 1990.

In dark blue shorts, Officer Goodman patrols on a $1,200 bicycle donated by Essex Moose Lodge, in a patrol car or on foot.

"There are plenty of drugs here," he said, as he walked to the side of a building. He pulled the cover off a cable box and looked inside.

Favorite hiding place

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