A sliver of hope discovered among shards of glass

August 04, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At Presstman Street and Druid Hill Avenue, there used to be a dentist's office. Now the building's abandoned, its windows smashed, its insides sometimes inhabited by homeless squatters, mostly kids in their teens who do some dope late at night, vandalize the place when they choose and eventually move on.

Directly across Druid Hill, there used to be a drug store. But the pharmacist fled maybe 25 years ago, sensing the future, and there hasn't been a drug store since. Now there's trash on the sidewalk out front, beneath a big sign that says, "Are You Involved in the Safety and Betterment of Your Community?"

Yesterday morning there were kids out there, 25 little children from the Martin Luther King Day Camp who took the No. 15 bus from Northwest Baltimore and then transferred to the No. 13 bus so they could swim for a while at the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, and these kids raced past the trash, past the abandoned buildings and, if everybody's lucky, maybe past the entire bleak history of this neighborhood.

Everybody wants things to change for these kids. Three nights ago, West Baltimore held a Take Back the Streets rally. It was the fourth annual affair of its kind, which says the first three frightened almost no one. Two nights ago, the neighborhood took part in the National Night Out, another in a series of attempts to say that the destruction of neighborhoods has to end.

And yesterday morning, the morning after the latest rally, a man on Presstman Street walked out of his rowhouse with a broom, and for 15 minutes he swept away broken glass that had accumulated on his sidewalk overnight.

"I love seeing that man," Jackie Cornish said. She's executive director of the Druid Heights community association. "It says people still care."

Cornish has lived around the corner, on Druid Hill Avenue, for 28 years. Her husband is Lee Cornish, the former basketball star at City College and Morgan State University, who now teaches math at Douglass High. At night, says Jackie Cornish, she and her husband ask each other, Where did so much go so wrong?

"We look at each other," she says, gazing at some graffiti on a rowhouse wall, "and we say, 'These young people are in control of the whole community.' And we say, 'How did this happen? Were we asleep one night, and we woke up and discovered adults were no longer in control?'

"There was a time when you could talk to your neighbor's children. Now, you ask them to pick up some trash they just dropped in the street, and you don't know if the kid's gonna scream at you, or his parents will.

"And there was a time when the police had some authority. They could move you off the corner if you were making trouble. Then we said the police couldn't move you off the corner because of your civil rights. Civil rights? Did we create a monster? If you know something bad's happening, why take that right from the police?"

She echoes the sound of many communities in trouble. The drug traffic breeds violence, which provokes families with honest money to move away. The teen-agers make babies, but don't know how to care for them. A dentist is replaced by an empty building. A man with a broom sweeps away glass that will reappear tomorrow morning.

In such an atmosphere, Jackie Cornish seeks rays of hope. Yes, she says, this week's rallies were mostly symbolic. But look behind her: About 60 kids over at St. Katherine's Episcopal Church, all neighborhood kids, 5 to 14 years old, and they're inside the church, and in the yard outside, every summer day and then afternoons during the school year.

"These kids," she says, "are bombarded with love and nurturing. Forty of the 60 kids, the only time they eat is the breakfast and lunch that we give them. The pattern used to be, they were abused and neglected. Now they're abused, neglected, abandoned, addicted, at risk for HIV.

"We open the place during the school year so they can do their homework. But most of them come in for a hug. They come for somebody to tell them not to do something bad."

This, she says, is more than symbolism, more than just another Take Back the Streets rally. The dental office is abandoned at Druid Hill and Presstman, but maybe one of these kids will fix teeth one day and stay in the neighborhood. Maybe there's a future pharmacist, too. Maybe people will leave their homes one morning, and there won't be any more debris to sweep away from a long, treacherous night.

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