Community leader sees brighter days for neighborhood

November 21, 1994|By JACQUES KELLYGR: PHOTO

Charles Smith has an uncompromising vision for a tattered neighborhood just north of Pennsylvania Station.

"We could be the San Francisco of the East Coast," said the 31-year-old director of the Greenmount West Community Association. "Where else in America can you buy a marble-clad house for $60,000?"

His domain is a chunk of Baltimore bounded by Green Mount Cemetery, North Avenue, an alley behind St. Paul Street and the Amtrak railway lines.

It is a part of 19th Century Baltimore pockmarked by vacant houses and where government-subsidized housing units far outnumber the 150 or so individually owned homes. When some teen-agers are not openly peddling drugs on the streets, the resident transvestite population is offering sex in the alleys.

While some people would see this as a neighborhood of urban despair, Charles Smith forges on, buoyed by optimism and an unshakable spirit. How many neighborhood leaders keep computer files on residents known to dump their trash in an alley? He pounds on their doors and writes their landlords angry letters.

"You would be surprised how much reaction one of my trash letters gets," he said one day last week from his desk in an office of a former public school at Lanvale and Guilford.

A few minutes later he is walking around his neighborhood and stops at a vacant lot littered with empty pint vodka bottles scattered atop a bed of wood chips.

"Just wait until the spring. We've planted it with rows of tulips and daffodils," he said with an eye focused more toward April than November.

In fact, he sees a lot of spring on an overcast late fall day. His group has successfully turned around nearly a half dozen back-alley trash heaps and made landscaped plots now lined with Lombardy poplars and red and pin oaks. His newest project is to clear and beautify the banks of the Jones Falls Valley adjoining Pennsylvania Station.

"Outsiders may not see our little parks but Penn Station is our cornerstone," he said of the rail terminal where some of his middle-class residents take trains to Washington.

There are signs of hope. A wrecking crew is demolishing an eyesore, the former city Department of Public Welfare building at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street. A new Rite Aid drug store is going up at North and Greenmount. Here and there a middle class renovator plugs away at fixing up an 1880s rowhouse. And all over the neighborhood, long-time residents strive to keep up their homes.

Mr. Smith credits some time spent with a banking job in Augsburg, Germany, in the 1980s with giving him an appreciation for city life. It was far different there from his childhood spent in Danville, Ill., a city where urban renewal plans leveled block after block of urban core.

"The Germans love their parks and cleanliness and order. They love living in cities. They have real laws against throwing trash on the street," he said.

When he returned to the U.S., a friend suggested he try Baltimore. He was a quick convert.

"When I first came here and started working for the neighborhood, not everyone agreed with me. They called me a Nazi . . . . Today the only ones who don't like me are the drug dealers," he said.

He carries a beeper at all times. Everybody seems to recognize him on the street. To cut the tension of running a problem-beset neighborhood association, he lifts weights in a back room of his Calvert Street home.

He also designs and makes stained-glass windows, a craft he learned in Germany. On Saturday mornings, he teaches art and stained-glass making to Greenmount West children. Other Saturdays he works with a shovel and wheelbarrow in the little parks.

"We have people here who are very poor, but their houses and alleys are clean. You will never see trash on their steps. These are the best part of the neighborhood," he said.

His philosophy of being a community leader involves long hours of work: "You have to go to bed worrying about the problems and wake up worrying about them."

"I'm lucky in Greenmount West. We have a very strong board. It is a board who cares about the community. We argue and have vocal discussions, but we come out strong," he said.

"One of the worst things that happened to this neighborhood was the construction of the Jones Falls Expressway. It ripped out the parkland on the side of Mount Royal Avenue and covered the stream bed.

"It gave us exit and entrance ramps while destroying our beautiful bridges over Calvert and St. Paul streets. We still get the feeling from the city that the commuters are more important than the people who live here," he said.

Mr. Smith has waged a long war against trash. "One of our biggest problems is disposable baby diapers. I've seen people here throw them right out the front window. And if one sofa turns up in an alley, it will have multiplied into a mattress and a couple bags of trash within a few days," he said.

The other word that terrifies this neighborhood is drugs. "The corner of Lanvale and Barclay was like a drug take out on Friday nights. The suburbanites in their Mercedes, Saabs and Volvos would drive down here and stock up," he said of a drug market he constantly battles.

"Baltimore is such a great city. There are so many things we fail to appreciate. I go up on my roof at sunrise and sunset. I can look from the skyscrapers downtown to the wooded slopes of Druid Hill Park.

"People cannot allow themselves to be burned out, upset and defeated. You have to have pride in who and what you are.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.