Former heroin addict and his center help turn around lives, neighborhood

March 25, 1995|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

Alvin Cherry rakes through filth and trash stacked waist-high outside an abandoned rowhouse near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Rats dart by, broken glass flies up and rusty nails jut from splintered wood as he loads a wheelbarrow for another trip to the dump.

It's a thankless job. But he loves every minute of it. "I like getting dirty," he says, peering through a pair of protective goggles. "It seems like fun to me."

Mr. Cherry, 18, a ninth-grade dropout and father of two, once smashed windows on the streets he now cleans. Recently, he signed up for a crash course in self-redemption at the Riker "Rocky" McKenzie Human Development Center in East Baltimore.

In his new life, he is paid an hourly wage to clean blighted streets and vacant lots while being taught values and respect at the small center, a converted rowhouse in the 1700 block of E. Eager St.

"Now, I clean up other people's mistakes," he says. "I don't want to live in a messy area anymore."

Behind all this hard work is Mr. McKenzie, a former longshoreman and heroin addict. He founded the center and uses it as his personal vehicle to help reclaim the rundown neighborhood where he grew up. His mission is to help others by hiring them and then inspiring them to change their lives and take pride in their surroundings by pitching in and cleaning up.

$229,000 grant awarded to the center by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development in January has helped the center gain respect in the troubled neighborhood.

The federal funds allowed Mr. McKenzie, 46, to hire a crew of East Baltimore residents and train them to clean and board 60 vacant homes in the neighborhood.

"The concept is to do it with community and grass-roots men," Mr. McKenzie says. "As men, we are not doing as much as we could and I wanted to change it. I hope it will have a domino effect for other areas in the city."

Mr. McKenzie's center opened in the fall of 1992 after he dared to take over a vacant and boarded-up city-owned rowhouse that was littered with hypodermic needles.

Using thousands of his own dollars, he renovated the blighted house, rented it to a poor woman and her children and then ignored threats of eviction and lawsuits by Baltimore housing bureaucrats.

Ultimately, the city won. Mr. McKenzie moved out, bought the dilapidated rowhouse next door from a private landlord for $1,000 and converted it into the center's new headquarters.

The incident, though, strengthened his ties to City Hall. The block grant helped to establish the center in the neighborhood and another block grant for about $200,000, expected to be awarded later this year, will help Mr. McKenzie launch a program to teach construction and home repair skills.

"I'm beyond persistent," he said. "I don't do things the conventional way because three years ago, our people were dying. We were faced with either walking away or saving lives. People needed to understand that we had the answers and all we needed from them was support."

Mr. McKenzie admitted that his addiction to heroin 20 years ago taught him how fragile the human spirit can be. He said he went to prison for burglaries and said he committed several armed robberies while addicted to drugs.

Eventually, he overcame his drug problem and started a 25-year career as a longshoreman. He rose to become vice president of Local 333 of the International Longshoreman's Association, a position he still holds.

"I believe that I was totally blessed," Mr. McKenzie said. "Through all of my prayers, God gave me the spirit to remove the chemicals in my life, and once I did I started to rebuild. The adversaries brought me here."

Robert Cheeks, a 48-year-old recovering drug addict who is crew chief for Mr. McKenzie's house cleaning and boarding team, agrees. Mr. Cheeks, who abused drugs for 15 years but said he has been sober for two years, said he is thankful for the chance to start his life over through the human development center.

"Two years ago, I was standing on the corner wondering who I was," he said. "Now, I'm trying to make the streets safer for kids. This is very rewarding to me, not only financially, but spiritually."

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