Paying extra for hope


For the first time in years, many Charles Villagers with bars on their doors and padlocks on their porch furniture say they have hope -- for safer, cleaner city living, for new neighbors, for lawns without for sale signs.

They live in the city's first residential area to levy an extra tax for property owners to pay for administrative staff, nine security guards and three sanitation workers.

Since the benefits district went into business in June -- covering Howard Street over to Greenmount Avenue and from 20th Street up to 33rd -- new security guards have begun to help police catch thieves and shoplifters.

Sanitation workers clean gutters and mulch street trees, while residents check alleys for trash and guard their blocks with mobile phones preset to 911.

The controversial second tax was enacted for a 100-block area in the center city that borders the Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital and some of the city's toughest drug corners near blocks marred by vacant buildings.

Some property owners are skeptical of a second tax, and the exact impact on crime is not known.

But many believe the benefits district is an opportunity to rejuvenate community activism, reclaim the neighborhood from thieves and drug dealers -- and to keep their neighbors from moving out.

"It's a last resort. Nobody wants to pay more taxes," says Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a benefits district board member who has a home and a business in the neighborhood.

She looks around the lush rose and herb garden behind her small Victorian frame house near Greenmount Avenue and says, "It's incredible to have so much beauty in our patch of the world."

But under her patio table is a padlock and chain.

"I've never been so angry until this summer. The street is a toilet. With the drug trade there's a daily parade of people carrying off porch furniture," she says.

Still, like many longtime residents, she is locked in a standoff with the criminal element.

"We would never live outside Baltimore," Ms. Shapiro says of herself and her husband, Fred Shoken. "We were born and raised and educated here. No one's going to take our city away from us."

Police Department crime statistics for the Charles Village area .. bear out Ms. Shapiro's experience.

From the first six months of 1994 to the same period this year, purse snatchings, auto break-ins and thefts from yards and porches jumped by 35 percent -- from 221 to 299. Burglaries of homes climbed by 62 percent -- from 53 to 86.

The benefits district is modeled after the Downtown Management District, where property owners began paying an extra tax for security and sanitation in 1993.

A third proposed tax district -- called the Mid-town Community Benefits District -- is up for election next month. It would cover Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere.

Charles Village leaders began talking about the tax district five years ago after a 25-year-old engineer for Whitman Requardt and Associates was shot to death in a robbery as he begged for his life in his company's South Charles Village parking lot.

In the wake of the slaying, Thomas S. Shafer, administrative partner at Whitman Requardt, decided not to react like many business counterparts who have fled to the safer suburbs.

"We didn't leave town, and we're committed to Baltimore. We're stubborn. I think that reflects the attitude of a lot of residents of Charles Village. They're dedicated, stubborn people who are determined not to lose control of the community," says Mr. Shafer, who now is president of the board of the Charles Village Community Benefits District.

With the financially struggling city's sanitation and police services stretched thin, residents and business owners debated the need for the extra tax until it was enacted into law last year.

Benefits district leaders say it's too early to tell if the private Wackenhut Corp. security guards they hired have put a dent in crime, but they say the unarmed guards already have helped police make 14 arrests in shoplifting, burglary and auto theft.

The new tax district has brought dozens of residents to volunteer for projects, ranging from patrolling their alleys for sanitation violations to printing a neighborhood businesses directory.

The Johns Hopkins University and Union Memorial Hospital have joined the effort. Hopkins has donated $55,000, a security vehicle, and a guard to patrol part of the community near the university. Union Memorial has donated $5,000 toward a total benefits district budget of $435,000. The rest of the funds come from the tax.

The private guards patrol the community 10 to 12 hours a day, moving vagrants and panhandlers who loiter and escorting business people to the bank and residents to their homes.

The Greater Homewood Community Corp. also is coordinating with the benefits district to expand its Neighborhood Walkers program. Residents patrol their blocks at night with portable phones to call police.

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