Couple tapes collapse of neighborhood

April 28, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the television screen, just above the children's boxed copies of "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," a more disturbing video is being shown in this little East Baltimore living room: amateur movies of a few of the streets around Fairmount Avenue, shot through the blinds of bedroom windows when nobody outside was paying attention.

Here's a young boy said to be dealing drugs. There's a teen-age girl, dragged by her hair, getting up from the gutter and being shoved back by a lanky guy. Here are kids going repeatedly in and out of a liquor store.

And always, with the clock in the corner of the video screen showing it's deep into the night hours, there are the shrilly, shrieky, unnerving sounds of this neighborhood: adults hollering at each other in the street, teen-agers repeatedly banging basketballs against metal stop signs, music pulsating from a boombox, until the police finally arrive to enforce a few moments of silence, and then drive away, and then the trouble starts again until the next morning, when there's fresh trash strewn everywhere.

"We've called the police more than a hundred times in the last year, but they can't sit on the corner all night just to protect us," says the wife. "Our youngest daughter's scared to go upstairs to sleep by herself. We turn the TV up to try to drown out the noise from outside."

"There's music, there's yelling, there's drug dealing, there's kids urinating in the middle of the street," says the husband. They've sustained enough property damage, and felt enough threats, that they wish anonymity. But their furtively shot videotapes, compiled over the past year, help make their case.

"They're up when we're trying to sleep," the husband says. "I have to go to work every morning and pay taxes so I can support them living in this neighborhood."

He and his wife and kids have lived here for 13 years now. That entire time, the community's been racially integrated. They found that a sign of health. They wanted their children, who attend a racially mixed neighborhood school, to understand the American mosaic.

For a long time, it worked reasonably well, and now, they say, it doesn't.

The wife says, "When they moved in those Section 8 families, it changed overnight. It was like the Colts leaving town, it was that sudden. Before that, people in the neighborhood bought their houses, they rented them, they went to work every day to support themselves."

Housing officials reluctantly admit there are 736 Section 8 families, with Housing Authority rental certificates giving them up to $600 a month toward their rent, who have been settled in a one-square mile area east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and north of Patterson Park.

Last November, a series in The Sun detailed ensuing problems here with trash, with rats, with crumbling housing, with increased crime and drug traffic -- and with housing officials' failure to track the impact or to intercede when problems developed.

Officials promised there would be changes.

On Fairmount Avenue now, the wife holds a letter in her hand, dated Aug. 9, 1991. It's handwritten to her, from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and it thanks her for helping the "partnership develop between city government and neighborhood residents. You have done a great job. Let's keep working together."

She takes pride in her community work. But now she holds a copy of another letter, dated a few weeks ago, which she sent to the mayor. It says her family is "under siege." It says they keep calling the police. It relates some of the chilling language she's been called by some of her new neighbors. It says "tempers are coming to a boil."

"And I'm still waiting for a response from the mayor," she says. It was a registered letter, signed for by a mayor's aide. City Hall says they have no such letter on file.

"I saw [the mayor] almost a year ago, at a meeting of the Baltimore Linwood Association, and tried to tell him what was happening," she says. "He quickly handed me off to an assistant, who couldn't have cared less. Then I tried to tell [Housing Commissioner] Dan Henson. He said I was a racist." Housing officials said last week that Henson "absolutely" never made such a remark.

There is no love in this corner for Henson, who uses race and religion when it suits his politics. But, last November, when The Sun's stories about East Baltimore's Section 8 problems ran, Henson declared publicly that he concurred, that changes would follow.

"The residents are absolutely right," Henson said at the time. "We have been effectively dumping these families on them and we can't continue to do that."

He cautioned against blaming "all" Section 8 residents for the crimes of a few. Fair enough -- and it's also likely that some trouble-makers aren't Section 8 residents. In the past, complaints have been made about "those Section 8 residents" who turned out not to be Section 8 residents at all.

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