For five years, the abandoned house sat vacant, attracting junkies, prostitutes and drug dealers. The neighbors along West Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore filed complaint after complaint, but to no avail.
Now, thanks to a nonprofit law center's recipe for revitalizing neighborhoods, residents have come together to rid West Caton and South Caton avenues of troublemaking outsiders. As a group, they're taking over the vacant house and overseeing its transformation into a police substation.
"It was really a mess," said Latoyia Hawkins, a resident and president of the Caton Avenue Community Association. "In a lot of neighborhoods, it's not the neighbors, but people who come in and declare their territory; and they like that corner. If the police can do this, they'll have eyes and ears to all those corners."
Hawkins said the experience has sold her community association on a formula that the Baltimore-based Community Law Center is advocating for residents to take back their neighborhoods from criminals and drug dealers, making areas safer and more attractive.
The law center's remedy for blighted, inner-city communities -- and even for suburban neighborhoods with their share of urban problems -- calls for strong doses of community commitment, a well-planned strategy and use of resources, such as the law.
The center has put some of its time-proven, practical steps and solutions for combating blight into a 95-page guidebook for community association members and residents.
The book, "Revitalizing Baltimore's Neighborhoods: The Community Association's Guide to Civil Legal Remedies," explains how residents can come up with comprehensive strategies, make use of receivership, drug nuisance abatement and other nuisance-abatement laws, track absentee property owners, raise money and contact the proper government officials.
"Everyone can dream, and everyone knows someone who's been there 30 years and knows the way things used to be, when kids could play outside and Grandma could walk to the corner without being harassed," says Erin Artigiani, the center's head of pro bono projects and the guidebook's author. "But people don't realize how much they can do."
The reference manual offers strategies, which sometimes include four main legal remedies, that communities have been using effectively.
Legal remedies include a city law to rehabilitate vacant houses, drug-nuisance laws to evict drug users or dealers, a self-help nuisance-abatement law to get vacant houses boarded and a community rights law that gives associations standing in filing lawsuits.
But the center also advocates linking residents with nonlegal resources. For instance, residents reduced drug-related violent crime over the past three years in Boyd Booth, a small Southwest Baltimore community where they used to hear gunshots at night and find blood on the sidewalks in the morning.
Residents made a difference by forming partnerships with a community organizer, the law center, the Victory Outreach treatment program and Bon Secours Hospital, the community's largest employer. They got help from a task force of city agencies and from the Southwestern Police District. And they created a fund to pay to board vacant houses and erect lighting and fencing.
The Caton Avenue Community Association used the law center's guidelines to track down the owner of the troublesome abandoned house on West Caton and find two local businessmen to buy it and make renovations. The new owners agreed to donate the first floor to the Southwestern Police District, which plans to use it as a substation.
Members of the 4-year-old community association "knew what we wanted to do, but how do you go about it?" said Hawkins, whose Caton Avenue Community Association followed guidelines from the book.
The 10-year-old, nonprofit law center, which has four staff
attorneys, offers free legal counsel, representation and technical assistance to community associations looking to improve neighborhood safety, appearance and quality of life.
The center also runs the Pro Bono Attorneys Project, in which about 45 attorneys contribute services to neighborhood revitalization efforts.
Anyone seeking legal advice on behalf of a community association can contact the law center at 366-0922. For a copy of the guidebook, contact the center or send a check for $15, plus $3 for shipping, to the Community Law Center, 2500 Maryland Ave., Baltimore 21218.
Pub Date: 1/05/97