They still miss Mildred Dead 4 years, leader of Sharp-Leadenhall is hard to replace

February 05, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

People still knock on the door of the Ostend Street rowhouse. They are looking for help or a few words from the woman who used to live there. They are looking for a ghost.

"They stop by and want to see her," says Greg Simon, who owns the place now. "Then they want to come in and see what the place looks like. One guy told me, 'You're living in the house of the mayor of these parts.' "

Mildred Rae Moon died on a Sunday. July 5, 1992.

Before that, she saved her neighborhood -- literally. First she helped fight an interstate highway that had caused the city to condemn Sharp-Leadenhall, the mostly African-American community in South Baltimore. Then she persuaded Baltimore to put up $2 million in urban renewal money to rebuild the neighborhood.

"Everyone knew Mildred Moon," says Mae Ringgold, 69, who lives in a Henrietta Street townhouse that was built with that urban renewal money. "She was our patron saint."

Perhaps the only thing she ever did wrong was to die. Death came quickly and she had no time to train a successor, but no one worried much about that then. Moon was so adept at turning out residents for community events that few people suspected the truth: The vitality of their neighborhood had come to depend on just one person.

More than four years later, that dependence is clear. As plain as the bricks falling off the run-down rowhouses on Cross Street.

As easy to see as the Hamburg Street drug dealers, selling their poison at the foot of Mildred Moon Memorial Bridge.

The decay goes unchallenged, and forces from outside Sharp-Leadenhall seem well prepared to fill the vacuum.

To the east, Federal Hill developers and real estate agents are eyeing properties and wondering whether the neighborhood can't be transformed as other old South Baltimore neighborhoods have been into a pleasant, middle-class, homogeneous mix of brass lamps and rooftop decks. To the west, the new football stadium is going up, and the Maryland Stadium Authority is hungry for parking.

"People are still grieving over Mrs. Moon, and I worry they will never put her behind them," says Bettye BaCote, who succeeded Moon as head of the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee. "If you live in the past, you can't move into the future. People in Sharp-Leadenhall have to learn to do things for themselves, or their neighborhood will die."

The neighborhood of 1,500 may be dying already. City-owned houses on Cross and Hamburg streets that were supposed to have been rehabilitated years ago stand vacant. The recreation center has no heat. The neighborhood park is strewn with months-old trash. Funding that paid the salary of a community organizer -- Moon's job for so many years -- has expired.

Local businesses say they have given up calling police to report drug dealers, some of whom come from New York to a neighborhood that addicts call the Bottom, because that is what you've hit when you're on the streets of Sharp-Leadenhall. Unnerved by crime, one local church, St. Stephen and James, conducts its weeknight confirmation classes in the suburban homes of parishioners.

These are the sorts of times for which community leaders exist. But even finding followers -- the people who attend neighborhood meetings and hold block parties -- has become difficult. It is as though a mold was broken with Moon, and the pieces have been blown all over Leadenhall Street. No one cares to pick them up.

"Ever since Mildred Moon died, there hasn't been real leadership in Sharp-Leadenhall," Dick Leitch, past president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, said last year. "Nobody else has arisen to take that mantle."

An old story

It is history now. A teen-ager leaves her family in Norfolk, Va., to move to Baltimore in 1941, and settles in an old black South Baltimore neighborhood that had been a 19th-century stronghold freed slaves. In her Sharp Street church, Christ Spiritual Temple, Mildred Moore meets James Moon. He works at Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. and, at 6 feet 1 inch, stands more than a foot taller than she. They marry in 1943.

Theirs is a quiet, religious life. Mildred leads the church chorus, studies the Bible closely and prohibits her only child, Melvina, from going to Sunday movies.

By 1966, the family has moved several times, settling on Hill Street. Then a knock on the door gives Moon, a seamstress, a new mission. The man at the door says the city will take her house down to make way for an interstate highway.

About 360 neighborhood houses are razed, and 3,000 residents are relocated. It is a devastating blow to the neighborhood; 30 years later, Sharp-Leadenhall will be only partially rebuilt. But Moon is undeterred. By 1967, she is a full-time activist, fighting the highway.

In the chorus of protests, her manner stands out: insistent but not overheated, quiet but determined. Politicians like her. They appreciate someone who treats them with respect. And so they return her telephone calls. And listen. And act.

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