Steadfast at home in Baltimore Hope: Many have left the city. But here are 10 solid citizens who are staying, determined to make a difference.

February 10, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Dick and Karen Cook's Baltimore is a safe haven where neighbors at a halfway house for recovering alcoholics watch over them from a porch nearby.

Ruby Glover's Baltimore is an oasis of goodwill and lifelong friendships in the world's biggest small town.

To them, Baltimore is not just a city of crime and poor schools that loses population every year. They stand their ground, and they will not be moved.

Ten staunch Baltimoreans recently talked about why they stay. All have the financial means to leave. They live in a variety of neighborhoods, from North Baltimore's Guilford and South Baltimore's Otterbein, to Pimlico in the northwest and Stirling Street in the east.

They stay for the convenience, the architecture, the culture, the history and the hope they see in struggling neighborhoods others have abandoned.

And they stay for the small-town feeling that lets them drop names to show they know everyone. Many talk about the camaraderie with neighbors whom they describe in glowing, even heroic, terms.

A retired Marine master sergeant stays to help police rid drug dealers from his Pimlico neighborhood because "if a stray bullet ever hit one of my grandchildren I would never forgive myself because I had the capability to do something."

A wealthy businessman with a magnificent home in Guilford stays to serve on boards of hospitals and cultural institutions simply because he believes he owes the community for his good fortune.

A high school principal stays for the convenience of city commuting and to watch Baltimore change through the lives of hundreds of students she calls "my children."

One successful woman stays on a dingy West Baltimore block -- with her Volvo parked out front -- as an example to neighborhood children that there is more to life than drugs and crime.

One Baltimore native moved back from Manhattan eight years ago and stayed "to have a gentler life." After visiting the world's great cities on business, she concludes that "nothing is prettier than Roland Avenue."

Of great importance for those interviewed is a sense that Baltimore is small enough for one person to make a difference.

And they do.

All 10 spoke of a personal commitment -- and a vision -- to resuscitate their communities.

'There was nothing'

Jeffrey A. Lauren had a vision even before he had a neighborhood. Twenty-two years ago he bought a vacant storefront for a dollar in a wasteland called Otterbein on the banks of a long abandoned harbor.

"There was nothing in the harbor, but the thought of coming back downtown and working on an old house was so appealing," says Lauren. He and his wife -- lawyer and children's advocate Susan Leviton -- turned their abandoned house into an architectural showpiece and are raising two children there.

"There was a sense of history, the fact that the houses were 150 years old," said Lauren, whose home was once a candy store and a brothel -- at the same time.

Today Lauren shows off his handsome neighborhood where residents can walk five minutes from their $200,000 houses to a ballgame or any number of Inner Harbor attractions.

The company they keep

Dick and Karen Cook came to Baltimore 27 years ago and bought a house in Charles Village. They expected to stay only a few years until they got their master's degrees, then they would head back home to California. Or so they thought.

What has kept them in Baltimore most is the people they meet.

"I think people is a key to the whole thing. I keep running into great people, really great people doing incredible heroic things," Dick says. One woman he knows has organized dozens of neighborhood cleanups; another chases after truant children.

In their early years in Charles Village, the couple joined neighbors to knock down fences between their rowhouses so their small children could play in one large yard.

Today they talk passionately about their "great neighbors" a few doors away, who live in a home for recovering alcoholics and watch over the neighborhood from their porch at night.

"If they were not on this block, I'm not sure we'd be here," says Dick Cook.

And they are grateful for gathering places like the Waverly farmers' market, where neighbors can buy everything from giant mushrooms to purple potatoes while greeting the latest political candidates.

"On Friday night you hear about guns and violence on TV, but on Saturday morning we go to the farmers' market and we know exactly why we're here," says Karen Cook.

Making a stand

When Anibal A. Brisueno moved to Pimlico in 1965 with his wife and children they were among the first black families to buy a house in the area.

As the neighborhood began to decay, he became involved in safety programs and a few years ago worked with police to rid nearby Garrison Avenue of open-air drug markets.

Before that, Brisueno had been working out of town for much of the time and was unaware of the dangers in his neighborhood.

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