Midtown tries balancing safety, cleanliness Crime has sparked residents' concerns about surcharge uses

March 20, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF PTC

Stan Smith removes his Omega watch and billfold, the last of his valuables. The alarm system is activated. Only then does he venture beyond his rowhouse, avoiding alleys and strangers, for a pleasant evening jog on the streets of Bolton Hill.

It's not like it used to be when the 54-year-old high school teacher grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, where front doors were left unlocked. "It's more of a comment on society as a whole," he said. "It's not only in the city."

Smith and others in his neighborhood thought their fears would be allayed when they agreed two years ago to pay a surcharge tax for the creation of the Midtown Community Benefits District, carved in the heart of Baltimore to address issues of grime and crime. The grime is under control. Reduced crime, however, remains elusive.

Now, midtown residents want to know whether the district is distributing tax dollars wisely between security and trash collection. "That is an area of debate, exactly how they split the two, the clean program and safety," said Smith, chairman of the safety committee of the Mount Royal Improvement Association. "There's an element that perhaps is not happy."

The chilling nature of midtown violence in recent months has brought renewed attention to safety on the streets. The latest reminder: An 86-year-old World War II veteran, a man known for his cooking and gardening, was beaten to death in daylight outside his Bolton Hill home in January.

"Nothing can justify that horrendous murder," said Beverly Fuller, the district's executive director. "But on the other side of the coin, so to speak, I do have good statistics."

In the first six to eight months of the district's patrols, launched less than two years ago, 160 to 180 crimes per month were committed in midtown, which encompasses Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere. Over the past several months, that number has dropped to about 120, according to the district.

Police confirm the midtown change. "Crime is down," said Maj. Steve McMahon, commander of the Central District.

The midtown district, funded with more than $600,000 from property tax surcharges, spends 48 percent of its budget on safety, 42 percent on cleaning, 8 percent on administrative costs and 2 percent on community development. The average homeowner pays $180 to $200 a year in surcharges.

But neighbors are not satisfied. They are taking matters into their own hands. Their urban weapon: video surveillance.

The Northern Bolton Hill Association, a splinter faction of the Mount Royal Association, took action in the fall, spending a couple of thousand dollars to hook up video cameras and recording equipment, which began operating this month.

The Mount Royal Improvement Association has been meeting with the district about obtaining a grant to buy video equipment. If necessary, however, association members say they will pay for the equipment themselves.

Crime 'comes from outside'

"The thought is to put up a few video cameras around so that in case there's a crime, we can possibly catch the suspect entering or leaving the neighborhood," said Doreen Rosenthal, president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association. "We can't create a gated community, but it's the same principle as in the suburbs. Crime doesn't emanate from the community, it comes from outside."

Video surveillance

Midtown neighborhoods have devised other ways to keep the peace. Residents volunteer for car patrols accompanied by a police officer. Others enlist for foot patrols. Neighbors use a computer e-mail address to alert the community to suspicious activities.

The midtown district is doing its part, too. As part of a $250,000 project, backed by federal funds and donations, the district is set to install 16 surveillance cameras at intersections throughout midtown. Security forces will monitor activity from a central kiosk.

The impetus? The surveillance success of a handful of other cities and a rash of gunpoint hold-ups at Penn Station in the spring of 1996.

Safety measures

Other district-sponsored safety measures are in place, including full-time safety guides who patrol midtown, an escort service to accompany residents on walks and a telephone complaint line.

But for all the precautions, residents acknowledge, only so much can be done about crime. Trash, however, is another matter. "Our streets are cleaner," said Nancy R. Rouse, a Bolton Hill landlord.

'Community seems happy'

For that, credit belongs to the district's crew, whose five members fan the area in red jump suits and black boots, removing trash. Credit also belongs to criminals, the same element that neighbors want to keep out. The district allows those who have committed minor offenses to volunteer for cleanups rather than serve jail time or pay fines.

"For the most part," said Charles L. Smith, the district's director of field operations, "the community seems genuinely happy."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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