City neighborhood's success story might be losing momentum After two-year drop in crime, reversal of trends raises concern

June 04, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Charlene Love moved to a Formstone rowhouse in the 2000 block of McHenry St. two years ago, heartened by reports that this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood was growing safer. By late last year, she regretted it.

Drug dealers used the alley next to her house to hide their stashes of drugs and money. And late Monday, her husband was robbed at gunpoint outside their house. A half-hour later, a 19-year-old neighbor was shot to death in the alley, and Love began packing up her things. Her family, including three children, ages 7, 8 and 10, plans to move out this morning.

"I'm moving fast, because I don't feel safe," says Love, 28. "You can't afford to wait."

The slaying in the alley was the fifth homicide in Carrollton Ridge since March, according to police. The homicides, products of a startling string of shootings, are one sign that a neighborhood known as one of the city's few success stories in fighting crime may have lost some of its momentum.

"We're very concerned about the reversal of trends there," says Betsi Griffith, director of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice. "A number of small problems have become critical."

For more than two years, Carrollton Ridge has been the site of anti-crime initiatives that come closer than anything in the city to the highly praised New York model of policing. Under the strategy, each neighborhood is treated as a small town, where police foot patrols and tactical units work closely with residential groups, housing court lawyers and probation officers was not expected here! to deny drug dealers the space they need to operate.

Until this year, the results were striking: In 1996, crime dropped 22 percent in the neighborhood; 1997 statistics will likely show a similar decline when they are released next week, city officials say. In his book "Fixing Broken Windows," George Kelling, the criminologist who helped design New York's strategy, praised Southwest Baltimore as a model for the rest of Charm City to follow.

But the recent increase in shootings has offset a quiet January and February, leveling off crime statistics for the year. Interviews with police, residents and criminologists suggest that in this stagnant trend is a reminder of the importance of small details, and of individuals in fighting crime.

Key losses

In particular, Carrollton Ridge has experienced a series of key losses. The head of its recreation center retired. The local Community Law Center attorney, Amy Yontes-McGrath, who deftly fought to evict drug dealers from area homes, is on an extended maternity leave.

The neighborhood newsletter, a lively publication that boldly lists the addressees of drug houses, has not been published in six months. Cynthia Tensley, a former longtime civic association president, spends less time on neighborhood issues because of her new job at the city's Southwest Neighborhood Service Center. That represents a critical loss of experience, although residents say Tensley's successor, Connie Fowler, has been very active.

"There's no question we've lost momentum," Tensley says. "I think the neighborhood was doing more and we had more participation from residents when we didn't have all the government resources for fighting crime.

"People have gone back to the attitude that if it's not right at my front door, it's not my problem."

When Tensley moved to Carrollton Ridge 10 years ago, the neighborhood was being invaded by drug dealers, some from the streets of New York. By the early 1990s, the area -- a former white enclave that now includes a mix of white, black, Filipino and Vietnamese families -- was overrun with drugs.

But in 1995, Carrollton Ridge became one of several Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods targeted by the federally funded Comprehensive Communities Program, an effort to fight drug dealers by fixing any signs of disorder. Last year, that program turned into the state-financed hot spots initiative, which has similar goals.

An aberration

The crime drop has been so stunning that some residents believe the recent shootings will turn out to be an aberration. In 1994, Rick Zeskind, who owns a hardware store on the corner of McHenry and Payson streets, was so frustrated with crime that he made videotapes of dealers and prostitutes outside his front door and sent them to the Southern District police. Yesterday, he looked outside and smiled as he recalled that the open air drug market is gone.

Tony Sheppard, 37, a lead abatement contractor from Florida, bought a rowhouse in the 300 block of S. Payson St. last year. "I've got a mortgage on this place, and I have five children, all younger than 6," he says. "I feel pretty safe, and I don't expect to move again."

Much of that confidence is based on the neighborhood's experienced foot patrol officers, Stan Slide of the Southwest District and and Will Narango of the Southern District. Narango says he believes that crime will continue to decline but is nervous nonetheless.

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