Unsettling times in Pigtown Memorial: The damaging of a crucifix honoring slain residents has some up in arms.

June 23, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

This summer, Stephanie Olden of Pigtown goes on trial for destroying Jesus.

Her day in court may offer the last chance for resolving a neighborhood feud so heated it seems likely to be seared into urban legend. The tale of how Christ fell in Pigtown involves a 10-foot crucifix, a federal empowerment zone, a vacant lot and a slain barmaid.

At the center of the dispute is a mystery: What was in Olden's heart when she walked into the vacant lot last month and pushed the crucifix? The giant cross tumbled over and landed face down, scarring the legs and breaking both arms of the plaster Jesus statue that had been nailed to it.

For the next 13 days, it rained in Baltimore. Many folks in the 1100 block of Sargeant St. do not believe this is a coincidence.

"The crucifix is all that anybody is talking about here," says Helen Shadle, a 66-year-old widow, who believes Olden tried to wreck the crucifix. "I think God is punishing the neighborhood for what she did. It's such a sad story."

"My intention was to remove the crucifix, not to destroy it," says Olden, 37. "I made some comments I'm not proud of. But pressing charges and taking me to court? That shows you what has happened to the neighborhood."

Olden's personal history, in fact, offers a window on the gales that, in recent years, have blown Pigtowners apart.

She moved to Sargeant Street two years ago, one of a number of African-Americans to move to Pigtown after the demolition of the Lexington Terrace public housing complex. Olden, a recovering drug addict scared straight by a pregnancy six years ago, applied her Section 8 certificate to a quiet, well-kept rowhouse at 1104.

Some blacks, wary of their white neighbors, keep to themselves in Pigtown, but Olden plunged right into community affairs. Last year, she was elected vice president of the Southwest Community Council, the larger of two competing neighborhood associations. Olden also got a job with an Americorps program that operates out of the village center office, the local arm of the federal empowerment zone, a $100 million economic development initiative.

Ironically, her ties to the council and the zone made her unpopular on her block, which is dominated by longtime Pigtown residents. Several neighbors, expressing anger at the growing number of neighborhood newcomers in the council, aligned with the old-line Hearts of Pigtown, a rival association. And many Hearts members stopped participating in empowerment zone projects after the Hearts' president, Doc Godwin, lost his job running the village center after a long dispute.

Sargeant Street residents burn with frustration at the village center and people who work there, often lumping in Olden with those who work for the zone. If the empowerment zone means $100 million, why hasn't more of the money found its way to Pigtown? If the village center was supposed to build up the neighborhood, why can't it stop the city from razing perfectly good rowhouses, three in the 1100 block of Sargeant alone?

"The village center has been the scene of a lot of fighting between these neighborhood groups," says Mary Lou Kline, chairwoman of the village center board. "This thing with the crucifix has become part of that. It's a problem that could have been solved with conversation or mediation, but instead it just snowballed."

Melt away that snow, and at the center of the ball was a slaying this winter.

Pigtown royalty

Teresa E. Ambrose, 35, was Pigtown royalty. Her father, Raymond Watkins, 57, grew up here, and runs the popular bar on Sargeant Street that bears his nickname: Rainbow. Terry, as everyone called her, was Rainbow's barmaid. She organized the neighborhood Easter Egg hunt and baby-sat other people's children.

The robbers came 20 minutes before closing. They asked her to empty the cash register, but she froze. The bullet entered her neck. The Shock Trauma doctors tried to save her, but she bled to death at 5: 18 a.m. Feb. 12.

It took homicide detectives two weeks to arrest four teen-agers. On Sargeant Street, neighbors took note: all four African-American, all four from West Baltimore.

The Hearts of Pigtown met in March. Ambrose, they decided, had died because of outsiders, and outsiders had let the neighborhood rot. Outsiders had killed lots of their neighbors. Brian Michael Jackson in September 1992. Gary Lee Helmick, a year later. The police shot Dominic DeFino in 1996. In the long, hot summer of 1995, someone killed Denise Anne Cooke for 52 cents.

All the victims were white. All the accused were black.

Cheryl Hesterberg, a bookkeeper who lives at 1108 Sargeant, was determined that the victims wouldn't be forgotten. The neighborhood would turn one of the empty lots left from the rowhouse razings on Sargeant Street into a memorial to Ambrose, and the four who fell before her.

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