Wagner's Point residents protest They want City Hall to help them move from neighborhood

July 02, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The adults walked the picket line in silence, but their children were not as quiet. Erik Hindla, 7, and Karina Castillo, 6, chanted the neighborhood mantra, "We Want Out." Crystal Hindla, 4, looked up, way up, at City Hall, and waved her sign. "Remember Our Dead," it said.

The campaign to relocate Wagner's Point came to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's doorstep early yesterday, as about 30 residents -- more than 10 percent of the tiny cancer-afflicted neighborhood's residents -- held a 90-minute protest.

They also released a letter criticizing Schmoke, who last month turned down residents' request that the city help buy their homes for $115,000 each -- nearly four times the market rate.

"I don't come uptown if I can help it," said Claude Watkins, 71, a retired chemical company worker who is raising his grandchildren in Wagner's Point. "But there are so many people getting sick, I think someone needs to move us."

At 9: 30 a.m., the children left, but Rose Hindla, her sister-in-law Debra, and their neighbor Betty Lefkowitz marched into a meeting of the Board of Estimates and asked to speak. In an exception to protocol, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III granted their request, and Debra Hindla asked the mayor to reconsider.

An hour later, the Hindlas left City Hall encouraged. Schmoke, who sits on the board, agreed to a meeting with Wagner's Point residents within the next week. And Bell, after an impromptu meeting with residents, made his first-ever visit to Wagner's Point last night and pledged to support the residents' efforts and help them "make a deal."

"The city does not have the money to move residents ourselves," said Sixth District Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, a relocation supporter who joined the protest. "But I believe the city can take the lead in finding the funding sources so they can move."

Heavily industrialized Wagner's Point consists of 98 homes, a park, a carryout and a bar, surrounded by several big chemical companies and a sewage treatment plant. Residents have complained that the city has no effective evacuation plan for an industrial accident or chemical spill. The city health commissioner has expressed concern over air pollution and the abnormally high rates in the neighborhood for three types of cancer.

This spring, residents proposed in writing that the city, state, federal empowerment zone and nearby chemical companies to contribute to a $15.1 million buyout and relocation plan.

But Schmoke has said that, for now, the city will not contribute to the program. He appeared to explain his nervousness for the first time yesterday in a conversation with Rose Hindla. He indicated that his office had had a "few calls from people who say they don't want to move," and asked Hindla for a list of every resident who wants to relocate.

"I have been happy to meet with you; it's only a matter of scheduling," Schmoke said. "But it's going to be a problem if some people don't want to move."

Debra Hindla said nine residents had opposed the relocation effort in a vote taken earlier this year, but she said some have changed their minds. Yesterday one of the chief dissenters, Betty Thomas of Leo Street, carried a handmade cardboard sign reading, "Don't Let Us Die." A handful of residents made a point of wearing purple, the favorite color of Jeannette Skrzecz, the longtime neighborhood leader whose death from cancer in April helped spark the relocation effort.

The protest leaders said they were trying to strike a delicate balance: letting Schmoke know they were angry, while begging him for help. Sunday night, as four neighborhood women sat on Leo Street sipping sodas and drawing up signs, Rose and Debra Hindla muddled through suggestions for the messages.

"Move Us Out Before You Carry Us Out," was deemed appropriate for the signs. "Mayor Schmoke Puts Profit Over Saving People's Lives" was ruled too tough.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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