Tiny, slighted neighborhood finally tells city, 'Enough!' Seven-rowhouse area gets action with stern letter of complaint

September 01, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

For decades, residents of the 200 block of W. McComas St. -- seven rowhouses under Interstate 95 that constitute the smallest neighborhood in Baltimore -- suffered a myriad of small slights in silence.

Plowing of the street after snowstorms was spotty. With the interstate blocking TV reception and cable providers balking at providing service, residents had to buy tickets to watch the Orioles.

Two buildings in Swann Park next door filled up with so many empty plastic bottles, vagrants and hypodermic needles that local children weren't allowed to play there.

Dozens of rats routinely tunneled under the block's alleyway, and stole food from the dish of 11-year-old Joey White's dog, Bear.

"We made some phone calls, but never complained much because we like to be self-reliant, and we try not to lean on the city," says Jim Steadman, 43, a respiratory therapist who bought the house at 205 McComas 13 years ago. "But [last] month, we finally decided that we needed to speak up."

A short letter to the mayor, signed by all the street's residents, has put the tiny South Baltimore section on the city map. The missive, so sudden and unexpected from a community that has long relished its silence, jolted city and state officials into the kind of speedy response that neighborhoods which have complained louder and longer might envy.

In the nearly three weeks since their certified letter arrived at City Hall on Aug. 11, residents say McComas Street has received more government attention than in the past five years. State Sen. George W. Della, a 47th District Democrat seeking re-election this year, visited and began calling in chits with city officials. Bulk trash was removed. The Schmoke administration promised to push to have cable installed.

And the city's Department of Public Works demolished the two troubled buildings in Swann Park.

"The lesson is that it pays to express your opinion," says Cedric Crump, compliance officer at the city's Office of Cable and Communication, which is now pushing TCI Cable to provide service.

"How come they waited so long to write City Hall?"

The answer lies in a neighborhood so small -- seven 88-year-old homes that hold 22 residents -- that millions of Marylanders have driven by for years without knowing it exists.

Located on peninsula

Few residents thought anyone would care about the grievances of so small a place. Located in the southwestern-most corner of the South Baltimore peninsula, surrounded by industrial warehouses and dead-ending in Swann Park, McComas Street has none of the attention-grabbing trappings of flashier Charm City sections -- no community association, no street festivals, no headline-making crime.

What it does offer is the occasional spectacular views -- cranes in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, sunsets over Swann Park in the west -- and all the unsavory allure of the out-of-the-way.

The area around the park and McComas Street has been an unofficial junkyard for years, where Baltimoreans abandon trash, tires, cars, pets and even, the locals suspect, toxic waste.

Nevertheless, the neighborhood remains a special place to many in South Baltimore: the residents, who like the quiet and tolerate the rest; old Southern High football and basketball stars, who played home games at Swann, and by a fair number of teen-age romantics, past and present, who will tell you privately how, under cover of night, they romanced in the park.

Dependent on neighbors

"Even with all the strange traffic we get down here, it's a nice place," says Sally Steadman, a pediatric nurse, and Jim's wife.

"On some days, you feel isolated enough that it's like you live in the country and you depend on your neighbors, even though you're in the middle of the city."

But in the past few years, the little nuisances -- combined with property tax bills that tripled in some cases -- had begun to grate. Residents noticed that the rats, which once scurried at the sight of humans, seemed to be growing bolder around their children. More prostitutes and drug addicts were turning the two park buildings into a shooting gallery.

And softball leagues and Southern High teams using Swann grew more callous, leaving trash and parking on the sidewalks in front of the McComas homes.

Trash collected

As was their habit, the residents preferred to handle the problems themselves, asking the offending parkers to move their cars, keeping their children out of the park, and planting rat poison to keep the vermin off their porches. As recently as Aug. 4, the residents pulled together to collect hundreds of pounds of trash during a massive community clean-up.

But the next day, the neighborhood lost its collective temper when bulk-trash crews from the city balked at picking up the clean-up's harvest. Neighbors decided to confront City Hall. Jim Steadman began composing the letter to the mayor.

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