Drugs, decay and despair hover around city school Abandoned rowhouses cast shadow of crime in East Baltimore

October 04, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

The children walk at dawn through the wreckage of "Zombieland."

Past the skeletal forms of sleeping heroin addicts. Down alleys heaped with trash and bottles and the leavings of wandering squatters.

Around and through the three gutted rowhouses on Chase Street -- dank, dark hovels of neglect haunting the children's only remaining haven.

The trio of scorched and vacant hulks is the last thing 350 children see each morning before entering Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, and the first thing they see when they file out their red schoolhouse door at 3 o'clock for the trek home through East Baltimore's busiest narcotics bazaar.

"You try to teach your kids self-respect and responsibility, and every day they have to look at this," laments Willie Capers, a construction worker who escorts his two boys at sunrise each day through the menacing 8th Ward to the safety of school.

Leon, 10, and Dionna, 7, wave goodbye to their father over their bobbing backpacks as they disappear inside.

"It's a bad message for little kids to be getting," Capers says. "Somebody owns these dumps, right? Somebody is supposed to be responsible for them. Somebody should pay for this."

The three abandoned houses have become symbols in a neighborhood despairing for answers -- glaring evidence that their suffering is unnoticed.

At no other school in the city, they say, is such flagrant neglect tolerated from adjoining property owners.

"Does anybody out there care what's going on down here?" asks Donna Money, president of the fledgling Lakewood Chase Community Association and a teacher in the city's school system.

"We're past desperate," echoes Doris L. Graham, principal of the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school. "It's pretty close to the worst environment around any school in the city. And those three houses across the street are just the beginning of it."

Behind the crumbled facades is a story of greed, lost dreams and forgotten good intentions.

The beautiful old days

Pearl Drummond, 79, may be the only person left in the 2300 block of E. Chase who remembers the way things used to be.

"It was a beautiful neighborhood when I first got here, beautiful, just beautiful," says Drummond, a retired packer at the Maryland Cup Co. and the last homeowner on the street.

But that was 34 years ago, before her neighbors started dying off. Before the slumlords and real estate profiteers moved in.

Before drug hustlers discovered the neighborhood's peculiar topography -- a compact grid of narrow alleys and dead-end streets that forms a ready-made lair with scores of entry and escape routes.

Today, the same features that once made this a secure enclave of working-class families built around a verdant park have transformed it into what police say is one of the most entrenched criminal strongholds in the city.

As she describes three decades of decline, Drummond's words catch in her throat.

"Used to be you could eat off the ground, it was so clean," Drummond says. "The kids could play outside without worrying about them.

"People planted flowers. In the summertime, you could sit out all night long if you wanted to. Now, well, I don't go outside anymore. I live inside. What's in here is all that's left."

Inside, her four grandchildren vie for a box of cereal at the kitchen table as the television murmurs quietly in the living room.

Outside, rheumy-eyed junkies emerge from the alleys in the slanting orange light of morning, listing onto Chase Street on wobbly legs, sucking their breakfast from malt-liquor bottles.

Three Eastern District patrol cars idle in the middle of the road, guarding the parade of children streaming toward Rayner Browne in the crisp blue-and-white uniforms that Principal Graham insists they wear.

Taking it all in, a gaunt woman in oily clothes sits on the steps of the abandoned house at 2316, her arms wrapped tightly around her shivering body.

"I don't live here," she says, breathing through the stub of a cigarette. "Sometimes I sleep here, but I don't live here."

She doesn't want to give her name. She doesn't know who owns the house she slept in last night, or the one next to that, or the one next to that. Nobody else in the neighborhood does, either.

"If you figure that out, please call the city," Drummond pleads. "Call anybody who will help us. Somebody has to get after these people."

String of uncaring owners

When Milton Tillman Jr. first laid eyes on 2316 E. Chase St. in 1990, he was not looking for a home.

A stocky longshoreman with a checkered past, Tillman was an inveterate scam artist.

Now 42, he is serving a four-year sentence in federal prison for tax evasion and obstruction of justice in a scheme to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from his nightclub and bail bond company.

To do that, court records show, he set up a web of real estate companies -- through which he funneled cash for the purchase of 31 rental properties across the city, including a package of 16 houses he bought in August 1990.

Among those was 2316 E. Chase.

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