City vows aid for besieged school 8th Ward block sees parade of officials promising cleanup

October 07, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Stranded in a moonscape of rotting rowhouses, surrounded by East Baltimore's worst heroin market, a schoolhouse besieged by troubles in a neighborhood known as "Zombieland" took solace yesterday in an outpouring of goodwill and concern.

City officials came and went at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School in the 2300 block of E. Chase St. this week, vowing support for its 350 kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students and promising to clean up the decay and crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

The visits came after a story Sunday in The Sun examined conditions in the city's 8th Ward, which Baltimore schools chief Robert Booker called "disturbing and totally unacceptable."

"It's my job to make the pathways to our schools as safe as they can be," he said after touring the neighborhood yesterday morning. "All the things the paper described struck me as extraordinary. Seeing them with my own eyes, they are deplorable. You can be sure that this situation has my full attention."

Booker said he would call for a meeting with the heads of the Police, Housing and Public Works departments this week to see what can be done about improving safety around dozens of threatened city schools. While Rayner Browne may be suffering the worst, Booker said, it is not alone.

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III echoed those concerns in an interview last night, as he was rushing from his office to address residents at another neighborhood with similar problems in West Baltimore.

"The 2300 block of East Chase is on my personal list of priorities and has been for some time," Henson said. "We will reclaim that neighborhood, eventually. We will not abandon it. But people have got to understand we're moving as fast as we can. I have literally hundreds of blocks just like 2300 East Chase that are located right around schools."

The housing department is grappling with some 40,000 vacant houses citywide, and plans to knock down 25,000 over the next decade.

"I don't think people fully comprehend how big the job is," Henson said.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier was ill and could not be reached for comment. Maj. James L. Hawkins Jr., commander of the Eastern District, met with school officials Monday and

poured teams of bicycle patrol officers and cruisers into the tightly constructed enclave of alley streets and cut-throughs.

"Keep the corners honest, that's our philosophy," Hawkins said. "Challenge anybody and everybody who is just hanging around on the corners. But this neighborhood has so many corners, and so many alleys, and so many open, abandoned houses that it's always been challenging. You end up herding the drug dealers around the area all day.

"It's terribly time-consuming in terms of manpower, and it's very hard to achieve anything permanent."

City officials say the only answer is to open up the neighborhood through a large demolition campaign that got under way three months ago, then stalled in a mire of lawsuits and conflicting property claims involving dozens of absentee owners.

In the wake of that effort is a landscape pocked with craters and caved-in rowhouses that haven't been fully demolished -- open dens for the area's thriving heroin market.

Michael Seipp, who heads a nonprofit group that is overseeing a $35 million revitalization program around Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, said his group is considering making the 2300 block of East Chase an immediate priority.

"We had a meeting this morning to discuss what can be done about moving up the demolition of the alley streets down there," he said. "And we are starting to pull the property records on the 2300 block of East Chase itself to see how hard it would be to bring down the entire block in the near term.

"We may not be able to do anything with the vacant lot right away, but there are cases where an open lot in any condition is preferable to what's there now -- and this is probably one of them."

Residents who called The Sun this week have come forward to volunteer their help.

Among them is a group of student activists from Coppin State College. They plan this week to begin carting away heaps of bottles, soggy mattresses and trash from the neighborhood's alleys.

Said Benjamin Hall, 25, a senior psychology major: "I went down there this morning and saw it, and it's a lot worse than I expected. It's just not right that little kids should have to deal with something like that right outside their school. They have nowhere else to go."

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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