Port Street neighbors' prayers are answered Baltimore razes homes in enclave of blight

October 23, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

At 9: 53 yesterday morning, the crane boom swung, lightly kissing the facade of 1118 N. Port St. The 100-year-old rowhouse promptly crumbled like a saltine cracker, sending brittle bricks and rotten lumber cascading onto the sidewalk.

A half hour later, the prayers of residents in this blighted East Baltimore enclave had been answered. The last five houses on Port Street -- the blood-smeared heroin dens, trash heaps and rat warrens -- lay in rubble.

"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!" cheered Willie McCormick, 88, taking a break from his bacon-and-egg breakfast to witness the destruction out his back door. "Maybe now, we'll get a little peace around here."

The demolition came just 48 hours after city moving crews evacuated a family of four from the last occupied house on the street. No sooner had they moved than addicts in this notorious eastside narcotics bazaar broke down the front door and turned the two-bedroom hovel into a shooting gallery littered with needles,drug vials and empty malt liquor bottles.

By yesterday afternoon, the house and four others on the block were gone -- completing a wrecking job that was aborted last summer when Department of Public Works crews discovered Billy and Muriel Warsaw and their two mentally disabled sons still living at 1119.

With the job done, the city Housing and Community Development Department sent a visible message of its intent to clean up a constricted maze of narrow alley streets around the Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School that have become entrenched criminal havens.

More demolition coming

Since last week alone, housing inspectors have condemned four abandoned corner houses on nearby Chase Street in front of the school, a precursor for more demolitions aimed at opening up the alleys for better police surveillance and raids.

Four other properties on Biddle and Montford were hit with violation notices this week. And a newly beefed up team of housing lawyers is preparing to take the owners of six other vacant houses in the neighborhood to court next week.

"We want this message out," said Denise Duval, chief of the code enforcement division's legal office. "It is not OK to simply walk away from your property. It is not OK to contribute to the degradation of the community. It may take us some time to catch up with you, but you will be held accountable."

"Elated, ecstatic"

"We're elated, ecstatic," said Donna Money, president of the Lakewood Chase Community Association, which has lobbied for the demolition of the houses on Port Street for the past three years. "We feel like we're finally getting some momentum going XTC around here. Now, if the city would just do something about Bradford Street. "

That sentiment echoed around the neighborhood yesterday as residents gathered on the corners to applaud the plumes of gray-black dust rising over Port Street. Walls wobbled like taffy, crushing old mortar back into sand and pitching one house after another into the street.

"This block needs to go next," said Sherri Purvey, a dietary aide at a senior care center who has lived with her mother on the blighted 1100 block of N. Bradford all her life. "There's only two families left on this street, and we'd all be out of here in a minute if the city would give us a little help.

Drugs, rats and trash

"I can't tell you how sick I am of the drugs and the rats and the trash. But we just don't have the money to move."

Chairbound with diabetes and lung problems, her 54-year-old mother sat glumly in front of the television, occasionally looking out the barred windows at the addicts passing by on their way to buy heroin at the corner of Chase Street.

Gloria Purvey recounted in a wheezing voice how she had to move into her daughter's home last year when the wiring in her rented slum house across the street at 1107 N. Bradford burned up -- prompting utilities inspectors to cut off the power until it's fixed.

Landlord Harding Carter, 55, readily admits that he has failed to make repairs to any of his 16 vacant properties over the past three years.

"I'm in no shape to be spending no money or doing no work there or anywhere else," Carter said in a phone interview. "I've had a stroke and a heart attack, and I can barely walk. All I want to do is get rid of them at this point."

He may have his chance next week.

Duval's office is taking him to court to face charges of criminal neglect on four slum properties he owns near Rayner Browne, and a fifth case is pending against him for failure to maintain Purvey's former Bradford Street home.

"When" not "if"

Housing Department spokesman Zack Germroth said the proliferation of unanswered notices to Carter and other absentee owners has landed the block on the city's demolition list.

"It's more a question of 'when' than it is a question of 'if,' " Germroth said yesterday morning as he stood amid the shattered glass on Port Street awaiting the wrecking crew from the Public Works Department.

But for Willie McCormick of Montford Avenue and his neighbors, there's no better time than now.

"I spent $8,000 fixing up my house last summer," the retired railroad engineer said, sitting on the steps of his new back porch and yelling to be heard over the thunder of crashing debris. "All I want now is my neighborhood back. That's all any of us wants."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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