NOT LONG AGO, Cherry Hill looked a lot like most people's inner-city nightmare.
In 1996, eight teen-agers were shot to death. Each was under the age of 16 -- and each carried a gun. Drug markets operated in the open air during the day. At night, the gunfire was so regular that we could almost tell time by it.
Today, my community is safer and stronger, and there is greater confidence that we can continue the progress than at any time in my memory. How that happened shows how a neighborhood can turn the tide against a wave of violence and drugs.
A few years ago the people of Cherry Hill realized that they had had enough. Through a series of community meetings and cooperation with neighborhood churches, we laid the groundwork for a community-based defense against crime and drugs. We organized block watch groups and Citizens on Patrol organizations.
We educated people around the criminal justice system and how they could get it to work better for us. We got people to stand up and reclaim what is rightfully ours: our homes, our safety and our peace of mind.
It wasn't easy. At the beginning, drug dealers would send death threats to intimidate us. The brother and the grandson of my partner, Cleo Walker, were accosted. But that didn't stop us. We held close our vision of a neighborhood where we could keep our doors and windows open and take a walk after dark with our children.
Last year, our effort received an incredible boost. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend named Cherry Hill a Hotspots community. The Hotspots program, which Ms. Townsend designed and the General Assembly approved (thanks to strong support from Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard Pete Rawlings), offered Cherry Hill a whole range of new law enforcement resources, prevention programs and state support for our community watch and patrol groups. Ms. Townsend opened our new Hotspot office.
Since then, two full-time community police officers, and parole and probation agents, have been assigned to our neighborhood. They have taken the mystery and misunderstanding out of law enforcement and become part of our community.
When residents need help, we know we can go to them and get results. When they need help, they know they can come to us. We are full partners.
The difference we have made together has been incredible. In the past year, crime has fallen 18 percent -- twice as fast as in Baltimore as a whole. We've heard the word among the drug dealers is: "Don't go to Cherry Hill. You will be arrested."
More people are signing up to be block-watchers. A shopping center that used to be desolate was revitalized in partnership with Catholic Charities. There are two new public-private homeownership initiatives underway to revitalize and restabilize Cherry Hill.
Most encouraging is that friends who have moved away have seen the changes and say they want to come home again. None of this would have happened without Hotspots.
The change runs deep. A few months ago a group from the Johns Hopkins University came to each of Cherry Hill's four elementary schools to talk to children about possible careers. For the first time in memory, children -- and a lot of them -- said they wanted to be police officers when they grew up.
They no longer look at the police as "that guy who locked up my brother." They see them as honored members of our community who make a real difference. Now that our children see law enforcement officers as friends and role models, they are much much less like to fall under the spell of the drug dealers.
The future of Cherry Hill looks bright. For the first time in decades, my neighbors and I share a sense of hope and confidence that we can protect our children and our homes from crime. We know we can work together with the police to rebuild the kind of neighborhood that we remember from years ago but lost because of drugs and violence.
The job is still very much in front of us. We hope we can build on the strength of our Hotspots programs with more resources in the future. And we hope that neighborhoods next to our own can become Hotspots as well and help us bring down crime throughout Baltimore.
More than anything else, Hotspots has taught us this: Partnership works. Communities and government can work together to fight crime. There is a lot more work to do, but Cherry Hill is showing that it can be done.
Cathy B. Brown is executive director of Cherry Hill 2000, an umbrella organization of community groups and businesses.
Pub Date: 4/12/99