ACORN takes root in neighborhoods

City residents unite to improve conditions

May 22, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Norma Washington is sick of bickering community groups. They take too long to spur the city into even minor changes to her West Baltimore neighborhood, which is why she has joined a national network to help her improve conditions in Walbrook.

During the past month, Washington and other members of the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have dumped trash on City Hall's steps; complained to city officials about sanitation, school curriculum and crime; and landed a meeting with city Public Works Director George Balog.

Tired of writing letters and making calls, Washington, 43, and more than 300 West Baltimore residents have formed three local chapters of ACORN, joining about 100,000 others in 31 states who pay $5 a month to fight jointly for quality-of-life issues.

Since beginning in Baltimore in January, the 29-year-old national grass-roots group, which seeks better-paying jobs and adequate housing for low- and moderate-income communities, has gotten fractured neighborhood groups to collectively pressure City Hall to clean up sections of the city.

"We get in their face," Washington said of city officials. She heads the Walbrook/Rosemont chapter. Pimlico and Park Heights also have groups.

Maurice St. Pierre, a Morgan State University sociology professor who specializes in family studies and collective action, has studied the Park Heights community over the past year. He said the attraction to groups such as ACORN reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the way city governments handle urban blight.

People are disenchanted with their neighborhoods, police and politicians, he said, adding that residents need stimulation to act. "There is a feeling that their neighborhood has gone downhill. Any group that can motivate people would be beneficial."

ACORN was begun in Cherry Hill in 1994, but faltered. Enter six-year ACORN organizer Mitchell Klein, who left the Little Rock, Ark., chapter in January to organize a Baltimore contingent.

The new local group has dumped couches in front of City Hall and led television news crews through rat-infested and trash-strewn alleys on what it called a "Tour of Shame."

Washington, a Baltimore native who is a contract worker for the National Security Agency, said there are living standards the city should help communities meet. She believes that Baltimoreans need to understand they too "can raise hell."

As chapter chair, Washington leads more than 100 members, including eight people on her block, in monthly discussions about changes that are needed.

Klein said ACORN approaches neighborhoods differently than other community organizations do. "What ACORN tries to do is move people," he said. "It's like a union, except it's neighborhood-based."

Baltimore, with a low-income population that he said rarely fights City Hall, is "a great city for ACORN."

"We had a Keywanda [Keyworth and Towanda avenues] Association, and we did pretty good, until things fell apart," said Willie E. Ray, a retired stone quarry worker who chairs ACORN's Park Heights unit. About 70 percent of the residents in the 2800 block of Keyworth Ave. belong to ACORN, he said.

Refused a meeting with Balog last month, group members on held a trash-dumping rally on City Hall steps May 10. Balog and nine of his employees met with ACORN representatives Tuesday night.

"We left with some workable ideas, and we'll be working close with Public Works over the next month," said Trinisa Brown, Baltimore ACORN's other organizer. Brown said during the meeting it was decided that she will serve as a liaison between the two sides until they meet again in September.

Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said Balog has wanted to work with the group since it began registering complaints. Kocher, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said the department and ACORN will work closely over the next few months and that he believes ACORN members "are sincere in their Pub Date: 5/22/99

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