Year of discord disrupts block in Brooklyn Park

Slurs and disputes, a homeowner says, have led her to sell

July 18, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Melanie Hamilton is moving out.

With an elbow on the For Sale sign in her postage-stamp front lawn, the black 36-year-old corrections officer says she has had it with her Brooklyn Park block.

Someone damaged her car, someone else yelled racial slurs at her daughter, she has had a series of fights with her neighbors, and after eight visits by police, nothing has improved, she says.

"I'm tired of it," Hamilton said. "I've called everyone I can think of and no one can help."

But Connie Bates, a white 39-year-old convenience store clerk, said the problem is with Hamilton, whom she accuses of harassing her neighbors with noise and vitriol. She says charges of racism are false, and she is the one who "can't live in peace in my own house."

The dispute has been dogging this block for almost a year, and neighbors, police and local leaders say they have all tried without success to intervene.

Many see the tension not as racism, but as an inevitable outcropping of life in close quarters -- children tramping through the yard, strewn garbage, noise in the middle of the night.

On a small corner of this half-mile-long Brooklyn Park road, they say, residents may be seeing the worst combination of two intractable problems: racial discord and the classic neighbors' dispute.

"We are very good at dealing with armed robberies and rapes and murders," said police Capt. Harry L. Collier. "But these situations don't give us many options."

The first sign of trouble came in June 1998, not long after Hamilton bought the $51,500 rowhouse.

The corrections officer said she was just back from a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift and decided to do some yard work, clearing out hedges and dropping them on a vacant strip of grass and dirt that is owned by no one resident, but stretches behind several houses.

"One of my neighbors got upset because I put the trimmings in the yard," Hamilton said. "She called me ignorant and told me to go back where I came from."

Hamilton said the unfriendly welcome only worsened. Over the year, she said, she had shouting matches over noisy children, arguments over broken porch furniture and tears over gouges she found on her car one morning. Worse, she said, encounters with her neighbors increasingly became laced with racial overtones, she said.

In one of a half-dozen police reports the dispute has generated in the past two months, Hamilton told officers that neighborhood children taunted her daughter with racial slurs. But Hamilton's neighbors deny that and tell a different story altogether.

Too close for comfort

Bates lives so close to Hamilton that the two homes share a wall and a front porch. She blames the trouble on Hamilton's family.

In a police report, she accused her neighbor's 12-year-old daughter of throwing trash in her yard, threatening to beat up other children and damaging the railings and porch.

She said family members there are up at all hours "screaming and howling."

"They make this noise at 12: 30 or 1 in the morning," said Bates, who has to rise at 4: 30 a.m. to leave for her clerk job at a nearby convenience store. "You can't get any rest around here."

The police, who have been trying to keep the disputes from escalating, said they aren't sure what to conclude.

"The way I see it, you have three stories," said Anne Arundel County police Officer Michael Barclay, who has patrolled Brooklyn Park for seven years. "You have one family's story, you have the neighbors' story, and somewhere in between, you have the truth."

County police have been to the homes eight times in recent weeks, first trying to mediate the dispute, and then offering the phone number of a professional mediator. Ultimately, Collier said, they reached a conclusion: "This is just two families who don't like each other. There's not much we can do about that."

He and Barclay said police have dealt with several similar disputes in this section of Brooklyn Park, where houses are piled together with no space between them.

Parking is scarce, and noise passes through common walls as if they weren't there.

"Sometimes a little fight over a parking space can turn into a battle that drags on for years," Barclay said. "People in these tight quarters, they can get on each others' nerves."

But some believe that Hamilton's dispute points to wider issues gripping the neighborhood.

Longtime residents such as Jerry Calabrese Sr., a 30-year resident who heads the local improvement association, say such conflict is the result of a changing neighborhood: "The area has more kids hanging out, more loud music. It's just not like it was."

In some sense, police records support this, showing that between 1994 and 1998 West Meadow has experienced a nearly fourfold increase in calls reporting disorderly persons, destruction of property and trespassing.

But others see the dispute as an emblem of racial trouble that faces a dense suburb when its first minorities move in.

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