Turning a corner on a dark past

The intersection of West Fayette and Monroe, the subject of the book 'The Corner,' has moved beyond its drug-dealing days and into a TV series.

September 12, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

A glimpse over the television director's shoulder shows the next transformation involving the corner of West Fayette and Monroe. Two video screens, each the size of a compact disc box, display views from two cameras capturing a scene distilled from a book detailing a year in a West Baltimore neighborhood overrun by illegal drugs.

Actors are portraying the sadness of a real father and the alienation of a real teen-age son. In take after take the boy turns away from his father's soft-spoken plea to stay in school, stepping off the curb outside the corner bar, turning his back on his old man, dropping his dreadlocked head and walking out of the picture.

Cut. Quiet please. Action. Again and again, Gary McCullough sadly watches his son, DeAndre McCullough turn away.

These are rather strange times in the life of West Fayette and Monroe. Amid a mayoral campaign in which the corner has been transformed into political photo op and stump anthem, a production crew from Home Box Office is filming a six-hour television drama scheduled to appear in spring. Meanwhile, apparently as a result of city and community action, the Franklin Square neighborhood itself has for the time being ceased living up to its image as a place where street dealers openly hawk drugs.

That the television filming is going on across town in East Baltimore is a matter of logistical convenience for the HBO crew, which is based in Fells Point, where the writers and producers of "Homicide: Life on the Street" established an office years ago. Yet the fact that the signs for E. Oliver and Montford have been taken down and replaced with W. Fayette and Monroe underscores a bleak point of a very bleak book. "The Corner," as the 1997 book defines it, transcends any particular place, perhaps even the very notion of place.

"There's so many corners in this city. And there's so many corners in people's heads," says Joe Laney, who grew up on Monroe Street. "It ain't a physical place."

Laney, a peripheral figure in the book written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former homicide detective Edward Burns, well understands how "The Corner" penetrates a person's body and soul.

His arms and legs are scarred from years of drug use, many of which he spent telling himself he was ready to get out. When the veins in this arm give out, then. All right, when the veins in the other arm are ruined, then. Next the hands. Then the feet. Before he did stop using drugs after 22 years, he'd been shot once in the back, badly beaten up, jailed several times. The reason he finally made the break is as dramatic and as humdrum as this:

"For the last 10 years of my drug addiction I was tired," says Laney, who stopped using 12 years ago, earned a master's degree from Coppin State College and now works as a treatment counselor. "That's a miserable feeling, to keep doing something for 10 years that you don't want to do."

In the absence of readily apparent life alternatives, however, there stands "The Corner." The book -- depicting events that occurred in 1993 -- portrays damaged neighborhood as vortex, devouring human souls. It's a force of nature, a thing sprung from intolerance of vacuums. In the writers' view, "The Corner" thrives on the combined energy of economic, social and racial alienation, exerting an often irresistible force, impervious to public policy and programs.

Public officials have responded to the book with policy and programs.

Franklin Square neighborhood activists had been working on improvements before the book was completed, but publication of "The Corner" two years ago this month transformed the spot into a poster child, a media emblem of what ails the American inner city.

Three months after the book appeared, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development and police swept into West Fayette and Monroe in December 1997. Two-hundred and fifty workers spent a week cleaning alleys and storm drains, arresting alleged dealers, trimming trees, confiscating handguns and suspected crack cocaine and heroin. They boarded up abandoned houses, fixed potholes. They even picked up a few stray dogs.

While acknowledging that "Operation Corner" alone would not cure the neighborhood's problems, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said at the time that the city would hold the territory, not "letting the corner go back to what the corner was."

Since then, politicians and news cameras have frequently returned. Several candidates in this week's city primary election have made "The Corner" a recurring theme.

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