Community activist struggles to beat odds in quest to save neighborhood Woman fights to save her city

September 25, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

The empty 40-ounce bottles are a sign that civilization as we know it may be on the verge of collapse.

There were five or six of them, protruding from a brown shopping bag. Orisha Kammefa had hauled them from her house on Herbert Street to a mayoral forum being held at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore. Kammefa had gathered the bottles from her block, a tiny side street that slices through the rectangle formed by Payson Street, Walbrook Avenue, Monroe Street and North Avenue.

She wanted to ask the city's mayoral candidates, if elected, exactly what each could do about folks who would so brazenly trash what was once a beautiful block. For Kammefa, leaving Herbert Street strewn with empty 40-ounce bottles is the least of the rabble's sins. She has seen the guys who loiter in front of one particular house on the block, guzzling the 40s and discarding them on the street. She has seen them roll the "blunts" -- cigars emptied of tobacco and stuffed with marijuana -- and smoke them. She has heard the cursing and the obscene rap music blasted late into the night and early in the morning, and seen the public urination.

"How is what you're going to do going to penetrate down here in the depths of our community?" Kammefa wanted to ask the candidates. She never got the chance. Because of time constraints, forum moderator Larry Young allowed only the media to ask questions. When it ended, the candidates all hurried to other engagements, leaving Kammefa with her bag full of 40-ounce bottles.

A few weeks later, she elaborated on her position. Kammefa sat on the first floor of her house, her slender arms resting on a dining room table filled with newspapers and letters. An unshaded lamp provided the only source of light. The other furnishings made the room look almost Spartan: a couch, a recliner and a folding chair in the living room.

Kammefa, her gray and black dreadlocks cascading over her right shoulder, was dressed in a skirt and a red, black and green "Re-elect Kurt Schmoke" T-shirt. She rose from the table and went to the kitchen, returning with yet another bag of 40-ouncers she had recently collected. Kammefa placed two of the bottles in the tiny bit of space left on the dining room table. She propped the bag against a dining room cabinet. Then she talked about the struggle she has waged since she moved back to Herbert Street in 1998, into the home of her childhood.

"This summer, I began noticing the droves of boys that just don't seem to have a home," Kammefa said. "I suspect they're all in the drug trade."

She has left her front door open as she talks, letting the cool breeze from the summer night drift through the house. It's shortly after 9 p.m. Herbert Street is uncharacteristically quiet. Soon the wail of a child, possibly no more than a toddler, pierces the calm.

"Shut the [bleep] up!" a woman shouts.

"That's a mother, probably talking to her child," Kammefa observes. She hears children being verbally abused all the time and wonders what the kids are learning.

On the all too frequent nights when the block has gotten rowdy, Kammefa has called police. The young riff-raff have figured out she's the one. One of them left a note on her car, suggesting she might want to buy one that is more stylish. Kammefa left a note of her own, replying that whatever faults her car had, it wasn't bought with drug or welfare money.

Her rejoinder inspired a nasty scribe, signed by a young woman, that referred to Kammefa by the "b" word and the more notorious one suggesting an Oedipal problem.

"They say for us not to abandon the inner city, not to relinquish the neighborhoods to those who don't care. That's what we're hearing from these mayoral candidates," Kammefa said. "Then if we try to wrestle with the problems, we are hated and intimidated."

Orisha Kammefa is pushing 60, now. She was only 6 when her parents bought the house on Herbert Street. She grew up on the block. There were no nightly obscenities, no alcohol bottles to pick up and the little trash that was left was regularly cleaned up by residents.

There are signs of that time on the block today. Some homes have lawn chairs parked on the cement sidewalks. Some of the chairs have huge pots of plants or flowers sitting in them. Some window sills are adorned with rectangular boxes containing beautiful flower arrangements.

Those are the houses of Herbert Street's older generation of homeowners, the ones who remember that a community once existed here. The block's beauty, its history, is lost on the younger generation of blacks who cling to vulgarity and boorishness as cultural imperatives.

Still, Kammefa sees hope. She remembers the evening she saw a group of young women knocking out 40-ouncers and spewing obscenities with several children gathered around. One of the women handed a 40-ounce bottle to a toddler for the child to pass to another woman. Kammefa gently upbraided them for setting a poor example for the children. Kammefa isn't sure she got through.

"But at least I haven't seen them do that again," she said with a faint trace of optimism in her voice.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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