Daily struggle for the street

Greenmount: Five years after a high-profile drug sweep, people who live and work in the Midway neighborhood say it's nearly as bad as ever.

September 30, 1999|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Perched on a stool in front of the clothing store he owns, Haleem Iba Musa surveys one of Baltimore's most chaotic streets -- Greenmount Avenue, in the heart of the city's Midway neighborhood.

"I see it every day," he says: the "daily struggle" to survive this street.

It was Greenmount Avenue -- a forlorn, desperate stretch of empty lots, boarded-up rowhouses and rundown corner stores north of Green Mount Cemetery -- that outgoing Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had vowed to reclaim from drug dealers after he took the post 5 1/2 years ago.

On March 19, 1994, Frazier led 100 officers in a highly publicized sweep through the street, known then as the worst in Baltimore for violent crime and drugs. After the raid -- which netted scores of arrests and convictions, guns and drugs -- the new chief confidently promised that the police would establish a "hold" on Greenmount Avenue during his tenure. It would be a much safer place, he said. The neighborhood would have a chance to bounce back.

This week, Frazier prepares to leave Baltimore for the Justice Department, where he will be the director of Community Oriented Police

Services. As he does, his vow to take back Greenmount -- which Frazier heralds as a promise fulfilled and one of his greatest accomplishments as commissioner -- rings hollow to Iba Musa and many others living or working here.

While Frazier and his department claim that this part of Greenmount is far safer than before the raid, most people interviewed in the neighborhood this week say the atmosphere is nearly as bad as in 1993, when the street was at its worst.

Still, few say they are willing to blame Frazier, or his officers, for not meeting the goal. Most noted that the neighborhood's core problems -- unemployment, widespread housing woes, inadequate social services and, most of all, drug addiction -- run so deep that even the most forceful effort by the police was bound to have only a short-term effect.

`Back like before'

Iba Musa -- who sits, walks and talks with a solemn, sure confidence -- commands respect in his neighborhood. Perhaps, he says, it's because he once lived in and out of trouble, and knows how rough it is to survive here. The neighborhood's problems are "back like before," he says. "The dealing, the drugs, kids caught up in the game, the violence. The cops come in, the dealers just shuffle over to another street and do their thing there. But who's to blame? There's no jobs, no programs to help, no hope.

The Police Department insists the 1994 raid has done its job: forcing dealers off the street, cutting deeply into violent crime, sending a message that resounds even today.

"The raid was a major success," says Lt. Errol Etting, who oversees the Greenmount Avenue neighborhood. "That's not to say that there's not a great deal of dealing, but you used to have lines of 80 to 90 people in an open-air drug market. Not anymore. It used to be the part of the city with the most violent crime. Not anymore. It was out of control back in 1993; now we've changed that."

Police statistics back him up. While figures from 1994 were not readily available, crime statistics from the first eight months of 1999 compared with the same period last year show significant declines in several key categories. The number of reported rapes was cut 55.6 percent (from nine to four). Robberies and assaults, which include nonfatal shootings, dropped 20.4 percent (from 103 to 82) and 14.9 percent (from 74 to 63), respectively.

Still, for a small neighborhood -- bordered by North Avenue to the south, 25th Street to the north, and Homewood and Guilford avenues to the east and west -- the numbers are disquieting. In addition, burglaries were up 20 percent, which Maj. James L. Hawkins Jr., the commander of the city's Eastern District and Etting's superior, attributes to break-ins at the neighborhood's many vacant rowhouses.

Looking for help

Hawkins says his officers have maintained the peace in the neighborhood. Still, he admits that he's looking for help from the public and private sectors.

The neighborhood may soon be designated a crime "hot spot" by the state, qualifying it for money to pay for additional officers and providing state parole and probation agents to team up with officers in the community, Hawkins says.

Hawkins believes that the private sector has not done its part to help Midway after the raid made the area safer for bigger business to move in. In late 1996, a Rite-Aid drugstore went up at North and Greenmount avenues. But no other large corporations have followed. Hawkins laments that McDonald's never came through on plans to build there. McDonald's officials came to the neighborhood, toured a site and planted a garden two years ago, Hawkins says. "I haven't heard from them since."

Assurances hold little weight

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