$250,000 grant to help revitalize Edmondson

Neighborhood group seeks to rebuild businesses, rid drugs

January 01, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

In the Edmondson neighborhood in West Baltimore, Charlotte Perry watches as criminals convert cars into drug vending machines.

She says drug dealers store crack cocaine and heroin under gas caps until customers walk by, get the drugs and leave their money.

That, homeowners in the area say, is about to change. Community leaders and police in the neighborhood south of Rosemont will try to reduce street drug-dealing by 90 percent by 2003. This year they will launch the city's second Justice Department Weed and Seed initiative, which is part of a federal program designed to wipe out crime and save deteriorating neighborhoods.

Edmondson Community Organizations Inc., a nonprofit neighborhood association, has received a $250,000 grant that can be renewed for two years, for a total of $750,000. The money will help rebuild a business district that never recovered from the 1968 riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"We have had small grants before, but Weed and Seed is basically a holistic approach," said Angela Tate, the former president of Edmondson Community Organizations Inc. "You work with everybody, and agencies overlap."

The neighborhood will receive additional police officers and youth programs. A new community center and police substation will replace a vacant nightclub that once was the hub of a $1 million-a-week heroin ring.

The neighborhood has about 3,000 residents. Some blocks are 90 percent owner-occupied; others are 50 percent vacant and littered with trash. Some streets are lined with some of the city's largest homes, while drug markets infest other blocks.

For more than a decade, residents were concerned about the Underground nightclub in the 2100 block of Edmondson Ave., which served as the center of West Baltimore drug trafficking.

Drug kingpin Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams was sentenced in 1984 to a 35-year federal sentence after he was convicted of running a heroin ring from the nightclub, but his nephews continued to deal drugs from the location until their arrests and convictions in 1992, police and prosecutors have said.

"It was a nightclub and a nightmare," said Perry, noting the frequent shootings at the club.

The club was seized by the U.S. attorney's office in 1993 and later sold to the Edmondson Community Organizations Inc. for $1.

Attempts to refurbish the building have stalled since 1995 as community leaders struggled to find money for renovations.

"We were in the `no' zone," Tate said. The neighborhood does not fall within the Harlem Park Empowerment Zone, a federally funded economic development area. Nor is it within the HotSpots area in Lafayette Square, which is part of a state-funded crime-fighting initiative. "We are smack down in the middle of everything, but people who are getting the money are a few blocks away," Tate said.

The retail district, from the 2000 to the 2300 block of Edmondson Ave., was a vibrant strip in the 1950s, with a shoe store, dollar store, bakery and several specialty shops, but most businesses fled during the 1960s. The blocks are lined with vacant storefronts -- except for a bail bondsman's office and a liquor store -- and cluttered with trash.

After two years of paperwork and applications, the neighborhood was designated as one of four Maryland Weed and Seed zones in September. The other zones are in Salisbury, Prince George's County and East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The Weed and Seed program was begun in 1993 with the aim to remove crime, then place seeds of economic and community revitalization in the neighborhood, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Web site. Nationwide, 220 Weed and Seed zones have been created.

Most of the grant money would be used to renovate the community center this spring and start several youth programs. A third of the $250,000 would be used to battle drugs, said Tate, a member of the steering committee charged with developing the neighborhood's Weed and Seed implementation strategy.

Lt. John Mack, a Western Police District sector commander, said about $75,000 of the money would be spent to pay officers for overtime. About six officers, who will be based at the new substation, are to rotate as foot patrols monitoring the neighborhood for 16 hours a day, Mack said.

"We are going to take over an area, gain the community's confidence and move on to the next area," Mack said.

Under terms of the Weed and Seed program, the grant will be supplemented by federal resources, including the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which will also target the area with more agents.

A committee of 25 community, civic, police and government leaders will oversee the project.

Justice Department officials warn that the program will not be a success unless community leaders use it as leverage to attract more money.

"It takes a lot of time, money and community input," said Steven Hess, a law-enforcement coordinator with the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland.

Members of Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Inc. said their Weed and Seed program has succeeded because it has been paired with the area's designation as a HotSpot, its inclusion in an empowerment zone and the creation of a revitalization district that provides tax credits for rehabilitating homes.

Susan Shimanuki, the Weed and Seed coordinator for the East Baltimore zone, said they used their grant to hire six security guard trainees to patrol the Monument Street retail district and help pay for the neighborhood's gun abatement program. Police and community leaders said crime has declined steadily since the program was implemented in 1997, but could not provide statistics.

Edmondson area residents say they believe more funding and aid are needed before they can end the drug dealing and take down the security fences in the business district.

"This is just a steppingstone," Perry said.

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