An Avenue reclaimed

Market: The city crackdown on open-air drug markets is working on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is a breath of fresh air to its residents, who are coming out of hiding.

February 24, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Wally Simms has been blind for 37 years, but he can sense with his ears and walking stick that the Central Police District's 3-week-old campaign to clear Pennsylvania Avenue around the Avenue Market of drugs is working.

"It is much safer. You feel free to walk around," said Simms as he bumped into an officer stationed in front of the Avenue Market subway stop. "I got friends telling me this area is hot with cops."

Three blocks from the Pennsylvania Avenue bustle -- where blocks once lined with scores of addicts and street peddlers are now peppered with shoppers -- Druid Heights residents also say that police efforts are working and that they are reclaiming their neighborhood, where police responded to 975 drug calls last year.

"[Mayor Martin] O'Malley ain't playing," said Iris Scott, a recovering cocaine addict who lives in the 1900 block of Division St., referring to O'Malley's pledge to clear 10 open-air drug markets by summer.

The area around the Avenue Market has been designated in recent weeks as one of the target zones. Police have promised to stay in the areas as long as it takes to clean them up. They also are winning accolades in such communities as Pen Lucy.

"At first, when I heard zero tolerance," Scott said, "I thought they would be locking people up for no reason. But now my street is safer, so I am for it."

Such sentiments have buoyed police officers, who say the operation has been so successful that they compare it to the rout of the Iraqi army during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

With more than 160 arrests in the 20-block targeted area since Jan. 31, police now search for drug users or buyers on streets that once buzzed with residents' frustrations about feeling imprisoned by dealers.

The operation, designed to eradicate drugs and crime, is already being heralded as a model of aggressive law enforcement aligned with strong business and community support.

Results have been so pronounced that the Avenue Market is considering slashing its security budget in half, and the neighborhood's loose-knit network of drug dealers has asked community activists to arrange a truce summit with police.

Police say they would never negotiate with drug dealers and will accept only an unconditional retreat.

"This is a `no-fly zone,' just like the Iraqi [air force] can't fly in the sky," said Lt. Antonio Rodriguez, who is commanding Central District's drug-eradication operation in the area. "Nothing flies up there anymore regarding illegal activity, or it will be shot down."

Rodriguez commands a 12-person Central Tactical Unit (CENTAC), which uses various covert and patrol methods to address drugs, crime and quality-of-life issues.

Using an approach similar to zero-tolerance, which reduced crime in New York City and was touted by O'Malley during the mayoral campaign, Rodriguez and his unit have targeted illegal vendors and drunks and loiterers on Pennsylvania Avenue.

They have cited people for selling individual cigarettes without a license because "it is illegal and looks like they are selling drugs," Rodriguez said. CENTAC has seized more than 305 capsules of heroin and 265 vials of cocaine since Feb. 1, Rodriguez said.

Residents and merchants agree that police have hammered away at quality-of-life concerns recently, but this week sun-splashed Pennsylvania Avenue still had hints of illegal bazaar-like retailing, with many goods being sold without a license. People could buy a carwash for $6, a pair of size 8 dress shoes for $7, a cigarette for 45 cents or 75 stolen compact disks for $20.

The persistent vendors did not seem to bother merchants. "It's back to the old Avenue, not like before, when the only people you saw were drug addicts and dealers," said Bobby Johnston, an employee at Sandtown Discount Furniture in the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

Ronald Harvey, general manager of the Avenue Market and president of the Pennsylvania Avenue Merchants Association, said market aisles that were overrun with dozens of drug addicts three weeks ago now contain two or three.

The market, an Afrocentric indoor food court and bazaar dating to 1871, has for years been on the brink of closing because of high security costs. Last summer, the Board of Estimates provided $200,000 to cover the third consecutive yearly deficit.

With market crime virtually gone, Harvey said, the reduction in the market's security force will help it become self-sufficient.

Confident that the trend will continue, Harvey hopes to increase the number of black history tour buses that visit the market, the Great Blacks in Wax museum and the Inner Harbor.

"Before, buses would come and see the loiterers and the open drug traffic and turn around," Harvey said. "They would call us and say the people did not want to get off the bus."

Myrtle E. Howerton, who has lived in Druid Heights for three decades and led the fight against drugs for several years, said she understands the concerns of tourists who felt threatened.

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