Clayton Guyton leans his sturdy body against a rowhouse at Rose Street and Ashland Avenue, looking carefully down the block for signs of trouble.
Shots ring out nearby: Crack! Crack! Crack!
Then a reply: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Guyton hardly flinches. He steps forward, onto the corner, joined by three armed companions.
It is early December. Just days after the execution-style killing of five women in a rowhouse one mile away. Just hours since one of the suspects was caught by police less than 100 yards from Rose and Ashland and another was found nearby, his throat slashed ear to ear.
Rumors of retaliation, that an all-out gang war could engulf the neighborhood, are flying.
But as they have on most nights since the summer -- through threats, through frustration, through gunshots and through attempts to burn them out of the neighborhood -- Guyton and his friends stand on the corner, claiming space, refusing to back down.
"Somebody in the neighborhood could easily die tonight," observes Guyton, looking down the street at a group of young men scrambling away in the shadows. "But not on the corner of Rose and Ashland. Not while we're around."
Guyton, Elroy Christopher, Kelly Brown and Vincent Richardson are at the corner for one reason: to keep the violence and drugs that have drenched much of East Baltimore from destroying the 800 block of Rose St., a half-mile from Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Their effort is of prime importance to Baltimore, a city so weakened by lawlessness that the newly elected mayor has made it his foremost task to end the terror on streets such as this.
Martin O'Malley has ordered an army of city agencies led by police to occupy and rehabilitate 10 neighborhoods. Success would be a victory real and symbolic, one showing that a city that has had more than 3,000 murders the past 10 years can right itself.
Yet people who live in places such as the 800 block of Rose -- just a stitch of turf in a patchwork of suffering laid across the city -- know O'Malley's strategy, by itself, is not enough. The police and the mayor and the City Council can do only so much. Without the dangerous work of these four middle-aged citizens, a Baltimore block would have little chance.
A hostage to drugs
Drugs tore this place apart.
As they did in so many Baltimore neighborhoods during the mid-1980s, crack and heroin swooped down on the street, dug their claws in and refused to budge.
Soon, the block -- a narrow lane of two-story brown brick rowhouses tucked tightly inside a neighborhood and inhabited mostly by law-abiding residents -- was held hostage.
The street was dominated by outsiders there to cash in on cheap, strong highs. You could hardly tell who was your friend or who was your enemy. Everyone was scared of everyone else.
"Nothing made sense on the 800 block of Rose, or any other part of this neighborhood," says Christopher, 45, who began to fight for his neighborhood in the early 1990s, just after he moved his wife and four children there. His family spent days crawling around its rowhouse, afraid that standing up would lead to getting hit by a stray bullet. "The tolerance [of lawlessness] was 200 percent so was the confusion."
By appearances, the block -- home to 27 pancake-flat, brown brick rowhouses -- is ordinary. There are no businesses, not since Club Onyx, at Rose and Ashland, closed a few years back.
Most of the rowhouses are rentals; a third are owner occupied. State real estate records show the average assessed value for the rowhouses on the block is just under $10,000.
They're well-tended, in large part, by the residents: primarily working poor African-Americans. They include secretaries, a fix-it man who tends to broken down cars and heating units in front of his home, a truck driver, a barmaid.
For years dealers ran the block.
You could hear the hopelessness: gunshots and bottles breaking, and the shouts of drug dealers hawking their wares, frequently named after presidents, celebrities or movies. "Clinton, Clinton," they shouted during the Lewinsky scandal at Rose and Ashland, shopping new shipments like peanut vendors at a baseball game. "Titanic, I got your Titanic right here!"
If you had a problem with them, the dealers had a solution for you. "They'd up and tell you to move," says longtime resident Raymond Baylor.
From alleyways they would operate "testers": when a dealer would pass out free "pills" of heroin to a lineup of glassy-eyed addicts, hoping to get them hooked on the latest batch.
Sometimes addicts would have to get a little colored ticket from a drug runner on a nearby block. He'd tell them where to be and what time to show. When the "tester" started, blue tickets would be exchanged for drugs in blue topped vials, red tickets for the red topped vials, yellow for yellow and on and on.
Sometimes the dealers would lose control of the lineup and the tester would become a free-for-all.