Gangs, drugs recede in city neighborhood

Police, residents work to improve life in Pen Lucy

March 11, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

There are many ways to measure what has made Pen Lucy a safer neighborhood. Statistics show crime is down. Residents note the streets are virtually clear of gun-toting drug dealers and glassy-eyed addicts. No one has been shot since October.

But there is another way people here keep track of the violence that for years held this pocket of North Baltimore captive as two gangs battled for control of the lucrative cocaine trade.

Graffiti marking the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys' turf have faded. Down the street, the signature markings of the rival Alhambra-McCabe Boys -- boots draped by their laces from power lines -- have remained steady at 18.

No new footwear. No new gang scrawls on the sides of vacant stores. No new names added to the makeshift wall memorial that pays tribute to the fallen victims of drug addiction and violence.

For beleaguered Pen Lucy residents, just weeks since police began a major citywide crackdown on crime, life has improved significantly.

"It looks 100 percent better," said James White, 75, who lives on Rosehill Terrace, steps away from Old York Road.

Pen Lucy, with 700 homes, is one of the communities picked by Mayor Martin O'Malley's new police team as they embark on an ambitious effort to fulfill a campaign promise to clear 10 drug areas in six months.

The deadline is this summer.

White lives in what has long been regarded as an anomaly -- an enclave of violence surrounded by some of Balti- more's most stable neighborhoods: middle-class Waverly to the south and upscale Guilford to the west, just over York Road.

The Old York and Cator Avenue Boys took over Pen Lucy -- bounded by 39th and 43rd streets and Greenmount Avenue and The Alameda -- decades ago, and fought with the Alhambra-McCabe Boys from neighboring Winston-Govans.

Clashes made headlines. Gunmen were so brazen they continued to shoot at people running for the safety of a marked police car. Dealers were so arrogant that their gang names were emblazoned on the sides of their boom boxes.

Angry dealers riddled Robert Nowlin's Cator Avenue house with bullets one night in 1996, after the blind community activist began speaking out against them and calling police. Repeated police actions stemmed the violence for a time, but long-term solutions have remained elusive.

In May 1999, a series of shootings in one week left three people dead -- violence police attributed to skirmishes after the arrests of 14 top Old York and Cator Avenue Boys members. One of those arrested opened fire on a police officer days after posting bail; the bullets missed their target.

But the new strategy seems to be working.

"It's an unbelievable change," Nowlin said, standing in front of his house with a cross erected in the front yard. "It's one that we've been waiting for."

Frustrated residents have had an up-and-down relationship with city police. Officers moved in, arrested people and then left, only to repeat their efforts in what seemed like a futile, endless war.

"That didn't make any sense," acknowledges Maj. Robert Biemiller, the Northern District commander. "Now we have new marching orders."

Nowlin, whose letter-writing campaign a few years ago helped prompt the transfer of a district commander, said police often concentrated on the small commercial strip of Old York Road and ignored the streets where people lived.

Police said they have changed their tactics. The big show of squad cars converging on neighborhoods with mass arrests and the media in tow is a thing of the past. Dealers are now quietly plucked off the streets, and officers are ordered to maintain a constant vigil to ensure corners remain clear.

Biemiller knows that most people his officers arrest do not stay behind bars for long. It is his job to make sure that when the suspects get out, there is no drug life to return to.

The key, the major said, is to answer community complaints quickly. This week, a resident overheard a young man warn: "We're going to make this area hot again."

Word got back to Nowlin, who called police, who quickly confronted the potential troublemaker. Another call for a man shooting a weapon this week led to an arrest within minutes.

"The message is real clear," Biemiller said.

A neighborhood in which several people were shot each month during the past decade hasn't seen one person injured by a bullet since October. Robberies, which used to occur as often as eight times a week, are down to about one a week. Informants used by police to buy drugs to obtain evidence against dealers sometimes return empty-handed, unable to find drugs to buy.

But it is a tenuous hold.

The old life bubbles just below the surface. The graffiti may be faded, but they remains a vivid reminder of disorder. Litter blows down streets lined with shuttered stores.

The Friendly Food Market with its bright yellow siding, where a grocer was shot and killed in 1997 by three neighborhood teen-agers, remains closed.

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