Living in a ghost town

Neighborhood: For the few families who chose to remain in once close-knit Wagner's Point, life has become a daily struggle against looters and vandals.

May 12, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

KEEP OUT. STILL LIVE HERE!

James "Jimbo" Smith scribbled his demand on a piece of paper and stuck it to the front door of his red-brick rowhouse in Wagner's Point.

The note is a warning to the looters and vandals who relentlessly trash this tiny, soon-to-be-abandoned neighborhood in southern Baltimore's isolated chemical belt. "Now that they know I'm still here, I'll come out with a baseball bat if they try to get in my house again," Smith said.

Smith, 35, is the only one left in the 3600 block of Leo St., a forgotten street in Wagner's Point marked by smashed-out windows and boarded-up doors. Shattered glass speckles the sidewalks that were filled with children not long ago. Trash and debris line the area, which the city has largely ignored since the vocal activists moved away.

All but eight of the 90 families took a city buyout and left the once-vibrant community, hoping to escape the high cancer rates that beset the neighborhood.

Smith wants to leave, too, but he is stuck in the middle of a complex legal jumble he barely understands.

"I wonder why I'm the last one here," Smith said. "It's messed up."

Negotiations for his buyout have been stalled for months because the city was not sure who owned the house.

His neighbors started moving out last summer after the activists persuaded two local chemical companies, with city, state and federal governments, to buy their homes and relocate all 270 residents. The effort came after several highly publicized chemical accidents and cancer deaths.

Smith didn't want to leave at first. He's spent his life in Wagner's Point, which is in essence a collection of six extended families.

Now that his brother, sister, uncle and cousins have left, and now that he's living amid looted, stripped homes, he's aching to walk away.

"I used to tell people mine is the only house on the block with windows," said Smith. "At one time, this was a nice place, besides the chemicals and all."

He was laid off from his job as a laborer 10 weeks ago. He gets a job now and again but usually spends his days sleeping, sitting on his front stoop or listening to country music on his stereo, waiting to hear news about his house.

"I'm glad I got laid off. I can sleep during the day and stay up all night and guard my house," he said. "I've been sleeping on the couch in case they come in."

The holdup with Smith's buyout stems from confusion over who owns the house, Smith and his former girlfriend or their landlord. Smith and Lori Stump were renting to own the house.

"There have been so many twists and turns in this particular case," said John Wesley, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, the city agency in charge of the buyouts.

City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer said this week that the city is prepared to offer Smith and Stump $39,400 for the house so that they can leave. The matter is scheduled to come before the Board of Estimates for approval next week, he said.

That's not soon enough for Smith.

For months, every home on his block was left wide open, inviting carousers and pilferers. It wasn't until this week that the city started boarding them up.

"It takes time," Wesley said. "We're talking about a process, not an event, in city government."

Smith isn't interested in process. "I see people in there all the time. They party all night," said Smith. "Last week, they set a fire two doors down. I'm scared they're going to burn down my house."

`City ought to be ashamed'

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Democrat who represents the area, said he was appalled when he drove through the neighborhood a few weeks ago.

"The city ought to be ashamed of themselves. How can they leave a handful of people down there like that?" Della said. "The city should have stayed on top of it and completed the transition and not left those people vulnerable."

Thieves have swiped everything from refrigerators and furniture to light fixtures and metal pipes from the abandoned homes. They snagged chairs and a table from Smith's back yard, and he has caught people trying to take other things.

"I tell them, `Bud, I still live here,' " Smith said. "They say, `Sorry man, I didn't know anyone was on the block.' "

Police Sgt. Robert Jones, one of three Southern District supervisors overseeing Wagner's Point, said he hasn't seen an increase in crime reports in the area.

"If there's looting, I'm not aware of it. I don't see any problems there," Jones said. "If there's not a complaint, what can we do?"

Wesley says the people who are stealing from the homes live in Wagner's Point or are former residents.

"A large population of the ones who are doing damage are the very people who live there," Wesley said. "It's hard for them to believe the people who have been their neighbors would take those kinds of opportunities to enrich themselves."

Smith says that's not so.

"I've lived here for 35 years, I know everyone who lives here," he said. "It's not them." It's the outsiders, he said, who are scavenging for anything of value.

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