A deadly blaze casts light on a still-divided Baltimore

This Just In...

June 12, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

SOMEONE PUT Teddy Angel on the steps of the burned-out rowhouse, and I recognized it instantly because it's identical to the stuffed animal my daughter's generous and collectibles-savvy aunt from Columbia gave her a few Christmases ago. I found Teddy Angel yesterday morning among a few dozen toys and stuffed animals that kids in the neighborhood had placed on the steps of the rowhouse on North Amity Street in West Baltimore.

The rowhouse is in a strip of poverty just a few blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a block south of Edgar Allan Poe's house, within eyeshot of the B&O Railroad Museum. An early-morning fire Saturday left three children and their grandmother dead. It's one of those recurring and sad stories from the rough course of life in the city of Baltimore: Crowded little house, no electricity, a candle for the only source of light, no smoke detector. Four dead.

Or six.

Or seven.

Once, on Tivoly Avenue in Northeast Baltimore some years ago, 10 died in a rowhouse fire.

Most of the victims of these fires are children.

Thus all the toys in the makeshift memorial on the steps of what had been 129 N. Amity.

Yesterday morning, there was a light breeze, which made the tall, flowering weeds on the vacant lot next to the house bob and quake. There was an old sofa on the lot and, in the middle of a large patch of baked mud, a chrome toaster, gleaming in the sun.

A heavy-set woman crossed nearby Lexington Street, blue plastic shopping bags loaded with cereal boxes, stretching from the handles of her battery-powered wheelchair.

A skinny young man in black clothes walked through Amity Street, listening to music on a headset. He carried a large black shopping bag and stopped to adjust its contents. He stood right in front of the burned-out rowhouse and slipped off the headset.

"Did you know the family?" he was asked.

"Yeah, I knew 'em. Sad, isn't it?"

He put the headset back in place, picked up the bag and moved along. "Sad."

A woman in a baggy pullover came by and looked at the front of the rowhouse. She saw what I saw -- the black and soggy remnants of a home, and all the teddy bears and toys on the steps. There must have been four or five dozen of them -- stuffed ponies and birds and cats. Someone had placed a toy truck on the bottom step, and just above it a McDonald's Happy Meal hand puppet from the Disney film "Dinosaur."

In the bars over the front window of the house, there were more stuffed animals and dolls, and a Bible.

The woman in the baggy pullover said: "If she didn't have no electric, she could've gone to the churches to get money."

Grownups in the family apparently did not appreciate the dangers of using candles for light in a house with small children. They did not get help to get the electricity restored.

Firefighters found no smoke detector, either.

Given that human decency forbids speaking ill of the dead or of the distressed, people in the neighborhood aimed their criticisms not at the grandmother or the absent mother of the children, but at the city. The city hadn't done enough for the neighborhood, they said, and one of them called the promises by the 6-month-old O'Malley administration to turn the city around "phony."

Here's where we come slamming up against the parallel universes of this sprawling city -- dire and tragic poverty a few blocks from affluence; dilapidated houses near resurgent neighborhoods; persistent voices of hopelessness in an age of optimism and prosperity.

In this case, the parallels seem to meet. Just yards from the deadly rowhouse fire are five new rowhouses. There are also vacant lots, of course, and they serve as reminders of all the abandonment and demolition that occurred during the disheartening Schmoke years. But there are signs of life -- those five new houses on Amity Street and, a couple of blocks away, the remarkable new rowhouse development called the Townes at the Terraces. Where once stood spiritually debilitating high-rise public housing are now more than 300 smart-looking rowhouses, some with white-columned front porches. Not far from where 53-year-old Lillie Posley and her three grandchildren died is the historic Poe House and Poe Homes, well-maintained public housing with clean streets and elderly residents who wave and smile as you stroll by. Last year, managers of Poe Homes opened a computer center and offered free classes to its low-income residents. From Poe Homes and the Terraces, a brisk walk brings you in no time into the midst of the University of Maryland complex, which continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. A few more blocks, you're at Camden Yards. A few more blocks, and you're at the Inner Harbor, full of tourists on a hot and breezy Sunday in the resurgent Baltimore.

But so much of Baltimore is still stuck on Amity Street.

Poor, decrepit, so bitterly sad on the most beautiful of spring days.

We are two cities in one.

The woman in the baggy pullover reached in among the stuffed animals and found a dozen fresh-cut carnations, wrapped in colorful paper. The bouquet had fallen, so the woman propped it against the sheet of plywood that sealed the front door of the house at 129 N. Amity. The plywood was covered with names of kids from the neighborhood -- Shawnday, Daquan, Faye, Brittany, Jackie, Shawn Marie -- expressing their grief. Someone from the city had stapled a red "condemned" sign to the plywood, and on a corner of the sign someone had strung pale blue rosary beads.

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