Turning the corner in Collington Square

Another chance: James "Buddy" Jones heals himself while healing a once-troubled community.

Champions of Hope

October 09, 2001

BUDDY JONES gets an ounce of redemption from every good deed.

Every time he cleans an alley, steers an addict to treatment or helps to house the homeless, he recovers pieces of himself.

Life has given him another chance to make good after he messed up for 20 years. He tumbled from being voted "most likely to succeed" in his Southwestern High School class to the gutter, becoming a heroin addict who subsisted in a vacant house, like a scene from The Corner.

Now that he has picked himself up from the depths of a despair that's all too common in this city, he's doing good for the East Baltimore neighborhood he has adopted.

For the last six years, James "Buddy" Jones has helped turn around Collington Square. Like him, the neighborhood had hit bottom - trapped by poverty, drug trafficking, abandoned houses and despair. But largely because of his efforts, it's springing back to life.

You'll still find vacant buildings in Collington Square. The median income remains one of the city's lowest. But the neighborhood looks better and has momentum. Neighbors say they hear young children laughing while playing on the sidewalks. That hasn't happened in years.

The neighborhood desperately needed caring people like Mr. Jones to get involved. Mr. Jones will quickly say that he's just one tool in the hope chest. Others have played major roles. Churches such as Israel Baptist - which began the community's transformation - and organizations such as Episcopal Housing Corp. and Episcopal Social Ministries have contributed. Working with a revitalized community association, they have thrown an army of people and poured plenty of resources into Collington Square.

But Mr. Jones is in the middle of it all. He's a major part of the nonprofit organizations that have invested heavily in Collington Square. He wanted to get help because, in his mind, he owes that much to himself and to the city.

"It's like I told my pastor," he said, referring to Israel Baptist's leader, the Rev. Harlie Walden Wilson II, "I helped destroy a neighborhood just like this. I was part of the problem.

"I had never cared for East Baltimore that much, but God has a funny sense of humor to put me in this neighborhood to make a difference."

Mr. Jones grew up in a permissive Pigtown household that allowed him to drink as a teen-ager, as long as he did his drinking at home.

After graduating from high school 35 years ago, Mr. Jones got a job as a clerk at the Social Security Administration. Three years later, he discovered heroin, and began a downward odyssey. After he lost his job, he became a thief and a stick-up man - ripping off his own neighborhood.

Clearly, he was part of what went wrong in cities like Baltimore.

Thanks to a moment of clarity that came in a vacant house in 1989, he sought treatment, entering a detox center right after taking one more blast of Thunderbird. That, he said, was his last encounter with an intoxicating substance.

Since then, fear has kept him sober.

Fear of returning to the streets, fear of hurting people, fear of being unafraid of the consequences that substance abuse brings.

Fear sent him to a 28-day treatment program, a halfway treatment house and, eventually, an Oxford House group home for recovering addicts. He got a job at the Baltimore Convention Center and eventually became an Oxford House chapter president.

He learned to operate a residential facility for recovering addicts, and realized that he had found his purpose.

Mr. Jones' work drew the attention of Episcopal Social Ministries and the Episcopal Housing Corp., separate agencies trying to rebuild city neighborhoods. He's employed by both.

Episcopal Social Ministries runs treatment programs for recovering addicts and after-school programs. Mr. Jones is an associate director of a recovery and job-training program that operates on Cathedral Street and in Collington Square.

The housing corporation builds shelters, including the large Dayspring House for recovering addicts that's given the community some bright, fresh architecture.

In the middle of this activity is Mr. Jones, whose work in the community led to his work with the community.

He saw elderly women like Lillie Clark, a 53-year resident of Collington Square, "one of the gems" who became frustrated with trashy alleys. He said women like Ms. Clark reminded him of his mother when he got to know them, and he wanted to make their neighborhoods cleaner and safer.

He watched Bruce Durant stand up to street-corner dealers, and stood by him. A self-described country boy from North Carolina, Mr. Durant wouldn't tolerate drug dealers peddling their stuff outside the Collington Avenue home his wife grew up in. Six years ago, Bruce and Ella Durant moved into the home. They renovated it and decorated it with African art. They stood their ground in spite of the threats and in spite of the gunshots through their van.

Nobody sells dope outside their house now.

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