Neighbors press on amid fire's aftermath

Barclay: Pauline Lewis and other residents refuse to give up on their community despite problems. A devastating fire has tested their resolve again.

April 26, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Pauline Lewis has lived in Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood for 50 years, refusing to leave even when drug dealers commandeered street corners and plywood became an increasing sight on nearby vacant homes.

She was among several residents who spruced up the concrete sidewalk, planting flowers in large pots and around fenced-in trees just outside their front doors. The neighbors looked out for each other. They kept their houses tidy and clean. They reported drug dealing to police.

Yesterday, a large part of their community in the 300 block of E. 21st St. was a charred mess, and residents were left to ponder a consequence of urban blight they couldn't prevent.

A fire late Wednesday night - apparently sparked by a candle in a rowhouse that neighbors have complained about to police for at least a year - spread to five other homes on the block, badly damaging them.

Lewis, 74, lost many of her possessions, but as smoke filled her living room, she grabbed and saved altar cloths that she washes and presses for her church.

"I feel terrible," said Lewis, a quiet, diminutive woman who wears glasses. "I've worked so hard. I wanted to spend the rest of my few days without adjusting to anything new, without having to do another thing to my home. My whole home has to be done over, everything."

A huge hole in Lewis' roof allowed water to drain into her bedroom, soaking ashes and charred wood on the floor. Detritus littered the squishy carpet. Lewis' Sunday-best church clothes still hung in the closet, though smudged with soggy black soot.

Her wedding and engagement rings were missing. Colorful jigsaw puzzles constructed by her late husband and tacked to the walls were broken, their pieces scattered across the floor.

Outside, a pile of debris, including dresser drawers and clothes, lay on the sidewalk. Flowers set out by residents were crushed by pieces of wood and brick.

Lewis and other residents say the fire could have been prevented if officials had acted on their complaints about the rowhouse where the fire started. They said they had reported suspicious activity - visitors coming at odd hours to a house without electricity - but received no response from police.

Police said yesterday that they were unable to confirm whether residents filed any complaints about the house.

Grover C. Comer, 67, and Grace Comer, 63, live in the rowhouse least damaged by the fire. Most of their downstairs sparkles, despite dirty footsteps left by firefighters who raced upstairs to put out the blaze, which allowed water to drain into the second floor and the Comers' bedroom.

"The mayor and Police Department caused all of this," said Comer, adding that he began complaining a year ago about the house. "They haven't done anything. I'm hurt about it."

Lewis was not as angry as Comer, though she said she also had complained.

She grew up in Northwest Baltimore where she met her husband, Allen. They moved to 325 E. 21st St. in 1950. She worked as a nursing assistant. He repaired railroad tracks. Unable to have children, Lewis raised four offspring of relatives. She also adopted a daughter. Today, she is raising a granddaughter, Michelle Thomas, 14.

Lewis never gave up on her neighborhood, one of about 35 rowhouses, most of which are occupied by owners or renters. But in recent years, several residents have moved away, leaving boarded-up windows and doors in the face of drugs and crime. One of the houses adjoining Lewis' is vacant, as is another two doors down.

Still, Lewis, the Comers and other homeowners have stayed, refusing to let the neighborhood slip away.

Lewis spends about 15 hours a week volunteering as a mentor at nearby Dallas Nicholas Elementary School. A devout Catholic who has a figurine of Jesus Christ in her living room, she belongs to St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church just around the corner on 22nd Street, the church whose altar cloths she saved.

Sister Jeanne Barasha of St. Ann's came to check on Lewis and later drove her to a Towson motel where she will spend the week at the expense of the Red Cross.

Barasha said that many parishioners on their way to Sunday Mass have seen drug dealers selling their product.

Lewis and her stalwart neighbors are the best hope the neighborhood has to survive, Barasha said.

"They are the fabric of the community," said Barasha, whose church will hold a collection for the displaced families and look into outreach efforts to rebuild. "They carry the history and value of the community. ... There is such an emphasis on the boarded-up houses that you forget the people who live here day by day."

Lewis has insurance, as do most other homeowners on the block. And, though she initially was unsure about what to do, she said last night that she firmly plans on rebuilding.

"I'm going to stay," Lewis said. "I don't know any place else. I've lived here all my life. It's my home."

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