In Hamilton, a voice of peace amid fury

Housing uproar creates an advocate, a friendship

May 19, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Caroline F. Queale's path to becoming a peacemaker in her neighborhood began almost two years ago, when city officials planned to relocate 10 families from public housing to Hamilton.

The neighborhood responded with a collective fury as residents objected to an influx of public housing families.

It culminated in a confrontational public meeting where Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged to revisit a 1996 federal housing consent decree intended to remedy decades of racially segregated housing in Baltimore.

Queale, 39, began with concerns close to home - a family would have moved into a vacant house next door to the Hamilton bungalow where she lives with her husband and three children. But she eventually came to support the idea - and worked hard to ease a racially divisive crisis.

For her grass-roots leadership in supporting peaceful integration, Queale was honored with a Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. 2002 Fair Housing Award last week, along with Northeast Good Neighbors, the group she co-founded with Michael Bardoff.

The idea of public housing residents moving next door "got me started, made me start thinking about what are people afraid of," said Queale, a Vassar College graduate and physical therapist married to a doctor.

Neighborhood fears led nine homeowners to put their houses up for sale in the fall of 2000. Soon after, O'Malley faced a hostile crowd at a local school demanding that he stop the plans.

"I felt bad for the few black people who were there" because of the ugly language used, Queale said. "People came out flabbergasted at the heavy racial overtones."

Isaac J. Neal, 65, who is black, was at the meeting. He was a plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that sparked the consent decree and was slated to move to Hamilton.

"I lived in East Baltimore all my life, and I have never seen anything like it in my life," Neal said, describing the mood as "mean-spirited."

A retired school custodian and community volunteer, Neal, his wife and three sons live in Patterson Park in a Section 8 house and are waiting for the chance to move.

A lasting friendship

At the meeting, he and Queale began a friendship. "Ike really educated me about the history of public housing. He showed me I would love to have him be my neighbor," Queale said. "He really opened my eyes."

For his part, Neal said, "Ms. Queale is a fantastic person, and great to have on our side. I'm glad I was able to help her see public-housing residents in a different light."

The high-rise Lafayette Courts, where Neal's family lived before it was demolished in 1995, "looked like a prison," he recalled. "There was no place for children even to sleep, and people used cupboards and closets. We want something better for our children, and need some space, grass, oxygen."

Early last year, emboldened by conversations with Neal about his lack of opportunity, living on minimum wage and relying on public transportation to get to work, Queale approached church leaders in her community with a petition asking that the city comply with the consent decree by finding 40 homes for public-housing residents, but not concentrating them in one place.

She presented a letter with 450 signatures to O'Malley at a community meeting in March of last year, although the mayor had already announced a decision to scrap city plans to relocate 10 families to Northeast Baltimore homes.

The city recently paid $1.1 million in legal fees in connection with the case, but has not complied with the decree, which has a deadline of this Dec. 25.

`Humanizing influence'

Barbara Samuels, an ACLU lawyer, said there was an irony to Queale's experience. "She met the man who probably would have lived next door, and they connected person to person, citizen to citizen. It was a humanizing influence."

Queale said resettling the Neal family is foremost in her mind. "I will not rest until that man and his family have a better place. There's so far to go."

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