Residents upset over area's decline

Turners Station appeals to Balto. County for help

July 14, 2002|By Brendan Kearney and Jonathan D. Rockoff | Brendan Kearney and Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

With a pride of place that comes with their decades of homeownership, some longtime Turners Station residents fondly recall the bustling community of old, while shaking their heads at signs of their beloved neighborhood's decline.

Pointing to potholes in roads, deteriorating sidewalks, abandoned and dilapidated houses and waist-high weeds, these residents blame county officials for assuring them that the problems will be fixed, but then moving so slowly that little has been done.

Although small in comparison with complaints of city neighborhoods just a five-minute drive away on Interstate 95, the concerns reflect the lingering heritage of a once-thriving black community whose blue-collar residents worked the steel mills at Sparrows Point and patronized neighborhood shops, a theater and semiprofessional ballpark.

"We had everything you could ask for in Turners Station, and now there's nothing," said Jean Stokes, who moved to the neighborhood four decades ago when her husband took a job at Bethlehem Steel. "We, as old residents, would like to keep our community. We don't want it to go down."

Baltimore County Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., who represents the neighborhood, said the county removed trash last year behind the Fleming Community Center and has secured $3.5 million to revitalize Dundalk, including Turners Station. He said the county will use the money to fix the roads and sidewalks, remove the weeds and beautify the community, but planning for those repairs takes time. "We're not forgetting Turners Station," Olszewski said. "We're actually spending a lot of time and resources."

Olszewski, who has participated in trash cleanup days in Turners Station and joined in prayers at meetings of its neighborhood association, knows the source of residents' impatience well.

"You can tell by riding the trucks with residents and going to homes -- you can just see that close-knit togetherness and pride in their community," he said.

Originally the homestead of a guano exporter and then a stop for a railroad lugging steel, Turners Station reached its heyday as a black enclave in the 1940s and 1950s, when the steel mills operated at full capacity and their many African-American employees crowded locally owned groceries, lounges and pharmacies. Calvin Hill, a former Dallas Cowboys football star and the father of basketball player Grant Hill; Kweisi Mfume, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr. all grew up amid the narrow houses or apartments that hug the close-knit community's arcing streets.

Louis S. Diggs, who is writing a history of Turners Station, said it was one of the few areas where blacks who did not want to live in Sparrows Point could own a house.

Residents, Diggs said, had long been interested in neighborhood improvement -- in the 1940s, parents established a library for their children before the county agreed to take it over. He attributes the current clamoring for improvements to that longstanding interest in upkeep.

But the task may be more difficult now, Diggs said, because older residents have left and many children have not returned, at least in part because of the decline in the steel industry. So outsiders have moved in, and "they don't have the love for the community and the cohesiveness that older members have," Diggs said.

Longtime residents, he said, are "trying very, very hard to come back. But right now, they're sliding backward because people are leaving."

One complaint centers on land underneath transmission lines behind Carver Road operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Some residents said the utility has not mowed and trimmed the trees on the green strip, which BGE owns and lets residents divide into herb and vegetable gardens.

Sharon Sasada, a spokeswoman for BGE, said the company told residents this summer and last that if they want to keep their gardens they should maintain the land themselves because the utility's mowing tractors would destroy the plots.

But residents focus most of their ire on the county.

"We feel like the stepchildren of Baltimore County," said Deanna Fleming, the 60-year-old president of a neighborhood group, Community Association -- Reclaiming Turner Station for Christ, who believes the county should move more quickly to repair the problems.

Chief among the concerns are the waist-high weeds that have infested fields at Fleming Park along the water. Residents also complain about roads that haven't been paved in years, the need for new sidewalks and abandoned houses whose poor conditions pose a hazard to children.

"The community is neglected," said Keith Jeffries, a 38-year-old who is one of the few residents to leave Turners Station and then come back. Jeffries expressed frustration that the county has not yet removed the thicket of weeds that obscure waterfront views from his house.

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