On a suburban street, crime and blight reign

Anne Arundel: The modest community of Pioneer City strangles on violence and neglect, as the forces of order struggle to gain the upper hand.

September 22, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt and Rona Kobell | Laura Barnhardt and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The day is made for going barefoot and spoiling dinner with ice cream cones. Eighty degrees and sunny, the afternoon is greeted on Arwell Court with open windows and children's laughter.

But the drone of a distant lawn mower is shattered by loud pops of gunfire.

When four bullets pierce the upper body of a 21-year-old convicted drug dealer, the happy shrieks of children riding bikes momentarily stop. Anne Arundel County Police Officer T.J. Smith speeds up in a patrol car minutes later to find dozens of people - from toddlers to grandmothers - mobbing the street.

In the middle is Marcellis Anderson, lying on the pavement, bleeding and shouting, "I can't feel my legs."

Two girls start shoving each other directly above the wounded man's body, which - in addition to adding to the chaos - threatens to taint evidence. They seem to ignore the possibility that the latest shooting victim in Pioneer City might be taking his last breath.

This street violence - a scene re-created from the detailed descriptions of witnesses and police - is just one example of the problems in Pioneer City, a community of about 1,500 people. The worst violence is on Arwell Court, statistically the most dangerous and arguably the most troubled street in the county.

Within sight of expensive new neighborhoods on the county's western edge, this web of weary brick townhouses remains untouched by the wealth, safety and order that surround it. These few blocks in Severn look as if they were plucked from a tough inner-city neighborhood and set down in a cornfield.

For years, concerned residents and local authorities have fought to revive the community, and they have succeeded in reducing major crimes. But their struggles show that even in an affluent county such as Anne Arundel - home to the state capital and million-dollar waterfront mansions - confronting poverty and its related problems can be maddeningly difficult.

A review of court, police and property records, census data and dozens of interviews in the community shows:

A person is nearly twice as likely to be a crime victim in Pioneer City as in any other part of the county, even among the most violent neighborhoods. About one out of every five shootings and homicides in the county since 2000 have occurred on Arwell Court.

Although Pioneer City is within walking distance of Fort Meade, Army officials won't allow soldiers or their families to live there, in part because of its reputation as an open-air crack cocaine market. The government no longer redeems Section 8 rent subsidies on Arwell Court for the same reason.

The homes are infested with rodents, rife with housing code violations and otherwise neglected by absentee landlords. Nearly eight out of 10 homes on Arwell Court are rentals.

Arwell Court, a street that stretches the length of two football fields, has more than a dozen police officers and social service workers monitoring everything from banned pets to probation. The cost to taxpayers exceeds $500,000 each year, an analysis of county and state crime budgets shows.

Life has improved in some ways in Pioneer City - the number of major crimes dropped by 60 percent over the past five years. But many efforts to change this neighborhood have faltered.

For example, on several occasions over the past decade, county authorities and community groups have sued a landlord who has a history of renting to criminals and letting his properties fall into disrepair. Those homes remain problems.

"The situation is so complex, a lot of people don't know where to begin," says Yvonne Galloway, a neighborhood activist for nearly two decades. "We've got to make some changes. It's time for better living conditions."

Galloway, Glenda Gathers and other area residents have struggled to turn Pioneer City around, organizing basketball teams, outdoor movies and other activities.

But on the early May afternoon when Anderson is shot, change seems to be an afterthought on Arwell Court. Residents just shake their heads, commenting on the violence the way people in other neighborhoods might talk about late mail deliveries or a loud party.

Police officers are left to break up the fight between the two girls before it destroys all the evidence from the shooting.

Smith bends down to Anderson, taking the hand of the man known as "Gooch" and "Monster," telling him, "You're going to be OK."

Those who witnessed Anderson's dispute with another man - over drug territory, police say - are either long gone or only whispering what they know.

Everyone else is just sightseeing. Smith makes way for paramedics and crime scene technicians by shouting, "Anybody see anything?"

There is no better way to clear a crowd on Arwell Court. No one wants to linger and appear to be cooperating with police.

By another name

The name "Pioneer City" has been purged from Anne Arundel County's maps, as if by trying to blend it into a nearby neighborhood called "The Orchards at Severn" or by renaming it "Warfield" the problems would somehow disappear.

They haven't.

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