Fight to take back streets can't be forgotten

This Just In...

October 25, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

I DRIFT UP to Preston and Eden again, the firebombed, Formstone Dawson house, and I think it should be turned into a shrine -- a memorial to a martyred family who in the first years of the new century died in the civil crusade for a better Baltimore. We could put up a memorial to Angel Dawson, her husband and kids, and I would go for an engraving about the price of liberty being eternal vigilance, something otherwise reserved for the headstones of soldiers.

George Orwell said the price of liberty is actually "eternal dirt," and there are thousands and thousands of white stone crosses and Stars of David marking graves around the world to back it up. There are also memorials to police officers, who died in the line of duty. But now I am thinking, in the crisp October air on the day of the large funeral, about what we need to say about the Dawson family, how we should remember them, and how we must keep them with us as we move on from here. The Dawsons died in the line of duty, too.

Angel Dawson, this woman we did not know until her violent death, took being a citizen seriously. Police say she was killed -- and her children and husband with her -- in retaliation for her confrontations with drug dealers and other losers outside her home.

But you know that already.

What you might not fully appreciate is the fact that this home was in a neighborhood in the halfway world between the old, tired, beat-up, drugged-up Baltimore and the new, finished-with-no-good Baltimore that Martin O'Malley has in his Irish-American eyes when he speaks with all that passion about breaking the back of crime in this city.

He didn't campaign for mayor with a promise of bringing more tourists downtown.

He did the smart and good thing and spoke of making simple neighborhoods of the old palatinate safe again.

That's all he said, and repeatedly: Make neighborhoods safe and livable, bring a new wave of civility and security into places that had been left to the drug dealers and their killer-enforcers, and you start to re-establish the old neighborhoods -- the ones not yet hip and "discovered," the ones with families of modest means and kids in them -- and other things follow.

Maybe a contractor comes in and renovates more houses. Maybe a church gets a new day care center going. Maybe someone opens a small business. Maybe a developer opens a shopping center. Maybe you start to see more owner-occupied houses. Maybe there are fewer homeless, aimless and unemployed lumps loitering up the streets all day. Maybe children are no longer afraid to walk past them to school. Maybe you start to see flowers growing in pots on front steps.

Maybe the good feelings, the hope and the enthusiasm spread a block either way.

All of this -- in little bits and pieces, and in long rows -- can be seen in Angel Dawson's neighborhood. It's not a lost Baltimore 'hood. It's not one of those dead zones where only the scavenger dogs roam. The Dawsons lived in a place with promise -- and probably because of the vigilance of Angel Dawson and people like her.

We can't forget that. We can't forget them. There have been wakeup calls before. We've had plenty. The most memorable was a few years back, in the opposite part of town. Fools with guns opened fire in a barbershop a block or so from Hollins Market and a little boy, waiting for his birthday haircut, died in the cross-fire. There were stuffed-animal memorials for days. The city howled in despair over the death of the child. Remember?

And the gun violence continued.

I know: We are all busy with our own lives, with our own neighborhoods. Maybe it's impossible for the rest of us to do anything about what goes on in those halfway, wanna-be neighborhoods like the Dawsons'. But we can give this our concern and our vigilance, our phone calls and e-mail, and we can support a whatever-it-takes effort to make this part of Baltimore right again. Simply, there needs to be a mustering of manpower and money to help the city break the chains of drug addiction and violence.

It would have happened long ago had there been the political will and leadership, had wealthier jurisdictions appreciated the emergency.

The effort that went into stopping the Beltway Sniper was necessary and impressive.

But thousands of Baltimoreans have lived with the same kind of fear for years, and they deserve the same measure of political and police power to bring relief to their lives and save their neighborhoods. Maybe now they'll get it.

O'Malley is the man to muster it.

In 1999, he stepped forward and offered real action to make up for years of complacency in the leadership of the city. He was a young man who said, "Bring it on." The burdens of being mayor of a city with so many problems shifted easily to his shoulders in 2000.

But he must have felt the full weight of it all, finally, this past week, since the fire that killed the Dawsons. We all need to reach in, in some way, somehow, and share the weight.

I like the idea of a memorial to Angel Dawson and family at Preston and Eden. But I like better a citizenry that never forgets and stays as vigilant and as outraged and as finished-with-no-good as Angel Dawson was.

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