A TORCHED rowhouse has come to signify the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver. Charred windows, memorial teddy bears on the house steps, a police cruiser parked out front, all graphically represent the scourge of Baltimore's drug trade, a family's courageous stand against it and a city's impotence in the face of evil.
In the days since last month's murders of Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children, politicians have decried the attack as the work of urban terrorists. National media have remarked on citizen apathy. This newspaper has asked, "What does it take to mobilize a community in Baltimore" against the evildoers and for a better life?
The Oliver community has been trying to do just that -- but it can't do it alone. A short walk from the Dawson rowhouse, beyond a block of renovated brick rowhouses, there stands a newplayground opened last spring. The playground is as relevant to a discussion of Oliver's present as the Dawsons' burned-out rowhouse. It's as relevant to community reaction to the arson-murders -- grief, outrage and resolve -- as to the city's response to them.
Why? Because the community lobbied the state to clear a glass-strewn lot where drug dealers sold their poison and to build a playground so kids would have a safe haven.
And there are other examples. Six churches have joined forces to redevelop more than 200 abandoned properties. When drug dealers threatened a member of a Caroline Street church a year ago, congregates rallied to escort the woman home.
As drug dealers eased their way onto the corners of this once-thriving blue-collar neighborhood, fear followed. Apathy isn't what ails this community; it's the reality of a decade or two of decline. Vacant houses, about 500 or so, mark block after block. Efforts to acquire properties from absentee landlords or the city drag on for years. In seven years, five different commanders have led the Eastern Police District.
Oliver is not the darkest of the city's dark corners. A recent police review of Baltimore's 14 toughest crime areas found Oliver not to be among them. Pastor Calvin Keene of Memorial Baptist Church, Principal Lucretia Coates of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School and grandparent Ethel Armstead are working to keep the dark forces at bay. With strong roots in Oliver, they are committed to its viability. They live every day with Oliver's problems and know what it needs: redevelopment of vacant houses; a new relationship with the police; activities for youths; a community-wide economic development plan.
When word of the Dawson fire reached City Hall, Mayor Martin O'Malley and his aides must have known the effect the arson-murders would have on the city. Fear and despair would replace any sense of belief that there was a better life ahead. Since then, police are re-deploying to clear drug corners in Oliver, serve outstanding warrants, recover guns, improve lighting. The health commissioner has reserved 50 drug treatment slots for Oliver addicts. The city is fast-tracking the renovation of 35 vacant houses it owns in Oliver.
But Oliver isn't the only neighborhood at risk. Its residents aren't the only citizens questioning the wisdom of confronting dope hounds on their stoops. At the Dawsons' funeral, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris quoted a line from Shakespeare's Coriolanus: "What is the city but the people?" But a people alone cannot make a city livable. People expect from their city and institutions a commitment to sustained, deliberate action. Then, to quote from Coriolanus, "action is eloquence."