There's a block of small businesses and homes in Morrell Park where 16 surveillance cameras hang, some inconspicuously, from the sides of buildings and on utility poles.
But this isn't the police playing Big Brother to this community in the southern part of the city. It's the residents who are responsible for taping everything that moves.
"We're just trying to make our neighborhoods safer for those of us who live here," said Terry Smith, of the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council, which represents six communities along Washington Boulevard extending from downtown to the county line, which comprise a federal empowerment zone.
The communities are: Washington Village/Pigtown, Barre Circle, Roundhouse, Morrell Park, St. Paul's and Southwest.
The council's public safety committee, led by Smith, has emerged as one of the most imaginative neighborhood-based crime prevention outfits in Baltimore. And the group is doing it independent of city government, but with a lot of police appreciation.
"It's like an extra pair of eyes out there for us," said Baltimore police Officer David Milburn. "As soon as they see the cameras, if they were thinking about doing a crime, they'll think twice. And if there is a problem, we can go to the cameras and review them and help make a case."
The city operates surveillance cameras in some public areas, but this is the only Baltimore neighborhood group known to operate its own. The public safety committee operates with an annual budget of about $100,000, with the money coming from city, state and federal grants.
The blue-collar areas the council represents are troubled by pockets of drug dealing and nuisance crimes, such as prostitution, loitering and shoplifting, and occasionally more violent crimes such as homicide and serious assault.
But there is also growth in the area. Townhouses are being built off Poppleton Street. A coffee shop is opening in a stretch of rundown storefronts on Washington Boulevard. And improvements are being made at Carroll Park.
Smith thinks the area is one of the best places to live in the city, and his panel is determined to make it a safe one, coming up with creative crime prevention solutions.
A total of 48 cameras are in the community and more are planned next month. In the past year, the committee has purchased nearly 20, 7-foot-tall wrought iron gates to seal off pedestrian alleys, allegedly used as lairs for drug users and prostitutes. And the committee has bolted light fixtures to the side of buildings to brighten street corners at night.
Artists Rodney and Narda Carroll live in a converted warehouse on Clifford Street in Pigtown, a building that also contains their studio. Gates block an alley that runs between their building and rowhouses on the other side.
"We had a lot of problems with people running through the alleys at night and kids on the corner drinking, and then they have to go to the bathroom and the alley becomes their public restroom," Rodney Carroll said.
"Just by having these gates, a lot of the negative seems to have gone away," added Narda Carroll.
Residents with an alley gate behind their property have a key to the lock.
Smith, who lives in Pigtown, works from a cramped office in the council's Washington Boulevard headquarters, a converted 1920s bathhouse. He sits next to a 25-inch television monitor that beams images captured from the four cameras outside the building.
Next to him sits probation officer Charles Sydnor, who monitors probationers who live in the area - probationers who aren't supposed to move out of the community unless they tell Sydnor first. Sometimes the cameras help Sydnor do his job.
"I'm looking on the cameras one day, and right across the street I see one of my guys packing a truck about to move," Sydnor said of a probationer.
Officer Milburn, who works from the Police Department's Southern District, also has a desk in Smith's office.
Smith considers the committee's efforts, especially the cameras, as being key to the area's revitalization. However, the cameras are not networked so that they can be viewed on monitors at a central location.
"That's just too expensive for us to do right now," Smith said.
Most of the cameras are not monitored at all, and their tapes are reviewed only when used as a tool in a police investigation. The cameras' recordings are taped over every 14 days.
Crime has gone down in each of the past three years in the empowerment zone, Smith said, but it is difficult to attribute the decrease to the cameras and gates. However, the committee's efforts make some feel safer.
"These are just preventive things," said Doc Godwin, president of Hearts of Pigtown Community Association and a member of the public safety committee. "We live here. We know what has to be done, so we do it."