A year after an arson claimed the lives of seven Dawson family members in the Oliver community of East Baltimore, about 400 people gathered in a church a block from the charred rowhouse yesterday to remember them and pray for help in an ambitious $100 million-plus proposal to rebuild the neighborhood.
During the meeting at Memorial Baptist Church in the 1300 block of N. Caroline St., a gospel choir sang, preachers raised their voices in prayer for the cause, and community organizers showed slides sketching out their vision of new houses, playgrounds and tree-lined streets.
"I am praying for some noise in Oliver. Not the sounds of gunshots or firebombings, but the noise of trucks and construction workers coming into our community to tear down the old buildings and build up new buildings," said the Rev. J.L. Carter, pastor of Ark Church on East North Avenue, his voice thundering as he stood before a 30-foot-tall mural of Jesus walking on water.
"I hear that noise, and it is beautiful music," said Carter as the crowd clapped and stood, cheering.
Some of the city's most powerful politicians - including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and City Council President Sheila Dixon - listened to the redevelopment plan that is being led by the nonprofit organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD.
The church is just west of the flame-scarred rowhouse in the 1400 block of E. Preston St. where Angela and Carnell Dawson and five of their children died Oct. 16 after a local drug dealer firebombed it in retaliation for the family's repeated efforts to report drug dealers to police.
BUILD, which during the past decade has helped to rebuild about 500 homes in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on the city's west side, has about $1.25 million it could use to help start the project in Oliver, plus an additional $1 million committed by eight churches in the Oliver neighborhood.
But this is a far cry, according to BUILD leaders, from the more than $100 million probably needed to rebuild hundreds of homes in Oliver, which is bounded by Green Mount Cemetery, North Avenue, Broadway and Biddle Street.
An estimated 44 percent of the 2,300 properties in the neighborhood are vacant, according to a door-to-door survey conducted by 100 BUILD volunteers in June and July, said Rob English, an organizer for the group. During the next three months, BUILD intends to work with 600 volunteers in the Oliver neighborhood to create a plan detailing how many houses should be torn down and what the new houses should look like, English said.
The organization hopes to persuade leaders of East Baltimore Development Inc., which is planning an $800 million project to build a biotechnology park north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, to expand its 80-acre redevelopment zone to include all of Oliver, English said. Only about three blocks of Oliver are included.
Jack Shannon, president of EBDI, said his group has had preliminary discussions with BUILD, but has not made any commitment. "What we have been doing is talking about how to work together to create a stronger and more vibrant East Baltimore," Shannon said.
Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he would push to have any federal appropriations for the EBDI project include money for Oliver. "Any dime that comes into the biotech project, we will insist that Oliver be included in that project," Cummings said.
After the meeting, McFadden - the Maryland Senate majority leader, who lives just a few blocks away - strolled past the stuffed animals, flowers and cards heaped high on the iron porch of the Dawson home, where the windows remain boarded and black ash marks lick up the walls.
"Come back in a few years, and this will all be changed," said McFadden, glancing across the street to more boarded houses. "This meeting today gave us some real momentum. Now we have to find the resources to make it happen."