Turning the corner on drugs

Urban Chronicle

Comparison: Ten years after residents took a symbolic stand, open-air drug dealing seems to have decreased at points around the city.

November 27, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

ON THE day after Thanksgiving in 1993, Stephanie Thomas was among half a dozen Barclay residents and three city police officers standing in the early evening chill at Greenmount Avenue and 20th Street.

Thomas was one of several hundred residents who made a symbolic one-day street-corner stand against drug dealers by occupying 22 of the city's most notorious open-air markets.

"I've been here since 12 noon and not one drug has been sold," she said at the time.

Last week, Thomas sat in the East North Avenue rowhome she shares with her daughter and three grandchildren, talking about how things were and how they are now.

"The truth of the matter is, there seems to be a great improvement," said Thomas. "Ten years ago, you couldn't walk down the street without running into the drug dealers. Now, you walk around the corner, you don't see anybody up there."

That decade-old event, actively sponsored by the city and dubbed "Going Out of Business Day" for its intended effect on the drug trade, was at once inspirational and ignominious.

The inspiration came from people like Thomas, standing on corners in Brooklyn and Druid Heights and Sandtown-Winchester, believing in themselves and their city before there was a slogan encouraging them to do so. The ignominy was that the event had to be held at all. "Going Out of Business Day" was a tacit admission that things were out of control. If you had to stand on drug corners to take back the streets for one day, what did that say about the other 364?

By Thanksgiving weekend of 1993, the city was well on its way to a record 353 homicides.

Drug-dealing and violence spurred abandonment, creating vacant rowhomes that were used as crack dens and stash houses, spurring more drug-dealing and violence. In the 1990s, Stephanie Thomas' neighborhood lost 36 percent of its population.

Drugs still trouble too many city neighborhoods, a fact starkly illustrated by last year's retaliatory arson that killed the Dawson family, who had reported drug dealing. But as the city struggles to get its annual number of homicides under 250, and begins to reclaim some of those abandoned properties, it's easy to lose sight of how bad things were a decade ago -- and how far the city has come since then.

Not everyone sees progress. At North Avenue and Pulaski Street, one of the 22 corners targeted a decade ago, Jerome Smith said open-air dealing was still too common. "When you see crowds of people, you can use your own discretion," he said. "You know it's not a bus stop."

He looked across Pulaski Street at a string of vacant buildings. "That don't do nothing but breed drugs," he said. "We're over in Iraq trying to build the country up. We can't even build up the city."

Visits to several other corners that were part of Going Out of Business Day 10 Thanksgiving weekends ago elicited more positive comments -- and more visible signs of progress.

At North Avenue and Rosedale Street in Walbrook, also on the west side, Phillip Brown said he has seen a change from his Uptown Barber Shop in a run-down commercial strip. "You have some drug dealers, but not like it was," he said.

One thing that has helped was moving a bus stop that used to provide cover for dealers; another is more aggressive policing. Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark "can't stop drugs from coming in, but he's interrupting them," Brown said.

Deep in South Baltimore, around the corner of Hanover and Barney streets, drug dealing seems to have been gentrified away, with planters and baby carriages outside tidy rowhomes and the few vacancies undergoing renovations.

One of the most drastic physical transformations has occurred at Fayette Street and Fulton Avenue in Franklin Square, a block from the setting of The Corner, the incisive David Simon-Ed Burns book that chronicled life on an inner-city drug corner.

On one corner of the intersection is the Bon Secours Family Support Center, which opened in 1998; on another, trees have been planted around the perimeter of a large lot where vacant rowhouses once stood.

"You used to have crowds of dozens of people. Now you don't see a lot," said George Kleb, executive director of the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation, who has worked in the area since the 1980s. "Dealing is definitely still there. It's much less out in the open. From a quality-of-life standpoint, I think there's a palpable improvement."

And most everywhere, there's room for more of the same.

At Greenmount and 20th, boarded buildings blight the intersection. Stephanie Thomas' 10-year-old granddaughter, Summer Proctor, recently won a school contest for an anti-drug essay.

"In my neighborhood, I want to see kids playing ball, jumping rope and riding bikes," she wrote. "Instead, I see drugs sold on the street corners. I hear the sirens of ambulances, and police cars knowing something has happened."

"Drugs are still are a problem," Thomas agreed. "They're not eliminated. But it's better than it was."

On this day, that's something to be thankful for.

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