Memorial garden rises from ashes of tragedy

Dawsons: A peaceful spot in East Baltimore honors a family that tried to stand up to the violence of the local drug trade.

May 09, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The drug-related arson that killed five children and their parents is part of the city's history - an enduring symbol of urban terror.

Yesterday, with the dedication of a memorial garden, the East Baltimore neighborhood so shockingly victimized in 2002 had reason to hope the fire site might also come to stand for something else: perseverance and renewal.

The garden of fresh maples, black-eyed Susans, petunias and other plantings is intentionally rich in symbolism. There are seven trees - one for each of the Dawson family members who perished in the fire set by drug dealer Darrell L. Brooks. Seven boulders are embedded in the ground, intended to invoke the family's strength. The garden is full of perennials that will remain green even through trying winters.

The corner garden is directly across the street from the rowhouse where the family members died, providing a counterbalance of a sort. The home's charred shell is a reminder of the early hours of Oct. 16, 2002, when, authorities said, Brooks kicked open the door, doused the front hall with gasoline and set it on fire.

Brooks said he set the blaze to punish the Dawsons for "snitching" on drug dealers. Records showed the couple made at least 34 calls to police from their Oliver Street neighborhood between June 26 and Oct. 9, 2002.

The crime seemed to hit children especially hard, said Kenya Johnson, a teacher at the Stadium School, a charter school on Northern Parkway, whose sixth- and seventh-grade pupils developed the idea for the garden. "They just wanted to do something positive," she said after a dedication ceremony that included an appearance by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

When the 12 middle-school pupils arrived at the site a year ago, they found rats, gravel, debris and drug paraphernalia. "There was just trash. There were old TVs and VCRs everywhere," said Raheem Baker, 12, who was among those who helped clear the rectangular strip of earth - about 90 feet by 13 feet - and prepare the ground for planting.

Money was raised from public and private sources for the $7,500 project. The effort surprised and delighted Donnell Golden, mother of Angela Dawson, 36, who died with her husband as a result of the blaze. Yesterday, she placed a yellow ribbon around one of the new trees in her daughter's memory.

"I'm overwhelmed," Golden said as she stood near the garden's new sod. "You know how things happen, and there's no more said about it? Well, I was so happy that my family was being remembered, that they didn't die in vain."

For Golden, the garden is already a sanctuary of a sort. "I'm all right today as long as I'm on this side of the street," she said. "I can't go over there [to the house]. It's too emotional."

After the blaze, city agencies launched more than 90 initiatives to help the neighborhood. It made dozens of drug-treatment slots available to Oliver residents; went door to door to make people aware of job openings and training opportunities; installed 49 smoke detectors in private homes; and set aside $3.2 million to renovate 33 vacant properties.

Brooks received a life prison term, saying in a federal courtroom last year, "I will never forgive myself."

O'Malley said his memory of the events is still fresh. "I don't think that I will ever be the same after that tragedy, and I don't think our city will ever be the same, either," the mayor said at the dedication, which also was attended by the student volunteers and a few dozen backers of the project. "But out of those ashes, there is new hope."

In an interview, the mayor called the burned-out house "our Alamo" and said it could be a source of inspiration, not fear. By continuing to reclaim the site, he said, the city can gain momentum in the war on drugs.

One of the student volunteers, Irekka Jones, 11, agreed.

"When people pass by, I would want them to think that those were people there who stood up for their community," she said.

The dedication provided Irekka and the other students some acclaim.

"It's about time we're seeing some of the right kids on TV," Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said at the event. "You are making a difference. Let's have 1,000 of these [garden] parks around the city! Let's have 1,000 of these kids up here!"

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