Neighbors gather to build hope

Oliver: Hundreds celebrate a multimillion-dollar initiative to renovate the blighted neighborhood.

October 18, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Several hundred people gathered at a church yesterday to share a dream of a better Oliver, the blighted East Baltimore neighborhood where seven members of the Dawson family died in an arson fire two years ago.

But whatever their dream for the future, the afternoon had already been marred by violence - a fatal shooting two blocks from the church.

No one spoke of the shooting during the 4 p.m. rally at Memorial Baptist Church, where the group was celebrating a multimillion-dollar initiative to rebuild the neighborhood.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, the caption on a photograph in yesterday's Maryland section misstated when seven members of the Dawson family were killed in a Baltimore arson fire. They were killed two years ago.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Many had not yet heard about the crime, which occurred about two hours earlier. Jonathan Colbert, 20, a former resident of the neighborhood whose current address was unknown, was shot several times as he stood in front of a house in the 1400 block of E. Preston St., and died a short time later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

By the time residents, activists and elected officials began trickling into the church at Caroline and Preston streets, police had taken down the yellow crime-scene tape nearby.

Instead, the people were greeted by the voices of children from the Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School choir. Ushers handed out round yellow stickers to wear. They read: "Fight Blight."

The event was organized by several local churches that are part of the citywide social action group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. The group, known as BUILD, has raised more than $1 million and taken control of about 200 abandoned properties in Oliver, where more than 40 percent of homes sit vacant. They are to be torn down and replaced with new, affordable homes.

When people had filled the sanctuary and an adjoining overflow room, the Rev. Iris Tucker, pastor of nearby Knox Presbyterian Church, asked them to remember the Dawsons - Angela and Carnell Dawson Sr., and their five children - who died in an early-morning blaze set at their home, also in the 1400 block of E. Preston.

A drug dealer pleaded guilty last year to setting the fire in retaliation for the couple's repeated calls to police about local drug trafficking.

"One year ago, we met in this sanctuary and made concrete promises to reclaim ... and rebuild," Tucker said. "It's check-in time, to see if we have enough money to get started."

People cheered as representatives from six churches walked up to the pulpit with oversized checks symbolizing the amount of money they had collected for the rebuilding effort. Donations from the churches ranged from $8,000 to $600,000.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings told the crowd he was moved by the outpouring of funds.

"These were hard-earned dollars," the Baltimore Democrat said. "When we go back to Washington, we can say that the community already has invested in itself. It gives us more power to do more for you."

Cummings and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced that they have $600,000 in federal funds for the neighborhood. The money makes up 30 percent of an economic development grant earmarked for an extensive redevelopment project north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, not far from Oliver.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said he has requested $2 million be set aside for Oliver in next year's state budget. Douglass Austin, Baltimore's deputy housing commissioner, said the city will provide $400,000 in demolition funds and donate 100 properties that it controls.

People were upbeat as they filed outside to witness the bulldozing of an abandoned house a block from the church - a symbolic kickoff to the effort, which activists and religious leaders say is going to require a lot more money than they have.

"It's wonderful. A long time coming," said Oliver resident William Keene, 57, as he watched a dilapidated wooden addition to the rowhouse come crashing down.

Former resident Sylvia Cooper, 53, who attends church in the neighborhood, said she thinks BUILD's efforts will succeed like efforts have in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where 700 affordable homes have been built in the past 15 years.

Not everyone in the community was aware of the rebuilding initiative. Lo Elliott, who has lived in the 1200 block of N. Caroline St. for more than 20 years, was skeptical when he learned of the project.

"Ain't nothing going to change," said Elliott, 43, who was sitting outside his house when he heard the gunshots that killed the man yesterday.

But his sister, Monica Conigland, 37, said tearing down the vacant houses is a first step toward ridding the neighborhood of drug dealers and addicts. "You got people [squatting] in these vacant houses here," she said. "If they tear them down, they'll move out."

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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