Political promises, vacant rowhouses

October 21, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Druid Hill Avenue yesterday, from North Avenue down to the Union Baptist Church, a distance of about 10 blocks, you could count the abandoned rowhouses by the dozen. Each one damaged the eyeballs. There were 32 decayed houses in the 2200 block alone, and on the few blocks where life seemed to be relatively flourishing, there were bars over people's windows and doors.

You have one abandoned house on a city street, that's a block hollering for help; you have dozens along Druid Hill Avenue, and it's something God in his despair must want to tear down and start all over again.

Yesterday, this is where Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan chose to announce his run for governor of Maryland. He came to the 1200 block of Druid Hill, to the little basketball gym at the Harvey Johnson Recreation Center, which is attached to the Rev. Vernon Dobson's Union Baptist Church. This is a historic and once-vibrant thoroughfare, a place where the nation's most vivid dreams of opportunity were nurtured, and it has turned to years of considerable human despair.

This is where the Clarence Mitchell Jr. family, lions of the civil rights movement, once ran their legendary political empire. Yesterday, a few doors up from Duncan's rally, the Mitchells' old, abandoned headquarters still had a few photos of vanished triumphs on one of the walls. But there was plaster and dust all over the floor, and the ceiling was falling down. Across the street is the Lillie M. Jackson Freedom House. But boxes are scattered all around the vacated premises. There are Keiffer Mitchell campaign posters in the windows next door. But bars cover the windows, and yesterday there was trash on the sidewalk and somebody's furniture was dumped in the street a block away.

By showing up here yesterday, Duncan implies he can change such neighborhoods. But he would not be the first to say this, and then watch the words turn to dust. He was flanked yesterday by Kurt L. Schmoke, who was mayor for 12 years, and William Donald Schaefer, who had the job for 15 years before that.

During their mayoral administrations, Druid Hill Avenue descended into hell. We do not entirely blame Schaefer or Schmoke for this - there's enough blame to be passed around, including plenty of people who live in West Baltimore and have trashed the place - but the mayoral records are now a part of history, just as Martin O'Malley has been mayor for the past several years, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been governor, and the dying continues.

Blame isn't the point. Duncan arrives out of Montgomery County, and gives a nice speech about turning around "urban blight." But in all the places like Druid Hill Avenue they're numb to grand language, and they wonder whether he noticed all the abandoned houses here, or the furniture tossed into the street.

"For the past six years," he told about 75 people gathered yesterday, "we've had a majority minority school district [in Montgomery County], and our schools are among the best in the nation. We took on urban blight in Silver Spring, and today it's a community that is vibrant."

Silver Spring was about as close as he got to mentioning the troubles of Druid Hill Avenue, but the modest crowd sent up some pretty good cheers. They liked it when he talked about the awful cost of a college education, which has gone through the roof in the Ehrlich years. They liked it when he said public schools are his top priority.

This is a community, after all, that once knew Thurgood Marshall intimately, and dreamed of a day when public schools would not only be racially integrated but equally funded, and imagined that Marshall's Supreme Court triumph was the beginning of a brighter day in places like West Baltimore.

But now, directly across the street from the Duncan rally, you had three abandoned rowhouses side by side, and on one of the front stoops you found Delores Dennis and Ricky Garnett. Dennis lives on this block; Garnett's a carpenter who does a lot of work with the Union Baptist Church.

"What does it take to get help around here?" Dennis asked. "This is a neighborhood where addicts are shooting up in the back alleys and the vacant houses. They break into all these buildings and live in them. We all complain, but we do it to each other. What do we have to do, organize a march to get these politicians to pay attention?"

"Go down here a few blocks to Martin Luther King Boulevard," Garnett said. "Look how they changed that. All those high-rises that came down, all that new housing. Look at those neighborhoods where they had dollar houses. Why can't somebody try dollar houses up here? You have people who own their homes, that's when you have people taking care of their neighborhood."

From North Avenue down to the Duncan rally yesterday, you could count about 100 abandoned homes. You could also count drug traffic as one of the causes, and families with absent parents, and poverty that crosses generations. The politicians all say they want to change this, and some of them actually mean it.

Yesterday, the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., assistant pastor of the Union Baptist Church, said it was good to see Duncan in the neighborhood.

"Symbolic events like this are nice," he said. "The question is, will he come back next week?"

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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