New center honoring slain family `a holy place'

December 19, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

With the ceremonial ribbon just cut and its rooms mostly empty but for the scent of new paint, the Dawson Family Safe Haven Center hasn't yet become whatever it is destined to become. And yet, on its corner of Preston and Eden in East Baltimore, one thing is clear.

This is hallowed ground. This is, as Mayor Martin O'Malley repeated several times yesterday, "a holy place."

In a neighborhood with numerous boarded-up rowhouses and a police camera blinking a harsh blue eye, 1401 E. Preston St. is not an obvious Gettysburg, or a Ground Zero. But just as surely as those death-haunted landscapes have become part of the nation's collective memory, the site where the Dawson family's home was torched four years ago should forever remain in this city's shared history.

It was just over four years ago that Angela Dawson, her husband and their five children died after their home was set afire in retaliation for her "snitching" on drug dealers to the police. In a city where drearily intractable drug crimes generally have become white noise, the deaths of the Dawsons broke through like a howl.

The charred house and the vigils and memorials for the family drew thousands touched by Angela Dawson's brave if fatal stance against the drug dealers in her midst. Local and national media blanketed coverage. The city, the state and the feds showered the neglected area with money and attention - more police, more drug treatment slots, more renovations of vacant houses, more programs for kids.

Yesterday, officialdom returned to the Oliver neighborhood to celebrate the "safe haven" - a community center that next year will begin offering programs and classes to neighborhood residents - that was built on the site where the Dawsons lived, and died.

They have become secular saints in a sense - martyrs, O'Malley has called them in the past, in the city's war on crime. They weren't saints in the divine sense, of course, and surely no miracles can be attributed to them.

In fact, since the Dawsons' shocking deaths, the cynical could note numerous instances in which the lessons we thought we'd learned then have since been forgotten: I still see the occasional idiot wearing one of those Stop Snitching T-shirts. And a 38-year-old man, who despite being shot and warned not to testify in a murder case took the stand anyway and, last month, just about a mile from the Dawsons' one-time home, was shot again and this time killed.

As the philosopher Bruce Springsteen says, It's hard to be a saint in the city.

With sawhorses blocking traffic from entering the area, a crowd of schoolchildren, a group representing a drug rehab program and an entourage of officials clustered around the newly built center that has replaced the Dawsons' burned-out home.

Some things haven't changed since the Dawsons' deaths - the neighborhood remains impoverished, and some residents say it hasn't entirely shaken the drug dealers, who have been driven elsewhere.

"They're just around the corner," says Sarah Freeman. "They just moved around the corner."

Freeman, 66, was among a few from Oliver in a crowd that drew many from elsewhere. Those who knew the Dawsons can be cynical about the government's efforts these past several years - "Why is it the only time you see these big dignitaries is when something happens?" Greg Halford, 46, asks.

"They were fine people," Halford says. "That was a respected family. [Angela Dawson] was a hardworking individual who protected her home."

So they were glad to see City Council President Sheila Dixon, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and O'Malley - or "Mr. Smooth," as one resident wryly called him - back paying tribute to their fallen neighbors.

With those officials all about to transition into other roles come January, the Dawsons remain a touchstone, as they are for the city as a whole. This sense of impending change, and yet the need not to leave the Dawsons behind, gave the day an air of poignancy, and sanctity.

Maybe it doesn't have to be so hard to be a saint in the city.

"When you look at the problems that our city is confronting," O'Malley said after the ceremony, "I don't know how you do that without independent faith in God and an appreciation for the importance of making his work ours."

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