Violence dims area's progress

Two killings shake rebuilt east-side complex

February 21, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun Reporter

The Clay Court apartments, subsidized housing once known for open-air drug markets, had taken a turn for the better in the past two years, with the help of a new owner, extra security guards and a nearly $5 million infusion for renovation of the rundown buildings.

But the violence of the past caught up to the East Baltimore neighborhood this week - two men were killed within 24 hours in the same block on the eastern edge of the complex near Broadway and Gay Street in the shadows of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

One man was gunned down about 1 p.m. Sunday on Branch Water Court; another was shot in an alley on the same street late Monday morning.

"It doesn't seem to be a bad neighborhood, but I have my fears, and that's natural," said Velma Price, 57, who stopped to visit a relative at a Clay Court apartment while walking to her job at a senior citizen center. "It's a better neighborhood from what it used to be."

Sgt. Ted Friel, head of the Eastern District's gang intelligence unit, said Clay Court and the surrounding neighborhood saw a decrease in property crime last year and had not been troubled by violence recently.

"The neighborhood is really working more in helping us," Friel said.

It seems that the troubled neighborhood has turned the corner. On the east side of Broadway, workers drive dump trucks each day along dirt patches where old rowhouses once stood and assemble new buildings along Broadway - early signs of an east-side biotechnology park steadily rising above once- crumbling rowhouses in neighborhoods overrun by drugs and violence.

Longtime residents were relocated to make way for the planned development of science buildings, residences, stores and parkland that is expected to take more than a dozen years to complete.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen churches in the area survive - and fight for the souls of young men caught up in the illegal narcotics trade. The street crime - fueled by drug dealers and young gangs - keeps many residents looking over their shoulders.

On the west side of Broadway, the effort to rebuild Clay Courts was completed in October 2005. City officials and representatives of the companies that own and manage the complex cut a ribbon to mark the completion of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment that included fences and security.

Baltimore police sent officers on foot to patrol the streets. Last year, police maintained a heavy presence in the neighborhood, racking up overtime. But that money is no longer available, and the department has cut back. The foot patrols were cut.

But after the two killings this week, an officer has been sent to again walk Clay Court. A police spokesman said that homicide detectives are investigating the possibility that the killings might be part of a drug-related turf war.

Greg Gossard, project development manager for Hampstead Companies, a San Diego-based real estate development firm that specializes in affordable urban housing projects, said his company learned about the shootings yesterday, and it was taking measures to improve security. The company is adding daytime private security patrols and talking with city police "to figure out what we can do better with them," he said.

"It's very atypical since we took ownership of the property," Gossard said of the crimes. He said the company has a "no excuses" policy for tenants, who have been evicted when they were convicted for felonies. "We understand it was somewhat of a problem property before we took ownership of it," he said.

In his role as a deacon at New Friendship Baptist Church, across the street from the Clay Court Apartments, Melvin Townes, 57, has seen the neighborhood evolve over the last decade. The retired city Department of Public Works superintendent said he is seeing a "renaissance," fueled by the Hopkins redevelopment. But the challenges for the neighborhood remain.

"We still have some of the same problems that need to be addressed," Townes said. "I think city officials are doing a pretty good job, but there's always room for improvement. I come from a time when you had recreation centers that gave the kids more avenues."

Two blocks south, the Rev. Gregory R. Maddox of the Faith Baptist Church, in the 800 block of North Bond St., said he and his parishioners are constantly trying to persuade the youth who deal drugs in the neighborhood to choose a life off the corner. Maddox said he tells them there is no future in drug dealing.

"Better to work at McDonald's and live, than be out here slinging - and die," Maddox said.

As of yesterday, one of the two slain men had been identified by police. Sunday's victim, David Frasier, 29, lived three blocks east of where he was found dead - in the 1000 block of Rutland Ave. Two stuffed animals wedged into a wrought iron fence marked the spot yesterday where Frasier fell after being struck by bullets.

The second body was found in the alley behind a rowhouse owned by a real estate investor who is in the midst of refurbishing the property for resale - a common scene in the neighborhood.

The men were shot near the back of the I Love This Corner Deli, a mini-market at Broadway and Eager Street operated over the last decade by Nancy Song and her husband. Song said thieves have used the vacant rowhouse next door to break into her building more than 10 times.

Fearing potential robbers, Song posted a sign on the front door that warns people to not walk into her store wearing winter masks.

"A lot of my neighbors are scared. They are very scared," Song said.

Still, Song remains optimistic. Construction workers were standing atop a half-finished building across the street, with the Hopkins hospital complex looming nearby.

"We expect the future will be better," Song said.

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