Turnaround elusive for gritty Greenmount

May 10, 2007|By Nicole Fuller and Gus G. Sentementes | Nicole Fuller and Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporters

After dark on Greenmount Avenue, around 8, a few addicts, their gaits jumpy, scour Mund Park - "the square," as people there call it - looking for a fix.

The dealers are there, too. Eye contact. The head nod. And they walk away from the courts where groups of young men play basketball - just far enough to avoid the view of the police camera affixed to a nearby pole, its blue light flashing.

It's a scene not too different, if more muted, than in years past, when police swarmed this grim thoroughfare, says Marlowe Bellamy, 58, who knows well the Barclay and Midway neighborhoods that make up this pocket of East Baltimore.

As city leaders embark on yet another plan to attack relentless crime in struggling neighborhoods, this area - once a focus of Baltimore law enforcement efforts - stands as a lesson in unmet promises and the difficulty of achieving a permanent turnaround. While residents talk of improvements and the future, violent crime is on the rise. Already, robberies, assaults, larcenies and burglaries are close to surpassing last year's totals or have exceeded them in Barclay.

"You take away the problem of crime by coming and arresting everybody, but the problems don't go away," says Henry H. Brownstein, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Chicago and former professor at the University of Baltimore. "What do people do for jobs? For housing? For food? It doesn't help to just shut it down temporarily. There needs to be a comprehensive solution."

Years ago, Bellamy owned a small market across from the square, near East 23rd Street. Though the store is long closed, a sign advertises "fresh baked bread" for 69 cents. Bellamy used heroin, he says. And he sold it, too. The square used to be the spot for a "cop and blow," he says, a fast deal.

That was before "the raid," as it is still called by the folks that live along this five-block stretch of Greenmount from North Avenue to East 25th Street, the 1994 bust dubbed Operation Midway, then considered by police as one of the most daring, in-your-face operations in the city.

`The raid' and after

Thomas C. Frazier, then the city's police commissioner, hailed the sweep as a defining moment, proclaiming: "We took the worst, most dangerous, most violent area of town and went in and, in fairly short order, cleaned it up, took it back and held it."

Thirteen years later - after two mayoral administrations and three police chiefs - Mayor Sheila Dixon and her commissioner, Leonard D. Hamm, are again trying to eradicate rampant drug dealing and violent crime. This time, the city is targeting sections of Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore and McElderry Park in East Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Greenmount Avenue, once the city's highest-priority hot spot, where police had plucked more than 60 dealers in a public show of force - remains a troubled and depressed place.

"They made a clean sweep," says Bellamy, a slight man who tops his silk shirts and slacks with a straw hat and is known by nearly everyone in the area.

This stretch of Greenmount Avenue is plagued by an abundance of empty storefronts, liquor stores and abandoned rowhouses. He says police made a serious dent in drug dealing back then, but it never completely went away, probably never will.

In interviews during two days last week along Greenmount, residents, community leaders and police say the days of a vast open-air drug market that ravaged the neighborhood in the 1980s and early '90s, when the area was at its worst, are long gone.

But what has hampered this community for so long - high unemployment, boarded-up houses, killings, drugs - has never really left.

So far this year, Barclay has logged three homicides, compared with four all last year. Last year, five people were killed in East Baltimore-Midway, two within blocks of Greenmount. This year, the neighborhood has not had any homicides, police statistics show.

Struggling on

But residents are still in need, holding on to hope, still waiting for promises made in 1994 to be fulfilled.

A line of women and men snakes from the R.E.A.C.H. Mobile Health Services trailer, in a lot across from Freewill Baptist Church in the 400 block of E. 23rd St. On weekdays the trailer is there from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Recovering addicts come for methadone. Mobile drug treatment facilities have operated there since about 1991, says Carol Butler, the director of service programs at R.E.A.C.H., which treats 480 people at the site, about half of whom live nearby.

"What the workers tell me, when we are there, the dealers stay out of the area, but as soon as we leave, they come out of the woodwork," Butler says. "It's terrible that you have someone who wants to receive treatment, then has to wade through drug dealers. I think it's pretty bad in the neighborhood when we're not there."

Baltimore police officer Adrian Amos, assigned as a neighborhood services liaison to the area, says he's worked there for the past 10 years and thinks the streets have gotten cleaner and drug dealing has abated.

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