At home with Miss D

December 22, 2007

Who says you can't fight City Hall?

In this true-life tale, Darlene Dixon is the little gal who took on the big guys over her small plot of heaven and won. She did it with a calm demeanor and a quiet resolve. And it turns out her potential nemesis actually had a heart (along with common sense and political smarts) - and there's a lesson in that, too.

City Hall isn't exactly at the center of the story, though it did have a minor part. But it's a metaphor for every corporation, bank, utility or institution with the power and money and standing to get its way.

Darlene Dixon had, well, just Darlene Dixon, and the gumption to say no and no and no again to cash offers to sell her small brick rowhouse on Fremont Avenue. A developer was trying to assemble land for possible inclusion in the University of Maryland's biotechnology center off West Baltimore Street, and Ms. Dixon's house was in the way. She had only recently lost her husband, Henry, to cancer when the developer started banging at her door.

There were threats to forcibly take her home, and that made the newly widowed Darlene upset. Grief can hold great sway over a person's life, but the desire to keep that which you hold dear can be just as powerful. And Ms. Dixon's desire to stay put in the one house (other than her childhood home) where she truly felt at home pulled her from grief and depression and willed her to fight. They weren't easy fights to win in this day of mega-developments overtaking inner-city neighborhoods that are down on their luck.

But someone, maybe husband Henry, must have been watching over Ms. Dixon because the new biotech park owners, Wexford Science and Technology, and the university stepped in. They realized this was not a fight they wanted to pursue, and when Ms. Dixon again refused to sell her house, they took her at her word.

"She was quite clear: `I don't want to move,'" recalled Jim Hughes, vice president of research and development at UMB. "We had great relations with the community and we didn't want to take that for granted."

Now that's something: The big behemoth actually listened, and the powers-that-be set out to be good neighbors. As the glass and brick tower rose up behind the modest rowhouse, construction workers and others offered what help they could to "Miss D," and she graciously accepted. And there they are now, rowhouse and six-story biotech center, cheek by jowl.

There's a fence at Ms. Dixon's, and that's fitting, too. Robert Frost is long dead, but in a corner of West Baltimore, good fences can make good neighbors.

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