Two sides of the street, but one problem bedeviling both

CRIME BEAT

January 25, 2009|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Orchard Street is the dividing line.

On one side is Orchard Mews, a subsidized townhouse development built in the late 1970s.

On the other side is Seton Hill, home to some of Baltimore's oldest rowhouses, built in the early 1800s and tucked away in a maze of narrow alleyways.

They share a proud history that dates back to the days of the Underground Railroad and the Orchard Street Church, built by a former slave, and a compact area bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Pennsylvania and Druid Hill avenues.

The people who live in Seton Hill complain that the drugs, crime and violence emanating from Orchard Mews keep their historic enclave from becoming the "French Quarter of Baltimore City."

The people who live in Orchard Mews say they are for the most part good people trapped by gunmen and drug dealers who live elsewhere.

An undercover Baltimore police detective was shot Friday trying to make a drug buy on Orchard Street. One bullet grazed his chin; another shattered his jaw. Police raided a townhouse on the street yesterday and recovered two handguns. Three people were arrested.

Police Commissioner Frederick L. Bealefeld III said the suspects were not strangers to the area. "They ran into a house in that block," he said yesterday. "They were holding guns in that house. ...They live around here."

Yesterday, a choir warmed up in the historic Orchard Street Church, their booming voices escaping to the cold street. Amid a brief shower of snow, two homicide detectives slowly checked the sidewalks and gutters, lonely figures on an otherwise deserted street. Black boots swung from an overhead power line, marking drug turf.

Melva Smith, the property manager for Orchard Mews, opened her office in the aftermath of the shooting. She defended the neighborhood as solid and respectable, but not without problems. "We're having some difficulty with drug dealers, like they have all over Baltimore," she told me. "We are working hard to make the area more livable. We have many good people here trying to raise their children."

But Karen J. French, president of the Seton Hill Association, complained that the owners of Orchard Mews have refused to hire security guards. She said meetings with management elicit promises but no results. Now they've hired an attorney to press for change.

Smith wouldn't comment on whether security has been hired, saying that to confirm one way or another it could endanger lives. But she did accuse Seton Hill of refusing to help pay for the guards. Members of the Seton Hill Association told me they shouldn't have to pay to keep the residents of Orchard Mews safe.

But the two sides are not completely at odds.

They agree that crime is a problem and that something needs to be done.

They agree that the cul-de-sac at one end of Orchard Street should be demolished so the street can connect to Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs perpendicular to it. French and Smith each said that would help police more easily move about the neighborhood.

And they agree that a portable floodlight put up by city police several months ago to light up the cul-de-sac needs to be fixed. Back in December, I wrote about how drug dealers cut the wires and broke the light. The city fixed it, and the drug dealers broke it again.

Finally, city workers told police it was a lost cause and they wouldn't fix it anymore. The Seton Hill Association complained that the city had surrendered to drug dealers.

French said the floodlight was put back Dec. 19. "And of course, it hasn't been working for the last week and a half," she said yesterday.

Orchard Street may divide Seton Hill and Orchard Mews, but the two communities are inextricably linked. When the occupants of the quaint rowhouses on Tessier Street take out their trash or retrieve their morning paper, they are steps from where the officer was shot. They can't avoid the boots dangling from the wire above.

Smith told me she's signed up her management company as a business member of the Seton Hill Association. And French said, "Most of us more recently, at least members of the board, have felt we should encompass the reality of the neighborhood."

That means expanding their reach beyond the "historic boundary" that ends halfway down Orchard Street.

The reality of the neighborhood is that there really are no boundaries. The drug dealers won't stop at a historic marker, and the people on both sides of the streets deserve a safe place to live.

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