Where despair has long ruled, a community looks for new hope

March 24, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The neighborhood newcomer and a neighborhood old-timer - Peggy Smallwood and Ernest Smith, respectively - stood at Lakewood Avenue and McElderry Street, in front of a boarded-up rowhouse, next to a trash bag spilling rotted food onto the sidewalk, steps from where pieces of yellow police tape still clung to a sign post.

This was within sight of the spot where two Baltimore police officers were shot and wounded Sunday while making a traffic stop, and where the gunman died in the return fire. But Smallwood looked beyond the blight. She cast her eyes south on Lakewood and on the faded marble steps of once-grand houses that first rose in the 1920s and seem to stretch all the way to the harbor.

Smallwood recalled a newspaper article written 14 months ago that described the 44 blocks that define East Baltimore's McElderry Park, east and south of Johns Hopkins Hospital, as decaying. She keeps the clip on her desk at work, a stark reminder that the community she adopted three years ago suffers an image problem.

"It's not the houses that are decaying," said Smallwood, who moved into a newly rehabbed rowhouse that had once been boarded up and missing its front steps. "It's the spirit of the people that is decaying."

Smallwood and Smith, the association president who has lived in the same house for 20 years, are new officers of the McElderry Park Community Association, a group they said had done little in the past few years.

A community notorious for crime went from August 2007 through January 2009 without a single homicide - a remarkable 17-month stretch - only to watch the situation deteriorate last year. There were three killings between May and July, and three more people were slain within a block of neighborhood boundaries. Sunday's shootings added another blemish to an already troubled community.

And as happens in blocks and communities around the city, the people of McElderry Park are seeing a resurgence of attention in the aftermath of what Smallwood described as a "tragedy for the officers."

But out of the shooting Smith and Smallwood hope to build again. They are planning April 1 to open the not-for-profit McElderry Park Community Association Resource Center in a long-vacant building on Montford Avenue. There will be a job training center, counselors to help released convicts find work and settle into a productive life, and computers for training and for residents to go onto the Internet.

Smith said they are trying to get the city to turn over vacant houses so they can be refurbished and sold. The two community leaders know they have a daunting task - the crime, the trash, the rats, the vacant lots, the drugs, the despair. It's overwhelming.

"It beats you down," Smith said.

But looking up Lakewood, Smallwood said that she doesn't see blight: "I see hope. I see promise."

There are two community gardens off McElderry, one on Port Street, the other on Rose Street, both tended by residents. They are green oases where rowhouses once stood and where the sales from drug dealers and prostitutes were so brisk that Smith said "customers were literally climbing in and out of windows."

Now, the gardens produce flowers that the city takes and replants in median strips and along roads from Brooklyn to Roland Park - beauty coming from the unlikeliest of places, the back alleys of the city's drug trade. But Smallwood and Smith are adding more gardens, which they see as proof that even this neighborhood can produce something positive, something that others can enjoy.

Smith credits city police with keeping loiterers and drug dealers off the streets and the corners, and laments threatened budget cuts that could ground the police helicopter, which she said lights up winding and dangerous alleys that don't have streetlamps.

The rejuvenated association has scheduled the community's first Citizens on Patrol walk, the signature outreach program of Baltimore's police commissioner. But Smallwood doesn't like the acronym or the name. She's doing a POP walk - Parents on Patrol.

"Parents are the key," she said.

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