In West Baltimore, renewed commitment to memory of slain 6-year-old girl

Residents get damaged memorial rebuilt, see hope in troubled neighborhood

May 10, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

It took an act of God, some wayward city snowplows and a few diligent neighbors to get Tiffany Square back on track.

Since the West Baltimore memorial was created in 1991 to honor the memory of a 6-year-old killed by an errant bullet, time had given way to neglect, and the drug dealers had returned. Then plows clearing last year's double-dose of heavy snowfall inadvertently crumbled the colorful but fading retaining walls.

For Mable Gordon and other residents, enough was enough. After months of hounding city agencies, they got the help they needed to repair the memorial, and on Tuesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was on hand for a "rededication" celebration.

"This means a lot to my family — it lets us know that what happened to my daughter wasn't in vain," said Tiffany Smith's father, Troy. "What happened to her brought a community together."

The memorial is a triangular patch of ground at the confluence of three streets just off North Avenue in the Northwest Community Action neighborhood. It was originally a flower garden, then was surrounded by retaining walls covered in tiles with sayings such as "God is Love."

Envisioned as a public meeting place, neighbors retreated as crime persisted. Vacant buildings abound in every direction, from shuttered businesses to once-elegant homes that now sag behind boarded windows and out-of-control weeds.

"The drug dealers chased them out," says community activist Bernard Pittman.

But residents at Tuesday's event said they are more hopeful than ever. In the fall, Pittman said, a long-awaited multimillion-dollar development project is set to begin one block away on North Avenue, which neighbors hope will be the catalyst that spurs more redevelopment.

"All of this around here," Pittman motioned with one hand, holding news clippings and photos in the other, "we're gonna develop all of it."

Debra Hurst is the landlord of an enormous former school building that was transformed into apartment units several years ago, and she said she feels the momentum.

"We're definitely in the early stages of a transition," Hurst said. "The community really cares, and they really want the community to thrive."

Her building was overrun with drug dealing and gangs when she purchased it, and she said those issues persist in large part because of the high vacancy rate.

"We need to be vigilant about keeping [drug] activity out of the building, and, in turn, I need to try to get good people into the building," she said. "What's stopping us in a lot of regard is the vacant housing. When people come by, they don't want to live in a community with a lot of vacant properties. So it's a struggle."

Tiffany Square sat damaged for a year after the plows destroyed the memorial walls, with resident Georgia Payne doing her best to keep it free of trash. Gordon said her Citizens for Community Improvement group decided that more needed to be done.

She first called 311 and "got the runaround," then went to the Department of Transportation, then got sent to the city law office. "I didn't understand that," Gordon said of the latter referral.

When Rawlings-Blake visited the neighborhood for a community walk earlier this year, that's when the ball started rolling. Residents praised Robert Branch, a Department of Transportation employee who they said helped them get new concrete blocks and bricks erected for a new retaining wall, as well as fresh dirt where one day flowers might grow again.

Gordon says she's hoping to find local artists or students to decorate the bland gray bricks. Until then, a few red-white-and-blue wrapping-paper bows hang from the trees.

In addressing about 40 residents on Tuesday, Rawlings-Blake listed a number of crime-related initiatives, such as a bill passed in Annapolis to tighten sentences for gun offenders, and her effort to hire 300 new officers. Ultimately, she said, what happens in the neighborhood around Tiffany Square will be dictated by the strength of its residents.

"It's important that all of us never forget what happened here," Rawlings-Blake said. "She was an innocent victim of random gun violence. While we know we can't bring her back, we can pray and continue to remember her … and we will continue to redouble our efforts to make sure nothing like this happens to another of our young people in Baltimore."

Tiffany would have been 27 years old this year. "She could be a doctor, a lawyer, someone saving our neighborhoods," said City Councilman William "Pete" Welch, whose daughter is the same age. "But she's not here. … It's just heartbreaking."

The shooters who traded gunfire that day, meanwhile, both served out their sentences. One of them recently returned to the community, Pittman told residents, vowing to improve his life and expressing remorse for the shootings. The other has been in and out of prison, most recently locked up after Anne Arundel County police say he used a box cutter to steal a cellphone and an MP3 player from an Annapolis store.

For Troy Smith, now 46, moving out of the neighborhood was a necessary step. Though he now lives in the Pikesville area, he said he often visits the neighborhood and doesn't believe the residents who rallied around his family 20 years ago ever gave up.

The problems around Tiffany Square are present "in every city," Smith said. "You just have to take it one step at a time, and eventually it will happen."

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