One neighborhood's quest to reclaim its streets

After a Baltimore family's murder, activists debate how to wrest drug-infested enclaves from dealers' reign.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sitting on a milk crate in the sun across from the burned-out shell where seven members of the Dawson family were killed, allegedly for standing up to neighborhood drug dealers, Jetta Simpson looks down at a button on her jacket. It reads, simply, "Believe."

"It means I believe the police should have been doing their job," she says. "And I believe the Dawsons are in the right place, they're with Jesus Christ – they're in his hands now. Other than that, I don't know anymore."

Ms. Simpson's button comes from an ad campaign started last spring by a group called "Believe Baltimore." The goal is to get people in this rusting industrial city, where an estimated 1 in 8 residents is addicted to narcotics, to believe they can rid their streets of drugs. But on this block of worn row houses, many of which are boarded up, a battle over what kind of faith, if any, to have in the future, has gripped residents.

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Now, after the weekend funerals of Angela Dawson and her five school-age children, the optimists are galvanized and determined to take back their streets. But there's an undercurrent of cynicism, too, born of years of tragedies that faded in the public's mind almost as fast as news cameras disappeared. For some, it's left a feeling that nothing will ever improve.

The outcome of this quiet battle of wills could determine whether this decaying neighborhood can be reclaimed by families, local churches, and small-store owners – or whether it will continue to deteriorate, after 30 years of urban flight and neglect that made these streets ripe for drug dealers.

"I don't think anybody can predict today what [the killings'] long-range impact is going to be," says former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. "There's outrage at the perpetrators ..., but there's also a real concern that the law-enforcement establishment didn't serve the Dawson family well."

'People here are going to be scared'

Angela Dawson is one woman who did believe. Her example is now fueling both sides as they struggle to come to terms with the tragedy.

When the dealers started plying their trade near Mrs. Dawson's home, she did exactly as the police had asked. She called the precinct and identified the dealers. She even confronted them face to face. She was slapped once and had bricks thrown through her windows. Two weeks before the killings, firebombs were tossed into the first floor of her row house.

After that, Dawson asked police for protection. They offered to move her and her family to a new location. But Dawson's goal was to reclaim her own neighborhood, and she declined. Two weeks later, in the dark of early morning of Oct. 16th, a neighbor with a "drug history" allegedly kicked in the front door, doused the first floor with gasoline, lit it, and ran. Dawson and her five children died in the fire. Her husband succumbed a week later from his injuries.

It is because the Dawsons did as police asked that some here on Preston Street are now deeply skeptical. "It seems like everybody who talks to the police gets killed," says Rodney Clayborn, a construction worker who lives on the block. "I think people here are going to be more scared now."

Neighborhood in decay

A man named Jimmy with tightly braided cornrows and a few missing front teeth agrees. He contends that this neighborhood needs far more than better police protection to heal. And he points to himself as proof. He's been an addict for more than 30 years. He's tried the outpatient programs but always ends up "dibbling and dabbling" again with drugs.

"I've been trying to get into a long-term program, but I can't," he says. "I want to get help, but they don't want to give me no help because I don't got no insurance."

Mr. Clayborn agrees that more drug treatment is needed, but so are jobs and job training for the young men who linger on street corners with nothing better to do. Yet with the economy in a tailspin and huge city and state budget deficits, he's not optimistic those jobs will come any time soon.

Still, many others here in the Oliver neighborhood – and across Maryland – refuse such skepticism and are, instead, galvanized by Dawson's tragedy. A tent filled with hundreds of teddy bears, balloons, and bouquets now stands as a tribute in front of the burned-out house. Thousands of people, like James Gross who lives across town, have come by in the past two weeks to pay tribute and drop dollar bills in a bottle to help pay the family's funeral expenses.

"Enough is enough. People are getting tired of things like this," he says, shaking his head. "It could have been any of our sons or nieces and nephews."

Mayor Martin O'Malley has put out a 15-point "action plan" that includes a dramatically increased police presence and a crackdown on parole violators, as well as nurturing community involvement in crime watches and mentoring. The city also plans to turn the Dawson home into a memorial.

"That neighborhood is going to be a key for the mayor for the next year or so because of this tragedy," says Gerry Shields, a top aide to Mayor O'Malley. "It opened our eyes as to what was going on over there."

A turning point?

Activists who've been organizing here for the past four years say they're appalled that it took the deaths of a whole family to get City Hall's attention. But now that they've got it, they're determined to use it. A group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) has gone to police with a plan that would allow residents to report drug dealers to a neutral board that would, in turn, alert police. The goal is to allow residents like Dawson to finger the dealers without fearing retaliation. BUILD is still waiting for a response from police.

They also have faith that this neighborhood can be transformed into a haven. And they point to a neat, flourishing development of family-owned homes in West Baltimore that, 10 years ago, looked just as bedraggled as Preston Street.

It took community and church involvement, as well as low-interest loans and subsidies, to allow families to buy their own homes. "I'm optimistic that it will turn around here as well – but not because of the politicians and the city government," says Pastor Robert Burley, a member of BUILD whose church is here. "It's going to be turned around by the people who are beating the streets, getting trash taken care of, and vacant lots clean. It's going to get turned around by the people who live here and want to see it change."

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