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.
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."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"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.
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."
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."