Veterans' new fight: reviving inner-city America
How some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are helping turn around a drug-infested neighborhood of Baltimore – and themselves.
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Lawrence Pully, who moved there as a kid in the 1940s, is one of them. "I remember scrubbing those steps," he says. He and his friends got paid for it, sometimes in pennies and nickels, sometimes in empty soda bottles they could exchange at the store.Skip to next paragraph
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In those days, Oliver was a working-class African-American community with a thriving business district. Then, in April 1968, riots consumed the city after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The arson and looting got so bad that National Guard troops marched up Oliver Street to restore calm.
The neighborhood never recovered. Crack cocaine moved in, then heroin. Residents who could, fled, leaving whole blocks abandoned. The "Hamsterdam" episode of "The Wire," in which police try to reduce crime by essentially legalizing the drug trade along certain streets of vacant homes, was shot there..
In 2002, an Oliver family with five children was burned to death in their home after the mother confronted local dealers. Money poured into the area, and a playground and children's center now memorialize the family. More recently, an alliance between a local ministers' group called BUILD and The Reinvestment Fund, a Baltimore nonprofit group that invests in distressed neighborhoods, has been working to build and rehab subsidized housing in the southeast corner of Oliver, near Johns Hopkins Medical Center and a planned biotech park.
Mr. Johnson, who grew up in a Baltimore suburb, had never really spent time in the city before moving there. "So I get to Baltimore as an adult, and I'm like: 'Who dropped the ball here?' "
He started beautifying the couple's little piece of Eden, planting trees and flowers and introducing himself to neighbors. He also met Dave Borinsky, who had invested in rehabbing his house. Mr. Borinsky was starting Come Home Baltimore, a for-profit development firm in the neighborhood, which was paired with a nonprofit foundation of the same name. The mission of the two organizations is to rehab vacant homes for sale, while helping current residents tap into assistance programs to fix up their own.
He and Johnson hit it off, and Borinsky hired Johnson to lead the foundation. But Johnson's overtures to local leaders, who were wary of outside developers, met with frustration, and he was looking for a new approach.
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When Johnson met Blake, the 6th Branch leader was organizing a service day through another nonprofit, the Pat Tillman Foundation. The impulsive pair clicked immediately and held the cleanup in Oliver. Standing on the back of a pickup truck at the end of a successful day, they committed themselves and their organizations to turning the neighborhood around.
Resident Donald Morton saw the project unfolding through the back window of the Oliver Street home he has shared with his mother for half a century. He went out to help, and became a convert.
"I never seen that many women come down and do that kind of work," he says of the volunteers. "That kind of pumped me up. They were swinging axes and everything."
Sitting on his stoop on a recent evening, Mr. Morton remembers, as a kid, watching Army tanks roll up the street to quell the riots. He also recalls the dark decades that followed, when the place was crawling with drug dealers.
Things are much quieter today, he says: "Now, the most I have to deal with is my mom."
Since the first cleanup Morton helped with last July, nearly 2,000 volunteers – mostly college students from the Baltimore area and farther afield – have come to help in Oliver. They and veteran leaders have planted more than 100 trees and shrubs, pulled over 65 tons of trash out of lots and alleys, and helped elderly residents empty their homes of more detritus.