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.
(Page 5 of 6)
"The most stable organism in the community is the church," says Pastor Prentice. "We'll be here when everyone else is closed down."Skip to next paragraph
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At first, Operation Oliver circumvented such networks and relationships. The veterans took immediate action, without holding community meetings, developing site plans, or seeking consensus. They saw this as a strength.
"That's what I hate about Baltimore – well, I guess anywhere. They'll create a task force to talk about trash," says Blake. "And the question is: When is anyone going to actually pick up any trash?"
The volunteers did – quickly, and with much media fanfare. This rubbed local leaders the wrong way. Mr. Pully saw their approach as arrogant. Now vice president of the Oliver Community Association, Pully says Operation Oliver leaders hadn't shown enough respect for neighborhood elders and the struggle they've been engaged in for decades.
"When they're saying: 'You're preventing progress,' well, you're walking on my back," Pully says. "That doesn't sit with me well at all."
Melvin Russell, commander of Baltimore's Eastern District police, puts it more bluntly. He says many community leaders thought the veterans came off as "jerks."
Volunteers see a number of possible sources for this frustration. "I think the reason there's been some pushback is that the rapidness with which we changed so much exposed what they hadn't been doing all these years," says Blake. "If we can come in for five months and remove 70 tons of trash and plant 100 trees, what were you doing for the last 20 years besides having meetings and singing on street corners?"
It's not unusual for the energy that veterans bring to postmilitary work to cause resentment. "Co-workers feel like: 'Hey, man, you're making us look bad,' " says T.L. McCreary, a retired Navy rear admiral and president of Military.com, an online resource for service members.
But Johnson thinks the problem wasn't just Operation Oliver's speed – it was their lack of diplomacy.
"We've stepped on a lot of toes, but we're trying to do better. That's not the way to do business," he says. "But I also think we had to show them first that we meant business."
Over time, the volunteers have come to see Oliver's churches as potential allies, and drug violence and medieval living conditions as their larger, mutual enemies.
In March, a group of Buffalo State University students helped the veterans clean a massive dumpster's worth of trash from the house of longtime Oliver resident Dave Hollins, an elderly man who lives with his granddaughter, April Cherry, on Lanvale Street. The two had been confined to the top floor of the house by old furniture and clutter, rodent infestation, and rotting floorboards on the first floor. Their kitchen is unusable. A hole in the wall lets in rats and the elements.
Volunteers spent a day clearing debris and animal carcasses out of the living space, though the city still considers the house too badly damaged to attempt repairs. Operation Oliver is trying to scrape together funding to tackle the most urgent needs.
On their walks around the neighborhood, Johnson and Landymore check in on the family. On a recent evening, Ms. Cherry marveled at how much the cleanup had changed their lives. "Sometimes I just play my music upstairs and come downstairs and dance," she says. "[There's] all this space."
As their focus has shifted somewhat, from park and alley cleanups to individual residents and their struggles, Operation Oliver leaders have softened their tone and cultivated closer relationships with Zion Baptist, the Eastern District police, and others.
"Some of the living conditions we've seen here have made us cry," says Johnson. "We've got people living like [they were in] Bosnia here."