Taylor knows how difficult it can be to turn around a neighborhood.

The former teacher decided upon moving into Union Square that remaking the neighborhood would be his goal. He began buying and rehabbing the vacant houses.

But there were some problems bigger than just rehabbing houses. A drug gang named "Smackdown" ran a nearby corner.

"They were an intimidating bunch," he says.

The real breakthrough came in 2007 when Baltimore police and the Drug Enforcement Agency busted eight members of the "Operation Smackdown" gang, charging them with dealing about $20,000 of heroin a day.

With fewer dealers around, more people began to move in. And with more signs of a burgeoning community, Union Square became a less attractive place for dealers to set up shop.

Though he often worked with police, Taylor's fight for his neighborhood sometimes put him at odds with officers. In 2009, Taylor was arrested and accused of interfering with a police investigation after two girls reported to him that they were groped by a man in the neighborhood. Unhappy with what he perceived as an officer's lack of investigation, Taylor and the officer exchanged some heated words and Taylor found himself in the back to a patrol car.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge, and Taylor says the incident left him without any hard feelings toward the police department.

"Two days after, I went to officer appreciation day," he says.

Wakeman, the Fordham professor, says neighborhoods in transition not only need dedicated residents but businesses and government to get on board.

Louis Miserendino, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, thinks community leaders should be afforded the same low tax rates given to big developers. He says the current tax code removes incentive for improvement.

"If your house is in a transitional neighborhood, and you let it go vacant, your bill goes down," he said. "If you improve it, your bill goes up."

Baltimore has the Vacants to Values program, which encourage residents to buy and rehab some 700 properties, including a handful in Union Square. For as low as $3,000, a resident can buy a house to rehab in the neighborhood. Though the plan is sometimes criticized as underperforming, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has instituted incentives to bolster Vacants to Values – including $10,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance to the first 50 buyers.

'This is a nice neighborhood'

In Taylor's five years as community association president, the group has grown from about 25 members to more than 100.

"The minute you get rid of the vacants, it cleans up the community," he says. "If you have a block with 14 vacants you're going to be fighting a battle every day."

He's had help over the years.

Andrea Leahy, 46, moved in several years ago. She started giving flowers and plants for the front steps of each new resident who moved in. It's a small gesture, but it sends a message. Somebody who takes pride in her community lives here.

Other association members pass out trash cans so no one has an excuse for littering. Sometimes a new renter will begin to let trash accumulate in their area. They'll get a knock on the door and a reminder to use that trash can they got upon moving in.

One clear day in the neighborhood, Thomas Pointer, 41, a writer, and Danielle Campbell, 27, a new resident, stand outside talking with neighbors

Campbell says she thinks the neighborhood is one of the city's best. Pointer says he notices changes.

"It's a big difference. This is a nice neighborhood now," he says.

The vacancy rate has dropped from nearly 50 percent to almost 20 percent. The neighborhood hasn't had a homicide in three years.

Even with the progress, the neighborhood still has its issues.

The residents point to a corner store that stays open 24 hours a day and becomes a haven for drug users at night, Taylor says, as he picks up trash. Last month, there was a handful of property crimes. Still, he says, the greatest challenge is attracting people to renovate and move into the houses still vacant.

"It took 60 years to get this way," he says. "We're not going to fix it in five years."

Luke.Broadwater@baltsun.com
Twitter.com/lukebroadwater