The word of the week, "hope," was written on a whiteboard for East Baltimore students — part of an after-school program on the site where an arsonist killed Angela Dawson, her husband and five of their children a decade ago. The children who come to the Dawson Family Safe Haven won't run into trouble like that, organizers say, not if their plan works.
"Standing here now you can hear children laughing and talking," said Pamela V. Carter, a former city councilwoman who runs the programs in the home that was set afire by a drug dealer in retaliation for Dawson's complaints to police. "Out of that tragedy you can hear something positive."
The center is a sign of progress in the Oliver neighborhood, which on Oct. 16, 2002, saw one of the worst acts of witness intimidation in Baltimore history. But echoes of the attack still linger, as Oliver and other sections of the city continue to struggle with the problems of drugs, violence and uneven cooperation with law enforcement.
Memories of the blaze — and suspicions of arson — also are rekindled when the city confronts a deadly fire. Last week, a woman and four children died in a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse fire, and some neighbors worried about the possibility of arson, even though fire investigators said that was not the likely cause.
After the Dawson fire, the city seized on the idea of raising Oliver, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the family's home. The housing department spent more than $1 million to rebuild the structure, and other city agencies sought to combat underlying problems of poverty and substance abuse. Police and prosecutors, meanwhile, vowed to toughen up on people who intimidate witnesses.
But residents continue to struggle in Oliver, a small neighborhood tucked behind Greenmount Cemetery.
Recent U.S. Census estimates show that more than 48 percent of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line, an increase of five percentage points since 1999. Many others left; the area's population fell by a quarter between 2000 and 2010.
There have been eight homicides in Oliver this year, more than in any year since at least 2007. Even as children studied at the Dawson center, a teddy bear strapped to a lamppost marked the nearby spot where Yarndragus Stanton, 26, was gunned down in July. His killing has not been solved.
In such neighborhoods, police and prosecutors often confront a wall of silence when they investigate crimes.
"Sometimes you'll go to a shooting and [people will] know exactly who shot them but they won't tell us," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
More than anything else, the Dawson killings showed how far Baltimore's drug rings would go to retaliate against someone who interfered with their operations. The Dawsons had called the police or the city 109 times between 2000 and 2002 to report drug activity, according to court filings. Dealers fought back, mounting a campaign of intimidation.
After numerous confrontations, Darrell L. Brooks kicked down the door of the Dawson house, doused the home with gasoline and set it ablaze. Angela Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson, jumped from the building and died in the hospital a week later. One of Angela Dawson's daughters, Lakeesha Bowell, then 18, was not home the night of the fire and survived, but five other children died in the blaze.
Henry Rogers, who did maintenance work on the house, said the family did not have a chance once Brooks set the home alight. "The fire just caught quick," he said.
Brooks was convicted on federal charges in 2003 and is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.
"Nothing changed," said Brewer, who lives on East Oliver Street. "We just got poorer — a lot of us went to jail."
After returning, she found that she was "more at war here than I was in Iraq."
Still, there is evidence of positive change. Crews are at work renovating some of the neighborhood's vacant houses — there are nearly 1,000. And as he looks down the hill from where the Dawsons lived, Deputy Housing Commissioner Reginald U. Scriber said the streets were never as clean 10 years ago as they are today.
His department spends $270,000 a year to run the Dawson community center and is proud of the investment. The program is intended to help children with their studies while keeping them away from the temptations of the streets.