Under heavy rain on a beat-up street in East Baltimore Tuesday, the heads of city government kicked off an intensive, weeklong program designed to address violence, drug trafficking and other stubborn problems that have plagued the Oliver neighborhood.
The program will feature increased police patrols and a door-to-door campaign to connect drug addicts with substance abuse treatment and struggling homeowners with much-needed services to keep them in their homes.
Johns Hopkins Hospital launched a blitz of resources in Oliver — which the city has targeted as much for its potential as its problems. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she hopes the program could be replicated in other troubled areas of the city.
"If it's broken, let's try to fix it. We've got four days to make it happen," said Bob Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, during a tented command briefing in the 1300 block of N. Bond St., which will be closed all week.
City officials bumped elbows in a crammed operations tent with emergency commanders and police brass, community activists and former military members.
They spoke in the parlance of natural disasters or five-alarm fires, when officials have the authority to deploy city resources to address immediate, critical needs. They mentioned action plans, boots on the ground and rounding up bad guys.
By all outward signs, a state of emergency had been declared in Oliver — one aimed at addressing the destruction of violence and drug trafficking, which have persisted in the neighborhood despite grass-roots efforts to combat them.
Residents can get help filing their taxes, information about child care, immunizations and HIV testing, lessons on making healthy food choices and legal advice at a community fair this weekend.
The Public Works Department will be storming the community to clear debris and help homeowners fix property damage. The Transportation Department will review the neighborhood's infrastructure and consider traffic improvements.
"If we can make this work," Rawlings-Blake said, "this is a model we can take throughout the city."
Outside the tent, there were telltale signs of a neighborhood long at war with the drug trade — the vacant homes and boarded-up windows, the residents passing quickly past the teenagers loitering on corners.
"If I just live to see our area get back to what it was — this used to be a gorgeous area — I'll be happy," said Lycina Brothers, 80, who has lived in Oliver since she was 6 years old. "What they're planning to do in this area ... I can't get over it."
The effort comes on the heels of similar initiatives in the neighborhood. In Operation Oliver, volunteers including retired military service members and local college students logged hundreds of hours whacking down weeds, clearing out trash, painting murals, providing job training and launching a farmers market.
A number of blocks in the neighborhood have already been transformed through public and private programs to renovate vacant homes and draw residents. Two years ago, 327 of the impoverished area's 1,195 properties were vacant, housing officials said. Now, 236 are vacant — a nearly 30 percent decrease.
Despite the success of the programs, city officials decided a broader approach was needed, with input from as many stakeholders and city agencies as possible, because drug-dealing continues despite the progress. Dealers haven't stopped selling heroin on the corners, steps from the renovated homes, they said.
Before the event, 53-year-old Gail Binko walked along nearby North Caroline Street, headed to her apartment at the corner of East Oliver Street, where she moved at the start of this month to be closer to her daughter.
Binko, who moved from East 20th Street, said her new neighborhood is no worse than her last, but she's still getting used to it and won't open her door to anyone. Her daughter lives in one of the neighborhood's newly renovated homes a couple of blocks away, she said, and likes it well enough.
"Except for the shooting that's been going on," she said. "She didn't like that at all. I told her to keep her face out the window."
Last year, there were nine homicides in Oliver, eight non-fatal shootings, two rapes, and four arsons, according to CitiStat data. There were also 28 other incidents involving firearms, including aggravated assaults, and 17 incidents involving knives. There were more than 300 other assaults, robberies, burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts.