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.
The gathering just north of 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.
So far this year, violent crime is down in Oliver, officials said, though property crime is up — in part because burglars are stealing copper piping and contractors' tools from construction sites.
As part of the initiative, State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein has assigned an attorney in his office to specifically handle cases involving crime in Oliver, prioritizing the prosecution of criminals who police and other officials say have an outsized negative impact in the community.
A bolstered police presence will be a major component of the program this week, officials said at the command briefing, attended by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and district and local commanders. There has been a recent bump in juvenile crime, and officers will be out enforcing curfews, officials said.
"We're going to reclaim this community," said Lt. Col. Darryl DeSousa, the area commander.
DeSousa said the focus on pairing law enforcement with substance abuse treatment will make the efforts particularly successful.
"It's a public safety phase and it's a health phase," he said. "Collectively, we're going to join phases to bring the neighborhood back to where it should be."
Maj. K.D. Matthews of the city's Eastern District said as the department was preparing for Tuesday's event, narcotics arrests were made in the 1700 block of N. Broadway.
"We're taking the right guys off the streets," Matthews said.
DeSousa said the visibility of officers in the neighborhood might scare off criminals only temporarily, but efforts — including new bike units ready to patrol starting this spring — will continue.
"They'll probably duck and hide," he said of Oliver's criminal element. "But that's not going to stop us."
Officials encouraged department heads and other stakeholders to track their actions to be included in an "after action report" chronicling the successes and failures of the event.
The focus on Oliver, in East Baltimore, comes at a time when West Baltimore is seeing the city's worst violence. This year, there have been 11 murders in West Baltimore and six in Southwest Baltimore, compared to just three in East Baltimore.
When asked why the city is focusing on Oliver when recent violence has been more pronounced across town, Rawlings-Blake said she is focused on solutions that will serve the entire city, and that efforts to address crime in other neighborhoods aren't suffering because of the Oliver initiative.
If the pilot program goes well in Oliver, she added, it could arrive in West Baltimore soon.
"We're putting all the resources on the table so people aren't slipping through the cracks," she said. "This is a 'one Baltimore' solution."
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