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Blighted E. Baltimore neighborhood improving, residents say

Rozeana Faulk has lived her whole life in Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood, watching as drug trafficking gripped what was once a solid middle-class community and the area decayed.

Now Faulk sees signs of hope in one of the city's most depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Some rowhouses on her block, the 1400 block of N. Bond St., have been vacant for 20 years, but now they're being rehabbed and new families are moving in. Fewer drug dealers hang out on the corners, she said. People are starting to make more of an effort to help their neighbors.

"People come back who have moved away and they say, 'Oh my God,'" Faulk said. "They can't believe the change."

On Saturday, Faulk and other Oliver residents came to the auditorium of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School on Caroline Street for what was billed as a celebration for those who have worked in recent years to revitalize the community. TD Bank, which has offered home loans in the area, distributed information on financial education and held seminars for first-time homebuyers.

In recent years, an army of nonprofit organizations has attacked the community's problems and encouraged new residents to move in. The city has poured resources into the neighborhood, with officials hoping to replicate successful efforts in other struggling areas.

But change has been slow. Large swaths of vacant rowhouses remain in the community bordered by North Avenue to the north, East Biddle Street to the south, Ensor Street to the west and North Broadway to the east. Recent U.S. Census estimates show that more than 48 percent of residents live below the poverty line, an increase of 5 percentage points since 1999.

Crime has taken its toll. Nine people were slain in Oliver last year, the highest number of any city neighborhood. And just a few days ago, authorities indicted 48 members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang, accusing some of violence that includes 10 killings. Law enforcement alleged that the gang operated around Green Mount Cemetery, on Oliver's western border.

Phyllis Smith, who grew up around the area and visits her 12-year-old grandson in Oliver frequently, has noticed a lot of change but worries about his safety. Smith, 52, hopes she can protect him from bad influences in the neighborhood, and said the biggest problem is the lack of job opportunities and recreational activities for children.

Smith said she would pray for people to be friendlier to each other. Too many people in Oliver carry anger, she said.

"We need a whole lot of holy water out here," she joked.

Efforts to turn around the neighborhood began in 2002, after seven members of the Dawson family were killed in a firebombing. Drug dealers ran an open-air market next to the Dawson home in the 1400 block of E. Preston St. and firebombed the house after Angela Dawson reported their activities to police.

That tragedy is frequently invoked by those seeking to turn the neighborhood around.

"To honor that legacy, we have to fix the entire neighborhood," said Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners, a nonprofit housing development firm that's rehabbing and rebuilding 150 houses down the street from the Dawson home.

The Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church at East Preston and Caroline streets, has worked with Closkey to raise money to buy and rehab vacant houses in the neighborhood. A good chunk of the money has come from collection plates at his church and others.

"It's huge if you look at what the community was seven years ago," Keene said. "For them to invest that money, we knew we were creating a new model."

Keene said the vacancy rate in the neighborhood has fallen to 16 percent — down from an earlier estimate that found 44 percent of the homes in neighborhood were unoccupied. New residents also have higher incomes, he said.

Alpha Germon Johnson, who moved to Oliver from Cockeysville late last year, is an example of the type of resident neighborhood leaders want to attract. Johnson, a mother of four teens, has thrown herself into neighborhood involvement, saying she's thrilled by the chance to get in on the ground floor of turnaround efforts.

"Our kids today will see the upcoming of our community," she said.

cwells@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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