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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Residents put gates on alleys to shut out criminals

The rear alleys in the communities surrounding Broadway in Southeast Baltimore typically conjure up images of rats, litter or worse — not of a playground for children.

Yet on a recent summer night, 3-year-old Stevie Benchoff hit a wiffle ball off a tee on his family's back patio into the open alley, then climbed a jungle gym that runs from their property to the one next door. His parents' biggest concern is the possibility of a skinned knee.

Down the alley, older girls played basketball. And neighbors streamed through J.D. and Molly Bowen's refinished carriage house to grab a drink and catch up on the day.

A decade ago, longtime residents say, this alley was a haven for drug use and prostitution. Fed-up residents banded together to shut the T-shaped alleyway off from the rest of the neighborhood with a locked gate — illustrating a movement that is spreading to neighborhoods across Baltimore.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to this block," said J.D. Bowen, a construction superintendent. Without it, "I don't know if we would've stayed in the city after we had a child."

The city has 600 miles of alleys, public rights of way used in most neighborhoods for trash pickup or parking. But the idea of gating these spaces has been gaining traction and has the support of the Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, which recently introduced a bill in the City Council to streamline the process.

"We want to see it for the appropriate neighborhoods," said Steve Sharkey, director of the Department of General Services. "If people in the neighborhood want it, and the city agencies and utilities are accepting of it, we do want to see it happen."

The changes in Baltimore come amid a national movement built around greening and revitalizing alleys and other underused spaces.

On the west side of Manhattan, an unused rail bed was transformed into an elevated linear park called the High Line. In Cincinnati, the neglected Five Points Alley in Walnut Hills now hosts "pop-up biergartens" and family gatherings. A Detroit neighborhood has been cleaning alleys, replacing the concrete with permeable asphalt, lining them with flowers and shrubs and adding low-energy lights.

But many of those efforts are focused on increasing foot traffic and use, not restricting it.

The Baltimore legislation that allows gating was sparked by a nonprofit's push to improve community greening. Ashoka, which is based in Alexandria, Va., came to Baltimore in the mid-2000s with an initiative to help residents green their alleys. Kate Herrod, who led that effort, said Ashoka didn't have gating in mind when it pitched the program; the city also didn't allow gating unless it was initiated by police.

But residents insisted on it, Herrod said.

"They said, 'We're not going to improve the alleyways only to have them ruined by people.' The alleys were viewed by residents as vectors of crime, and the only way to make them [safe] was to gate them," she said. "There were some alleys police wouldn't go down. They'd tell stories of the utility company doing work on the power lines while somebody is breaking into their truck down below."

Herrod's group helped get state legislation passed in 2004, and that led to a city ordinance in 2007 allowing the gating of alleys.

Currently, residents must get 80 percent of their neighbors to sign off on a project. The new bill would reduce that to 75 percent.

Even if neighbors agree, the process is laborious and can be prohibitive in cost. Residents must buy the gates, which cost thousands of dollars. The city also requires residents to pay for lock boxes so the Fire Department, Comcast and Baltimore Gas and Electric can have access; those boxes cost several hundred dollars.

Councilman Nick Mosby said that when he was president of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood association, residents agreed to gate an alley that adjoins a rejuvenated park to deter illicit activity but they were stymied by the cost.

"It's not easy for every community to just write a check for five, or six, or ten thousand dollars," Mosby said.

Seema Iyer, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore who studies the city's neighborhoods, sees mostly positives from gating alleys.

"The fact that 80 percent of your neighbors can actually get together and agree on something signifies a pretty good thing," Iyer said. "We are living in an urban setting, and if we're smarter about our own security but can also make it very livable, it feels like a good sign of social cohesion."

For John Piwowarski, gating the side alley next to his home is decidedly about keeping people out. He has lived on the northeast corner of Eastern Avenue and South Broadway for more than 20 years, but in recent years, problems in the alley became so pronounced that he bought a security camera system to record what was happening.

The results were worse than he thought. He said he has video of people urinating, defecating and using drugs.

"It's been a real emotional roller coaster with these cameras," he said. "At times, I've been very frustrated and angered and want to find the person who [defecated] on the side of my house. It's disgusting — or can be humorous, depending on your mindset."

On a recent day, a man was sleeping on the ground just outside the alley, which opens to a vacant lot on Broadway.

There's little police can or are willing to do, he said. "They just tell them to move on, make them pour out their beer," he said.

Piwowarski would sometimes confront people.

"It was to the point that he'd almost get locked up because he'd get so fed up," said Ed Marcinko, a neighborhood leader who has been helping Piwowarski through the gating process.

Piwowarski estimates that he's been trying for two years to get the alley gated. He needed a neighborhood sponsor and approval from 11 of his 13 neighbors to meet the city's 80 percent threshold. But one neighbor uses the rear of his home as his main entrance and wasn't keen on having to unlock the gates to get there.

Piwowarski eventually persuaded the holdout, but is still working through the gating process with the city, seeking approval for a building permit. One cost estimate for the gates put the project at $4,900. He hopes neighbors will chip in, but understands that he might have to shoulder the cost himself.

For Piwowarski, the appeal of living close to the city's bars, restaurants and shops has given way to extreme frustration with crime and grime. But he thinks the gate will relieve that stress and help restore his love of the city.

"I kind of kick myself. ... How come you waited 20 years before you finally did something about it?" he said.

Gate proponents face an array of roadblocks beyond the lengthy process with the city. Residents have had concerns about having to shift trash collection from the alley to the front of the street. In Reservoir Hill, Mosby said, some concerns were based more on principle — "They felt like it was a way to restrict people from the neighborhood," Mosby said.

Clifton Brown, a 28-year-old Ashburton resident, feels the same way. "I think it creates divisions," he said. "It makes it seem like we're almost becoming this society where we collectively share this world but want to be separate from each other."

Stephanie Streb sees it as a matter of security and a way to bring her neighbors together. The Bolton Hill resident's home was broken into from the rear last year. It happened during the day — a time she normally would have been home. But that day she was running an errand.

The burglar took jewelry handed down from her great-grandmother, items collected during travels across the world, and pieces she had designed herself, in addition to electronics and a flute.

"It was devastating emotionally," she said.

Her block consists of more than 20 rowhouses, each with long back yards with parking pads or garages. Streb's pending gating project would not consume the entire alley, just an L-shaped cut-through at the end of the block that snakes behind a handful of homes, connecting the east and south sections of the alley. It serves no real purpose now, she said.

"It's a junky, dirty, filthy alleyway that has trash cans and broken glass," she said.

But Streb is effusive when thinking about the potential for the space once it is blocked off. Neighbors might knock down their fences and install a bike rack.

"We could have chickens," she said. "It's exciting to think about a space you can do stuff with."

Like other gating projects around Baltimore, cost is an issue. Streb is familiar with applying for grants, and she and a neighbor have been working to secure money. She said she's willing to stick with the process even if it takes years.

The number of gated alleys in the city is unclear. Several projects predate the city's formal tracking system or were not sanctioned, said Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman. The city does not take enforcement action on such gates unless formal complaints are received, he said.

Ashoka, the nonprofit that helped kick-start efforts here, once claimed that hundreds of projects were in the works. The city's list of such projects since 2009 shows just 18; many are still in progress and few fit Ashoka's original goal of creating green space. They mainly appear to be focused on security.

Herrod, who worked to get the legislation passed, still hopes the city or local groups will create incentives to encourage residents to use the gated space for green programs. "Maybe over time they can become more about beautification," she said.

In Upper Fells Point, the Bowens have converted an 1890s carriage house into what could best be described as a man cave. It features a big-screen television, leather couch and neon beer signs. It leads to a patio where they grill and serve drinks. It's a far cry from the night J.D. chased a prostitute from the alley with a fire poker.

Kass and Aaron Benchoff, whose kids play in the alley, said many of their friends have moved to the suburbs.

"To me, this is like living in the suburbs," said Kass, who works at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Asked if people should have a right to pass through alleys, the residents are unequivocal.

"We have a right to quality of life," Molly Bowen said. "More families would stay if they had a protected place."

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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