Hoping to keep troubled adolescents out of detention facilities, state officials have drawn up plans for a new juvenile center with tutoring and activities in the Old Goucher community of . As an alternative to being locked up, juveniles would be exposed to arts and crafts, drum lessons and poetry.
The building they chose seemed ideal for their purposes - large rooms for activities, outlets for computers and major roads leading to its central location.
But when authorities unveiled their plans to the neighborhood, they encountered outraged residents, who say the area is already jampacked with 40 other social service agencies within a four-block radius.
"Enough is enough," said Shannon Cassidy, 31. Within a few blocks of her home on Maryland Avenue are a drug rehab center, an unemployment office and a soup kitchen. The sidewalks are often strewn, she said, with trash bags and cigarette butts, and crowded with vagrants. "I want a community. I want neighbors. Make it stop," she said.
Cassidy and about 40 other residents argued their case Tuesday in a heated meeting with Kenneth C. Montague Jr., state secretary of juvenile services.
Montague, flanked by five department officials, tried to win the crowd over by explaining the center's purpose.
The Juvenile Day and Evening Reporting Center, he said, is part of a larger effort by the Department of Juvenile Services to focus on helping troubled adolescents with programs rather than keeping them in detention. "The thinking is that if we keep children out of detention it increases the chances they'll stay out," he said.
Modeled after a program in Chicago, the center would provide tutoring and programs for juvenile offenders while they await court appearances.
This year the state began its first two centers, in Prince George's County and in Baltimore on Druid Park Lake Drive. The Druid Park building, however, can only accommodate about six children at a time, said program officials.
Looking for a larger site, they turned to Old Goucher - picking a building in the 2200 block of Maryland Ave.
But within a one-block radius of that location are six social-service agencies, residents pointed out, including a rehab center for drug addicts.
"If you're trying to positively influence these kids, why of all places did you pick here, an area visited by recovering drug addicts, people on parole and mental health patients?" Cassidy asked.
According to the Old Goucher Community Association, about 40 social-services providers lie within a four-block radius from the center of the community - 20 of which are mental health clinics and drug rehabilitation centers. Combined, they bring in more than 5,000 patients, parolees and visitors a day, the association says.
"It makes no sense to plop a juvenile center in the middle of this neighborhood," said Jennifer Martin, president of the community association.
At the meeting, juvenile service officials said they chose the Maryland Avenue site because it suits their needs perfectly.
"Other houses needed too much money to renovate," said Gladys Inman, a state capital planner. A key part of their decision was the fact that the neighborhood "is generally a central location with major routes and public transportation."
"You are not the first to come up with that conclusion," Martin responded, pointing to a blown-up map of the neighborhood dotted with social-service agencies. "The state seems to think because we're a central location, we're the only place in Baltimore to put a social service."
The neighborhood was not always filled with social-service agencies, residents say. It was once known as a niche market of printers, architects and photography stores. As social-service agencies moved in, however, businesses moved out, said Frank Jannuzi, a resident and co-director of the Old Goucher Business Alliance.
The community began to turn around in the late 1990s by forming the Community Benefits District with a special taxing authority for property owners.
"There was a lot of effort and money put into this," Jannuzi said. "We want to be known for other things, not just as the mecca of social services."
Feelings of mistrust
An atmosphere of mistrust permeated Tuesday's meeting, much of which, residents say, is left over from a similar fight last year to prevent the state from renovating a probation and parole office located across the street from an elementary school.
Community groups argued that the office brings crime to the area and is a bad influence on schoolchildren. Residents filed and lost a lawsuit and came away convinced that state officials cared little about their concerns.
This time around, residents are especially suspicious of the juvenile service officials' claim that the proposed juvenile center will serve only 15 children in the nearly 9,000-square-foot building.
"That's a lot of space. You say 15 now, but what guarantee can you give that there won't be more later?" Jannuzi asked.
"What guarantees do you want?" Montague answered.
"What kind of guarantees can you make that would be worth anything?" said resident Beth Bullamore. "You say 15 now, but what happens in a few years when you may not even be in office anymore? What are you going to guarantee us then?"
'A futile meeting?'
As the meeting ended, some residents said that they felt the state officials had not really come to consider their pleas to look elsewhere.
"Is this a futile meeting? Have you already made up your minds?" asked Sandi McFadden, director of the neighborhood's Franciscan Youth Center.
On Friday, juvenile justice officials confirmed they were awaiting a confirmation date to bring their proposal before the state Board of Public Works.
"It's always important to listen to what the community has to say," said department spokesman Wendell Phillips. "But at this point, we are not considering any other sites."