Baltimore City

Oliver initiative produces results, but leaders say work continues

The quiet at East Federal and North Bethel streets in the city's Oliver neighborhood on Tuesday morning was punctuated only by the steady rumble of a city work crew, preparing a nearby alleyway for repaving.

Missing, said a local community organizer, Earl Johnson, were the shouts and murmurs of the young men who normally crowd the surrounding sidewalks and corners of the East Baltimore block, an area notorious as an open drug market.


"There are usually 40 to 50 people milling around. But after last week, they don't know ... when police are coming. It's kind of decentralized the drug community," Johnson said of the city's recent effort to flood the neighborhood with emergency resources. "What the city did was give us a head start."

Johnson, a leader of The 6th Branch and Come Home Baltimore, two organizations that have long been working for change in the neighborhood, was one of multiple neighborhood leaders who said the city's actions have added momentum to other efforts in the quarter-square-mile community to foster progress in recent years.


As part of the city initiative, volunteers and city employees knocked on more than 1,800 doors and made contact with more than 570 residents, telling them about a community fair on Saturday where services such as legal advice and lessons in healthy eating were provided. Four residents entered into drug rehabilitation programs. Sixty-one residents applied for rehabilitation and weatherization of their homes. A total of 113 smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were installed.

Public works crews cleared debris from 185 alleys and streets, removing about 15 tons of trash. The Transportation Department filled 49 potholes, coordinated with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. to fix 30 street lights, and painted over 60 light poles and street signs.

A total of 53 vacant homes were boarded up to prevent misuse or squatting, and 15 graffiti-covered walls were painted over.

Police officers made contact with nearly 120 people, checked on more than 130 warrants and dozens of gun offenders, and made a number of low-level arrests — while violent crime in the neighborhood dropped off almost completely, police said.

J.B. Brown, a resident of North Bond Street who was sitting on a railing outside a small liquor store in the neighborhood Tuesday morning, said the work being completed on the block has produced visible change.

"They said they were going to get on it, and they're really doing a whole lot," he said.

Still, the drug trade remains alive and well, and the neighborhood has far too many vacant homes, Brown said — not good for growth.

"This is too close to [downtown] to be looking like this," Brown said. "What if a tourist comes and they hit a back street and think, 'Oh, hell. Where am I?'"


Leaders said the battle to reclaim the community through public- and private-sector investments — and without displacing longtime neighborhood residents — is far from over, but Oliver has come a long way in recent years and more progress will be made.

"We're trying to create a narrative of a community being reborn," said David Borinsky, Johnson's partner at Come Home Baltimore, which is helping new city residents find homes in Oliver.

Officials are still analyzing data, but said early numbers show the emergency response model — which officials said uses existing city resources and doesn't require its own budget — could have potential in other neighborhoods.

"There's no doubt about it. We know we did something," said Bob Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "The key is going to be sustainability. Did we springboard, did we empower, did we prove government could be a good partner?"

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who initiated the effort, said she was pleased with early results and the beneficial "magnifying glass" the project put on the Oliver community.

"I was pleased with the way my team came together, pulling in outside resources to address the problems that have been in the community for a long time," she said.


Capt. Robert Quick, the Eastern District police operations commander, said drug dealers may just be keeping a low profile in the days following the initiative, and could return. But police are ready for them, he said.

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Violent crime is down in the neighborhood in large part because nearly 40 members of the neighborhood's largest heroin syndicate were indicted at the end of last year, Quick said, and police have identified a dozen other drug organizations operating within Oliver that they will target next.

"The question is going to be, do we find that we've displaced this activity to another area and all the sudden we're going to see drugs pop up where they didn't exist before?" Quick said. "That's clearly something that we're going to keep monitoring."

Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said the department has seen huge success in Oliver and is considering expanding tactics used there into West Baltimore, which has seen a rash of killings in recent days.

"Now in West Baltimore, we're seeing a spike in violence, and as far as the Police Department is concerned, we're going to now be directing our attention to doing some of the same things we've been doing in East Baltimore — and that's targeting some of the people who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the violence."

Maloney said the city has already eyed Cherry Hill and Park Heights for similar initiatives, but nothing has been finalized.