Baltimore City

A daring new mission for war vets: Taking on East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood

Earl Johnson's boots crunch broken glass from liquor bottles as he walks down an alley in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. He is just blocks from the site of the firebombing of a family who called the police on area drug dealers and were killed for it and just yards from some of the most memorable scenes of urban decay in "The Wire."

At his side are Rich Blake, 32, a Marine Corps veteran, and Jeremy Johnson, 34, a Navy veteran, who like Earl — who is no relation — are on a different kind of mission.

They've come to this neighborhood once synonymous with the worst of Baltimore to help it become something better. They call this mission "Operation Oliver."

As the men walk, they pick up empty Seagram's gin and Bacardi rum bottles. They point to progress — refurbished homes, a painted playground — and to vacant houses and trash-filled alleys that still need work.

"A lot of the conditions from places we're deployed to, Iraq and Afghanistan, are not that much different from the conditions here in Oliver," says Blake, executive director of The 6th Branch, one of several nonprofits involved in Operation Oliver.

"The impoverished conditions, the vacant homes, the crime — in some cases, Oliver is in worse shape than some of the neighborhoods we've been deployed to," Blake says. "We're not afraid to dig in and make a difference in a community that's got a bad reputation in the city. The discipline, the go-get-'em, let's-do-this-now, aggressive attitude, it really lends itself to community service in a way traditional organizations haven't been able to do."

Operation Oliver, which began in July, is a one-year commitment to the neighborhood, the veterans say. It involves cleaning up alleys, but also rehabbing homes, helping residents find jobs, painting murals, organizing volunteers and notifying police about illegal dumping sites and drug dealing. To say the idea has caught on would be an understatement. Word of the yearlong, intensive service project has spread throughout Maryland — and nationally.

Some veterans, such as Earl Johnson, a former Army Ranger who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, have moved into the neighborhood. Others such as Jeremy Johnson and Blake live elsewhere but visit Oliver frequently. Nearly 1,000 volunteers have joined the effort, including more than 100 veterans.

Blake says he's received 1,300 "cold-call" emails about the project. "It's become an uncontrollable monster," he says

Area schools, including Loyola, Towson and Coppin State universities, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Community College of Baltimore County, have been quick to send help. Students from Stevenson University have been to Oliver on four assignments. Even foreign exchange students from France found their way there.

"It's their second day in America and they're painting alleys in Oliver," Blake says.

The impact is noticeable. Close to 50 homes are being rehabbed through Earl Johnson's organization, the One Green Home at a Time Foundation, another of the partners. Five tons of trash have been hauled away, an area that was once a site of prostitution is now a playground, an organic garden is planned for a weed-filled lot and the veterans take residents on weekly job-hunting trips.

The neighborhood of about 5,000 people, predominantly black, is barely larger than Green Mount Cemetery, which serves as its western border. It's situated between North Avenue to the north, Biddle Street to the south and Broadway to the east. More than 70 percent of Oliver's households earn less than $25,000 a year. Of its 2,600 properties, more than 1,100 are listed as vacant by the city.

The veterans' massive effort hasn't come without push-back.

Earl Johnson, 30, who moved into the neighborhood in July, says he's been threatened and his wife considered leaving him. The veterans' approach — hands on, no community meetings — has made established leaders bristle.

Nina Harper, executive director of the Oliver Community Association, says she supports the veterans' work but is critical of what she sees as a lack of communication.

"I can't stop anybody from doing what they want," she says. "I wish they would work with the community association."

If people see a bunch of veterans working in the neighborhood, in their military-green Operation Oliver T-shirts, it could send a bad message to those looking to move in, Harper says.

"We don't want it to appear to be a war zone, because it's not," she says. "To have a group of veterans walking around … to me that could be negative."

Johnson says he wants to assure Harper and other residents that he and his volunteers are team players.

"The local community associations believe we are stepping on their toes," he says. "We want to assure them that we are here to complement them."

Still, he has been threatened. As the veterans cleaned up alleys and rehabbed vacant homes — leaving fewer places for drug dealers and prostitutes to set up shop — they encountered resistance.

One woman said her boyfriend was "going to put a bullet in my head," Johnson says.

"They hope if they get rid of me, they get rid of Operation Oliver," he says. "If that happens, it's going to give more attention to Operation Oliver and more people are going to get involved."

He says the resistance has subsided as the neighborhood has improved. His wife, Zinitha, who once threatened to divorce him over conditions in the area, sees the place differently, he says.

"When we first moved in, my wife really didn't want to come out and associate with the neighborhood," Johnson says. "Now this neighborhood is no longer considered a bad neighborhood. This neighborhood is a good neighborhood that's going to be great. Me and my wife we go out, we sit out on our front porch, we read books, we chit-chat, our friends come over. We have fun outside. We cook out in front of our house. … It's becoming a really great neighborhood."

Gregory K. Davis, 54, remembers a better Oliver from years ago.

"When I was a kid, you used to be able to sit on your steps without anyone bothering you," says Davis, a self-employed handyman who has lived in the neighborhood all his life. He says the downturn came in the 1980s.

"As the years went by, the neighborhood got real messed up," he says. "The drug dealers ruined the neighborhood selling all the crack."

But Davis says he sees the area resurging, thanks to Johnson and his efforts.

"They need a lot more people like that," he says of the Operation Oliver volunteers. "The people in the neighborhood need to get with Earl and them. They look at them like they're crazy. They're doing it from their heart. The community has to support that."

The change is noticeable as one walks down Bond Street, home to rows of newly refurbished houses. The homes, all considered "green houses," come completely refurbished with high-end amenities such as whirlpool spas.

Nearby, about 15 Stevenson University students were cleaning out a lot that eventually will be an organic garden.

Colin Lyman, a Stevenson senior who is carrying debris to a dump site, calls the work some of the "most rewarding" he's done in college.

"It's the whole aspect of trying to rebuild this community, working with the veterans and working with the people from the community to really make this happen, that's what keeps me coming back," he says.

Throughout the year, the veterans have planned about 50 events — nearly one a week.

Jeremy Johnson says the project has become so popular that other neighborhoods are asking the veterans to adopt their community next.

"We tell them we're focused on one neighborhood at a time," he says.