Improving inner-city life takes constant vigilance


Keith Noel's vocation as a neighborhood crusader began the night somebody stole his VCR.

"I went to the kids on the corner, and I went down to Ellwood Park -- it was a drug park -- and I told them I want my VCR back, and if I don't get it, you won't be able to spit on the streets around here," Mr. Noel said.

That was a Thursday night in 1985. The following Monday morning, the VCR was sitting on the front seat of his car -- and Mr. Noel realized he had the power to better his city neighborhood.

Now Mr. Noel, 37, is president of the McElderry-Decker Community Association, which represents 754 households in a row house community of East Baltimore.

The front room of his home in the 3000 block of McElderry Street is crammed with awards for neighborhood cleanup, community group T-shirts, a map dotted with pins for each local burglary and purse snatching in the last month and a vast supply of rat poison.

"I'm trying to stop blight before it creeps in," Mr. Noel said. "Our main issues are crime, vacant houses and absentee landlords."

The neighborhood activist is also coping with dramatic racial change as aging white homeowners give way to new black residents. For sale signs dot some streets.

"There's not all good or all bad in any race," Mr. Noel said. "Black people are getting involved with the community association. The homeowners who are buying are very good. But absentee landlords just put anybody in. Then when they're evicted, they leave half their trash on the sidewalk."

"I feel we need more help from the housing and police departments. People say, 'I'm moving because nothing's being done,' " he said.

Mr. Noel said it took two years of prodding before the city finally boarded up a vacant house on North Curley Street. Then vandals tore the grate off a basement window, creating a trash-strewn haven for teen-aged drinking and drug use.

The community group has formed block watches and citizen patrols to curb street crime.

The public schools are a sore spot. Parents of children who go by bus to Herring Run Middle School often dislike the bus ride. Parents of those who walk to Hampstead Hill Middle School often dislike the school.

Mr. Noel has lived on McElderry Street for a decade and plans to stay.

"I'm a city person. I like to walk the local streets and visit the local bars," he said. He can point with pride to a clean Ellwood Park and other victories, large and small.

But, said Sylvia List, a neighbor who is moving to Dundalk, "I've seen him lugging trash out of yards, and people just laughed at him."

Her husband, John, added, "Keith tries like hell, but nobody cares."

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