Harlem Park woman chooses the city and segregation


Barbara C. Ferguson almost moved to Glen Burnie.

But then in 1972, a death in the family drew her back to Harlem Park, the West Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up, after living in East Baltimore. She has been there ever since.

Harlem Park is poor and 99 percent black. The typical row house sells for about $25,000 and rents average a little over $200 a month, according to the 1990 census.

But numbers don't tell the whole story, says Mrs. Ferguson, a 54-year-old social worker and longtime community activist.

"Although they see us as poor, black and on welfare, we have a mixed group, economically, educationally and racially," Mrs. Ferguson said.

"Personally, I'm comfortable where I am. Some neighborhoods that are white I wouldn't want to live in. I don't have that much in common," she said.

She recalls driving through Hampden one night a few years back when someone shouted, "This is a white neighborhood, lady."

"I was just riding through," she said. "Whites tend to be more hostile to blacks than blacks are to whites. Whites live in this area, and nobody bothers them."

Mrs. Ferguson concedes that Harlem Park has serious problems -- drug-dealing, street crime, vacant houses, glass and trash in the alleys and inner-block parks.

Some she calls people problems and others bureaucracy problems.

"It's a constant struggle because this community has systematically been looked over," she said.

Among Mrs. Ferguson's pet peeves are the 18-wheel tractor-trailers that sometimes park illegally there and what she calls lax enforcement of city housing codes.

"If it was Bolton Hill," she said, pointing to one crumbling property, "they would have been in there on the dime."

Mrs. Ferguson is worried now about who will become principal of Harlem Park Middle School -- she thinks the school has often been a dumping ground for administrators and teachers unwanted elsewhere and sent her own children to private schools -- and about the mini-billboards that dot the area, which she says are illegal and hawk alcohol and cigarettes to poor people.

But she says programs to promote homeownership in the area appear to be gathering momentum, and Lafayette Square with its stately town houses makes a solid centerpiece for neighborhood improvement.

When city life weighs too heavily on her, Mrs. Ferguson says, "I go in my house, close the windows, put the air conditioning on, and I don't know what's going on outside."

Had she moved to the suburbs, "I'd have less gray hair and less stress, and I wouldn't spend all my time worrying about who's going to be principal of the middle school," she conceded. "The only thing I'd worry about is would the Klan get ahold of me and would I get home in one piece," she said.

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