Beset by drugs, community fights back


Timothy Hines used to while away the summer evenings outside his Havre de Grace home. Now, he's scared to sit out there after 6 p.m.

That's when the drug dealers take over.

They ruined the neighborhood, Mr. Hines says, and retaliated against residents who've called police or organized a community group to help stop drug trafficking.

Mr. Hines, who gives his age only as "70-something," used to confront the youths who gathered near his Battery Village home, then he started calling the police.

But these days, he does neither, and he tries to avoid talking too much about "the problem" -- open-air drug markets -- for fear of what might happen next.

He considers himself fortunate that he hasn't been hit by rocks thrown at him and BB-gun pellets fired at him.

"I've lived here since this place opened [in 1972]," Mr. Hines says. "It used to be a nice, quiet area. People were friendly and the children respectful.

"It's all changed now. Used to be able to sit outside on a summer evening for some old-fashioned plain talk. Not now. No sir."

Some of his neighbors in the low-income housing community share his fears and frustrations -- with good reason.

Bobby Sexton, a 44-year-old father of two who serves as president of the recently formed Battery Village Residents Council, had a message attached to a brick hurled through his window a few weeks back. "White bitches, get out of the village," it said.

Debbie Bratcher, one of the group's founders, had bricks tossed through her windows and her car tires slashed, and vandals slashed a few of her neighbors' tires.

Residents believe the recent spate of vandalism and threats came in response to community leaders' efforts to organize and work with the police to reclaim their community.

Havre de Grace police say the 116-home Battery Village and the nearby community of Concord Fields have become prime markets for Philadelphia drug dealers.

Frustrated by what they called a lack of police protection, the residents had considered hiring a private security patrol. But after two community meetings, attended by the city's mayor and police chief, the group abandoned the idea.

Residents say they hope a greater police presence, including new foot patrols, and more cooperation between residents and police will help stem the drug peddling. The residents group also working to provide more alternatives for youths, such as recreation, and events like bake sales and yard sales to unite the community.

Mr. Sexton blames drug dealers for the recent vandalism and threats.

Neither Mr. Sexton, who is white, nor other neighborhood residents believe racism underlies the recent events, despite racist comments targeted at some villagers.

Rather, Mr. Sexton says, drug dealers hope to divide the community's activists along racial lines to detract from efforts to fight drugs.

"These acts were done by people who have something to fear from our plans to make this a better neighborhood," he says. "They're trying to make it appear to be a racial issue."

Mr. Sexton refuses to be intimidated, however.

"When I see good people intimidated to the point that they are fearful of stepping outside," he says, "I've got to get involved."

His group, which has had two meetings over the past several weeks to inform residents of its goals, has a 10-member board of directors, eight of whom are black. About 30 people attended each session, and the group plans a door-to-door campaign to try to raise attendance.

Calling for help from police and city officials, the residents complained that youths gather nightly around green utility boxes, where drugs change hands and paraphernalia litters the ground. The youths move to the music blaring from "boom box" radios and often taunt and threaten nearby residents.

That scares Zelpha Smith, a 12-year resident of the village.

"I'm more fearful now than I've ever been," she says.

She recalls trembling three weeks ago when police burst into the house next door, one of two suspected crack houses where raids netted more than $19,000 worth of drugs.

The raid and the nightly gatherings left her shaken, but she refuses to give up on her neighborhood.

"Listen," Ms. Smith says, "this isn't a terrible place to live. We just have to change people's attitudes and get rid of some problems."

Ms. Smith and other residents also hope to clean up the broken furniture, wrecked bicycles and old tires that accumulate in front some homes.

"It indicates to me that some of these people lack pride," says Ms. Bratcher. "If they would just take a little time to clean up the area in front of their homes, the whole community would benefit."

Jim Newby, administrator for the city police, said the drug dealing, loitering, vandalism and threats in the neighborhood didn't develop overnight and "they're not going to go away overnight." Drug use, dealing and loitering have become common on the once-quiet streets over the past few years, residents say.

Mr. Newby and Chief of Police William Lamphere have met several times with residents to assure them that police are doing what they can to rid the neighborhood of drugs.

Police officers have made more than 300 patrols in cruisers into Battery Village in the past month and have added foot patrols, Mr. Newby said.

For his part, Mayor Gunther Hirsch urged the residents to unite in their fight against drugs and told them his office would support them in any way possible.

"I will do whatever it takes to help rid this neighborhood of its ills," the mayor said.

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