It took flames to nudge couple off North Bradford


When their eldest daughter got married, she threw her bridal bouquet from the steps of the old rowhouse at 122 N. Bradford St.

It was a long and happy day for Joe and Delores Dobry. The father of the bride spent the morning cooking kielbasa and sauerkraut, and so many friends and relatives came by for the wedding reception that the Dobrys had to serve the food in shifts. Bradford Street, not much bigger than an alley in East Baltimore, was full of good feelings that day.

"We had lots of happy times there," Delores Dobry says. "We lived in that house it'll be 40 years come January. I was born just five doors down, at 132 Bradford Street. Me and my husband got married and two years later we bought our house. Raised our children there. When they first went to St. Elizabeth's School, the tuition was $20 for the year. I used to take my children to the [Eastern] Avenue and I could outfit them -- at Epstein's, or what have you -- for $10 each, shoes and all.

"Yes, indeed, we had a happy home."

Joe Dobry was a tractor-trailer driver. He and Delores had three children. When the sudden death of a Bradford Street neighbor lTC left a 5-year-old girl parentless, they adopted her. Her name was Stephanie. That was 13 years ago.

Delores always had a job. She worked in retail sales for years, and she was a housekeeper at Mercy Hospital. When her husband was injured and unable to work, the family had a financial crisis. They were threatened with the loss of their home. They had to give up their car.

"But we got through it somehow," Delores says. "I kept working, and bit by bit we were able to make it and keep the house. We did the best we could."

The Dobrys lived between Fayette and Fairmount, a neighborhood that has been in transition for several years. The Bradford Street story is the story of a lot of city neighborhoods. Older folks, longtime homeowners, sold their houses and, if they could afford it, moved to the suburbs. "Or they just died off," Delores says.

New homeowners, if they could afford to buy, moved in, or landlords rented the properties, which made the neighborhood more transient. To the older folks who lived in the rowhouses as long as the Dobrys did, the sidewalks seemed to suddenly fill with unfamiliar faces.

Still, the Dobrys stayed in their modest house and learned to get along with their new neighbors. They learned to deal with the fear of crime. They learned to live a more cautious life.

"I thought I'd spend the rest of my days in that house," Delores says. "Never dreamed I'd live anywhere else."

But something happened. The rowhouse next door, 124 N. Bradford, went from being owner-occupied to a rental property, to a vacant property. That transition took several years.

When the house went dark nearly eight months ago, the Dobrys say, they complained to the city. When vandals broke in and made off with all the rowhouse's copper pipes, flooding the adjoining basements, including the Dobrys', they complained again. The Dobrys thought the place should have been boarded up. The landlord had died, and the place was unoccupied.

"We'd call the cops and they'd go in there, find the door open and children playing in the back." Joe Dobry says. One time he saw syringes and trash on the floor. There was always trash in the rear yard. "It was a mess," he says.

City records show that the Dobrys started complaining last January, and that the property was cited for numerous housing code violations in February. It wasn't until March, however, that 124 N. Bradford was declared officially unoccupied, and not until late April that it was declared vacant. After more notices to the deceased owner naturally went unanswered, the rowhouse was finally scheduled to be boarded up. A work order for the job was issued June 21 by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Fire got there before the city work crew.

Last Friday morning, at seven minutes after 10, fire broke out in the vacant rowhouse and spread to the Dobrys'. Delores was home alone when the fire reached her roof. She managed to escape without injury. The second floor was heavily damaged and there was considerable water and smoke damage to the first. The house is unfit for habitation.

The Fire Department determined that the blaze had been deliberately set. No arrests have been made.

Joe and Delores Dobry -- he's 64, she's 61 now -- are living with a daughter and her family in Essex. The Dobrys had insurance on their rowhouse, and they're entitled to a settlement. But they're not sure they're going back. They might be finished with Bradford Street forever. It took a fire to get them out of there.

It took a fire to get the city to board up the vacant house next door.

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