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Ex-inmate finds old neighborhood 'a world worse' Drugs, death haunt Reservoir Hill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Donavon Barnes remembers his old Reservoir Hill neighborhood as a world of bittersweet images: two-bit marijuana deals and alley baseball games, stabbings and porch parties, street corners littered with wine bottles and flowers growing out of old tires that served as makeshift planters.

Mr. Barnes recently returned to his old West Baltimore neighborhood after a 12-year prison stint. He discovered that time has not been kind to it.

"It's gone way off. It's a whole world worse now. This ain't exactly the same place I knew before I went to prison," said Mr. Barnes, 32. "It ain't at all like it used to be, to be honest. It's still home, but home sure has changed a lot."

When he returned to his home in the 500 block of Lakeview Ave. on June 18 after serving his time for armed robbery, he found 10- and 11-year-old boys wearing beepers, and sullen young men standing on street corners quietly hawking drugs they called "Ready Rock" and "BMW" to anyone who passed.

He found friendly neighbors chatting on their porches as they watched their children playing on the sidewalks. But at dusk the neighbors routinely gathered their belongings and headed inside, where they bolted the doors and cowered behind steel grates.

He found vacant and crumbling rowhouses where some of his friends once lived, and syringes strewn in the parks and alleys where he played tag and baseball.

He even found a syringe amid the broken glass that littered an area near a swimming pool on Linden Avenue. Not far away, children waited for water to fill the pool.

But his most haunting discovery came in one of the hangouts of his youth, a spot near Whitelock Street and Brookfield Avenue, about two blocks from his home.

Victims of 'entrepreneurs

There, he caught up with some old friends -- and remembered others who had been killed or had died of drug-related maladies.

"Most of them are now victims of the [drug] entrepreneurs," he said. "I seen one yesterday that I used to be with every day, and I just waved at him and kept on going. I could see what had happened to him 'cause of drugs. Good people, back then. Good people."

Reservoir Hill sits near Druid Hill Park. It is a neighborhood of stately, well-kept townhouses with neatly manicured lawns and flower gardens and run-down, two-story houses with unkempt lawns.

The neighborhood has 8,500 residents, and more than 25 percent of its households receive public assistance, according to the city Department of Planning Statistics. The average household income is slightly more than $15,000.

Police officials say Reservoir Hill does not rank among the city's worst crime areas, but certain pockets are drug "hot spots." In those areas, drugs are sold openly, and sales are often accompanied by violence, police say.

Mr. Barnes has toured his old neighborhood many times since his release. With each slow walk, he looks somberly at boarded dwellings and bustling drug activity on littered streets. "Drug dealers and drug houses," he said often.

Many in the community remember him and call him by his nickname, Vaughn. Women used to call him Domonic, he said, and a message to a special female friend spray-painted more than a decade ago on the side of a building remains at Whitelock Street near his home.

"Domonic love Darlene," the message reads.

"I still love her," he said. "I just don't know where she is."

*

Two months before his 19th birthday, Mr. Barnes was convicted of armed robbery and given a 16-year prison term. He served most of the 12 years of the sentence at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

He committed many offenses while growing up in Reservoir Hill. He was caught shoplifting at 11, used heroin at 14 and spent his first night in jail at 17.

"It wasn't something that I enjoyed," he said of his first night in jail, which stemmed from an arrest on a drug charge (he was released the next day). "It was like I'm not going to get caught again. I won't get caught again."

But two years later he was arrested and charged with armed robbery after an incident downtown.

"It's just something that happened, and I went to prison for it," he said. "I died a little bit every day in there, and every day I had to find a reason to go on. Trying to keep my humanness, trying to keep my spirit, trying to keep motivated. It wasn't easy.

"I had an attitude back then. It was a way of life or culture. We didn't look at things as totally wrong. Only certain things were wrong," he said.

While in prison, Mr. Barnes learned the printing trade. He now spends as much of his time looking for work as he does trying to reacquaint himself with his old neighborhood.

'Reality' sets in

Neither is easy.

"I'd rather be somewhere else now," he said. "In prison, I used to think of the loneliness, the emptiness, and I'd adapt to that by exercise or reading or sitting back and thinking about how different it would be when I got out.

"But when I got out, the reality of everything set in.

"It's just like prison, and I try to be nonchalant and just mind my business," Mr. Barnes said. "It's doesn't always work, though. I just hope and pray they let me mind my own business."

*

Daily, young men gather in the 900 block of Whitelock St., where a string of small businesses once thrived. As Mr. Barnes walked there recently, two men offered to sell him drugs. He saw several familiar faces on the block -- men whom he had considered friends before he went to prison.

He greeted some of them but said he had little "rap" for most. He doesn't need that kind of lifestyle, he said.

"Dealing drug, disparity. I don't know why it happened or how it happened," Mr. Barnes said. "When I was out, everybody was drinking, a little reefer, a few pills. But nothing like this. That's what they do and their lifestyle.

"I can't save the world. I can stop, talk to them, give them some encouragement. But this is what they want to do."

Mr. Barnes lives with his aunt in a three-story house on Lakeview Avenue. Minnie Williams, who is in her 70s, rents out several rooms of the five-bedroom house. She is glad to have him there but says he may have problems returning to the community.

"I wish him all of the luck in the world, because he's going to need it," Ms. Williams said. "He's a good person, and he tries so hard. They have some mean people out there and a lot of drugs. I'll do what I can to make sure he's OK."

Years ago, Ms. Williams was active in the community. Now she seldom leaves the house.

"I worry about him because there is so much that he could get into," she said. "But he's a good person."

Nancy J. Nowak, director of the state's Division of Parole and Probation, said many inmates have trouble readjusting to society upon their release.

She said the blighted communities to which parolees return and lTC their lack of financial resources contribute to their problems. She said ex-offenders often return after lengthy prison terms to find a higher cost of living and many cultural changes.

"He will be challenged by society, his former peers, and he'll be challenged by his family and former friends," Ms. Nowak said of Mr. Barnes. "It'll take a great deal of inner strength."

She said it may be difficult for him to find employment but that it is easier today for parolees than it was years ago. Many employers today are giving ex-offenders "an opportunity to turn their lives around," she said.

"He needs to be encouraged to be the best he can and not revisit his former life," Ms. Nowak said.

Mr. Barnes checks the newspaper daily for work as a printer. He dropped out of Frederick Douglass High School as a teen-ager but earned his general equivalency diploma and completed several courses from Hagerstown Community College while in prison. He plans to get a college degree one day.

He gets a few dollars now and then from his aunt or his mother, who lives nearby. But he hates to borrow and stretches every quarter as far as possible.

'The danger potential'

Mr. Barnes knows he could make easy money selling drugs, but he feels that would be dirty money.

"The danger potential is there too much, and it's not worth it," he said. "It already makes me somewhat uneasy because I know the potential for danger that exists if I don't watch my back.

While in prison, he started a list of friends and relatives in Reservoir Hill who had died. The list now includes more than 50 people, and many of the deaths are linked to drugs or violence.

The list is written on notebook paper, and Barnes carries it with him everywhere he goes. It reads like this:

* "Big Tea, murdered resisting robbery."

* "Gary, accidentally shot self."

* "Little Van, murdered."

* "Nathanial, murdered, beat with bat."

* "Poodie Cake, given hot shot [drug overdose]"

Mr. Barnes said that if he had not been in prison, he might have died in a similar manner.

He often thinks about his old friends.

"In a way I'm fortunate, because I'm going to have another time to kick it and to dream and enjoy the sunshine," he said. "A lot of friends have passed with not ever having known life as it should be lived."

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