The intensity in this room could lift you out of your seat. There are seven people here, five men and two women, all of them black, all vowing that the thing that has happened elsewhere in ** this city will not happen in Northeast Baltimore, because they will not let it happen.
Listen to Emmanuel Holmes. He is president and executive director of this group, the North East Regional Tenant Community Association (NERTCA), gathered this morning in a little office in the 5300 block of Moravia Road.
"It's the last corridor," he explains.
Around the room, heads nod in silent agreement.
"The last major corridor to undergo major racial change," Holmes continues. "We've seen it happen in Park Heights, in Edmondson Village . . ."
He's talking about neighborhoods that once were middle-class white, then became integrated as middle-class blacks moved in, and then became re-segregated as poor blacks moved in and the last whites moved out.
He cites a study, done by the St. Ambrose Housing Project: In 1980, there were 70,000 white people in this city's northeast corridor, and about 9,000 black people, mostly middle class.
Today: about 60,000 whites, about 40,000 blacks, increasing numbers of whom are not middle class.
"Migrating from the inner city," says Holmes. "And with their migration come all the social problems: tension, crime, illiteracy, juvenile delinquency. More problems, and less funding to deal with them."
It's familiar talk, but it comes with a twist. There's no talk here of racial blame, of generations of whites oppressing blacks, or fleeing from them, or standing in their way.
What's done is done. A new reality is in the air, which has more to do with class than with race: While millions of blacks have seized the American dream in the past quarter-century, a permanent underclass has not, and in its hopelessness and anger brings fear to the entire community.
This new talk says: We can't pretend this isn't happening, or make excuses for it, or attach racial sensitivities to it. We simply have to deal with it.
"We want to manage this demographic shift," Emmanuel Holmes says now, weighing his words carefully. "Not be victimized by it."
It's why NERTCA was formed last November. Things cannot continue like this. A sizable chunk of a generation is self-destructing and putting a city under a siege mentality.
"All behavior," says Ellsworth Johnson-Bey, "is learned."
He's sitting next to Holmes, and looking intense. He sounds like a college professor but talks of a 33-year history with the criminal justice system, not of his own choosing. He mentions a study showing more than half of black men 18 to 35 having some connection with the law, as defendants, inmates, or parolees.
As NERTCA's man on crime, it's his job to reach kids before they take the bad turn. He knows the territory, talks of his own life: declared an incorrigible at 12, discovering drugs at 16 and armed robbery to support the drugs.
Now he talks of value systems, of reality therapy, of peer pressure. It's a man who knows the linguistic territory well enough to speak it like a professor, or a street punk.
"And we've got these kids running through our community," Emmanuel Holmes says softly.
A few seats from Holmes sits the Rev. Cameron Carter, associate minister of the New Shiloh Baptist Church.
"Too often," says Carter, "the black churches have stayed within themselves. . . . We want to share in rebuilding the community. The value system, the family structure, all these things that have been torn down. The churches have stayed in what feels safe to them. We want them to come out of their safe havens."
He's seated beneath a large map on a wall, with markers indicating crime patterns in the community: Stolen cars, somebody says, and drugs and house-breaking.
"I've been out here for 22 years," says Harry Sanders, who works with neighborhood children for NERTCA. "I've seen the changes, most of them downhill. A lot of people from other neighborhoods, Section 8 housing, less pride in the community. And they're living next to homeowners. They don't care about anything, and so we have this decline."
More heads around the room nod assent: William Mosley, who set up community athletic leagues in just a month; Valerie Newton, working on neighborhood safety; Gloria Jenkins, a liaison with parents; Anthony Butler, who's teaching kids to use computers.
"We need to give these kids some marketable skills," says Butler, patting one computer. "The schools aren't doing it for a lot of them. We have to give them a sense that they can become something."
Emmanuel Holmes is standing next to him now, as Butler shows off some of his kids' computing skills.
"We have to stop the bleeding," Holmes says. "It's not enough to tell them, 'Say no to drugs,' and hope they'll find work at the 7-Eleven. We have to put these kids on a track."
And hope it works better than it has in some other neighborhoods.