Beneath the glow of a street light in yesterday's predawn chill, Rebecca Eddins clasped hands with 20 friends, former drug dealers and recovering addicts, and prayed for peace in the troubled Northwest Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up.
It marked the 72nd consecutive day that Ms. Eddins had gone to Beaufort and West Garrison avenues at 6 a.m. to take part in a three-hour vigil. She hopes the prayers will break the cycle of fear, hopelessness and grief that grips this portion of Central Park Heights.
Ms. Eddins organized the vigils to counter the drug dealing and crime in her old neighborhood. She is especially concerned about the plight of the neighborhood's children.
"This is for the children who live around here," Ms. Eddins said yesterday, standing in the dark and bundled against the cool morning air. "This is for them, so they can have a better chance."
Each morning, the group sets up a table and offers breakfast to children passing by on their way to school. Ms. Eddins and her sister, Marjorie Adams, use their own money to pay for the food and school supplies used for after-school tutoring on the corner.
Ms. Eddins, 43, lives in Catonsville and is executive director of Paul's Place, a Southwest Baltimore homeless shelter. Since mid-July, she and 20 other people have been gathering on the Northwest Baltimore corner in an effort to disrupt the area's flourishing, 24-hour drug trade, either by scaring off potential drug customers or by making drug pushers feel uncomfortable making curbside deals.
One tactic they have used is distributing anti-drug and religious literature. If that doesn't work, they videotape or take still photographs of drug traffickers.
The group includes area residents who only weeks ago felt powerless to confront the dealers, along with former dealers and drug users who are crusading against their old life- styles.
"It's easy to move away and try not to remember where you're from. But I don't want to do that," said Martin Bennett, 34, of Pikesville, who grew up in the neighborhood and was once a drug addict. "I want these kids to have a chance and maybe be a role model for them."
Mr. Bennett, who joins the group twice a week, said he has friends in the area and worries about their safety. "You can't forget yesterday. They may not be as lucky as I was."
Ms. Eddins knows drug dealers are still plying their trade.
"They know I see them, and they know that it is wrong what they're doing," Ms. Eddins said. "But I want to do this. I want to be out here because nobody can do this but us. This is a liberation of a people."
Police said the neighborhood is plagued by many small-time drug dealers who "add up to make one big drug-infested area."
The neighborhood's alleys and gutters are littered with syringes and small vials used to package cocaine and heroin.
Tales of gunfire
Shootings are frequent, and many residents can relate tales of gun- fire.
One resident told of a friend who was killed when shot 17 times during a recent drug dispute in the neighborhood. Another resident said she saw a gunman fire at a group of men standing near her home in the 3400 block of W. Garrison Ave.
"There is still a lot troubles, but not as much, I don't think," said Carrie Winslow, 75, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. "There may still be many things wrong, but I'm at least not as scared as I was before."
Still, Ms. Winslow said, she tries to run her errands between 8 a.m. and noon, because the drug trafficking is slowest then.
"Afternoons are bad. If you come here at 5 [p.m.] and, my God, they are two and three deep on the sidewalk selling dope," Ms. Winslow said. "For all of them dope dealers, I didn't think they had that many dope users."
Two weeks ago, Karen Terrey, who lives near the corner of Garrison and Beaufort, found two small bags containing white powder under a trash can one morning when she took her trash to her back yard.
When she moved the can, a man ran to her from the alley and asked whether she had a problem.
"He was real polite. He said, 'This is mine' and would I please leave it alone," said Ms. Terry, 24. "He made it clear that it would be in my best interest to leave the trash can alone, because that's where he kept his drugs. I wasn't going to argue."
She now takes the trash with her out the front door and drops it in a can near work. But she and her family live in fear of the drug dealers who cluster daily near her home.
'I feel better now'
Ms. Eddins, who moved from the neighborhood several years ago but whose parents still reside there, said predawn is the only time many residents feel safe on the streets.
"Fear is how many people feel here, and they shouldn't have to feel that way," Ms. Eddins said. "They [residents] should be able to walk the streets at any time and not feel threatened. "If the [drug traffickers] are out here, why shouldn't we be out here?"
Dorothea Harris, who has lived in the 3500 block of Garrison Ave. for four years, joined the group on the corner on a recent morning. A month ago, she would never have thought of doing something that might upset the drug dealers.
"But I feel better now. I'm not afraid to walk through my neighborhood," Ms. Harris said.
In mid-August, the Rev. Kevia Elliott, pastor at the Lord's Church in the 5000 block of Park Heights Ave., heard of Ms. Eddins' crusade and began religious vigils on the street corner every Saturday.
"We're out here to give support to the community on one hand and let the drug dealers know we know what they're doing and we're not tolerating it," Mr. Elliott said. "The people that you see here are not just loitering; they're doing something. They're doing business."
"They'll tell us they respect us and won't do drugs when we're out here. But that's not what we want. We won't accept that. We don't want them to do drugs here any time."
'We expect miracles'
A young man who declined to give his name said he does not always sell drugs and that the nearby crusade makes him uneasy.
"It don't matter to some people [that they're involved in drug trafficking], but it matters to me," he said "I don't feel right about it, especially when they start talking about the Lord."
Mr. Elliott said that just making the drug traffickers think the community is against them is a start toward making the neighborhood safe.
"We expect miracles on this corner," he said.