A delicate truce: Waverly homeowners, renters agree to work on differences

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Peace has come to Parkwyrth Avenue. Maybe not forever. But it is here now, and residents of this street in Waverly are savoring it.

Two months ago, the street was dominated by ill feelings, most of them directed toward House No. 644, a big, dilapidated Victorian owned by the troublesome Baltimore landlord, R. William Connolly.

Homeowners on all sides were complaining that the tenants in 644 were making life miserable for everyone else. The tenants, most of them poor, single mothers, grumbled that the accusations were unfair.

Now, everyone is pledging -- though warily -- a new era of conviviality and better communications. All it took were a couple of evictions, a coat of paint, colder weather, the intervention of a city mediator and a recent mayoral visit.

"Things have gotten better," said Rosemary King, a physician's assistant who has lived across the street from 644 for eight years. "I'm feeling more positive."

For years, neighbors had complained about the often overcrowded and always run-down apartment house. If the children from the household weren't creating a clamor, destroying lawns or vandalizing cars, their parents were outside issuing obscenities at the top of their lungs. Finally, by last summer, a petition was circulated throughout the block listing "street rules." It did no good.

By then, Ms. King and her husband, Steven Brown, a fine arts teacher at Essex Community College, were on the brink of giving up. They had endured the spray-painting of their car, the destruction of their flower bed and the constant noise from the street, where children from 644 and dozens of their friends often collected. Finally, after some children threw rocks at their 8-year-old daughter, they were ready to move.

The friction eventually drew attention beyond the block, prompting the city's community relations office to send in a mediator, who conducted a meeting at the Waverly library on Oct. 28.

At the meeting, residents agreed to form a block club as a forum to get to know one another and to resolve future conflicts.

But the most important occurrences on the block, residents say, were the change of season, which has kept youngsters off the street, and the landlord's eviction of one tenant, the mother of seven children, whom other tenants of 644 and neighbors alike identified as the most troublesome and belligerent.

In the meantime, the house also has undergone a physical transformation since the summer. For years, it has been a neighborhood eyesore, run down with broken gutters and unpainted. With no trash cans, garbage was strewn over the yard, which was barren of grass.

The inside wasn't much better, with faulty water and heating systems, dim lighting and broken stairs. Elizabeth Conway, director of the Waverly Housing Stabilization Program, said Mr. Connolly has failed to screen tenants for No. 644 and crowded far too many people into the five apartments -- as many as 25 last summer.

After years of ignoring complaints, the recent publicity spurred Mr. Connolly into action. By last week, he had abated all of 644's dozens of housing code violations. He also painted the outside of the house white and even planted a row of colorful mums in the front yard. He has also pledged to screen future tenants for the building to make sure the apartment isn't overcrowded.

Ms. King says she thinks the ultimate answer still is to move, perhaps out of the city altogether. Although she believes tension has lessened on the block, one fundamental characteristic about it has not changed: No. 644 is still owned by Mr. Connolly. As long as that is true, she and many of her neighbors believe the prospects for lasting neighborhood calm are dim.

Mr. Connolly is accustomed to being the target of complaints and criticism. He owns 569 properties around the city. A fifth of them are vacant, while many others have been cited for various housing code violations. For years, the city administration has considered him one of Baltimore's most troublesome landlords.

Those on Parkwyrth agree. "He represents to me the worst in our economy," said Ms. King.

Tanya Jenkins, a tenant in 644, is more succinct. "I hate him," she said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, in his visit to the block earlier this month, held out some hope that the city could relieve Parkwyrth of Mr. Connolly as a landlord.

"We'll do all that we can to try to get the property from him," the mayor told a group of homeowners gathered on the sidewalk in front of No. 644. "I'll be glad to sit down at the table and talk to him. Let's see what he's willing to do."

But Mr. Connolly's attorney, Ira Cooke, didn't encourage that prospect. His client filed for federal bankruptcy court protection in June, which, Mr. Cooke said, prevents him from selling or even giving the house away. Mr. Cooke also insisted that the neighborhood is making Mr. Connolly a convenient scapegoat for the friction on the block.

"Mr. Connolly didn't throw the trash in the back," Mr. Cooke said. "Mr. Connolly didn't allow the children to run around in the neighborhood -- Mr. Connolly did none of that. The only thing Mr. Connolly's done is to bring the house up to code and make it more attractive for the residents. When it was brought to his attention, I think everybody can agree there's been tremendous improvement. You've got to give this guy some credit."

No one else is willing to go that far.

"He's responded in the past four weeks because of pressure, maybe from you, maybe from the media," Ms. King told Mayor Schmoke during his visit.

"I'm suspicious of his motives, too," the mayor replied.

Parkwyrth is not a typical location for a Connolly property. Most of his housing is in poor, often obliterated neighborhoods. But Parkwyrth is solidly -- although not exclusively -- working class with most of the well-kept homes occupied by their owners.

The apartment house's presence on the block has created somewhat of an economic divide. Most of the $250-a-month, one-bedroom apartments in 644 are occupied by poor, single mothers who receive public assistance.

For example, Tanya Jenkins, who lives in a downstairs apartment, is 38 with sons ages 3, 11 and 16. She dropped out of school in ninth grade and never held a job for long. Ms. Jenkins talks about someday earning her GED.

Across the hall is Ms. Hogan, who, at 21, also has three children, at least one of whom has tested positive for lead paint poisoning. She, too, quit school in the ninth grade, and soon after, the babies started arriving.

"I don't think everybody's life is the way they want it to be, but I'm pretty happy," she said.

Neighbors insist that no one on Parkwyrth has ever held the poverty of 644's tenants against them. Several residents of the block say they were attracted to the block precisely because of its racial and economic diversity.

"I wanted a blended neighborhood," said Diane Wheaton, a 37-year old seamstress who moved to Waverly from Towson and lives next door to 644. "I didn't want a place that was homogenous."

She wanted, she said, a neighborhood similar to the integrated, working-class section of South Jersey where she grew up.

"I grew up really poor," she said. "It doesn't matter what you have or don't have."

The conflicts on Parkwyrth, she said, have not been about race and money. They have been about manners.

Still, she and many of the others on Parkwyrth express sympathy for the tenants of 644.

"You can't blame the people because they don't have a lot of money or education," said Joanne Hoster, a care worker for elderly infirm patients who lives across from 644. "They don't have a lot of choices.

"On the other hand," added her husband, Donald, a chemistry teacher at Baltimore Community College, "I don't want to be run out of here either."

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