As the locomotive and freight cars shook the ground beneath his feet, Irvin Lee Meeks could feel the danger that a cracked retaining wall and collapsed sidewalk along the rail line pose to neighborhood children.
"Everybody and his brother has been over there looking at that thing, and nobody's done a thing," Mr. Meeks said, surveying the damage on 26th Street near Guilford Avenue. "Children coming from school come here and walk all the way down to the train. I tell them not to go in there. They say, 'I ain't paying you no attention, old man.' "
While officials of the city and the railroad squabble over paying for repairs, Mr. Meeks and other Charles Village residents are frustrated and fearful.
They say the sidewalk, which has fallen as much as six feet alongside the sunken CSX rail line, creates a danger for children and eventually could cause residents' homes to shift. Many children walk along 26th Street on their way to and from Margaret Brent Elementary School a block away.
And the damage is spreading, residents say.
"It's just gradually sinking and sinking," said Florence L. Biscoe, whose Guilford Avenue home overlooks the section of crumbling sidewalk that stretches half a block.
The cave-in was triggered by breaks in a nearly 30-foot-high retaining wall along the CSX tracks.
Once solid and erect, the huge retaining wall, built at the beginning of the century, now dips and protrudes. It has cracked in several places, and the protective iron fence on top of it has loosened, creating gaps wide enough for children to slip through.
The city placed concrete barriers around the caved-in portion of the sidewalk last summer, but that doesn't deter all pedestrians. a recent afternoon, two children balanced themselves as they walked on top of the barriers.
Anthony Morabito, a structural engineer who owns a consulting firm a block from the site, thinks homes could be affected if the cave-in spreads. "It's threatening," he said. "That wall could fail at any time."
Baltimore City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, whose district includes Charles Village, called the situation alarming.
"This could cause a loss of life or property," he said. "Slowly but surely, it's eating up the street, inching closer to homes."
While the problem persists, the city and CSX Transportation blame each other for not repairing the retaining wall and sidewalk. Mr. Ambridge wants the city to spend an estimated $2 million on repairs, then sue CSX to recover the money.
George G. Balog, the public works director, said an 1890 city ordinance giving the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad a franchise to run trains through the area makes it clear that CSX, the B&O;'s successor, owns the retaining wall and is responsible for repairs.
"We have an obligation to protect the public. If there's an imminent danger, we have to correct it," Mr. Balog said.
But he said the concrete barriers should shield children from danger and that city engineers do not think the deteriorating wall endangers nearby properties.
CSX points the finger the other way. Spokeswoman Kathy Burns said the railroad's property line ends short of the retaining wall.
"Because the wall is not ours, we don't feel that we're obligated to make repairs," she said. CSX wants to resolve the problem because further deterioration of the wall could cripple the rail line, she said.
David R. Durfee Jr., who lives on the 2500 block of Guilford, is frustrated by the finger-pointing.
"My perspective is that as a taxpayer, I'm hoping the city is not responsible," he said. "But as a resident, one way or another, the problem has to be fixed."