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Old club provides new opportunity for neighborhood


Mention The Underground nightclub to some residents of the West Baltimore community where it sits vacant and you stir LTC bitter memories of how loud parties and drug dealing at the club led to the decline of the neighborhood.

But to others, the two-story stucco structure in the 2100 block of Edmondson Ave. west of Pulaski Street is recalled fondly as a black-owned business with owners who watched out for community young people by offering bit jobs and allowing functions in its halls.

"The place wasn't always what we wanted it to be because of some of the people it attracted, and that's a fact," said John Robinson, who lives nearby on North Pulaski Street. "But it was good for the neighborhood because when somebody needed help with a job or paying the rent, they kicked in."

Once a base of operations for convicted drug kingpin Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, the club was seized by the federal government in 1992. The government transferred the building to the city last week for use as a community center and police substation.

Members of the Edmondson Community Organization plan to offer educational and recreational programs in the building to area residents by the end of summer, said Mary Parrish, who heads the group.

"We've been waiting for it for a long time," said Ms. Parrish, an area resident for 40 years. "This is a golden opportunity for the community. A building of destruction will become a building of construction for the neighborhood."

Other residents had mixed feelings this week about the nightclub's future, though most agreed with the prospect of using it for community activities.

"This is the only place in this area that's big enough to hold a lot of people," said Warren Aiken of the 500 block of Brice St., about a block from The Underground. "This is a community with little else as far as recreation or a place for unity for older residents."

The Underground is in Midtown Edmondson, a neighborhood of low-income residents where many of the houses and storefronts are boarded-up and vacant, and where small-time drug dealers hustle the corners.

The predominantly black community has slightly more than 3,100 residents, and 28 percent of the households receive public assistance. The average household income is slightly more than $17,000.

Wooden planks once nailed on the windows and doors of many vacant brick dwellings have been pulled off, allowing a view inside of liquor bottles and beer cans, as well as drug paraphernalia.

Police and residents said drugs and drug-related crime flourish in the community. The sound of gunfire is common, residents said, and drugs are sold openly on the streets.

Sgt. Gary West of the Western District police said drug dealing has declined in recent months but remains a problem.

During a 45-minute walk through the area, drugs -- including heroin and cocaine -- were offered three times by different dealers, none worried that a potential buyer really might be an undercover police officer.

"Got Jumbo, got Jumbo," one man said softly, while another discreetly offered "red tops" for sale. A third man just asked, "What do you need?"

In the 500 block of Brice St., the one lane open to traffic had been converted into a makeshift basketball court, the only one in the vicinity.

"This is a neighborhood that does the best with what it has," said Hattie Crawford, a resident for 10 years. Using The Underground as a community center "is fine but there is so much more that is needed."

Waymon Lefall, who has owned a barber shop in the 2000 block of Edmondson Ave. for five years, said he hopes the city renovates some of the 27 vacant storefronts in his block. Only eight storefronts are in operation.

"This is the real neighborhood," Mr. Lefall said, looking at the vacant storefronts. "This is where they needed to look first. This is our community, not just that one building."

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the city had a chance to obtain the nightclub property because "it was in the hands" of the government and could have been auctioned.

Mr. Henson said he also would like to see development of the vacant storefronts.

Christina Koromah, a resident of the area since October, said a police substation in the building would intimidate residents from attending programs.

"Police just come to lock up the wrong people most of the time," Ms. Koromah said. "Police don't have a positive interaction with residents here."

She said foot patrol officers would ease the tension, as would having black officers at the substation.

However, most residents said they see the center as a chance to revitalize the community.

"This is a culmination of all of our dreams," Ms. Parrish said. "We now have to take a deep breath and begin the real work. We don't even want to call it The Underground anymore."

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