For the first time in years, many Charles Villagers with bars on their doors and padlocks on their porch furniture say they have hope -- for safer, cleaner city living, for new neighbors, for lawns without for sale signs.
They live in the city's first residential area to levy an extra tax for property owners to pay for administrative staff, nine security guards and three sanitation workers.
Since the benefits district went into business in June -- covering Howard Street over to Greenmount Avenue and from 20th Street up to 33rd -- new security guards have begun to help police catch thieves and shoplifters.
Sanitation workers clean gutters and mulch street trees, while residents check alleys for trash and guard their blocks with mobile phones preset to 911.
The controversial second tax was enacted for a 100-block area in the center city that borders the Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital and some of the city's toughest drug corners near blocks marred by vacant buildings.
Some property owners are skeptical of a second tax, and the exact impact on crime is not known.
But many believe the benefits district is an opportunity to rejuvenate community activism, reclaim the neighborhood from thieves and drug dealers -- and to keep their neighbors from moving out.
"It's a last resort. Nobody wants to pay more taxes," says Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a benefits district board member who has a home and a business in the neighborhood.
She looks around the lush rose and herb garden behind her small Victorian frame house near Greenmount Avenue and says, "It's incredible to have so much beauty in our patch of the world."
But under her patio table is a padlock and chain.
"I've never been so angry until this summer. The street is a toilet. With the drug trade there's a daily parade of people carrying off porch furniture," she says.
Still, like many longtime residents, she is locked in a standoff with the criminal element.
"We would never live outside Baltimore," Ms. Shapiro says of herself and her husband, Fred Shoken. "We were born and raised and educated here. No one's going to take our city away from us."
Police Department crime statistics for the Charles Village area .. bear out Ms. Shapiro's experience.
From the first six months of 1994 to the same period this year, purse snatchings, auto break-ins and thefts from yards and porches jumped by 35 percent -- from 221 to 299. Burglaries of homes climbed by 62 percent -- from 53 to 86.
The benefits district is modeled after the Downtown Management District, where property owners began paying an extra tax for security and sanitation in 1993.
A third proposed tax district -- called the Mid-town Community Benefits District -- is up for election next month. It would cover Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere.
Charles Village leaders began talking about the tax district five years ago after a 25-year-old engineer for Whitman Requardt and Associates was shot to death in a robbery as he begged for his life in his company's South Charles Village parking lot.
In the wake of the slaying, Thomas S. Shafer, administrative partner at Whitman Requardt, decided not to react like many business counterparts who have fled to the safer suburbs.
"We didn't leave town, and we're committed to Baltimore. We're stubborn. I think that reflects the attitude of a lot of residents of Charles Village. They're dedicated, stubborn people who are determined not to lose control of the community," says Mr. Shafer, who now is president of the board of the Charles Village Community Benefits District.
With the financially struggling city's sanitation and police services stretched thin, residents and business owners debated the need for the extra tax until it was enacted into law last year.
Benefits district leaders say it's too early to tell if the private Wackenhut Corp. security guards they hired have put a dent in crime, but they say the unarmed guards already have helped police make 14 arrests in shoplifting, burglary and auto theft.
The new tax district has brought dozens of residents to volunteer for projects, ranging from patrolling their alleys for sanitation violations to printing a neighborhood businesses directory.
The Johns Hopkins University and Union Memorial Hospital have joined the effort. Hopkins has donated $55,000, a security vehicle, and a guard to patrol part of the community near the university. Union Memorial has donated $5,000 toward a total benefits district budget of $435,000. The rest of the funds come from the tax.
The private guards patrol the community 10 to 12 hours a day, moving vagrants and panhandlers who loiter and escorting business people to the bank and residents to their homes.
The Greater Homewood Community Corp. also is coordinating with the benefits district to expand its Neighborhood Walkers program. Residents patrol their blocks at night with portable phones to call police.
The district covers the communities of Abell, Harwood, South and North Charles Village, as well as the Better Greenmount Business District.
Still fighting the tax
While dozens of volunteers have come forward to work on benefits district projects, others continue to fight the tax.
"It's a complete fraud and waste of time," says Grenville Whitman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and has refused to pay the tax.
"They have rent-a-cops running all over the place, and we've got a burglar running around our neighborhood now," he says.
He is trying to nullify the benefits district with a lawsuit pending in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where state legislators approved enabling legislation for the tax.
"It's like having a condo council running the city," says John Hubble, whose business is a plaintiff in the suit. He owns eight buildings with 45 apartments and a store in Charles Village.
The second tax is 30 cents for every $100 of assessed valuation. The city collects the benefits district tax in the same way it collects regular property taxes. Properties with taxes unpaid by next May will go to public auction.
"If the mayor wants to put my house up for sale for $150 in back taxes, he can feel free and feel real ashamed about that," Mr. Whitman says.
While opponents are fighting the tax, others say the benefits district is a good excuse to reclaim and rebuild the community.
Bob Speaker, who moved to the city a year ago from a rural community, voted against the benefits district, but has since become a booster, co-charing the sanitation committee, proofreading the news letter, painting the new office.
Michael Carpenter opened the AM to PM convenience store at St. Paul and 25th streets last spring after hearing private security guards would patrol the neighborhood. The guards have helped him catch a couple of shoplifters.
Geoffrey Arrowsmith doesn't live in Charles Village, but as a member of Lovely Lane Methodist Church on 2200 St. Paul St., he has joined a citizens patrol group, walking the South Charles Village community two to three nights a week.
"I'm totally sold on the philosophy that we can change," says Mr. Arrowsmith, who is interested in starting literacy programs in the community. "It's not anything that will come from the government. It's going to come from us," he says.