In the backyard of a rowhouse on North Lakewood Avenue, "Buster" and "Baby" romp on a bald patch of dirt, chomping on rats. Around-the-clock, rain or shine, the pit bull and his Rottweiler companion run in their pen behind Gloria Owens' house.
The rats live in the mound of garbage next door -- the wretched remains of a succession of families who have moved in and out of the three neighboring rental houses over the past five years.
"If it wasn't for my dogs, my house would be full of them by now," says Mrs. Owens, 35. "Sometimes you can hear them burrowing in the trash over there, chewing their way through the doors. But nobody seems to care. Not the tenants or the landlords or the city."
For Mrs. Owens and other homeowners in this integrated working-class neighborhood east of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the landfills behind their homes are monuments to five years of bungling in a city-run federal housing program that doles out rent certificates to the poor. It has brought hundreds of such families to the once-tidy streets around Patterson Park, shattering the quality of life.
Now, the sudden decline of a community that has been a bulwark of progress in East Baltimore for 20 years is setting off alarms among urban affairs experts.
Into a one-square-mile community of 10,000 rowhouses, city records show, 736 families armed with $600-a-month rental certificates from the Housing Authority have settled. It is almost double the number five years ago -- and more are on their way -- rapidly approaching the total population of the six 11-story towers in the recently demolished Lafayette Courts housing projects.
But the city had no idea until last week that so many families had descended on the neighborhood, because the authority never tracked where the certificate-holders moved.
Operating with an antiquated records system and a shortage of inspectors, the authority nonetheless took millions of dollars from the federal government to manage the rental program and diverted it to drug programs in its faltering public housing complexes. As a result, it has been unable to gauge the impact of certificate families on neighborhoods or to intercede when things go wrong.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who inherited the program when he took over the agency two years ago, said the failings kept him from seeing until recently the magnitude of the problem in Baltimore neighborhoods like Patterson Park.
"The residents are absolutely right," he says. "We have been effectively dumping these families on them and we can't continue to do that."
Coupled with the sheer number of certificates, the lack of supervision has let problem families run amok. Civic associations seeking to identify the worst offenders have been stymied by privacy laws and the authority's poor record-keeping. Now, even responsible tenants, some of whom have joined homeowners in the fight to save the neighborhood, find themselves coming under suspicion.
One family traced by the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative destroyed at least three houses before being forced out in August, records show.
Meanwhile, the incidence of graffiti and vandalism -- not to mention gang violence and drug murders -- has exploded. A community that recorded six homicides for all of 1990 has logged that many so far this year on North Rose Street alone.
As if to underscore the situation, police swooped in last month with warrants charging 58 people with membership in a drug gang linked to 60 shootings and three homicides. The youngest, a 10-year-old named Issac, was from a certificate family.
Almost overnight, homeowners have watched the deterioration of the neighborhood cut their property values in half, city real estate and tax records show.
In the past year alone, 23 houses on a six-block length of North Rose Street have sold for as low as $8,000 -- mostly to investors seeking the above-market rents the certificates offer. On a street where seven out of 10 homes were owned by residents in 1990, every other address now sits boarded up or occupied by renters.
As slum landlords and tenants have reduced one rowhouse after another to ruined shells, city officials have refused to intervene -- even though taxpayers are covering the rent.
"A lot of these families are people you would be proud to have as neighbors," says Tracey LaBonte, a 29-year-old civic organizer. "But the program itself draws some of the slimiest landlords around. And when we go to the Housing Authority to complain, they tell us the lease is a private relationship between the landlord and the tenant, and there's nothing they can do about it.
"Basically, the city has been standing by while the neighborhood gets torn down. And our money, our tax dollars, are paying for it."
In the 600 block of Lakewood Avenue, Mrs. Owens has charted the decline by the size of the garbage mound in the alley beneath her kitchen window.
Each departing family has left behind another soaked mattress, threadbare couch or busted toilet bowl. And the landlords shovel plaster and broken glass on top of that, Mrs. Owens says, boarding up their units until another hapless rental family comes along.
"We have it all," she says, "rats in the winter, roaches and flies in the summer, junkies all year round. But I'll tell you this, they ain't gonna make me move. I still remember what this neighborhood was like five years ago. And there's no reason we can't take it back if the city would just stop undercutting everything we do."
Defiant civic pride
It comes as some consolation to Gloria Owens and her neighbors that the urban policy experts downtown agree with them.
In their offices high above the city, the professionals say the fight to save the neighborhood may well predict the future of Baltimore.
"There are communities like this all over the city -- and the suburbs for that matter -- that have been carrying the load for years with very little government help," says Joe McNeely of the nonprofit Community Planning and Housing Association. "They can't be expected to make up for huge mistakes by local government."
From Eastern Avenue north to Monument Street, from Washington Street east to Highland Avenue -- in neighborhoods such as Patterson Park and McElderry Park and Butcher's Hill -- a defiant civic pride continues to burn against all odds.
Until now, the neighborhood has been best known as one of a few places in the city where black and white neighbors have managed to live together in something approaching harmony.
"Is it inevitable that our inner-city neighborhoods are doomed to become all poor and black and dysfunctional?" asks Dr. Lenneal Henderson, an urban studies scholar at the University of Baltimore. "I think Patterson Park proves it's not -- as long as black folks and white folks of good intention are still standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
"The last thing city government should be doing is making it harder for them. If we lose them, you can throw all the social programs you want against the wall and they're not going to stick. And we will deserve what we get."
The source of the neighborhood's strength, residents say, is that it has been fighting for so long -- ever since the 1968 riots sparked by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That upheaval sparked a wave of white flight in Patterson Park as the offspring of blue-collar Polish, Russian and German immigrants sold their Formstone homes for a song to real estate speculators.
"Parts of the neighborhood went from something like 90 percent owner-occupied to half that, then half again, in a matter of a few years," says Mike Braswell, 47. "By the time we got here, it had all the makings of a slum."
Mr. Braswell was among a wave of idealists who came to the city's aid, forming an alphabet-soup of do-gooder groups with names like NHS, SCAR, SECO and BANNER. They found a rallying point in the green acres of Patterson Park -- the emerald jewel that binds a dozen neighborhoods.
Mike Braswell quit his job at Union Trust to work for Neighborhood Housing Services,
NHS cajoled banks to contribute to a mortgage fund, called on private foundations to donate money for closing costs and persuaded real estate companies to bring their clients in for a chat.
By 1986, the group was overseeing 500 mortgages worth $5 million in the neighborhood, giving it control over about 5 percent of the housing stock.
Then, as the community rebounded, the banks started cutting deals on their own, doling out about $100 million in loans to individual borrowers. Home ownership rose from 30 percent to as high as 70 percent. In little more than a decade, the neighborhood was transformed into a thriving community of young families, white-collar workers and government employees
-- and integrated as well.
Between the old, white ethnic stronghold of Highlandtown to the south and the crumbling black ghetto of Middle East to the north, ordinary people were carrying out a fragile experiment in race relations that appeared to be working.
In a neighborhood of 60 percent white and 35 percent black residents, everything from the schools to the civic associations began to reflect a healthy racial mix.
"By 1986, we declared victory," says Mike Braswell. "We closed down our operations here and moved on to other neighborhoods."
Making a stand
The new residents flocked to civic meetings, voted with a vengeance and hounded absentee landlords with vigilante zeal.
They were people like Gloria Owens, who opened a deli at Monument and Rose streets that became a hub of neighborhood gossip and a listening post for civic groups.
Three blocks south, there was Caroline "Flash" Jones, a laid-off steel worker who moved into a house on Jefferson Street with her two children, opened a flower shop in the garage and took responsibility for sweeping her entire block twice a day.
Two blocks west on Milton Avenue, a prison guard named Glenn Ross, struggling to raise two little girls as a single parent, renovated his three-story rowhouse and crusaded to shut down a nearby horse stable that was stinking up the neighborhood.
And down on the edge of the park, Ed Rutkowski, a computer analyst for United Parcel Service, moved into a corner rowhouse on Baltimore Street with his wife and began making his first forays into civic activism as a member of the Baltimore-Linwood Association.
"I think we all realized that this was the place we had to make a stand," says Mr. Rutkowski. "If we were going to prove that the idea of an integrated city could work, we had to prove it in transitional neighborhoods like this one. There was an idealism and a belief that we could do it.
"Of course, that all seems like a hundred years ago now."
Mrs. Owens' deli is closed, a casualty of the drug violence that has turned the 700 block of North Rose into a 24-hour gallery of horrors. But Flash Jones is still hanging tough in her flower shop. And Glenn Ross and Ed Rutkowski now work full-time at saving the neighborhood.
"You basically got two options -- quit or get angry -- and my father never taught me how to quit," says Ms. Jones, 45.
A beating and its aftermath
The event that brought them all rising to the fight was the 1991 baseball-bat beating of a young Puerto Rican boy named Pedro Lugo, who was jumped by a gang of black kids as he walked near the park outside Ed Rutkowski's house. He survived, but with brain damage.
The incident brought simmering concerns roiling to the surface. Civic association meetings erupted in angry finger-pointing. Black and white neighbors stopped talking to each other.
"It was like the whole community got amnesia and forgot what we were supposed to be about," recalls Mr. Ross, 46. "People were suspicious of everything you said. It was a real low point for us."
But there was no denying that the neighborhoods' delicate balance of race and class had somehow tilted abruptly for reasons no one could quite explain.
Worse, city real estate records show that home values in parts of McElderry Park were sagging. Farther south in Patterson Park and Butcher's Hill, they were barely holding even.
"It was like we looked back over our shoulder to see how things were going and found that 15 years of progress was kind of
slipping away," says Mike Braswell of NHS.
"We're still not quite sure what happened."
The answers are only now emerging from the Housing Authority in the form of raw numbers and rough estimates. And they have Commissioner Henson seeing red.
In 1989, four years before he assumed control of the agency, the number of rental certificates issued by the authority to the poor began to climb -- from about 6,900 to almost 9,000 today.
Families had to agree to pay part of their rent; the authority would use $52 million in federal money to pay the balance, up to about $600 a month, provided the property passed an annual inspection.
In East Baltimore, the destination of choice became Patterson Park, which the Housing Authority didn't realize until last week when it counted the certificates for the first time, says authority spokesman Zack Germroth.
Further, despite the increase in required housing inspections, the authority decreased the number of inspectors from 16 in 1990 to 14 today. Inspectors now ride herd over an average of 643 units apiece -- leaving them to perform three inspections a day just to keep up with current inventories.
The reduction in inspectors has come even though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been paying the city an extra $1 million a year to oversee the program. The authority acknowledged that it has diverted the money to anti-drug programs in housing projects.
Finally, the city has used the rental certificates to relocate some families displaced by the demolition of its public housing high-rises.
Former residents of Lafayette Courts say lists of rental properties in the Patterson Park neighborhoods were posted in their building in the months before the wrecking date.
And, as if to add insult to injury, a University of Maryland study released last week revealed that the largest owner of rental units in Patterson Park is none other than the city of Baltimore. A byproduct of tax foreclosures and failed housing experiments, the city holds title to 195 units, many of them boarded shells.
Commissioner Henson is angry about the damage his agency has done in the neighborhood. "It is a problem I have only #F recently become aware of, and I'm learning more about it every day," he says, adding that he understands why residents are upset. "This should not be happening."
He skirts the question of who's responsible, dodging questions about predecessors, saying, "I'm the one who's in charge now, I'm the one who has to fix it."
He vows to hire more inspectors, to send counselors into the neighborhoods to work with families, to track problem tenants with a new computer system and "throw them into the street if necessary." Henceforth, he says, landlords who keep shabby properties will be paid reduced rents.
"In a year, they're going to be screaming bloody murder," he promises.
Looking for signs of hope
For now, residents find hope in the small progress they see around them.
Tom and Nancy Dowling, husband-and-wife developers from Lutherville, have been gutting dozens of slum houses in the last three years, renovating them at $30,000 a pop and renting them to responsible certificate families.
Their goal, like Mike Braswell's a decade ago, is to elevate the quality of the neighborhood by buying cheap from slumlords and selling high to homeowners when property values rise.
At the same time, some certificate families are beginning to organize their fellow renters to help save the neighborhood.
Ike Neal, a 58-year-old laborer disabled by a knee injury, moved onto Montford Avenue last summer with his wife and three little boys. Each day, he leads his sons down the back alley to clean up the crack vials and beer bottles left by the drug gangs.
"A lot of these families have been suffering for a long time," he says. "They're scared to death when they come into a neighborhood like this. Something needs to be done to turn them into an asset for Patterson Park instead of a liability. And I mean to try."
Then, there are the homeowners. They've formed another community action group -- the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative -- and they're attempting to draw together the tattered remains of the civic associations that have fought to save these streets so many times before.
The unofficial command center is Ed Rutkowski's dining room. The forward observation post is Glenn Ross' front steps. Gloria XTC Owens works the streets.
"You take what you can get and you build from there," says Mr. Ross, the veteran of the stinking stable wars. "We've done it before, and we can do it again -- as long as there's a few good people willing to keep on swinging."