They're a visible vestige of the city's drive to demolish houses: Bricks, wood, toilets, beer bottles and rusted appliances. Piled high for all to see.

In some spots, these rubble lots literally have become the neighbor next door -- unmoved for weeks, sometimes months. Cats and children and scavengers pick at the clutter daily.

"It's sickening to me," said Lawrence Stith, who lives near a month-old pile in the 3000 block of W. North Ave. "Goodness, clean them up. Nobody wants to live next to this."

The piles have grown and remained during the accelerated demolition campaign launched by Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. In a city with an aging housing stock that includes 40,000 vacant or decaying properties, Henson aims to knock down 1,000 houses this year. If he does, he will have razed more houses since taking office in 1993 than his predecessors did in the preceding eight years.

Henson says the demolition effort is removing dangerous, long-vacant structures. But for the residents living with the mess that lingers for weeks or months after the cranes roll away, it doesn't much look like progress.

Now, amid residents' complaints and after a Sun series on the city's vacant and blighted housing, the Department of Public Works is launching an attack on the rubble piles.

This week, the agency unleashed a crew of 25 workers and 10 to 15 trucks in a quest to clear all the demolition debris scattered throughout Baltimore -- in two weeks' time.

The city is targeting 36 sites that encompass the demolished remains of 173 properties. Under the goal, they'll all be cleared by the end of next week.

"Essentially, demolition occurs in cycles," said Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman. "Sometimes we get a little bit ahead -- and sometimes a little bit behind. We're a little bit behind. And we're cleaning up these lots we've fallen slightly behind on."

Kocher said most buildings on the 173 targeted trash lots had been torn down in March or April. But a few, he acknowledged, had been there since February -- and in two cases, since December.

Take the 300 block of N. Arlington Ave., where four houses were demolished Feb. 28. There, neighbors encounter a huge pile of bricks, boards with nails sticking out and old furniture. Residents say children climb atop the heap, which they fear will attract only trash -- and rats.

"My uncle has been calling down to City Hall for days, asking them to move this," said one resident, Darnell Brown.

Like the 3000 block of W. North Ave., the 300 block of Arlington is on the city's cleanup list.

'A matter of balancing'

Asked why so many debris piles had remained, Kocher said: "These crews are also involved in a myriad of other important work for the city. If there's something that has to be done on the roads, they will be working on that. It's a matter of balancing with the resources at hand.

"We're really busting our tail out there to make this city one of the cleanest in the country. Our goal is to make it the cleanest for a city our size," Kocher said.

He adds: "So removing the rubble is, of course, going to improve the aesthetics."

As crews hustle to clear the bricks and wood, a natural question arises: Does the city have the mechanism in place to pick up the houses as quickly as Henson's Department of Housing and Community Development orders them torn down?

Henson's spokesman has a succinct answer: No.

"The ideal situation would be to tear them down and pick them up the next day," said Zack Germroth. "But that doesn't occur. We're going to be going through this for a long time to come."

He said the more pressing concern for the city is to topple the vacant houses that have become safety hazards.

"We have a much safer and more manageable situation with them on the ground and that's what we want to do -- get these emergencies on the ground," said Germroth.

Faster clean-up

But, as it presses to quickly clear the 173 properties, public works also is trying to avoid long-standing piles. From now on, Kocher said, the agency will aim to clear up demolition lots within two weeks after the house is razed.

"Two weeks from here on in -- that's our goal and we believe we can stick to it," Kocher said. "It's our policy to get out there ASAP."

That would be a clear improvement over previous practice.

Drive throughout the city, and the lots rise in ready view.

At 3502 Clifton Ave., a wood pile rises from a demolition in early March. In the 1100 block of Sargeant St., two separate piles remain from March 13 demolitions. And in the 1400 block of Argyle Ave. stands a pile from a demolition in early February.

No quarrel with demolition

Often, residents say they don't quarrel with the city tearing buildings down in the first place. Henson's department is knocking houses down after a decades-long exodus of residents has dropped Baltimore's population from nearly 1 million to 675,000. The vacant houses left behind sometimes become safety hazards -- or hideaways for drug users and criminals.

Stith, who lives on an alley street behind the demolished remains on West North Avenue, said drug dealers had been using the vacant boarded houses in 3006-3014 W. North Ave. as a safe haven from police. "They needed them down," he said.

Still, the pile of trash left after the March 26 demolition raises a new set of concerns. On Wednesday, the rubble -- one of two brick piles in the same block of West North -- stood several feet high. Several cats had made the heap their home, squirreling away inside a box atop the mess.

"They tore it down before Easter -- and haven't been out to clean it up," Stith said Wednesday. "The rats are using the dump site. People are dumping their trash there. Hey, I live right here."

Pub Date: 4/25/97

Sun staff writers Marilyn McCraven and Brenda J. Buote contributed to this article.

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