Officials provide better way to board up a vacant house City event calls attention to campaign against arson


Baltimore's officialdom gathered on a blighted block on the city's west side yesterday and celebrated something it usually doesn't brag about: how to better board up a vacant rowhouse.

With television cameras rolling, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke drove home a screw to secure a door-sized piece of plywood to the front of 3007 W. North Ave., a three-story brick house that is one of 13 vacant dwellings on the block. Two are occupied.

The idea was not to highlight urban decay -- though the mayor acknowledged that the strip of crumbling, Victorian-era structures should be demolished. It was to prevent vagrants and drug addicts from setting fires inside.

"Hopefully, people won't be able to pry these boards off with their hands," said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., demonstrating how screws will replace nails to secure the boards on an estimated 27,000 empty houses.

Williams and other city officials were joined by children from Edgewood Elementary School to bring attention to National Arson Awareness Week.

Last year, 546 arson fires were reported in Baltimore, causing $5.6 million in damage.

Hours before yesterday's news conference, a fire fueled by gasoline burned a vacant, boarded-up rowhouse in the 700 block of Dolphin St. Flames spread to the house next door, forcing a woman in a wheelchair to leave it. It was the second arson fire at that property in the past week.

Many of the fires, investigators say, are set in vacant dwellings by people who pry the boards off to gain entry.

Schmoke said yesterday that the south side of the 3000 block of W. North Ave. is a "prime candidate" for demolition. Five rowhouses were knocked down across the street last year after they were damaged by fire.

Yesterday's 15-minute event was big on flash and ceremony. The mayor handed out buttons and baseball caps with the slogan "Target Arson" to the children. He read a proclamation declaring this "Arson Week" in Baltimore, com- plete with a catch phrase: "Protect your neighbor."

Ronald Owens, president of the Greater Northwest Community Coalition, liked the new boards that were being installed but said people need homes.

"Marketing is the key," he said. "We don't want properties vacant."

The situation with the house at 3007 W. North Ave. -- assessed at $5,760 -- is typical. It is owned by an absentee landlord, Edward L. Johnson, who city officials say owes $831.08 in back taxes. Officials say they send his tax bill to 1721 W. Lafayette Ave. A man who answered the phone at that address said he had never heard of Johnson, who could not be reached for comment.

Schmoke stood in a drizzly rain on a patch of dirt covered with more broken glass than grass. He lamented the fate of a once-thriving block between Poplar Grove and Rosedale streets, now one of the busiest drug corridors in the city.

"Drugs have become the culture," Schmoke said, glancing at the street. "The police have made what must be thousands of arrests on these corners, but it doesn't change."

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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