City neighborhood's success story might be losing momentum After two-year drop in crime, reversal of trends raises concern

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charlene Love moved to a Formstone rowhouse in the 2000 block of McHenry St. two years ago, heartened by reports that this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood was growing safer. By late last year, she regretted it.

Drug dealers used the alley next to her house to hide their stashes of drugs and money. And late Monday, her husband was robbed at gunpoint outside their house. A half-hour later, a 19-year-old neighbor was shot to death in the alley, and Love began packing up her things. Her family, including three children, ages 7, 8 and 10, plans to move out this morning.

"I'm moving fast, because I don't feel safe," says Love, 28. "You can't afford to wait."

The slaying in the alley was the fifth homicide in Carrollton Ridge since March, according to police. The homicides, products of a startling string of shootings, are one sign that a neighborhood known as one of the city's few success stories in fighting crime may have lost some of its momentum.

"We're very concerned about the reversal of trends there," says Betsi Griffith, director of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice. "A number of small problems have become critical."

For more than two years, Carrollton Ridge has been the site of anti-crime initiatives that come closer than anything in the city to the highly praised New York model of policing. Under the strategy, each neighborhood is treated as a small town, where police foot patrols and tactical units work closely with residential groups, housing court lawyers and probation officers was not expected here! to deny drug dealers the space they need to operate.

Until this year, the results were striking: In 1996, crime dropped 22 percent in the neighborhood; 1997 statistics will likely show a similar decline when they are released next week, city officials say. In his book "Fixing Broken Windows," George Kelling, the criminologist who helped design New York's strategy, praised Southwest Baltimore as a model for the rest of Charm City to follow.

But the recent increase in shootings has offset a quiet January and February, leveling off crime statistics for the year. Interviews with police, residents and criminologists suggest that in this stagnant trend is a reminder of the importance of small details, and of individuals in fighting crime.

Key losses

In particular, Carrollton Ridge has experienced a series of key losses. The head of its recreation center retired. The local Community Law Center attorney, Amy Yontes-McGrath, who deftly fought to evict drug dealers from area homes, is on an extended maternity leave.

The neighborhood newsletter, a lively publication that boldly lists the addressees of drug houses, has not been published in six months. Cynthia Tensley, a former longtime civic association president, spends less time on neighborhood issues because of her new job at the city's Southwest Neighborhood Service Center. That represents a critical loss of experience, although residents say Tensley's successor, Connie Fowler, has been very active.

"There's no question we've lost momentum," Tensley says. "I think the neighborhood was doing more and we had more participation from residents when we didn't have all the government resources for fighting crime.

"People have gone back to the attitude that if it's not right at my front door, it's not my problem."

When Tensley moved to Carrollton Ridge 10 years ago, the neighborhood was being invaded by drug dealers, some from the streets of New York. By the early 1990s, the area -- a former white enclave that now includes a mix of white, black, Filipino and Vietnamese families -- was overrun with drugs.

But in 1995, Carrollton Ridge became one of several Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods targeted by the federally funded Comprehensive Communities Program, an effort to fight drug dealers by fixing any signs of disorder. Last year, that program turned into the state-financed hot spots initiative, which has similar goals.

An aberration

The crime drop has been so stunning that some residents believe the recent shootings will turn out to be an aberration. In 1994, Rick Zeskind, who owns a hardware store on the corner of McHenry and Payson streets, was so frustrated with crime that he made videotapes of dealers and prostitutes outside his front door and sent them to the Southern District police. Yesterday, he looked outside and smiled as he recalled that the open air drug market is gone.

Tony Sheppard, 37, a lead abatement contractor from Florida, bought a rowhouse in the 300 block of S. Payson St. last year. "I've got a mortgage on this place, and I have five children, all younger than 6," he says. "I feel pretty safe, and I don't expect to move again."

Much of that confidence is based on the neighborhood's experienced foot patrol officers, Stan Slide of the Southwest District and and Will Narango of the Southern District. Narango says he believes that crime will continue to decline but is nervous nonetheless.

The absence of lawyer Yontes-McGrath has made it more difficult for residents to follow up on drug arrests by evicting dealers, he says.

In recent months, Narango has seen drug dealers from East Baltimore move into Carrollton Ridge's static market -- in part, he suspects, to escape stronger police enforcement across town. "I think the Police Department has been a victim of its own success a little bit here," he says. "And the result is that in the past year, this neighborhood has become a more competitive drug market. So you see turf wars."

The reasons for the homicide this week in Carrollton Ridge are less clear. Tuesday, just after midnight, an unidentified gunman in a gray Acura Legend fired on David Nathan Briggs, 19, and two older friends, Emie Hawkins and Tommy Chandler, as they sat at the corner of Wilhelm and Pulaski streets. Briggs, who was known as Dee, tried to escape around the corner but was gunned down in the alley off McHenry Street.

Homicide Detective Donald E. Steinhice said yesterday that he did not know of a motive for the slaying but had several good leads. But also yesterday, word on the street was that Briggs had died not from a dispute over drugs or a fight over a girl, as police first suspected, but in a case of mistaken identity.

"The guy who shot us thought Dee had robbed him," said Chandler, 27, who was struck by a bullet in the middle toe of his left foot. "Of course, no one will know anything for sure until they interview the shooter."

Neighborhood vigil

About 50 neighbors held a vigil Tuesday night at the site of the shooting, and the spot was marked yesterday by roses, carnations, plastic doves and a stuffed blue lion with "Love" written across its stomach. Neighbors said they mourned because Briggs, once a troubled 10th-grade dropout, had lately shown signs of promise.

A week before the shooting, Briggs registered at the Southwest Career Center, where Deborah Holland, an account executive, signed him up for an assessment test and a painting apprenticeship program. The painter's job would have eventually paid $14 an hour.

"He impressed me," says Lamar "Bird" Kauffman, an instructor at the center. "Lots of people say they want to change, but he seemed very serious about improving his life and getting off the street."

Outside his home in the 1800 block of Ramsay St. yesterday, James "Reds" Swinson expressed anger at the man who he believes killed his brother. He also heard cryptic warnings from neighbors that he, too, might be in danger.

Briggs' close friend Ann Scott, 24, fought back tears as she described a man who loved to pinch her and filch chocolate chip cookies from Deborah Helmick next door.

Friends looked through a black composition book Briggs kept of vTC rap songs he had written -- a book he never let his friends see while he was alive. The songs detail his anger at white people ("devil whores," he calls them), his love of his pit bull China (who delivered a litter of seven in May) and his ambitions to be a music star.

"But yo I definitely got the skills

"And I'm a show it

"Till everybody across the globe know it."

On the sidewalk, friends laid out what they said was a tribute to their friend and their neighborhood: five empty malt liquor bottles, arranged in the shape of a cross.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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