The children walk at dawn through the wreckage of "Zombieland."
Past the skeletal forms of sleeping heroin addicts. Down alleys heaped with trash and bottles and the leavings of wandering squatters.
Around and through the three gutted rowhouses on Chase Street -- dank, dark hovels of neglect haunting the children's only remaining haven.
The trio of scorched and vacant hulks is the last thing 350 children see each morning before entering Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, and the first thing they see when they file out their red schoolhouse door at 3 o'clock for the trek home through East Baltimore's busiest narcotics bazaar.
"You try to teach your kids self-respect and responsibility, and every day they have to look at this," laments Willie Capers, a construction worker who escorts his two boys at sunrise each day through the menacing 8th Ward to the safety of school.
Leon, 10, and Dionna, 7, wave goodbye to their father over their bobbing backpacks as they disappear inside.
"It's a bad message for little kids to be getting," Capers says. "Somebody owns these dumps, right? Somebody is supposed to be responsible for them. Somebody should pay for this."
The three abandoned houses have become symbols in a neighborhood despairing for answers -- glaring evidence that their suffering is unnoticed.
At no other school in the city, they say, is such flagrant neglect tolerated from adjoining property owners.
"Does anybody out there care what's going on down here?" asks Donna Money, president of the fledgling Lakewood Chase Community Association and a teacher in the city's school system.
"We're past desperate," echoes Doris L. Graham, principal of the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school. "It's pretty close to the worst environment around any school in the city. And those three houses across the street are just the beginning of it."
Behind the crumbled facades is a story of greed, lost dreams and forgotten good intentions.
The beautiful old days
Pearl Drummond, 79, may be the only person left in the 2300 block of E. Chase who remembers the way things used to be.
"It was a beautiful neighborhood when I first got here, beautiful, just beautiful," says Drummond, a retired packer at the Maryland Cup Co. and the last homeowner on the street.
But that was 34 years ago, before her neighbors started dying off. Before the slumlords and real estate profiteers moved in.
Before drug hustlers discovered the neighborhood's peculiar topography -- a compact grid of narrow alleys and dead-end streets that forms a ready-made lair with scores of entry and escape routes.
Today, the same features that once made this a secure enclave of working-class families built around a verdant park have transformed it into what police say is one of the most entrenched criminal strongholds in the city.
As she describes three decades of decline, Drummond's words catch in her throat.
"Used to be you could eat off the ground, it was so clean," Drummond says. "The kids could play outside without worrying about them.
"People planted flowers. In the summertime, you could sit out all night long if you wanted to. Now, well, I don't go outside anymore. I live inside. What's in here is all that's left."
Inside, her four grandchildren vie for a box of cereal at the kitchen table as the television murmurs quietly in the living room.
Outside, rheumy-eyed junkies emerge from the alleys in the slanting orange light of morning, listing onto Chase Street on wobbly legs, sucking their breakfast from malt-liquor bottles.
Three Eastern District patrol cars idle in the middle of the road, guarding the parade of children streaming toward Rayner Browne in the crisp blue-and-white uniforms that Principal Graham insists they wear.
Taking it all in, a gaunt woman in oily clothes sits on the steps of the abandoned house at 2316, her arms wrapped tightly around her shivering body.
"I don't live here," she says, breathing through the stub of a cigarette. "Sometimes I sleep here, but I don't live here."
She doesn't want to give her name. She doesn't know who owns the house she slept in last night, or the one next to that, or the one next to that. Nobody else in the neighborhood does, either.
"If you figure that out, please call the city," Drummond pleads. "Call anybody who will help us. Somebody has to get after these people."
String of uncaring owners
When Milton Tillman Jr. first laid eyes on 2316 E. Chase St. in 1990, he was not looking for a home.
A stocky longshoreman with a checkered past, Tillman was an inveterate scam artist.
Now 42, he is serving a four-year sentence in federal prison for tax evasion and obstruction of justice in a scheme to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from his nightclub and bail bond company.
To do that, court records show, he set up a web of real estate companies -- through which he funneled cash for the purchase of 31 rental properties across the city, including a package of 16 houses he bought in August 1990.
Among those was 2316 E. Chase.
When Tillman bought the house, records show, it had been an eyesore on the block for years, part of a staggering portfolio of more than 600 slum properties owned by a pair of Washington, D.C., investors named Max Berg and Jerome Golub.
Berg and Golub did not return repeated phone calls and hand-delivered messages to their homes and business addresses last week.
Within a decade of entering the Baltimore rental market in 1978, Berg and Golub were described by city attorneys in lawsuits as )) among "the most frequently prosecuted landlords" in Baltimore and the owners of a "truly aberrant operation" that sought to dodge enforcement by shuffling houses like so many playing cards between dozens of corporations.
The little house on East Chase fell into their hands just two years after Rayner Browne Elementary opened with the motto "Rayner Ravens -- Soaring to Higher Levels of Education."
Since then, the two men and their various companies have been named as defendants in more than 400 lawsuits by disgruntled investors, former tenants claiming lead paint poisoning and city lawyers seeking to condemn their houses.
And the trend has continued under Tillman's ownership.
He has been named as a defendant in more than 70 lawsuits. Even now, behind bars in a federal prison, he is fighting off city lawyers trying to seize his properties for failure to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes.
On 2316 E. Chase alone, he owes the city more than $7,000 -- roughly twice what the house is worth.
Larry Caplan, a Towson attorney who is representing Tillman in his feud with the city, says "it is a reasonable inference" that his client intends to rehabilitate the house.
"He has outstanding mortgages on these properties," says Caplan. "For obvious reasons, he is simply trying to preserve his investment and hang onto his capital."
One problem that Tillman has faced in keeping up his houses, Caplan said, is that many are near blighted properties owned by the Baltimore Housing Authority, which amassed some 3,000 such dwellings over the years in a failed rehabilitation experiment.
Tillman's little house on Chase Street sits next door to a fire-gutted rowhouse at 2318 owned by the authority since 1977. By far the worst property on the block, the charred shell overlooks Rayner Browne's schoolyard. It, too, is wide open, littered with bent syringes and drug vials, and reeking of urine -- a well-used heroin den.
"No landlord in the city wants to spend money fixing a house that's anywhere near a blighted property," Caplan says, "for the simple reason that the blight will likely spread and destroy [the] investment.
"It's a particularly egregious problem when the party that owns the most blighted houses in the city is also the party who is prosecuting everybody else for the same violations. It puts landlords in an impossible position. They're damned if they do, and damned if they don't."
Fetid nests of drug traffic
As for the neighbors and the students at Rayner Browne, they're confronted every day by more than a dozen open, abandoned houses on Chase Street and adjoining blocks that have become fetid nests for dope addicts and their suppliers.
"This is not rocket science," sputters Money of the local civic association. "The city needs to tear these places down, now, before the drug dealers just take over the neighborhood.
"As it is, they're handing out money to the old folks to keep them quiet and buying candy for the kids after school."
One hundred years after the birth of the school's namesake -- Dr. Grafton Rayner Browne, who founded the city's first black-owned health clinic in East Baltimore and dispensed medical care for 50 cents a visit until his death in 1973 -- it comes to this.
In July, envoys of the corner drug gangs offered Money $500 to pay for her civic association's block party barbecue.
"It's completely out of control," acknowledges Sgt. Marvin Froneberger, who oversees police services in the neighborhood. Because it's in the area of a school, it's got the highest priority.
"So we've been hitting it, and hitting it hard, for over a year -- dozens of arrests.
"But every one we arrest is replaced by 10 more. It's just an ideal location for drug dealing, especially with all those vacant houses there."
Says Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier: "This is obviously a complex problem that will take some time. But the residents over there need to know that we will never abandon their neighborhood, period. That will not happen."
A problem so apparent, residents say, demands attention that has been slow in coming.
The reason, city officials say, is that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
Years of work ahead
Dozens of corporations, heirs, banks and long-gone individuals hold shares in the decrepit houses around Rayner Browne, records show. Extinguishing their rights will take months, if not years, of legal work.
The city Housing Department has identified more than 1,000 dwellings in East Baltimore alone that it wants to demolish by next year. Included are entire blocks of houses on Montford, Port and Bradford streets immediately adjoining the school, along with the burned-out hulk at 2318 E. Chase.
"No one is blind to what that neighborhood is going through," says Zack Germroth, city housing spokesman. "It's on every radar screen out there. But it won't happen overnight."
The Housing Department has more than doubled the number of lawyers tracking down and prosecuting landlords to five, plus two paralegals. Lawsuits and property seizures have exploded by 325 percent -- flooding court dockets with almost 1,400 new cases since January.
The aim: to obliterate at least 2,800 slum houses citywide by the end of next year.
"This is a full-scale assault on the problem," Germroth says. "We have lists extending to the year 2003." But it will probably be the 2000 before that campaign reaches the door of Rayner Browne Elementary and its 350 students.
Michael Seipp, the head of a nonprofit group charged with infusing $35 million in Housing Department money into East Baltimore, said the neighborhood was just added to his list last summer.
He points to early signs of success in nearby wards: cleaner streets, new parks and vegetable gardens, scores of decrepit houses demolished.
"But we're not doing the residents over there any good by lying to them," he says. "What little we've been able to do in that area has been undone by the addicts 24 hours after we leave.
"It'll be another 18 months before we can make a big enough push to make it stick. It's Zombieland -- the worst of the worst."
Sun staff researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this story.
Pub Date: 10/04/98