Daily struggle for the street; Greenmount: Five years after a high-profile drug sweep, people who live and work in the Midway neighborhood say it's nearly as bad as ever.


Perched on a stool in front of the clothing store he owns, Haleem Iba Musa surveys one of Baltimore's most chaotic streets -- Greenmount Avenue, in the heart of the city's Midway neighborhood.

"I see it every day," he says: the "daily struggle" to survive this street.

It was Greenmount Avenue -- a forlorn, desperate stretch of empty lots, boarded-up rowhouses and rundown corner stores north of Green Mount Cemetery -- that outgoing Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had vowed to reclaim from drug dealers after he took the post 5 1/2 years ago.

On March 19, 1994, Frazier led 100 officers in a highly publicized sweep through the street, known then as the worst in Baltimore for violent crime and drugs. After the raid -- which netted scores of arrests and convictions, guns and drugs -- the new chief confidently promised that the police would establish a "hold" on Greenmount Avenue during his tenure. It would be a much safer place, he said. The neighborhood would have a chance to bounce back.

This week, Frazier prepares to leave Baltimore for the Justice Department, where he will be the director of Community Oriented Police

Services. As he does, his vow to take back Greenmount -- which Frazier heralds as a promise fulfilled and one of his greatest accomplishments as commissioner -- rings hollow to Iba Musa and many others living or working here.

While Frazier and his department claim that this part of Greenmount is far safer than before the raid, most people interviewed in the neighborhood this week say the atmosphere is nearly as bad as in 1993, when the street was at its worst.

Still, few say they are willing to blame Frazier, or his officers, for not meeting the goal. Most noted that the neighborhood's core problems -- unemployment, widespread housing woes, inadequate social services and, most of all, drug addiction -- run so deep that even the most forceful effort by the police was bound to have only a short-term effect.

'Back like before'

Iba Musa -- who sits, walks and talks with a solemn, sure confidence -- commands respect in his neighborhood. Perhaps, he says, it's because he once lived in and out of trouble, and knows how rough it is to survive here. The neighborhood's problems are "back like before," he says. "The dealing, the drugs, kids caught up in the game, the violence. The cops come in, the dealers just shuffle over to another street and do their thing there. But who's to blame? There's no jobs, no programs to help, no hope.

The Police Department insists the 1994 raid has done its job: forcing dealers off the street, cutting deeply into violent crime, sending a message that resounds even today.

"The raid was a major success," says Lt. Errol Etting, who oversees the Greenmount Avenue neighborhood. "That's not to say that there's not a great deal of dealing, but you used to have lines of 80 to 90 people in an open-air drug market. Not anymore. It used to be the part of the city with the most violent crime. Not anymore. It was out of control back in 1993; now we've changed that."

Police statistics back him up. While figures from 1994 were not readily available, crime statistics from the first eight months of 1999 compared with the same period last year show significant declines in several key categories. The number of reported rapes was cut 55.6 percent (from nine to four). Robberies and assaults, which include nonfatal shootings, dropped 20.4 percent (from 103 to 82) and 14.9 percent (from 74 to 63), respectively.

Still, for a small neighborhood -- bordered by North Avenue to the south, 25th Street to the north, and Homewood and Guilford avenues to the east and west -- the numbers are disquieting. In addition, burglaries were up 20 percent, which Maj. James L. Hawkins Jr., the commander of the city's Eastern District and Etting's superior, attributes to break-ins at the neighborhood's many vacant rowhouses.

Looking for help

Hawkins says his officers have maintained the peace in the neighborhood. Still, he admits that he's looking for help from the public and private sectors.

The neighborhood may soon be designated a crime "hot spot" by the state, qualifying it for money to pay for additional officers and providing state parole and probation agents to team up with officers in the community, Hawkins says.

Hawkins believes that the private sector has not done its part to help Midway after the raid made the area safer for bigger business to move in. In late 1996, a Rite-Aid drugstore went up at North and Greenmount avenues. But no other large corporations have followed. Hawkins laments that McDonald's never came through on plans to build there. McDonald's officials came to the neighborhood, toured a site and planted a garden two years ago, Hawkins says. "I haven't heard from them since."

Assurances hold little weight

The crime statistics and assurances from police that things are getting better hold little weight with the people living here. Little has changed for them. Most everyone here, says one young mother, is living a life of desperation.

Desperation to survive and not get caught up in the violence. Desperation, in a place with few jobs, to make money by selling "murder," the current code word for drugs here. Desperation to escape the ugliness with a cheap, quick high.

Ask the people who live here whether they feel "much safer," says the young mother, who declined to give her name.

Talk to Robert Wright, an elderly man who lives in a rowhouse a few paces from the corner at the focus of the 1994 raid. Wright says the desperation is matched by fear. Two months ago, he says, bullets ricocheted through his front window. It's a sign, he says. The "young kids are out of hand again."

Check with Wright's former neighbor, Lillian Cooper, 72, who says she decided to move from the rowhouse where she lived for 46 years when "the bad guys" came back. "It got to the point where I couldn't sit on my steps," says Cooper, who now lives on a quiet street in North Baltimore. Here visiting her daughter, Cooper says she doesn't much enjoy coming back. "Too much uncertainty," she says. "You never know what's going to happen."

Walk the streets with Sandi McFadden-Gboyah, executive director of the East Baltimore Midway Community Development Inc., which is working to remodel rowhouses, bring back homeowners and help revitalize services in the neighborhood.

At first, the 1994 sweep brought real change, says McFadden-Gboyah, who firmly supports the work police have done. "But quite frankly, the problems have mostly returned," she says.

Despite claims by police that the large, open-air drug markets have been squashed, McFadden-Gboyah says about a month ago she happened upon a sight that saddened her more than usual on Greenmount Avenue. It was a "tester," a highly organized way for drug dealers to attract new clientele by offering free samples of their latest shipments of heroin or cocaine.

At least 70 people were lined up for the giveaways, she says. They stood in an empty lot for the drugs; calm and patient, "just like they were waiting in the teller line at the bank."

This week, walking with a reporter down Greenmount Avenue -- through throngs of people hanging out, around piles of garbage, by teen-ager boys sorting wads of dollar bills and past pairs of drug dealers -- McFadden-Gboyah stops at the foot of a large, nearly completed mural across from St. Anne's Catholic Church at 22nd Street.

Third-graders from nearby Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary, walking in the neighborhood with their teacher, have gathered at the mural's base. They look up in awe at the colorful montage of a happy, healthy neighborhood being created on the wall.

'This makes me feel better'

McFadden-Gboyah smiles at what she calls a sign of hope: the mural, erected with the help of local community groups; the young children -- full of smiles and brightness and promise -- gazing at it. The police, she says, are working hard, but they can only do so much.

"This makes me feel better," she says. "Grass-roots efforts like the mural, and these kids." These are the real keys, she says, to bringing about a full-time revival on Greenmount Avenue.

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/30/99

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