Community fighting for Brooklyn Heights; Residents try to clean neighborhood; seek HotSpot funding


Joan Fisher's minivan crawls along the alley behind First Street in Brooklyn Heights.

The way Fisher sees it, the back yards of the World War II-era red brick rowhouses tell the story of this troubled Anne Arundel county neighborhood, just south of the Baltimore City line.

"Oh, my God have mercy, look at this," says Fisher, pulling up beside a prominent collection of debris encircled by buzzing flies: two mattresses, an upended couch, a rug, toys, empty pizza boxes.

Two doors down, an old tree shades a small manicured lawn and an inviting patio area with wrought iron furniture.

"This disintegration of the neighborhood, it's horrible," said Fisher, a First Street resident and 35-year-old mother of three. "But some people have really worked very hard. They've dug their heels in and said, 'We're not going to give in to all this mess.' They're going to continue to fight."

The fighters are pinning their hopes on Brooklyn Heights' inclusion in the state's 2-year-old HotSpot Community Initiative program, which awards extra money for law enforcement, zoning inspection and other community improvement services to crime-ridden communities. The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention will announce 36 new HotSpot areas next month, doubling the size of the program.

State officials base their selections on the severity of crime and fear of crime in an area, and a community's strategy for reducing crime.

HotSpot supporters in Brooklyn Heights are counting on the additional help to reverse the decline of a once-thriving neighborhood that over the past decade has been eroded by drugs, rundown rental properties and prostitution.

Despite the severity of Brooklyn Height's problems, Lt. Jason Little, of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's Northern District, sees hope.

"There are a lot of good, decent working people here, and they're sick and tired of all the stuff that goes on," Little said. "They want to see a difference."

Fisher first moved to Brooklyn Heights as a teen-ager, moved out in 1984 when she got married and returned two years later to care for her mother, who had cancer.

"We were able to buy a house really cheaply and decided to stay," said Fisher, who said low mortgage payments allowed her to stay home with her three children, now 10, 11 and 13. Her husband, Jeff, commutes to work at the Pentagon in northern Virginia and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in information systems.

"It's never been an ideal place, but it's convenient and the school system is great." Fisher said. "We put a fence up so the children wouldn't have to deal with what goes on outside. We had to barricade ourselves in, so to speak."

Like Caroline Henze, a 45-year Brooklyn Heights resident, many homeowners are senior citizens who raised families in the once vital community.

"This is where I live, and if everybody would just do a little bit, I think we could have a pretty decent neighborhood," said Henze, who collects beer bottles in the local park for recycling. "If I'm 70 years old and can get out there and do stuff, other people can, too.

The Brooklyn Heights HotSpot application is a two-inch-thick document that includes crime statistics, area demographics and a neighborhood improvement strategy outlined by residents and participating public agencies. Little and members of the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association spent dozens of hours over the summer preparing the application with the help of county police, zoning department and other agencies. The application seeks $303,000 in state money.

A key component of the HotSpot program is increased police presence. The Brooklyn Heights proposal calls for a full-time community-policing officer, more foot patrols, monthly undercover drug operations and quarterly prostitution stings.

Other proposed HotSpot initiatives for Brooklyn Heights include domestic violence services, addiction counseling, structured after-school programs, more environmental health workers and additional zoning inspectors to identify abandoned cars, overgrown yards and unsanitary conditions.

Central to the Brooklyn Heights HotSpot effort is a newly energized community association. This past spring, the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association mobilized residents to stop a local businessman from opening an after-hours nightclub in the neighborhood.

The association has also increased participation in community cleanup days and is recruiting volunteers to paint address numbers in the alleys at properties with no visible house numbers so zoning inspectors and emergency workers can identify residences.

Association president Joe Collini, 36, became involved with the group shortly after moving to Brooklyn Heights four years ago with his wife and stepdaughter.

"I saw us being able to do more and I saw a neighborhood that had a lot of real potential," said Collini, the association's president for two years. "So many people are concerned about making it a better place to live."

At a recent association meeting, Fisher wanted to know if she could legally paint over obscene graffiti on the back of the shopping center facing her back yard.

"I just want to go up there with some red spray paint and get rid of it," she said. Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle told Fisher she'd contact the shopping center management about the matter.

Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the HotSpot program, said he was impressed by the Brooklyn Heights leaders' vision for their community during a site visit last month.

"This initiative really works when there's a community that's organized and can articulate what needs to happen to improve the quality of life and has a good working relationship with police and schools," Sarbanes said.

Thirty-two-year Brooklyn Heights resident Patricia Keller -- who came to last week's association meeting carrying the bullet that had been shot through her window last month -- said she's been trying unsuccessfully to talk to someone with the HotSpot program about the incident.

"I wanted to say, 'Hey, we need help here,' " said Keller, 63. "We've got some serious problems."

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