A playground grows in Baltimore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carolyn Shoemaker is in her glory, sitting outside her house on a fall evening.

It is a simple thing. But in the 1100 block of Sarah Ann St., simple, quality of life things are treasured. Things like taking it easy after a long day, enjoying the cool of dusk and watching children play.

Shoemaker, 46, and her neighbors don't take such things for granted. They used to spend their evenings shut up in their small, two-story homes while drug dealers and addicts ran roughshod over the neighborhood. Their children felt like prisoners.

"Honey, you couldn't come out your door," said Shoemaker, who moved to the block four years ago. "It was so bad around here that I didn't know what to do."

Ask anyone here why Sarah Ann Street looks and feels better and they'll tell you it is because Robert Estreet, 30, and Kenneth Currence, 35, decided neighborhood kids needed a place to play, confronted drug dealers and helped forge an example of how a small community can reclaim its right to simple pleasures.

"Mr. Robert changed everything," said Robert Creighton, 14.

Baltimore is full of places like Sarah Ann Street, alleys barely wide enough for a single car. Tucked behind three-story rowhouses on West Mulberry Street and bordered by Arlington and Carrollton avenues, Sarah Ann Street was a favorite, secluded haunt for sniffling, edgy addicts and their suppliers. Walking through gave a decent person the creeps.

That's all in the past now. Christmas lights are up on this multicolored block of West Baltimore homes that rent for about $200 a month. New, decorative flags hang from the facades, courtesy of the landlord, Helen Hunt, who owns most houses on the block.

The changes began last fall after the city demolished a row of vacant houses across the street from Shoemaker. Then Estreet and Currence started sweeping in front of their homes and inviting drug dealers to leave. By summer, they had set up a playground on a quarter-block of vacant land, complete with sliding board and monkey bars.

People threatened them and routinely cut the ropes on the swings. One basketball hoop was destroyed. Estreet's dog was shot. None of that stopped them. Shoemaker followed the block's slow, steady transformation from criminal's hide-out to oasis for children.

"I was so glad that I didn't know what to do," she said. "Some of the people didn't like it, but I loved it, every minute of it."

Now, children romp and run along Sarah Ann Street and adults sit outside. No one is afraid. The dealing and using still goes on a block down on Arlington Street, a block over on Mulberry Street where the vacant, trash-filled rowhouses with kicked-in doors and broken windows serve as convenient shooting galleries. Dope is part of the neighborhood fabric. But not in the 1100 block of Sarah Ann St. And that, the neighbors say, is a blessing.

"We don't have to worry about people sniffing and smoking their stuff," said Robert Creighton, the 14-year-old who used to spend his evenings indoors. It was like being in jail, he said, come home from school and go straight indoors. Too much dope dealing outside, too much risk of being in the wrong place when trouble went down.

Being part of the change turned Currence from a private man to a vital member of the block. It gave him a new sense of himself. Children call him "Mr. Ken." They look up to him, respect him, all because of what he did to give them a refuge.

"If it wasn't for [Robert], I wouldn't have started it," Currence said. "I would have thought about it, but I wouldn't have started."

Estreet, a day laborer, backs away from the praise. Thin and somewhat shy, he carries himself with a calm assurance. The children needed a playground. They needed to be respected, not ignored. The threats and insults - he is derisively called "shepherd" - were just part of the cost.

"This is the first time I ever did something like this," said Estreet, who has a "no loitering" sign in the front window of the home he shares with his wife, Karen, and his two younger brothers. "I get a lot of negativeness from the adults, that I shouldn't have done it. The only [reason) I could think of is because of the drug activity that went on around here."

As much as drug dealers tried to stop him, others in the area did their part to help him. The Greater Harvest Spiritual Church around the corner donated cement to anchor the equipment. The Christian Community Center on nearby Hollins Street donated its old playground material.

"Actually, they were throwing the stuff away," said Estreet.

Dave Turnbull, the center's director, wanted a new playground. He knew Stephen Taylor, a local contractor and longtime friend of Estreet's. Taylor takes no credit for what happened on Sarah Ann Street. He just found the used playground equipment and trucked it over to his friend.

"They didn't wait for the city," he said. "But what is the city but its citizens?"

Getting city officials involved would have brought a level of planning and expertise to the playground project, said John Wesley, spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. Liability questions could have been resolved. The latest equipment and safety measures could have been used. The challenge, though, would have been for the city to lend help without dampening the enthusiasm of Estreet and his neighbors.

"Anytime a community wants to create a safe port for their children you must applaud them," said Wesley. "Initially, there may be euphoria. But euphoria that is not weighed against a possible risk could invite disaster, and that is something we have to consider."

City involvement also would have given those who hate the playground a distant, faceless target, rather than two men they see every day. When the threats came, Taylor reminded his friend of the biblical story of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. God spared them. The same thing would happen on Sarah Ann Street, as long as Currence and Estreet held their ground.

"I mean, having your dog shot is not nice," said Taylor. "That would scare a lot of people away, but God doesn't give us the spirit of fear."

Over the past few months Currence and Estreet have worked out an informal and decidedly uneasy, live-and-let-live agreement with the drug world. They have declared the 1100 block of Sarah Ann a drug-free zone.

Drug dealers "know that we're only concerned about what goes on in this square," said Currence, a contract laborer. "If they don't come in here and cause us problems, we don't go over there and cause them problems."

Neighbors say a sign or two from the city declaring the neighborhood a "drug-free zone" would help their cause. Those signs are part of a federal program. Getting one requires municipal action, official recognition, an entire bureaucracy has to get involved. Wesley suggests that the folks on Sarah Ann Street put up their own signs, rather than wait for government action.

In a sense, that's what's been happening all along. The neighbors come up with an idea and get to work. Now, Currence and Estreet say they want to move beyond the 10 or so houses on Sarah Ann Street. Behind them sits the 1100 block of Mulberry St., a row of homes the city is razing.

Before the wrecking crews arrived, the block was a dismal zone of urban decay and neglect. Shattered doors and windows from the three-story vacant houses littered the sidewalk. Marble steps were gone. Fire and smoke had blackened walls. The houses were just a handful of the more than 13,000 vacant homes that spoil the city's landscape.

Yet, at the end of the row was an empty lot of freshly mowed grass, another sign of Estreet's and Currence's handiwork. Already they are thinking about what they'll do after the wrecking crews have come and gone. They want to install fences, plant grass and trees.

"That's guaranteed," Currence said. "It's really not as easy as you think. We have a lot of problems at night. It looks peaceful now, but you have a lot of people who come around and try to toy with you."

Currence and Estreet know the problems will not stop. A few weeks ago, someone pulled up the metal edge at the top of the sliding board just enough to make it unsafe for children.

"These are the kinds of things that are going on right now," said Estreet, who has wrapped the slide in yellow caution tape. "And all because we want to keep the area cleaned up and keep the drugs out."

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