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On Madison Avenue, restoring home, hope


At first glance, what Bryan Taylor and Vaughn Vigil are doing on Madison Avenue would seem to be madness.

They've been taunted, threatened and had bottles thrown through their windows. Yet the two brothers have not given up their dream of renovating a former crack house at 1708 Madison Ave., driving off the drug dealers and making their street safe for the neighborhood's children.

"I've realized you can't change the world. You can't change the city," said Vigil, 39, a Web page designer. "But you can change your own back yard."

To that end, the brothers have spent about $3,500 converting a ruined carriage house on their property into a place where city police officers can take a break, or maybe conduct an interview. They hope the sight of police cars coming and going will take the block one step closer to becoming a livable city neighborhood.

Yesterday, at a block party to dedicate the station, the air was filled with sounds of children laughing and playing on a rented moon bounce, and the sizzle of hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill, sounds that haven't been heard on this part of Madison Avenue in years.

Everyone hoped the opening of this informal station would signal a turning point for a neighborhood known as an open-air drug market.

"This brings the community together, instead of all the drugs that are around here," said Robin Jones, 43, who lives three doors down with her husband, Wardell Jones Jr., 45. "I think it's a blessing."

For Taylor and Vigil, who are half-brothers, living in the 1700 block of Madison Ave. has meant facing the worst and the best of urban life. Early on, the Rev. Wardell Jones Sr., pastor of nearby Holiness Church of Deliverance, let them run an extension cord from his church to help with the renovation.

Ernest Wright, one of Jones' street ministers, said he is "in 100 percent agreement" with what Taylor and Vigil are doing for the neighborhood.

"The brothers are bold," he said. "They're not running."

They have had reasons to run. Vigil's tires were slashed this week. It was one of the few overt acts they've suffered since moving in more than two years ago, but they took it as a sure sign that some of their neighbors don't like what is happening. The presence of two do-gooders, who happen to be white, has grated on some.

"They think I'm the reason the police keep coming by, and they're right. I am," said Taylor, 44, a free-lance Web designer. "No one gave a damn about [the drug dealing], it seemed. Not because there aren't good people here. There are. But they have to live in the same buildings, walk in the same hallways" as the dealers.

The block is one of those rough city streets lined with once-magnificent townhouses of the kind that have been lovingly restored in Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill and Butchers Hill, but in places such as the 1700 block of Madison Ave. are often no more than empty shells with burned-out roofs and stairwells collapsing from wood rot.

Payne Memorial AME Church is also on the block, and part of the Pedestal Gardens apartments. Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School is a few yards away across Wilson Street. Yet, the narcotics trade flourishes.

Taylor and Vigil have heard dealers yelling "last call for yellows" at 2 a.m., dueling car stereos cranked up to speaker-splitting level in the middle of the night, and the aimless rants of drug addicts.

They are urban pioneers, and say they are here because they could get the place cheap - $20,000. The three-story townhouse had been abandoned for about seven years before they arrived. Rain and snow had poured through broken skylights. There was enough junk, debris, old clothes and furniture inside to fill up five 30-cubic- yard trash containers.

Most of the home remains a disaster zone of bare boards, barely salvageable floors, stairs without banisters. They have fixed living quarters on the upper floors, and poured the rest of their free time into getting the station ready. Taylor has given up predicting when the house will be fully restored.

"I used to say two years, but that was two years ago," he said. "Now, I say five years from whenever we talk."

City officials learned of Taylor and Vigil about December 2000, when they appeared before the Board of Estimates for help in buying a vacant lot next to their home. The lot has since been fenced off and cleared of a tree that had been used as an outdoor shooting gallery and drug stash.

This summer, out of frustration and a need to tell his story, Taylor started posting a diary of his experiences on his Web site, RebuildingMadison.Info. Their continuing saga and requests for help have brought donations of a refrigerator and other supplies for the substation.

Julie Thorne, a Bolton Hill neighbor, read a mention of their struggles in a column titled "News From the Wrong Side of the Tracks" that was posted on her neighborhood's Web site. She bought a microwave oven for the substation.

"Efforts like that have to be supported," said Thorne, who also volunteered for yesterday's dedication. "I don't know that I would ever want to go that route."

Christopher Forsberg of Reservoir Hill is one of those supporters Taylor has met only in cyberspace. He sees parallels to the work Elroy Christopher and Guyton Clayton undertook to reclaim the Milton-Montford neighborhood on the city's east side. For a while, those men alternated standing guard and sleeping in a box at North Rose Street and Ashland Avenue.

"I believe that deep down they can really make a change, but it's hard for people like that to do it all on their own," said Forsberg. "But I believe that's really the only way it's going to change, like those guys on Rose and Ashland, down in the trenches, doing it by themselves."

At yesterday's block party, City Council President Sheila Dixon and 4th District Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh stopped by to cut the ribbon and lend their support. Both agreed that the brothers' efforts are a sign to others in the community that someone cares and is willing to make a commitment to the neighborhood.

Sgt. Charles Hess, community relations sergeant for the Central District, said his officers will not staff the station but hope to use it as a field office during the 10 hours that they are on duty. Similar offices have been set up in apartment buildings and businesses. Hess said he thinks the Madison Avenue site is a first in terms of being situated on private citizens' property.

"I think it's great," he said. "This is unusual that two individuals would donate their carriage house and fix it up as a substation. It's unusual and it's appreciated."

A neighborhood is pinning its hopes that the informal station will help give the 1700 block of Madison Ave. a new reputation.

"I hope so. Lord, I hope so," said Wardell Jones Sr. "When they told me they were going to do this, I said, 'That's great.'"

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