On a suburban street, crime and blight reign

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The day is made for going barefoot and spoiling dinner with ice cream cones. Eighty degrees and sunny, the afternoon is greeted on Arwell Court with open windows and children's laughter.

But the drone of a distant lawn mower is shattered by loud pops of gunfire.

When four bullets pierce the upper body of a 21-year-old convicted drug dealer, the happy shrieks of children riding bikes momentarily stop. Anne Arundel County Police Officer T.J. Smith speeds up in a patrol car minutes later to find dozens of people - from toddlers to grandmothers - mobbing the street.

In the middle is Marcellis Anderson, lying on the pavement, bleeding and shouting, "I can't feel my legs."

Two girls start shoving each other directly above the wounded man's body, which - in addition to adding to the chaos - threatens to taint evidence. They seem to ignore the possibility that the latest shooting victim in Pioneer City might be taking his last breath.

This street violence - a scene re-created from the detailed descriptions of witnesses and police - is just one example of the problems in Pioneer City, a community of about 1,500 people. The worst violence is on Arwell Court, statistically the most dangerous and arguably the most troubled street in the county.

Within sight of expensive new neighborhoods on the county's western edge, this web of weary brick townhouses remains untouched by the wealth, safety and order that surround it. These few blocks in Severn look as if they were plucked from a tough inner-city neighborhood and set down in a cornfield.

For years, concerned residents and local authorities have fought to revive the community, and they have succeeded in reducing major crimes. But their struggles show that even in an affluent county such as Anne Arundel - home to the state capital and million-dollar waterfront mansions - confronting poverty and its related problems can be maddeningly difficult.

A review of court, police and property records, census data and dozens of interviews in the community shows:

A person is nearly twice as likely to be a crime victim in Pioneer City as in any other part of the county, even among the most violent neighborhoods. About one out of every five shootings and homicides in the county since 2000 have occurred on Arwell Court.

Although Pioneer City is within walking distance of Fort Meade, Army officials won't allow soldiers or their families to live there, in part because of its reputation as an open-air crack cocaine market. The government no longer redeems Section 8 rent subsidies on Arwell Court for the same reason.

The homes are infested with rodents, rife with housing code violations and otherwise neglected by absentee landlords. Nearly eight out of 10 homes on Arwell Court are rentals.

Arwell Court, a street that stretches the length of two football fields, has more than a dozen police officers and social service workers monitoring everything from banned pets to probation. The cost to taxpayers exceeds $500,000 each year, an analysis of county and state crime budgets shows.

Life has improved in some ways in Pioneer City - the number of major crimes dropped by 60 percent over the past five years. But many efforts to change this neighborhood have faltered.

For example, on several occasions over the past decade, county authorities and community groups have sued a landlord who has a history of renting to criminals and letting his properties fall into disrepair. Those homes remain problems.

"The situation is so complex, a lot of people don't know where to begin," says Yvonne Galloway, a neighborhood activist for nearly two decades. "We've got to make some changes. It's time for better living conditions."

Galloway, Glenda Gathers and other area residents have struggled to turn Pioneer City around, organizing basketball teams, outdoor movies and other activities.

But on the early May afternoon when Anderson is shot, change seems to be an afterthought on Arwell Court. Residents just shake their heads, commenting on the violence the way people in other neighborhoods might talk about late mail deliveries or a loud party.

Police officers are left to break up the fight between the two girls before it destroys all the evidence from the shooting.

Smith bends down to Anderson, taking the hand of the man known as "Gooch" and "Monster," telling him, "You're going to be OK."

Those who witnessed Anderson's dispute with another man - over drug territory, police say - are either long gone or only whispering what they know.

Everyone else is just sightseeing. Smith makes way for paramedics and crime scene technicians by shouting, "Anybody see anything?"

There is no better way to clear a crowd on Arwell Court. No one wants to linger and appear to be cooperating with police.

By another name

The name "Pioneer City" has been purged from Anne Arundel County's maps, as if by trying to blend it into a nearby neighborhood called "The Orchards at Severn" or by renaming it "Warfield" the problems would somehow disappear.

They haven't.

The condominium community, built in the late 1970s on farmland, was designed to offer affordable off-post housing to soldiers stationed at Fort Meade. But it slowly decayed.

The neighborhood's "mall" - as some police officers call it - is a strip of three stores on Reece Road: a sub shop, a beauty supplier and a convenience market. The one room big enough to handle a neighborhood activity is Van Bokkelen Elementary School's gym, which is used for everything from Sunday worship services to afternoon basketball games.

Never mind the sign in front of Arwell Court that says, "Warfield, A Fine Community of Townhomes." To the residents, this is still Pioneer City.

Pioneer Drive, the major thoroughfare, connects a dozen courts lined with nearly identical two-story townhouses - the first stories laid in brick, the rest covered with dirty beige siding. Tiny back yards are sectioned by warping fences.

Even the residents still paying mortgages - homes can be had for $35,000 - must step over fast-food bags, crushed bottles, and bubble gum wads stuck to the pavement.

They pass eviction piles, mounds of ripped furniture and soiled mattresses, and they smell the stench from piles of week-old diapers and rotting scraps of last night's dinners.

The year began with gunshots fired into the air - a New Year's salute common in Baltimore's inner city. A month later, a 22-year-old man was stabbed to death in an Arwell Court house and dumped in a Hanover office park for an unsuspecting engineer to discover.

Since then, there have been dozens of robberies, fights and drug deals. People there are afraid to start a neighborhood watch.

The average Anne Arundel County neighborhood experiences nothing approaching this volume of crime. In Harmans Woods, a similarly sized community north of Pioneer City, police responded to 120 crimes last year, including seven assaults and three auto thefts. In Pioneer City, there were 718 crime reports, including 23 assaults and 17 auto thefts.

On College Creek Terrace in Annapolis, which has its own raging drug trade, three people were shot this past year. On Arwell Court, five have been.

And this is progress.

Major crime in Pioneer City - including assaults, weapons offenses and thefts - dropped from 637 incidents in 1997 to 253 last year. Violent crime has been up and down over those years - with a low of 85 incidents in 1999 and high of 161 in 2000.

"We're on our way in Pioneer City," says Western district police commander Capt. Athena Baker. "But we're not there yet."

Usually, very little of Pioneer City's violence spills over into the surrounding neighborhoods. There were half the number of crime reports in nearby Seven Oaks even though it's twice the size of Pioneer City. And although Grand Valley, a new subdivision of $300,000 homes, is separated from Arwell Court by only a thin line of trees, the 12 lots in the development are sold.

Police say the dynamics of a drug market help to isolate problems to a few streets. But state and county officials have also taken steps to make Pioneer City safer.

Special attention

As part of the state's HotSpot crime prevention initiative, the county has received $108,753 for police to coordinate efforts with county inspectors, health officials, prosecutors, and state juvenile justice and parole and probation officers - with each agency dedicating at least one person part time to work in the community. The grant only begins to cover the cost of salaries and supplies, which exceeds $500,000 annually.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department has 10 officers in special patrol units assigned to the neighborhood, known as "five-baker-two post." The department has helped with cleanup days, pit bull round-ups, "hope vigils" and after-school programs. And it has assigned some of its brightest officers to the beat, people like Smith who want to be here.

"I like it," says Smith. "I like to walk it, bike it. I'd fly around here if I could.

"It keeps them off-guard. They never know when [I'll] be coming out of the bushes."

He also has a soft spot for the area, says he has no children except the hundreds in Pioneer City - most of whom he's deputized as "helpers" with stickers in the shape of little gold badges.

For some, there is no other place to live.

Anne Arundel County - like most suburbs - is not known for its abundance of moderately priced housing. The average home in the county sells for about $268,000. A house can go for about $35,000 in Pioneer City, where census figures show the median household income is about $32,000 - second-lowest of any neighborhood in Anne Arundel and barely half that of the county as a whole. Rents range from $550 to $750.

Most landlords bought the houses as investments. But several have let the properties fall into disrepair and have reputations for renting to criminals.

Troublesome landlord

One such landlord, Mohammad Zuberi, was sued in June by the county health department. A judge ordered him to repair his dilapidated properties by next month.

But some of Zuberi's tenants won't be able to live in the houses much longer anyway. As leases begin to expire, families receiving Section 8 rent subsidies will no longer be able to redeem vouchers on Arwell Court because the government won't accept them.

"Arwell Court is the real sticking point as far as the area's concerned," says Larry Lloyd, director of the county's housing commission. "We've seen the conditions deteriorate. We felt it was time to take a position."

If it weren't for the Boys and Girls Club and Pioneers in Action, a grass-roots organization that sponsors a basketball team and a cheerleading group, there would be no recreation here.

And even now, most of the kids have to use facilities outside the neighborhood, because there is no gym here. No parks or playgrounds, not even a paved path.

"We've got to have a place for these children," says Galloway, 49, who founded Pioneers in Action 12 years ago, after her 14-year-old son was killed by another teen-ager who took her son's Nike Air Jordans. "There's got to be an alternative if we want these young people off the corners. We need a building."

For once, this isn't a question of money.

The New Beginnings United Methodist Church, currently meeting in the elementary school gym, has promised to finance a community center that could be used for religious services as well as basketball games, evening classes, family counseling, tutoring, neighborhood meetings and teen dances.

"We think it would be great crime prevention," says Baker, the Western district commander.

But the largest property owner, Zuberi, has opposed the recreation center, citing concerns about traffic and noise and its religious aspect. And because the pool property is owned by the community condominium association, Zuberi has a major vote in the process.

Meanwhile, a $20,000 grant for addiction counseling went uncashed because there was no building to house the program in the community it was intended to serve - a void that a community center would fill, activists say.

Returning to the scene

Anderson is on the court again, Pioneer City's walking miracle for the moment.

Released from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center after only four days of treatment, he shows no sign of his near-death experience.

County police officers pass him by, shaking their heads in amazement. If any one of them had been shot with so much as a BB, they joke grimly, they'd be dressing for a funeral because the officer would be dead from some fluke infection.

Anderson clenches his jaw and gives the officers a defiant stare. Anderson acknowledges Smith with a nod, a small show of deference to the officer who held his hand when he lay bleeding in the street.

"I think we're friends now," Smith says of the gesture, sarcastically.

Police soon charged a Laurel man in Anderson's shooting. Terrel Bush was arrested in June in Glen Burnie, where, police said, he was hiding in a friend's closet; his trial on an attempted-murder charge is scheduled for Tuesday.

Because Anderson is one of 90 people banned by court order from Arwell Court, his presence on the street the day he was shot is considered trespassing. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

This isn't the first time Anderson has returned to the court after bloodshed. He went back to Pioneer City when he finished a four-year prison sentence for shooting a man in a 1994 drug deal gone awry on Arwell Court.

Police have filled a 3-inch binder with similar stories. Statistics are kept on each of the neighborhood's known players, as officers track who's doing what, who is in jail and who is likely to be back on the court.

Police and prosecutor

The best officers memorize the pages and keep a mental list of every person they arrest. In June, as SWAT teams headed for drug raids on Arwell Court, Smith spotted a suspect in a triple shooting that occurred last summer on the court. The suspect, who had been charged in a warrant with attempted murder, was arrested.

The daylight shooting of Marcellis Anderson and the triple shooting on Arwell Court - like all crimes in Pioneer City - have made their way to Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Fleckenstein.

Because Fleckenstein is campaigning for a House of Delegates seat representing the Brooklyn Park and Pasadena areas, Severn residents often accuse him of neglecting Pioneer City cases. But the prosecutor says it's not true and notes that more half of his caseload is from Pioneer City.

Fleckenstein says cases in Pioneer City are difficult because witnesses refuse to cooperate and because judges put offenders back on the street within hours of their arrests and don't give stiff prison sentences.

"The failings of this neighborhood highlight the failings of the system as a whole," says Fleckenstein. "I think the people of Pioneer City are absolutely entitled to their frustration."

But State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee argues that the disappointment in his office's approach toward Pioneer City is unfounded: "We prosecute the cases and make sure they don't fall through the cracks. We advise the courts of the impact this all has on the community."

In Pioneer City, Fleckenstein said in an interview this summer, most drug deals take place out in the open, which makes it harder to pursue civil nuisance cases against landlords there.

Communication problem

Fleckenstein didn't know then that police had raided a dozen townhouses for drugs in the previous 18 months in Pioneer City - including Zuberi's properties four times. That means nuisance lawsuits could have been filed but weren't.

Fleckenstein and police have since worked out the communication problem. On a raid in July, police called Fleckenstein at home about 1 a.m. to update him on the amount of marijuana seized and the number of people being arrested.

Fleckenstein said late last month that the office was reviewing several properties for potential nuisance cases.

On this summer night, the police SWAT team, the yellow crime tape and the gunplay are not on Arwell Court.

They're on film.

The outdoor screening of John Q., starring Denzel Washington as a father who holds emergency room doctors and patients hostage so his son can get a heart transplant, begins at just after dusk on a Saturday night. The movie is shown on a patch of cinderblock wall at the pool in Still Meadows, the neighborhood a treeline away from Pioneer City.

This is no rival for the alfresco film festival in Little Italy. This is, however, Glenda Gathers' way of giving children an alternative to playing amid drug deals and fighting on Arwell Court.

Gathers, a former Pioneer City resident who is better known as "Miss G," applied for a $1,600 state grant to run a summer movie series. Although the movies are attended by young and old, her biggest audience has been children. Some sit on worn sheets, munch popcorn from a rented theater-style machine and sip sodas.

A few actually watch the movie. But most are here to play under the watchful eyes of "Miss G" and her adult helpers.

"It's fun," says Jamel Minnefied, 8, who walks up to one of the adult men, declares himself "itchy" and then holds his arms out for a spritz of bug spray.

Entertain and educate

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was an especially big hit, even with a few of the teen-agers, to Gathers' surprise. She has also shown educational films, such as Playing the Game, Teens Talk About Sexuality, and often leads discussions before or after the films on topics ranging from education to gang violence.

Before each movie, Gathers takes a microphone hooked to a portable amplifier and beckons people to come from their stoops, cross over from Pioneer Drive and other nearby courts. Gathers, who has a full, deep voice that seems as commanding as a gospel choir, probably doesn't need the microphone. But she uses it anyway as she entices people to the pool with free hot dogs and popcorn.

"Don't be shy," she says. "Come on over."

Gathers has lived in Severn since 1980, when she moved from Annapolis to Pioneer Drive. In 1994, someone threatened to shoot her if she complained one more time about drug dealers running through her back yard, as she stood guard on her back steps armed with only a broom.

After that, she moved a few blocks away to Still Meadows. Though she's now 60, Gathers says she won't stop trying to improve life in Pioneer City, because the problems there affect her immediate neighbors.

She was at the New Beginnings tent revival at the end of Arwell Court lat month, coordinating trips to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. She will continue serving on the neighborhood youth panel designed to give first-time juvenile offenders a second chance. And she will keep answering her door, listening to the problems of anyone who wants to talk.

She makes a promise: "I'm not giving up."

Tomorrow:

In their bid to revive Pioneer City, residents and officials are battling the community's largest landlord.

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