After arson, neighbors fight on

A block from the burned-out rowhouse where Baltimore wept 10 months ago, Jay Hinton puts hammer to nail and builds on a shaky foundation of hope.

Hinton is gutting and rehabbing a rowhouse just down East Preston Street from the one where arson killed a family of seven in October. It is an act of faith in a neighborhood scarred by a crime that shocked not only Baltimore, but the rest of the country.


Hinton, 43, believes some things have improved in the Oliver community since Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children were murdered. For one thing, police patrols have increased. But he says the drug trade thought to have fueled the deadly fire still thrives.

"I don't see too much changing," Hinton said. "I see so much [dealing] going on. Oh, man, it's something else down here."


Darrell L. Brooks, 22, of East Baltimore, pleaded guilty to the arson in federal court this week. But that hardly closed the books on one of the city's deadliest fires - neither for residents still mourning the loss of good neighbors, nor for city officials and community groups who pledged to come to their aid.

"Our main purpose in flooding the Oliver neighborhood with city services immediately in the wake of the tragedy was to send a strong message that the city has not abandoned Oliver and will never abandon Oliver, that we're all in this together," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "But the work continues, the struggle continues.

"The open-air drug trade didn't get a chokehold on Baltimore overnight, and we're not going to be able to push it away from our necks overnight. We are making tremendous strides. I'm proud of what we've accomplished but very mindful of how far we have to go. It's a fight every day."

Oliver initiatives

By their count, city agencies launched more than 90 initiatives to help the community after the Oct. 16 fire. The list of things they have done for the neighborhood fills 5 1/2 single-spaced pages.

Among them: making 52 drug-treatment slots available to Oliver residents; going door to door to make people aware of job openings and training opportunities; installing 49 smoke detectors in private homes; setting aside $3.2 million to renovate 33 vacant properties; increasing helicopter patrols; hauling away 277 tons of trash and debris from vacant lots; boarding up 80 vacant buildings; replacing or upgrading 32 street lights; putting nine fire hydrants back into service; creating a system to flag violent offenders for court officials setting their bail; and offering chess programs for teens.

The federal government has helped, too. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose director, John Walters, spoke at the Dawsons' funeral, made $1.5 million available for police overtime, surveillance equipment and other tools for fighting drugs.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services announced a $1.15 million grant yesterday that will make 200 more drug treatment slots available in the city. In applying for the grant, the city referred to the Dawsons, whom HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson called a "noble family."


'Still scared'

Despite all that help, the 1400 block of East Preston looks much as it did on that awful morning in October, right after the fire that Brooks said he set to punish the Dawsons for "snitching" on drug dealers. The Dawsons' house still stands, charred and boarded up, rain-soaked teddy bears and silk flowers piled by the door. Seven of the 11 houses on the block are boarded or bricked up.

"A lot of people is still scared," said Janice Rose, who lives in an immaculately kept rowhouse on Eden Street. Angela Dawson was her one close neighborhood friend, and Rose's young daughter played with the Dawson children.

"A lot of people are moving out of here because of the fire," she said. "I'm moving, too. I have a 6-year-old. I want her to grow up and go to college, and I don't think that's going to happen here."

Rose works an afternoon shift at Johns Hopkins Hospital, taking care of animals in the medical research laboratories. She often comes home to find drug dealers or their customers lolling on the steps where she and Angela Dawson used to talk.

"Sometimes I get out of the cab and I say, 'Excuse me, you live here or am I at the wrong house?'" Rose said. Before the Dawsons died, the troublemakers ignored her. Now they get up and leave, no back talk, no threats. They know that if Rose calls the police, a squad car will show up soon.


But the dealers don't go far - usually just around the corner to Preston Street.

"That's drug heaven 'round there," she said. "Drug heaven."

Rose loves her home, with its spacious rooms and high ceilings, but she feels like a prisoner inside. She will not let her daughter play out of doors. From her front window, Rose can see the smoke-blackened facade of the Dawsons' house. The sight reminds her of the night of the fire, when she called 911 and prayed while her husband and another man kicked in the Dawsons' back door in a vain rescue attempt. And it reinforces her decision to move away.

"I ain't going to let nobody do to me like they did to her," Rose said.

Neighbors skeptical

Even a lot of help can get lost in a neighborhood as distressed as Oliver, where one in five residents lives below the poverty level and one in three adults lacks a high school diploma, according to 2000 census figures. The area has among the city's worst rates of infant mortality and gonorrhea. AIDS and lead poisoning are severe problems.


In such a community, residents can feel put-upon even when someone extends a helping hand. The city has been repairing crumbling sidewalks in the neighborhood - 26,172 square feet so far. Yet, the project has irked some in Oliver because local youths weren't asked to do the work.

"The Mexicans are doing jobs we should be doing," said James Brown, 52. "Give these boys jobs so they can learn some skills."

When public officials promised that the Dawsons' deaths would galvanize the community and ultimately make Baltimore a better place, "we never actually took none of it seriously," said Dan Dansbury, 60, who runs a used furniture store a block from their home. "That's always the case after a tragedy, but we knew it was only a matter of time before things got back to normal."

City officials say many of the improvements they've made get overlooked because they lack the visibility of a squad car.

Through a program called Operation Nightlight, the Health Department is checking on young offenders to make sure they observe court-ordered curfews.

Health outreach workers have talked to about 150 residents about sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, and about 20 were counseled and tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.


The Police Department recruited more than 200 people in Oliver for a block watch program. The Fire Department conducted home safety inspections in the neighborhood.

Also easy to overlook are the efforts of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based community action group. BUILD dispatched 100 people this summer to survey every building and vacant lot in the neighborhood, rating the quality of all 2,600 properties. BUILD is using that information to create a "Marshall plan" to rebuild the neighborhood, to be unveiled in October, said group spokesman Rob English.

BUILD congregations are in the process of acquiring 200 vacant properties, which will be redeveloped as homes, parking lots or other uses, English said.

Other church groups have tried to help.

Rothstein Earl-Hill, 56, a food service worker and grandmother of seven, said she is grateful for outreach by a West Baltimore church group that arrives at an Oliver basketball court every week offering hot dogs, hamburgers, clothing, toys and prayers for local children.

Knox Presbyterian Church in- vited counselors to its regular "kids night in" gatherings for neighborhood children to help them cope with the fire. Many suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder after the tragedy, said the Rev. Willie J. Armstrong, director of the Baltimore Child Development Community Policing Program, a crisis-intervention service for children exposed to violence.


Some of the Dawson children had attended summer camp at Knox Presbyterian. In response to the deaths, the church added activities - a Halloween party attended by about 200 people and a healing ceremony called a "maafa." The name is drawn from a Swahili word to describe the voyage from Africa to North America and slavery, said the Rev. Iris Tucker.

City government has taken other measures, but some have been delayed by legal entanglements and other obstacles. Because the Dawsons' house is a crime scene, it could not be repaired or torn down until the criminal case against Brooks concluded, housing officials said. The city is negotiating with the owner to buy the house, which will be converted into a neighborhood center to be run by Knox Presbyterian.

Residents agree that since the fire, police are much more visible in the community. That has been reassuring to some.

Lisa Harris, 37, a food service worker, just signed a lease for the house next door to where the Dawsons lived. She plans to move in this weekend.

"Their presence has been known around here," she said. "It's gotten a whole lot better. I feel comfortable enough to move next door."

But crime - especially drug dealing - is still a severe problem, others say.


Lt. Rick Hite, an outreach coordinator in the Police Department's community affairs division, said that while police have increased patrols in Oliver, there's still work to be done.

"I do see some things changing, but at the same time we must have a stronger outreach to the young men on the corner," he said. "You still see more of that than you would like to see."

After the arson, police sensed citizens' reluctance to get involved, Hite said. But gradually that began to change.

"We encourage that support," he said. "At the same time, we also have cautioned them as to how to safeguard themselves so that they don't become victims."

Police are only part of the solution, said Hinton, the man rehabbing the house. Nothing short of a seismic shift away from the drug culture will have to occur before the neighborhood can be turned around, he said.

"It's not a bad community," said Hinton, a home improvement contractor. "We help each other. We're good people, but we feel we're trapped and a lot of them feel this is the only way to get that piece of the American pie.


"Change the way people think and you change their behavior. You got to give them a new train of thought," he said. "They've been conditioned mentally from what they see on TV, what they hear in music. And they got little teeny kids watching them. You got to redirect them. That's what's got to be done. Give them something else to think about."

Sun staff writer Laurie Willis contributed to this article.