Decay is plentiful; hope is scant


YOU WON'T SEE any scaffolding around the corner of East North Avenue and Chester Street, or hear the whir of power saws or the thwack of a hammer driving nails through a two-by-four.

The signs of rebirth that are so evident in several Baltimore communities are nowhere to be found at this forlorn intersection, a grim crossroads where decay meets despair and hope is hard to find.

Instead, garrulous and glassy-eyed men, apparently high on drink and dope, wander past boarded-up rowhouses; weeds on a vacant lot half a block away stand shoulder-high; a discarded tire and a pile of empty chip bags, and soda and beer bottles have turned a nearby alley into a dumping ground.

Last week, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio announced the indictment of seven members of the North Avenue Boys, a gang suspected of operating a violent drug ring centered in this neighborhood for years.

The gang entered the city's consciousness three years ago on Memorial Day. That's when a rival group known as the Hot Boys sprayed bullets into a party being held in front of one of the North Avenue Boys' suspected stash houses at 2032 E. North Ave., wounding 11 people and killing one.

In announcing the indictments at a news conference, DiBiagio said the gang members were "finished."

Unfortunately, some say a similar assessment could be applied to the neighborhood.

"In every sense of the word," said the Rev. Milton E. Williams, "it's a forgotten community waiting to die."

Williams is the pastor of New Life Evangelical Baptist Church, four blocks east of the intersection, and president of the Broadway East Community Association.

A year ago, his church opened a methadone treatment clinic for heroin addicts. It has 270 patients; in a year, he says, it will have nearly twice that many.

But Williams says neither his clinic nor last week's ballyhooed federal indictments have changed the basic culture of drugs and violence that permeates the neighborhood.

"I thank them for what they're doing," Williams said of police and prosecutors. "But they know and we know it's going to take more than what's happening now to turn this neighborhood around."

If you want some statistics on the area, try these from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance: $22,516 is the median household income; 39 percent of families are on public assistance; one in nine kids ages 10 to 17 here have been arrested on drug charges.

The degree to which drug dealers contribute to a neighborhood's pathology or just profit from it may be a matter of conjecture, but there is no question that the relationship is insidious. The presence of dealers - and the violence that so often accompanies them - feeding a neighborhood's habit drives away those who can afford to leave, creating further decline.

A vacant red-brick building in the 2000 block of E. North Ave. stands as a hulking testament to the dynamic. It is one of six former schoolhouses that were converted to low-income apartments in the late 1970s. It closed two years ago, a victim of poor maintenance and problematic tenants. The federal indictment lists the building as a one-time stash house and drug-dealing locale for the gang.

At Cocky Lou's, a corner bar and package store, proprietor Donna Fizer serves a steady stream of customers on a steamy weekday afternoon, with 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor the drink du jour.

She envisioned more when she and her husband bought the place six years ago. "We were going to do jazz, but older people won't come down here for nothing," she said. So they opened a dance club but shut it down after the Memorial Day 2001 shootings, fearing the violence would spill over to the club. It's now open only for occasional private parties.

Fizer said the police are more visible these days, but added, "You don't have enough of them to fight the drugs."

Clinton Chandler lives in the 1800 block of N. Collington St., just off East North Avenue, one of several blocks where the federal indictment charges gang leaders hired "pitchers" to deal drugs and where several residents recently painted their planters orange and white as a show of pride and solidarity.

Chandler, a food-service worker, opened a community computer center four years ago because "I got tired of seeing the kids see the drug deals go down." He said he closed it last year when he ran out of money.

The supply of drug dealers, however, seems inexhaustible.

"As soon as you arrest one, two or three take their place," he said. "That's the changing of the guard. In Baltimore City, it seems every neighborhood's got 30,000 kingpins."

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