Four years ago, the burned-out rowhouse - barely standing, with its beams destroyed and its walls charred - was a constant reminder of one of Baltimore's most brutal crimes and a symbol of how the drug trade terrorizes city neighborhoods.
City and state leaders who were gathered on the corner of Eden and Preston streets said yesterday that they hope the renovated Dawson home - soon to have new life as a community center and "safe haven" for children - will symbolize new hope for the Oliver neighborhood.
"This should be a sanctuary in this community of people doing everything in our power to heal the souls of individuals who need the help," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "As we remember, let us look forward to the commitment that we will make for every life that walks in that building."
The home of Angela and Carnell Dawson was set ablaze Oct. 16, 2002, after they reported drug dealing to police. Angela Dawson and the couple's five children perished in the blaze and Carnell Dawson died a week later in a hospital. The murders captured national attention and galvanized an effort to clean up the neighborhood, just east of Green Mount Cemetery.
Since then, officials have pulled together $1.2 million to renovate the house as a memorial to the family. The Dawson Family Safe Haven Center, which opens in January, will offer after-school programs, a computer lab and a program to train students to make community newsletters.
The bright pastel walls and new carpeting belie the decrepit condition the corner rowhouse was in after the fire. A small collage of photographs taken before the renovation hangs on a wall on the first floor, showing the blackened wreckage.
Reginald Scriber, a deputy housing commissioner, recalled the night of the blaze, noting that five of the victims were children. "We stood there in the rainy night as bodies came out of this building. If you have a heart, you know what that felt like," said Scriber, who helped orchestrate the renovation.
Darrell L. Brooks is serving a life sentence without parole for the fire. A subsequent $14 million lawsuit filed against city and state leaders was dismissed this year. A judge struck down the argument that the city was responsible for the incident by encouraging residents to report criminal activity to police.
"There will be, once again, seven candles burning from the windows of this house," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. He continued, through tears, "in this holy, special and unique little house that became our Alamo, where the light shines on in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it."
Baltimore is spending about $280,000 a year to operate the center, which will have three full-time staff members. The center will receive operating money from the city through 2010, but officials said they hope the center will eventually receive its funding from the private sector.
Several hundred turned out to listen to the speakers and to hear students from nearby Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School sing. Community leaders said the key to making the site something more than just another memorial will be having volunteers from the neighborhood who are inspired to help.
"Four years ago we all vowed, 'never again,'" said the Rev. Iris Tucker, who preached at nearby Knox Presbyterian Church at the time of the fire. "This is not the end. This is the beginning. This building will need volunteers. Don't think that after this ceremony it's over. It has just begun."
Police blocked off traffic for yesterday's ceremony, which took place as one of the city's blue-light police cameras flashed overhead. As O'Malley spoke, a police helicopter circled a couple of times overhead, nearly drowning out his voice. Sirens could also be heard nearby.
A police spokesman said the department has increased patrols in the area since the killing and said crime has gone down. There were 11 homicides in the Oliver neighborhood through mid-December 2002, compared with four this year. Overall violent crime has dropped 40 percent, the spokesman said.
Only a handful of adult neighbors took part in the ceremony. As reporters and elected officials left the corner, a few residents walked by the house to see what had happened. Samantha Bowie, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, said she wished there was more constant police presence.
"They come out here when you've got the bigwigs out here," said Bowie, 46, who reflected the frustration of some in the community that the city's response came too late. "When she tried to do something positive for the neighborhood, where was they at?"
Shirleen Williams, 44, said she believes the Dawson family did what it had to do by standing its ground. She suggested that the killings have brought renewed attention to the community.
"It has gotten better, to me," Williams said, "but it's a shame that something had to happen to this family."