Sealed off from the violence of East Baltimore by hydrangea bushes and a brick wall, the grotto at St. Frances Academy is a peaceful oasis for prayer and contemplation.
At least, it used to be.
Drug dealers in the academy's troubled neighborhood have invaded the school grounds, selling their product on the sidewalk in front of the Catholic high school and hiding their stashes in the grotto, next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Teachers and students have seen the dealers shuttling between the street and the grotto during school hours.
Until recently, there was "a buffer zone" around the school, said Sister Marcia Hall, principal of St. Frances. "That's now been broken," she said. "It's as if there's new people around who don't know the history of the place or don't care about it."
Those new people, officials at St. Frances believe, are coming to the school's Johnston Square neighborhood from parts of East Baltimore where there has been development, large-scale land clearance and the beginnings of gentrification.
In adjacent Oliver, 155 lots are being prepared for houses, and community activism has forced out dealers. Farther east, the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. has cleared 31 acres in the past four years to make way for the new biotech park.
"We're mindful of the fact that what we may be doing could unintentionally have spillover implications for others in our city," said Jack Shannon, president of EBDI. Despite the nonprofit's efforts to fight crime, he said, there are too many areas of Baltimore rife with vacant homes and too many people willing to engage in dealing because they lack legitimate jobs.
Police say they don't know for certain where the new dealers in Johnston Square are coming from. The commander of the Eastern District, Maj. David Cheuvront, said the idea that they are coming from elsewhere in East Baltimore is a theory that hasn't been proved. To deter drug activity, he has placed a patrol car outside St. Frances at dismissal time and assigned a narcotics detective to work with the school.
Experts in gang activity say that when dealers are forced to move, they look for places where drug dealing has a foothold and where vacant homes and lots provide sanctuary for their activities. In those places, an infrastructure is in place that allows dealers to operate.
"No street gang wants to go into an area where there's no history of drug dealing," said Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day. Johnston Square, he said, is the kind of area they'd move to. The new dealers probably don't understand the unwritten rules of where you can and cannot go in the neighborhood, he said.
For instance, the school's development director saw men who appeared to be using the playground across the street to sell drugs. And a teacher saw a group of people congregating on a vacant lot next to the convent on Brentwood Avenue, where eight Oblate Sisters of Providence live. The group appeared to be sampling drugs from dealers, the teacher said.
And then there's the grotto. "I've seen people putting packages under the statue at like 10 in the morning," said Torena Ward, who has taught at the school for eight years. "We have that reserved for Mary. People know that's supposed to be a safe space, and to defile it with drugs is just disrespectful."
To push the dealers back, St. Frances is organizing a march for 1:30 p.m. today in front of the school on Chase Street. The high school's 315 students are expected to participate, along with residents, business owners and police. Cheuvront will also attend.
"We're trying to establish a one-block perimeter around the school and convent, and that's the area where drugs, violence and poverty will not be tolerated," said Ralph Moore, director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center.
Cheuvront said drug crews tend to stay in areas they're familiar with, because if they move to new areas they often run into established crews, leading to violence. He said there have been no shootings or homicides in the area around St. Frances this year.
At Greenmount Avenue and Chase Street, a block from the school, a group of mostly retired men gather daily in a lot where they have established a garden. From sunrise to sunset, they keep an eye on the neighborhood, and they say they have seen more drug crews on the corners than they saw a year ago.
"We've seen young people on the corners selling drugs in the open," said Andy Turner, 72. He said conditions in the neighborhood have worsened over the 15 years that he has been coming to the garden, where the men sit at picnic tables under a green awning amid roses and lilies.
"A lot of the elderly are actually afraid to come out because they don't feel they have any protection," said Turner, a retired ticket agent for CSX Transportation Inc. "It's not going well, but we're going to try and make a difference."
Some of the men will participate in the march. That's a start, said Venkatesh, the Columbia sociologist. But more important, he said, is for an intermediary, such as an empathetic beat officer, to go to the crews and say, in effect, "These are areas that are no-go and these are areas you can hang out in. We're not tolerating drug dealing, but definitely don't come around here."
Sister Brenda Motte, who has taught at St. Frances and lived in the convent for 31 years, said she is applying for small grants to help clean up the vacant lots near the school and beautify the neighborhood.
"Weeds and trash and vacant houses attract those type of people. That's their marketplace," Motte said. "Before, we had houses and people living in the houses. When the neighbors were here, they cared. But we don't have that kind of occupancy now."
The school is hoping for a large turnout for today's march. Fliers have been distributed throughout the community, to the residents that remain. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is expected to attend, along with students from the Bluford Drew Jemison Academy nearby.
"We want our buffer zone back," said Hall, the principal. "In no way do we want to confront drug dealers. We just want to say: This is our space. Find another space. Go someplace else."