Doing battle for Hampden home

The Baltimore Sun

Joy Sushinsky is not your average busybody. She is not the type of person who peeks at neighbors from behind her curtains and gossips about their activities.

Instead, Sushinsky, a soft-spoken, 28-year-old homeowner on one of Hampden's few troublesome blocks, has become - somewhat reluctantly - a driven neighborhood activist, a watchdog with a purpose higher than mere curiosity.

Upset by the aimless, belligerent teenagers and low-level drug dealers who congregate on Elm Avenue and a tiny park there, occasionally harassing residents and committing random acts of vandalism, Sushinsky has strong-armed city officials, the Baltimore Police Department and various community groups into doing something about it. But it has taken three years, she said, and the battle is far from over.

Almost single-handedly, and at her own peril, Sushinsky has prompted a stepped-up police presence, which led in the past few months to the arrests of several teenagers and evictions from two vacant houses that had turned into drug dens and flophouses. Sushinsky, her housemate and a handful of like-minded neighbors have forced other official responses, including an effort - so far half-hearted, she said - by the Recreation and Parks Department to improve lighting and maintenance in the park.

"All I'm trying to do," she said, "is live in a nice, quiet neighborhood and pay my taxes, like normal people."

And yet the teenagers' drinking, cursing and drug use, Sushinsky added, have made her street nearly unbearable.

While the increasing gentrification of blue-collar Hampden in the past few years has had beneficial effects - not least a boost in property values and the arrival of an eclectic mix of stores on West 36th Street, known as The Avenue - it has also served to drive lower-income residents into smaller concentrations of cheap rental housing or out of the area altogether.

At the same time, youths who once loitered on 36th Street when it was far less fashionable have been shooed away from its new, more upscale businesses and have moved to the easy alternative of the park on Elm Avenue and its adjoining alleys and sidewalks.

On any given afternoon, 20 or more teens might be hanging out there. Drug transactions, sometimes from passing vehicles, take place in broad daylight. Youths have been blamed for ripping trees from sidewalks and plants from pots on steps, tossing trash, spraying graffiti and vandalizing residents' cars, including $2,000 damage when the convertible top to a new Saab was slashed.

"These kids have no respect for property or anything else," Sushinsky said, describing numerous offenses and irritations: They fight, carouse and yell at each other.

In Hampden, a traditionally working-class neighborhood that had a reputation of being hostile to blacks, the white youths on Elm Avenue have adopted a hip-hop vernacular and style.

"They think they're in a video," said Sushinsky, who lived a few blocks away for six years before buying a two-story rowhouse on Elm Avenue in 2005. On the old block, she said, everyone looked out for one another, and interlopers were strongly discouraged. But on Elm Avenue, the combination of four vacant houses and a dilapidated park invites trouble.

A couple of months ago, a resident of nearby Powers Street broke up a fistfight between two girls on Elm Avenue and was immediately challenged by a surly boy about 15 years old. Another resident of the area, a woman in her 40s, moved to Towson after being beaten by a pack of youths with whom she had exchanged words on the street.

On a recent afternoon, several teenagers turned their backs and hid their faces when a reporter holding a notebook approached.

Sushinsky, who sells advertising space in the City Paper, is perfectly aware that there are risks in taking a public position on irksome teenagers.

"Usually, when you cause a problem around here, they vandalize your property," she said, pointing to the plants outside her front door that had been ripped from their pot. Her mailbox was stolen recently and, one night last week, someone broke a bird feeder, a Christmas gift, on a tree a few feet from her front door.

"It is little stuff, but it really gets to you in the pit of your stomach," she said.

Outside the home of a neighbor who made a point of letting youths know she would call police, a plastic statue of an angel was blown up with a firecracker, Sushinsky said, and it "exploded into a million pieces at 2 o'clock in the morning."

"The kids don't like 'nicing it up,'" she said, referring to the gentrification of Hampden. "The worst thing for me is the amount of public urination. I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams seeing an adult male urinating in a park in Hampden in broad daylight. But the amount of underage drinking is out of control, and it's particularly bad in the park."

Sushinsky, who has kept a meticulous log of events on her street, including a "bloody street fight" April 2, said she was told by police that with all the crime in Baltimore's Northern District, enforcing the ban on drinking by minors "is not necessarily" a top priority.

"Hampden is one of lowest-crime neighborhoods in the city," said Doug Gibson, the police community liaison officer for the district. "These are some of the tough neighborhood kids. They're not Bloods and Crips who have parachuted in from Los Angeles. Some of these kids, they're the second or third generation that's into substance abuse. Our officers know some of their parents well, and their grandparents. The parents are not functional, and their aunts and uncles are overwhelmed trying to keep them out of foster care."

Sushinsky and her neighbors want the Department of Recreation and Parks to repair and improve the swings and other equipment in the park as a way of enticing mothers and small children to use it.

Spokeswoman Kia McLeod said the parks department "has worked very closely with the Hampden community" to ensure that Elm Park "is both a welcoming and inviting place." She said that park rangers "randomly patrolled the park last year" and that maintenance of its playground equipment had improved, with broken parts being fixed on several occasions. In addition, McLeod said, new trees were planted and "recurring" graffiti removed.

Sushinsky's response to McLeod's comment was that "every piece of equipment" in the park "is bent, broken, graffiti-ridden, rusty and not properly functioning."

"Parks and Rec may have done what they thought was the bare minimum - a Band-Aid," Sushinsky said. "However, it clearly has not reduced illicit activity."

Sushinsky has grown attached to her century-old house, which she began restoring after buying it for $203,000 from an elderly couple who had lived there for three decades.

"I want to live here for 30 years," Sushinsky said. "I love this house."

She pointed to the inlaid wood floors, pocket doors and, in the kitchen, the tin ceiling and exposed brick walls, which she plans to varnish. Sushinsky found a marble countertop that had been in a house in Charles Village and plans to use it as a bar.

Up the street, at Elm and 36th streets, the owner of Avenue Antiques, Elissa Strati, acknowledged the problem of what she called "ill-mannered children" who sometimes spatter her store windows with ice cream and other things.

"But we're a thriving business district here," she said, recalling the boarded-up storefronts of just a few years ago. "As long as these kids don't congregate on the street we're fine; they drive customers away."

Strati, who said she was unafraid for her safety in Hampden, commended Sushinsky "and the citizens with whom she has been working on their successful efforts to improve the neighborhood."

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