At last, crime unites neighbors

The Baltimore Sun

The residents of Baltimore's Seton Hill neighborhood are angry about drug dealers and even angrier when they call police and no one shows up.

"They are doing it in broad daylight," Shannon Doolin of Seton Hill told a bevy of city officials at a meeting this week. "They don't stop. They are very brazen. And when we call 911, we get no response."

The residents of Orchard Mews, a subsidized development that abuts Seton Hill, are angry about drug dealers and even angrier when they call police and someone does show up, fearing they've been marked for retribution. "You know we don't call the police because we live in fear every day," Venessa Baines of Orchard Mews shouted.

Two neighborhoods, side by side, with very different ideas for eradicating a problem they share.

Seton Hill is a tiny enclave of some of the oldest intact rowhouses in the city wedged between Pennsylvania and Druid Hill avenues. It is on the national historic register, and but for crime coming from the newer Orchard Mews development next door, residents say it could be the French Quarter of Baltimore.

The two communities have been at odds for years - Orchard Mews complains that the people of Seton Hill are accusatory and don't reach out; Seton Hill complains that the people of Orchard Mews harbor drug dealers and addicts that have ruined their slice of city life.

They couldn't even agree on whether Orchard Mews has joined or tried to join the Seton Hill Association.

It took last month's shooting of a city police officer making an undercover drug buy and an army of city officials to bring the two communities together. More than 100 people from both sides of Orchard Street packed the old seminary chapel in St. Mary's Park to get answers from public officials, but also to talk to one another.

Here is who showed up: the mayor, the City Council president, a city councilman, the housing commissioner, a police colonel, a police major, a representative from the city's transportation department, Baltimore's field office director from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the executive property manager and the vice president of portfolio management for Community Realty Management, which runs Orchard Mews.

The mayor acknowledged that many concerns "have not been addressed," and the City Council president noted that "only one item has been completed" on a years-old list of Seton Hill grievances. The police said they have saturated Pennsylvania Avenue with nearly two dozen cops but would put more foot officers out; the man from HUD promised to review police reports to get rid of problem tenants; the official from transportation promised to get moving on a stalled lighting and street plan; and the property manager of Orchard Mews promised to get a tenant council going.

At the end of the speeches, the pointed questions and the finger-pointing, it turns out that the residents of Seton Hill and Orchard Mews have more in common than they realize. People from both communities want the drug dealers gone and the violence to end. They both want tenants who allow criminals to live with them evicted. They all want more lights and a cul-de-sac destroyed so police can maneuver more easily on the narrow maze of streets.

It was Baines, who has lived in Orchard Mews for 18 years, who won applause from people of both communities when she shouted to ashen-faced officials sitting on the stage: "Clean it up. You know what the problems are. You know who the people are who are causing the problems. Clean it up!"

Finally, as if stepping into a boxing match between weary combatants unsure why they began fighting in the first place, Mayor Sheila Dixon rose to the podium, edged the housing chief aside and outlined an action plan. She did what a mayor should do - listen, get her troops to pay attention, promise results, get disputing neighbors talking and bring the meeting to a merciful end. She was leader, schoolteacher and referee rolled into one.

Yes, the city, the feds and the property managers have to do more. They failed to act on their own promises, and they deserve to be lined up and scolded by the taxpaying public. The mayor should be commended for bringing her entire office and then some to take their punishment. But it is too bad that it takes this many resources to get people living across the street from each other to talk.

"It's not you and us," Dixon told them at the end. "It's us."

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