On Thursday morning, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will appear before a congressional committee to present his thoughts on decriminalizing drugs.
Since April, when the mayor suggested a national debate on decriminalization, The Sun has examined the effect of drugs on one Baltimore neighborhood.
The neighborhood—Rosemont, in West Baltimore—was chosen because like many neighborhoods in the city it is relatively stable, with a strong sense of community, but with an ever-present trade in drugs.
This article looks at the effect of drugs on Rosemont and explores how neighborhood residents see the problem. On pages 18A and 19A are four related articles, which examine how residents feel about decriminalization, describe a drug raid on a Rosemont street, access the strain narcotics cases are putting on the court system, and offer an interview with a Rosemont resident who sold heroin for more than 10 years.
By Jerry Bembry
Twenty years ago, when the city of Baltimore tried to push Interstate 70 through 800 homes in the stable middle-class West Baltimore community of Rosemont, many of the residents opted to stay and fight.
They won. Only a tiny fragment of the interstate every got built in the city—none of it within Rosemont.
Today, the same community finds itself in another “Battle of Rosemont”—a battle against drugs. And this time, instead of weekly brawls with unfamiliar bureaucrats, it’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week struggle against the cocaine house four doors down, the armed enforcers overseeing the juvenile heroin distributors, the addicted son or daughter in the adjacent bedroom.
Many of the combatants are survivors from 20 years ago, but their role in the sequel is one they’d prefer not to play.
Longtime residents have learned that screams of “Five-0” don’t necessarily mean a liking for a detective show; they’re a warning of cops. They’ve come to understand that handshakes don’t always indicate friendship; more often, they’re a method of passing drugs. And they’ve found out that the hopelessness and fear they’ve heard associated with drugs have nudged themselves right into their own backyards.
Drugs, and violence associated with them, forced the mostly elderly members of the Greenlawn Neighborhood Association in Rosemont to switch their monthly night meetings to 4 p.m. to get members to attend. “And I have to assign someone to walk them home, or they don’t come,” said Mary B. Adams, the association’s president and former state delegate.
Some members of the Stewards of Christ auxiliary group at St. Edward’s Church in the 900 block of Poplar Grove Street resigned when the organization began getting involved in anti-drug efforts. They feared retribution from drug dealers.
At a community meeting at a North Avenue church, many in the audience openly voiced their displeasure with the drug problem in the area. But after the meeting, confronted by a reporter who asked them to elaborate, most were hesitant to speak.
Rose Butler, 62, a Rosemont homeowner for 32 years, said the drug problem “makes me pay thousands of dollars for an alarm system.”
“It makes me afraid that you will use my name in a news article,” she said.
A Whitmore Avenue resident, who asked that her name not be used, suspects that a house across the street from her is being used to stash drugs, but she’s too frightened to call police.
“If I saw something happening to somebody, unless they were related to me or someone I knew well, I would not call,” she said. “If I called about something at that house, and the police came to the door, they’d get me.”
Before the turbulence caused by the highway plans in the late 1960s, Rosemont was perhaps one of the most stable middle class communities in the city: 72 percent of its residents were homeowners.
Today, homeownership is down to 54 percent, but that is still higher than the 47 percent citywide average. And from the neat brick homes with manicured front lawns that line the 1200 block of Bentalou Street to the tranquil, tree-lined 2400 block of Harlem Avenue, Rosemont is still largely a desirable place to live. The area, which according to the 1980 census had a population of 30,940, is home to City Council member Agnes B. Welch and others with jobs ranging from salesmen to school officials to doctors.
Bounded by Hilton Parkway to the west, Monroe Street to the east, North Avenue to the north and Lauretta Avenue to the south, and home to a large number of community associations, the neighborhood includes Lutheran Hospital, Carver Vo-Tech High school and the Northwest Baltimore Armory.
But it is also a neighborhood of stark contrasts, with the stabilized core threatened by the open drug trafficking in some fringe locations.
Along the commercial strip in the 1800 to 2100 blocks of Edmondson Avenue, convicted drug kingpin Melvin “Little Melvin” Williams used to own the Underground nightclub. At times, drug traffic is so heavy that customers and dealers clog the sidewalks.
Two weeks ago, at Harlem Avenue and Dukeland Street, police were “making street rips”—rounding up dealers—while a community group eight blocks south on Edmondson Avenue were meeting to voice its concerns on drugs.
On North Avenue at Pulaski Street, a longtime drug corner, drug dealing was so prevalent a couple of years ago that it was “like someone was giving away $10 bills,” according to Sgt. Andre Street, of the Police Department’s STOP (Special Tactical Operations Patrol) Squad.
According to police, most of the street dealing—mainly in heroin and cocaine—occurs at these three locations. But as other communities from Park Heights to Pikesville have found, there are no boundaries when it comes to drugs.
Last year, Carolyn Massey decided to send her 18-year-old son, Kenneth, to her daughter in Florida when she found out he was running drugs in the neighborhood.
“No decent parent,” she said, sipping a glass of iced tea in the dining room of her Edmonson Avenue home, “will allow their kids to sell drugs.”
“We talked about it, and that’s when he decided he should go to Florida. He knew he couldn’t survive here—too much was happening. He loved his family, and he knew how much he was hurting us.”
One Tuesday afternoon—Aug. 18, 1987—Kenneth returned home to visit his mother, who had celebrated her birthday the previous day.
That week his brother had an argument with the man he was running drugs for. Kenneth interceded.
One hundred feet from his mothers home, he was stopped by two bullets. He died that Friday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
“I didn’t want him to die. At that hospital, I would imagine he was doing better,” Ms. Massey said. “He came back different, he was so happy.
“I just never approved of the drugs, even before my son passed. But I still loved him.”
Determined not to let the streets claim her other son, she became a stricter parent.
“He has to ring the bell to come home. I wouldn’t dare give him a key,” she said two weeks ago. “When he comes to this house, do you know that I frisk him? I can’t handle that, not after losing a son. He’s (bad), but I pray for him everyday.”
Last Wednesday, her son was arrested in Owings Mills and charged with stealing a car. Although his arrest was painful, Ms Massey, who at times had even called the police on her own son, was relieved.
“I think something’s wrong with him. I think he wanted to destroy himself,” she said, just before leaving home to see his probation officer. “He loved his brother, and I think he feels he’s responsible for his death.”
The drug problem is not confined to the youth of Rosemont.
A 32-year-old man died Feb. 5 while sitting in a chair in the basement of a house in the 1700 block of North Appleton Street. A friend told police the man was a habitual heroin user; fresh needle marks were found on the top of his left hand.
And this summer police charged Theresa DeFord with possession with intent to distribute drugs after finding marijuana, cocaine and heroin during a raid of her home in the 1900 block of Lauretta Avenue. She was 70.
“That really surprised the hell out of me,” said Sgt. Bert Racasa, who for 2 ½ years has headed the drug enforcement unit of the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District, which includes most of Rosemont. “She even had a 14-year-old grandson there when she was dealing.”
Like other neighborhoods, Rosemont has its share of addicts.
According to Bill Rusinko of the state health department, 152 cocaine users from Rosemont enrolled in drug treatment programs during the 11 months that ended in May—90 of them by court order. And 118 Rosemont marijuana users enrolled in the same period, 100 of them on a judge’s order.
On a tree-lined street just east of Lutheran Hospital, a husband and wife offer encouragement to a 21-year-old son who last year completed a 30-day drug treatment program for marijuana abuse.
“Almost every family you can imagine, in some way, shape or form, has been touched by it,” said the father, who believes the son also abused cocaine.
“My son didn’t have flashy shoes, he didn’t wear big rope chains. He is the type of a lot of teen-agers today—I call them closet addicts.”
As well as regular police patrols, the war against drugs in Rosemont is fought by a separate district drug enforcement unit of seven officers, including Sergeant Racasa. Last year, the unit led the city with 1,271 of the district’s 2,666 drug arrests.
Those arrested are men and women, young and old, black and white—many of them from outside the area. They range from a firefighter to a jail guard to a former football player from the defunct United States Football League.
Sergeant Racasa, who has worked drugs for eight of his 20 years with the department, says drug dealers “were very, very, very, secretive when I started out. Today, they’re more open, and there’s more drugs on the street.”
Some neighborhood residents appreciate the efforts of police.
“Edmondson Avenue, now that is one street where you have to give police credit. I know at the beginning of the year, you could hardly walk through here,” said Muriel Lindsay, who has lived in the 2400 block of Lafayette Avenue since 1953 and who monitors police activities on a scanner radio. “The Western District, I must say, they are magnificent.”
But others criticize what they perceive as serious faults in the criminal justice system.
“The police may make an arrest at 9 o’clock,” said Mrs. Butler, “and by 3 o’clock (dealers) may be back on the street, doing the same thing they were doing.”
On July 25, Phillip Harris appeared before Judge Robert J. Gerstung in District Court on Wabash Avenue and pleaded guilty to possession of heroin. His sentence—probation before judgment and a $125 fine—earned him a free walk out the front door of the courthouse.
Five minutes earlier, 19-year-old Michael Lambert appeared in front of the same judge, charged with stealing a case of soda from a truck in the 2700 block of Harlem Avenue. It was his first offense. He left the courthouse handcuffed in the back of a City Jail van—the judge had sentenced him to six months. (The sentence was suspended after a week.)
Meanwhile, Rosemont’s residents must deal every day with drugs and the violence—break-ins, burglaries and muggings—that they bring.
Residents meet to discuss the threat, neighborhood groups complain to officials, police man the trenches on Edmondson Avenue and Brice Street, but the problem continues.
New victims—dealers and users—are claimed daily. And the children who live where the dealing is heavy are exposed to it all—playing in a park, where a hypodermic syringe lies buried in the bleachers, buying ice cream from a truck on one side of the street, while dealers sell drugs on the other.
“With so much money with drugs, something radical is going to have to be done,” said Thomas White III, a Whitmore Avenue resident. “We haven’t been winning the war the way we’re doing it the last 20 to 25 years.”
© 1988 The Baltimore Sun