McElderry Park launches new war on crime in east Baltimore

BALTIMORE - Kids on the stoop, mom talking to neighbors—generations in East Baltimore were built on this charming idea of community and not what Donna Pryor hears outside once the sun goes down.

"I was lying in my room and my kids were in the middle room and it sounded like the bullets were coming in our bedroom. We all just fell on the floor." [How many times have you heard that around here?]  "Every other night it seems like it," Pryor responded, "I mean its constant."

A constant battle between good and evil, a war waged for the heart of East Baltimore, but after enough dark, loud nights it's just not clear who is winning.

"It's terrible to live in East Baltimore and it wasn't always like this," Pryor lamented.

Sgt. Anthony Maggio is well aware it wasn't always like this, these are the streets he grew up on, the same streets he polices today.

"It brings back memories," he said. "Of course it was a lot different when I was younger in elementary school. As I got to my teens it started to get bad. When I was 15 we moved out of the area for that reason, but definitely brings back memories."

Maggio is one of two sergeants in charge of 16 officers that work the Monument Street Initiative, a special enforcement aimed at removing the infected wound that is as long as Monument Street itself ripping right through the heart of East Baltimore.

It is a corridor full of drugs and violent crime that has slowly rotted the once strong middle class communities directly to the north and south of it.

"It definitely brings down the quality of life around here... no doubt," Maggio says as he patrols the area," they sell everything in this corridor: marijuana, heroin, cocaine, mollies, prescription pills. You have a large variety of drugs that are available so you have a large group of people that use different types of drugs that come here to buy."

And linger, creating an incubator of poverty, addiction and violence that has steadily spread north and south infecting neighborhoods like Milton-Montford, Madison-Eastend, Ellwood and McElderry Park.

While seeing some successes in more concentrated policing, it hasn't done much to stem 15 to 20 years of neighborhood decay, but McElderry Park is where the city and residents are drawing the line.

Backed by nearly a million federal dollars, the community is launching a different kind of warfare.

"We have to find creative, innovative solutions to deal with the issues of public safety," said LeVar Michael with the Baltimore Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

Michael is in charge of helping McElderry Park declare a new kind of fight.

The Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program is part of the Obama Administration's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

McElderry Park is one of just 15 neighborhoods nationwide in 2012 to receive the the specified grant totaling just less than a million dollars over three years, but it comes with a caveat.

"What this grant does is it takes a holistic approach. We are not just gonna look at the traditional way of addressing crime. We are actually going to touch on a number of different issues," Michael said.

Those issues are being worked out in meetings of the MceElderry Park Community Association and its partners.

The grant money is only awarded after a year of strategic planning of creative solutions to crime.

The community is using various data to develop programs aimed at countering the diseased parts of the neighborhood.

In the past decade or so, stats show about 22 percent of homes in the small neighborhood are vacant, only about 32 percent are owned and in 2010 nearly 26 percent of families with children lived below the poverty level.

Possible solutions backed by the federal money range from better street lighting, rehab tax credits for developers and a robust mentor program for the neighborhood's youth.

All the programs being discussed and architected are designed specifically to address McElderry Park on a hyper local level and not the ‘one size fits all' approach of more policing or blue light crime cameras.

"If we don't do it right this time, we are really screwed," said McElderry Park Community Association President Glenn Ross.

Over the years Ross has seen federal dollars come and federal dollars go, this opportunity though, this is a unique shot.

McElderry Park is part of a wider East Baltimore area currently being considered for what is called a Promise Zone by the white house.

The Obama Administration will only make 20 such designations next year.

If the neighborhoods combining to form East Baltimore are one of them, it means first dibs on even more federal money to fight crime in this alternative way and heal this area from the street up.

"We are looking at other federal dollars coming down here and if we do not have our act together as an organization, we are going to miss out on funding opportunities," Ross said.

McElderry Park has until February to present its holistic crime plan for the Byrne grant and start using the nearly 1 million dollars within its small boarders.

Success will be measured after another two years in the way of crime stats and quality of life indicators, but for residents here like Donna Pryor, success will always be measured in the view from her stoop.

"Being able to feel safe. Being able to allow my kids to come outside and play. Being able to sit outside, enjoy myself and talk to my neighbors. You don't even have that anymore."

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