With the 2014 general election less than one month away, a number of active community association leaders have spoken with the AFRO to express their views on the biggest issues affecting their communities and ways in which Baltimore’s elected officials might assist those communities in addressing them.
Cassandra Sutton, a representative for the Ashburton and Presbury Better Neighborhood Association in west Baltimore, says that vacant homes and drug activity are two of the biggest issues in her community, and that the two are interconnected.
“ a safety hazard, a fire hazard, and it’s a place where the drug dealers can go and stash their drugs,” said Sutton.
The city needs to do a better job of holding landlords accountable for the condition of their properties says Sutton, and notes that currently the city will not interfere with a private property, vacant or not, unless a window or door is missing, in which case the city will board it up.
Richard Edwards, president, Druid Hill Ave. Homeowners Assoc.
Sutton would also like to see trash pick-up increase from once to twice a week, or for dumpsters to be made available to communities more than four times a year, which she says is the current limit, in order to combat the problem of illegal dumping in alleyways.
Richard Edwards, the president of the recently formed Druid Hill Avenue Homeowners Association, is also concerned about the number ofinvestor held properties in his Druid Heights neighborhood.
“We seem to have a large population of investors,” said Edwards. “The concern is that they’re not necessarily vetting the renters that are coming in, and we’re getting a lot of drug activity because of that.”
Like Sutton, Edwards cites the drug activity and vacant properties as the two biggest issues facing his community. Moving forward, Edwards would like to see better communication between the community and law enforcement, suggesting that mobilizing social media for the purpose of reporting crime may help, but that greater sensitivity training is also needed for officers patrolling the area.
“I think what happens is, in the police training, they’re taught to act tough and be tough so they don’t look weak, but in doing that it seems like they’re being very disrespectful, and that’s the part that I see.”
Edwards feels that the perception of disrespect from officers in turn drives down community respect for the police, which makes it harder to cooperate on issues affecting the community.
Willard Dixon, president of the Park Heights Community Council, cites drug trafficking and a lack of residential development as his community’s biggest issues.
“I’d like to see these abandoned houses either torn down or fixed up,” said Dixon. “They need to bring back the homesteading program where you could get a dollar house, and borrow to get it fixed up. There’s a lot of empty houses, and that contributes to both the drug trafficking and the rat problem.”
Dixon also observed that there has not been a grocery store in his area for around 15 to 20 years, and that there is a general lack of commercial enterprise as well as jobs and recreational outlets for youth.
“There’s nothing up here for youth and for the unemployed,” said Dixon.
Cynthia Shaw, president of the Lyndhurst Community Association in Edmondson Village, like Sutton and Edwards, is also concerned that investor-owned properties are having an outsized impact on her community.
“That’s a big concern that we have, how our community is changing from home ownership to renters, or investors who put renters in and don’t maintain the property, and don’t have the renters maintain it,” said Shaw, stating later, “we’re losing home ownership in our particular area of west Baltimore.”
Shaw says that her association is also working with another group, Neighbors Without Borders, in order to develop the Edmondson Village Shopping Center. While there is a Giant supermarket in the area, Shaw notes that some area only have access to corner stores where fresh
fruits and vegetables are a rarity and that the neighborhood could use another grocer.
“We could use a choice. Giant is not bad, it’s a good store, but we could use another choice,” said Shaw, who mentioned that Neighbors Without Borders is working to bring a farmer’s market to Edmondson Village.
Michael Middleton, chairman of the Cherry Hill Community Coalition, and a consultant with the Cherry Hill Development Corporation, has been working to implement the Cherry Hill Master Plan and says that “the opportunity is now for a community that wants to determine its own destiny to do so.”
Middleton is excited about two new schools that are being built as part of the city’s 21st Century Buildings initiative for school renovations and new school construction, including one that will enroll children from age two through second grade, an important investment in early childhood education for the Cherry Hill community.
In Middleton’s view, Cherry Hill is on the cusp of transitioning from a predominantly low-income area to a middle class one.
“What we have to do is to lower the percentage of low-income housing in Cherry Hill and our method of doing that is by expanding and using the present open space available to develop mixed-income housing,” said Middleton.
As Cherry Hill moves forward, Middleton simply wants the city to support the direction the community has established for itself.
“We don’t want the city to do the work for us; our community has basically made the determination of where we want to go,” said Middleton.
“All we need is for their assistance in us getting there.”
Ken Desmarais, president of the New Northwood Community Association, says that over the past four years or so, the community has seen far less crime than it had previously been accustomed to, and credits much of the progress to an active community board and effective police and community relations.
“We’re in as comfortable a place as one could hope,” said Desmarais who noted that other parts of the city have not fared as well and spoke highly of the police leadership in the Northeast district.
Though largely complementary of northeast district command, Desmarais says he would like to see better training for community relations officers, and perhaps some older, retired officers step into the role to aid with early intervention efforts with any potential issues in the community.
“You need compassion, you need passion, you need to know how to speak to people and hold their hands if necessary,” said Desmarais of what he views as the key qualities of effective community relations personnel.