Tuesday, June 5th, 2012
In Baltimore, a group of military veterans have banded together to clean up and revitalize a neighborhood that has often been run by drug dealers and has slipped into urban blight. (Parts of the neighborhood were used to film some episodes of the HBO series “The Wire” that focused on the corner drug trade in Baltimore.) As the Christian Science Monitor reports, many of these veterans have returned to civilian life from their time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now searching for a way to, as one retired Marine Corps sergeant put it, “feel useful again.”
From the Monitor:
In 2002, an Oliver family with five children was burned to death in their home after the mother confronted local dealers. Money poured into the area, and a playground and children’s center now memorialize the family. More recently, an alliance between a local ministers’ group called BUILD and The Reinvestment Fund, a Baltimore nonprofit group that invests in distressed neighborhoods, has been working to build and rehab subsidized housing in the southeast corner of Oliver, near Johns Hopkins Medical Center and a planned biotech park.
Mr. [Earl] Johnson, [a former Army Ranger who recently moved to Oliver and] who grew up in a Baltimore suburb, had never really spent time in the city before moving there. “So I get to Baltimore as an adult, and I’m like: ‘Who dropped the ball here?’ “
He started beautifying the couple’s little piece of Eden, planting trees and flowers and introducing himself to neighbors. He also met Dave Borinsky, who had invested in rehabbing his house. Mr. Borinsky was starting Come Home Baltimore, a for-profit development firm in the neighborhood, which was paired with a nonprofit foundation of the same name. The mission of the two organizations is to rehab vacant homes for sale, while helping current residents tap into assistance programs to fix up their own.
He and Johnson hit it off, and Borinsky hired Johnson to lead the foundation. But Johnson’s overtures to local leaders, who were wary of outside developers, met with frustration, and he was looking for a new approach.
When Johnson met [Rich] Blake, [a Marine Corps veteran,] the 6th Branch leader was organizing a service day through another nonprofit, the Pat Tillman Foundation. The impulsive pair clicked immediately and held the cleanup in Oliver. Standing on the back of a pickup truck at the end of a successful day, they committed themselves and their organizations to turning the neighborhood around.
Resident Donald Morton saw the project unfolding through the back window of the Oliver Street home he has shared with his mother for half a century. He went out to help, and became a convert.
“I never seen that many women come down and do that kind of work,” he says of the volunteers. “That kind of pumped me up. They were swinging axes and everything.”
Sitting on his stoop on a recent evening, Mr. Morton remembers, as a kid, watching Army tanks roll up the street to quell the riots. He also recalls the dark decades that followed, when the place was crawling with drug dealers.
Things are much quieter today, he says: “Now, the most I have to deal with is my mom.”
Since the first cleanup Morton helped with last July, nearly 2,000 volunteers–mostly college students from the Baltimore area and farther afield–have come to help in Oliver. They and veteran leaders have planted more than 100 trees and shrubs, pulled over 65 tons of trash out of lots and alleys, and helped elderly residents empty their homes of more detritus.
Operation Oliver has now shifted its focus somewhat, “from park and alley cleanups to individual residents and their struggles”:
“Some of the living conditions we’ve seen here have made us cry,” says Johnson. “We’ve got people living like [they were in] Bosnia here.”
He knows one elderly woman with no heat who boils water in winter so the steam will warm her. Another bails sewage from her basement into her yard with a bucket. “We won’t have the impact we should have until we get into these houses,” he says.
That’s what volunteers are doing at [Carolyn] Lawson’s this morning: getting her home ready for weatherization so she can live in it safely. When they arrived, she struggled out to her stoop to say a blessing over them. Now, she sits in the living room with her young grandson, overseeing the parade of boxes emerging from the basement. “I’m looking at memories coming up the steps,” she says.
Despite the hard years she spent in Oliver, when dealers ruled the park 20 yards from her door and taxi drivers bringing her home demanded payment upfront so they could drop her off and speed away, this is the place Lawson wants to live the rest of her life. She nursed her mother, mother-in-law, and husband through their final days in this house, and she wants to go the way they did–at home.
“I appreciate everything [the volunteers] have done to help me out,” she says, ” ’cause I know I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
Lawson was skeptical of the group at first; she had been on waiting lists for city assistance for a year and despaired that anyone was serious about getting things done. But the veterans charmed her.
“I talk to them like I talk to my sons,” she says. “All of them are very friendly and helpful, and I can pick up their sense–you know, you can pick up a sense that a person is truly from the heart.”
So Operation Oliver’s effort to win over hearts and minds continues. “We’re a foreign element, and in that way it’s the same as it would be in Iraq or Afghanistan,” says volunteer Jeremy Johnson, who is contemplating a move to the neighborhood. The important difference, he says, is that “here we have the ability to understand and adapt and bridge the gap. The people soldiering there [in Afghanistan or Iraq] were never going to stay. Here we can.”