True Believers?

January 29 - February 4, 2003

True Believers

Vaughn Vigil and Bryan Taylor are Fighting a Daily Battle Against Drug Dealing in Their Neighborhood. They are Still Waiting for Reinforcements.

"Get in the van!"
Get in the van: Police respond to a complaint of hand-to-hand
drug sales in the 1700 block of Madison Avenue.

by Erin Sullivan

Sitting in the dark, in a parked car on a quiet street in his Baltimore neighborhood, Vaughn Vigil watches a scene that most people only see on TV shows like The Wire. Vigil sees them firsthand every day.

There's not much activity on most of this block of Madison Avenue, but in the darkness near the corner of Madison and Wilson Street stands a house with broken windows and a front door swung wide open despite the arctic chill. There are no lights on inside, but still it's a hive of tense and deliberate activity. A couple of kids on bikes cruise around near the corner, circling, going nowhere in particular. Every few minutes, almost like clockwork, young men run up the front steps, into the pitch-dark entryway of the building, then come running back out moments later. From time to time, a pedestrian, barely dressed for the frigid weather, stumbles toward the building as if it were some kind of Mecca. Every so often, a massive, gleaming SUV stops out front and idles while one of its passengers runs up the steps of the building carrying a brown bag. He re-emerges moments later, empty-handed, gets back in, and the SUV pulls away from the curb and disappears around the corner.

"All night long, a car will pull up outside and do that," Vigil says. "I think that's the supplier. He pulls up and the person with the bag runs in and brings more supplies and comes back with money. You'll notice this kind of thing happening every hour or so."

He points out some young men in sweatshirts loitering near the corner.

"See, there will also be a guy out on the street, the barker, and he'll call out, 'Greens, greens, greens,' or, 'Blues, blues, blues,'" Vigil says, noting that the colors represent the color of the vial--in essence, the brand--of the crack they're selling that day. "He'll take the customer's money, then go to where the stash is hidden . . . and he'll go and get the crack and hand it to the buyer. They hide it because that way, if a dealer gets stopped by the police no one actually has any drugs on them and they don't get arrested."

The kids on bikes are very often the lookouts. "When the police are nearby, you can hear them give a warning call, a whistle or something," Vigil says. "Everybody clears out. A minute later, you'll see a cop car drive by and no one will be around."

1704 Madison Av
On the street where you live: 1704 Madison Avenue

As if on cue, a high-pitched "whooo-hooo" goes out into the night, and everyone scatters: The loiterers on the corner disappear, the people on the steps of the house disappear inside the open doorway, and the kids on their bikes are nowhere to be seen. Less than 90 seconds later, an unmarked police cruiser turns the wrong way onto the one-way street; the officers inside scan the block, but there's no one visible. The car does a couple of loops around the block, then moves on. Five minutes later, a head pops out of the doorway of the house, a kid on a bike comes cycling around the corner, and business is back on.

"It's like this every night," Vigil says. "And in the warmer weather, it's worse."

Vigil and his brother Bryan Taylor bought their house at 1708 Madison Ave. two and a half years ago. Since they purchased the place, they've become uncomfortably, intimately familiar with the drug activity in the neighborhood. Both can tell you about "the maze," the route the area's drug dealers travel to get from suppliers to hidden stashes to customers. They talk of witnessing drug deals made through a broken window in a house next door, bags thrown from windows of the building across the street to waiting recipients. They've seen kids as young as 10 years old helping peddle drugs and, even more disturbing, young children, not even school age, patiently waiting outside in the cold while a parent is inside a house getting high.

"The saddest part is that we're 50 feet from an elementary school," Vigil says. "You'll see dads or moms who, with one hand they're taking their kids to school, and with the other they're buying drugs. . . . People who haven't seen it don't believe me, but it happens. Even if it's 17 degrees, there's people out here selling drugs."

Vigil and Taylor have grown increasingly disenchanted with the notion of urban pioneerism, and frustrated with the trade that goes on right outside their doorway. (When they first moved in, Taylor says, dealers would sell right on their front step.) But their growing dissatisfaction with the neighborhood's problems isn't driving them away--at least not yet. Instead, it's driven them to do what most people in the city are loath to do, especially since the brutal arson murder of the Dawson family in East Baltimore in October 2002, when one of their neighbors, police say, burned the family out of their home in retaliation for its resistance to the local drug trade. Like Angela Dawson, the matriarch of that family, Taylor and Vigil are fighting to take their block back from the drug dealers who currently rule it.

The Dawsons' murder shocked and appalled Taylor. He created and distributed the signs that read the dawsons live here that popped up all over the city shortly after the incident. He says he was frightened that what happened to the Dawsons could happen to him, but he says he sometimes thinks "sheer lunacy" fuels his fight. "The Dawsons' neighborhood got a hell of a lot of attention after the Dawsons were killed," he says. "I would imagine this neighborhood would get a lot of attention if I got shot."

But he doesn't dwell long on that kind of sentiment. He prefers instead to talk about how he believes this neighborhood can be rescued.

Taylor and Vigil's fight is not just a noble task but a practical one. The brothers note that they've already sunk thousands into this building, and neither has the cash to simply cut his losses and find a home in another neighborhood. It's taken a toll on them, both financially and emotionally. And at times, it's nearly enough to drive someone crazy, Taylor says. He readily admits that there are times he's close to tears with anger and frustration, he's scared for his and Vigil's safety, and often he's so angry he's almost ready to give up. Last summer, he started keeping a Web log of the daily drug activity he observes and the emotional roller coaster he's been on since he got involved in the block.

"Everyone who reads the Web site knows that I can be happy one minute, and the next disappointed," Taylor says. "There's a stress level here. You often hear 'greens out, greens out, greens out.' The other day I heard a dealer in front of the house talking about how the cold was killing his business. . . . The fact the market is so obvious and constant and that nothing can be done about it is simply exasperating. Being told there are other areas just as bad or worse doesn't make it any better."

Taylor, a 45-year-old freelance Web designer, lives on the upper floors of 1708 Madison Ave., a house that used to be one of Baltimore's stately bourgeois mansions. Despite some decayed floorboards, peeling paint, missing railings, a boarded-up window, and fallen plaster, you can still get a feel for what an impressive building it used to be. Gracefully arching stairways disappear into ridiculously high ceilings, and one expansive room leads into another. There's even a small addition that used to be a carriage house out back--clearly, this was not just another Baltimore McRowhouse. More than likely, its floors were lustrous, chandeliers once hung from its ceilings, and dinner parties were held in its dining room.

For years the surrounding area was a stronghold of upper- and middle-class black homeowners--a well-kept, safe community where families could raise their children in the city. Taylor says that around the turn of the 20th century his house was owned by an African-American doctor who had his practice in the front rooms. But eventually, urban ills crept in. Families moved out. Sturdy, well-kept houses like Taylor's were cut up into apartments. Absentee landlords and poverty moved in. Taylor's once-fine "mini-mansion," like so many others in this neighborhood, went from being a spacious, comfortable home for a well-off family to being a simple rental property to being what it was until Taylor and Vigil purchased it in 2000: a crackhouse.

"I'd been looking for a rehab property," Taylor says. "This building was advertised in City Paper, actually. I had looked at it for six months. Every window was boarded up, it needed a lot of work. But it was right next to Bolton Hill. I said to myself, 'Well, it can't be that bad.' Finally, I made the guy an offer I thought he couldn't possibly accept. But he did."

Vigil, his 39-year-old half-brother, also a Web designer, went in on the house with him. They purchased the building for $20,000 in June 2000. "The house was boarded up for seven years before we even got here," Vigil says. "We got it for very cheap because it was falling down."

After taking possession, Vigil and Taylor unboarded the windows and front doorway and set to work removing piles of garbage, old furniture, and debris from the property's first, second, and third floors. They also disposed of thousands of crack vials they found in the basement and the yard adjoining the building. They saw great potential in the house and started to make 1708 a place they could eventually think of as home.

But shortly after Vigil and Taylor began working on the building, they found that there was one significant obstacle in the way of making 1708 Madison an urban paradise: the thriving crack market that seemed to make its base in the building right next door, 1704 Madison Ave.

It didn't seem so bad at first--after all, most people who take their chances on properties beyond the havens of Baltimore City's upscale and middle-class neighborhoods expect to encounter some degree of drug activity, crime, and urban decay. But the longer Vigil and Taylor owned 1708, the more they came to realize how stubborn and well-established this little market was. "They tell us our [area] is one of the worst," Taylor says, "right next to Pennsy [Pennsylvania] and Laurens," a street corner just a few blocks over.

At first the neighbors were diffident about Vigil and Taylor--two middle-aged white guys who were moving onto a block that, according to the 2000 census, was at the time 100 percent black. Census data also notes that there wasn't a single owner-occupant on the block; rather, all 29 inhabited units were rentals. Then the neighbors were curious about the newcomers, and Taylor says that despite the drug trade on the street, he made some acquaintances in the area, including a 77-year-old man who lived next door at 1704. But Vigil and Taylor refused to be intimidated by the teenage dealers who hung out on their street. They observed the comings and goings in the buildings around theirs and reported suspicious activity to the police.

paraphenalia on the floor
Drug paraphenalia on the floor of the common hallway
inside 1704 Madison Avenue

"I think there were 600 calls to 911 from this block last year," Taylor says. "And probably about 200 of them were mine."

On a block where the prevailing agreement between drug dealers and residents had been an uneasy "live and let live," the brothers' vigilance didn't go unnoticed.

"Last spring it came around in full force," Taylor says. "I'd be on the roof, working, and kids [in the yard next to the building] would aim at me and, 'Shhh!'" He illustrates the gesture by pointing his arm forward and making a shooting gesture with his hand.

What had gotten his not-so-friendly neighbors particularly riled up, Taylor says, was that in December 2001, he and Vigil not only called on police to patrol the neighborhood but invited them to make use of their house. Taylor e-mailed Mayor Martin O'Malley offering the little carriage house at the back as a break room for police officers patrolling the area. In part, the brothers were motivated by generosity: Taylor says he's been grateful for the efforts made by the hard-working cops of the city, and he had heard once from a female officer that there wasn't a decent public rest room anywhere nearby. But of course, Taylor says, they were also motivated by selfishness: "We wanted to increase the police presence in the neighborhood," he says. "Every time they come in here, every time they so much as flush a toilet, they interrupt a deal."

Unfortunately, interrupting a deal or two doesn't bring an end to the flourishing trade. Having a home base at 1704 Madison (a building that, according to state tax records, is co-owned by C.I.T. Inc., a now-defunct corporation, and Clarence Weston, a supervisor in the city's Bureau of Solid Waste) makes it easy for dealers to do their business beyond the watch of the police. Taylor contends that his block will always be a haven for drug dealers and users as long as that house is available to them.

He's tried to enlist the help of his neighbors, but many people are hesitant to join him. "They can't speak up," Taylor writes on his Web site. "They can't appear to support the police or other good efforts out of well-founded fear. We're hoping to help change that with time and persistence."

But sometimes Taylor gets frustrated at how much time and persistence it's taking to get someone--anyone--actively interested in saving this community. He says he is not surprised to hear that the Rev. Wardell Jones, who owns the building down the street at 1702 Madison and runs the Holiness Church of Deliverance out of its basement, had little to say for this story, save that "things have gotten a little better here" since Taylor and Vigil opened the police substation. His son, Wardell Jones Jr., who lives at 1702, refused to make any comment at all. Michael Thomas, pastor of the Payne Memorial AME Church at 1714 Madison, on the other end of the block, could not be reached for comment for this article. And the management of Pedestal Gardens Apartments, across the street at 1715-1717 Madison, did not return calls seeking comment, either.

"People are afraid," says City Council member Catherine Pugh, who represents Baltimore's 4th District, including the 1700 block of Madison. Pugh says she is familiar with Taylor and Vigil's struggle on Madison Avenue, and that she "applauds what they are trying to do." She says that drugs have long been a problem on that block and she recently met with members of Payne Memorial AME to discuss ways to combat the dealing. The city has been looking for ways to "move the drug dealing" off of the streets, she says, but "for some reason they continue to remain. They really scare our communities and create havoc."

For good reason, she notes: "I know he [Taylor] has had some problems, and he's had some threats as a result of what he's trying to do," she says. "He actually e-mailed me one of the threats--which was pretty bad--which I took to the mayor's office. I asked him, 'How do I respond to this kind of thing, when someone gets these kinds of threats?'"

Gerry Shields, a spokesman for the mayor's office, says that O'Malley might be familiar with the problems on that particular block of Madison Avenue, but that the city's housing authority is responsible for problems reported from a specific address. Calls to the Baltimore office of Housing and Community Development's communications office were not returned as of press time.

Jennifer Speigel, a pro bono project attorney with the Community Law Center, says that a number of different parties came together on Jan. 14 to "determine what the best course of action would be to get this particular property owner out of there." She says that Clarence Weston has been cited by the city for numerous code violations in the past but has failed to address them. "There's actually litigation taking place already by the city because he's obviously violating many city codes," Speigel says. "Last I heard, he had not completed any of the requirements from his last court dates, and there was an order entered that he had to do so many things which he never did do, so they were trying to file a criminal contempt case."

Weston has been summoned to appear at a criminal-contempt hearing in Baltimore City Housing Court on Feb. 7; the outcome could eventually result in jail time. Calls to Weston's work were not returned, and the only Clarence Weston listed in the phone book said he was not the owner of 1704 Madison Ave.

Nobody seems to want the 1700 block of Madison Avenue, besides Taylor, Vigil, and the drug dealers. "This block, it's been so bad for so many years, it's never even belonged to a community association," Vigil notes. Though the block is surrounded by proactive, successful community associations--Madison Park, Marble Hill, and Bolton Hill are all nearby--none wanted to take responsibility for it. After several meetings, Vigil says, earlier this month "Marble Hill technically took us in, but for a long time, we couldn't get help [from the Community Law Center] because of their charter. CLC couldn't help us unless we were part of a community association, so they actually encouraged us to form our own community association."

Taylor points out that you can't have a community association of two. Support has been building but slow in trickling in. Some individuals from nearby neighborhoods, such as Julie Thorne and Ken Kupfer of Bolton Hill, have taken an active interest in the police substation. Thorne bought a new microwave and brought it over for the officers to use. She regularly keeps the place supplied with paper products and Pop Tarts; Kupfer stopped by on a recent Saturday afternoon with a big bag of apples, oranges, and other snacks for the officers who use it.

"I don't think we knew this was going on," says Kupfer, who lives in the Spicer's Run development in Bolton Hill. "I don't think I knew there was a drug market here."

Though Kupfer says that there's an "invisible distinct line" between the well-kept homes of Bolton Hill and the surrounding troubled neighborhoods, he and his neighbors are affected by smaller, quality-of-life crimes related to drug dealing in places like Madison Avenue's 1700 block. For example, Bolton Hill residents have complained of increased prostitution near the edges of their neighborhood--a problem exacerbated by the nearby crack market. "You can trace prostitution on Eutaw Place directly to this block," Taylor says. "They go there, make enough money to buy their drugs, then they come back over to 1704 to get high."

In September, shortly after The Sun printed a story about Taylor and Vigil's 1708 Madison saga, the brothers experienced a chilling moment--one that would have given most people enough pause to seriously weigh their commitment to their homes, their communities, their neighborhoods.

"Vaughn was walking down the street," Taylor says, lounging nonchalantly on a white couch in the substation. A believe poster hangs on the wall next to him. It has been a quiet night, and he and Vigil are at ease, telling tales from their own personal war on drugs. "And the crack dealers were handing out these fliers they had printed out of the Web page. And there were these kids on the street who had seen them, and they started chanting at Vaughn: ',' Over and over. It was chilling."

The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour: Vaughn Vigil points out neighborhood
highlights--like the local crack house.

Vigil adds with a smile: "Though they did have the Web address wrong."

Around that same time, Taylor says, he was threatened by an angry kid who told him that if he didn't watch out, "I'll burn your ass, just like that Dawson bitch."

"We've had a few shootings in the past two years," Taylor says. "I suppose that's the real fear, that one will get caught in the cross fire. There are theories the dealers will leave us here alone because they think I'm connected with the cops, having the substation in the back. There's [also] the theory they'll take any chance they can to get to us for the same reason. For the most part, I think we're just a small nuisance to the dealers."

As they describe their hopes for the future of the neighborhood--that 1704 will be shut down, that the management of Pedestal Gardens across the street might someday find a way to put the property to better use, that they win the support of more of their neighbors--a couple of young police officers stop by the station on their dinner break. They greet Vigil and Taylor, turn on the television to see what's on the news, put a couple of things in the fridge. They've been patrolling this area for a couple of hours tonight.

"You heard anything about a shooting?" one of them asks Taylor. "I heard something on the radio, but I didn't get it all yet."

Taylor has heard nothing so far. And the two start to chat a bit about the activity on the streets tonight. It's been cold, so things are a little quieter than usual. One of the officers says that he just saw a guy standing on the corner near 1704 that he picked up in the same place last night.

"I took that guy in yesterday," the officer tells him. "He's back out on the corner again today. He inherited this business from his father, who used to run this block. Now it's his. And he's back on the street. I just saw him."

Before anyone can even ask him what will happen to the dealer next, an alert comes over the officers' radios: Four women have carjacked a man on North Avenue. The officers are on their feet and out the door in seconds, leaving the half-eaten meal on the table, and the substation is quiet again for a while.

Most Sunday mornings, the 1700 block of Madison Avenue is packed full of cars.

Payne Memorial AME Church holds its services, and churchgoers dressed in their Sunday best flock to the building at the corner of Madison and Laurens. At the other end of the block, near the corner of Wilson, though, things are the same as any other day. A man in a hoodie lingers near the corner. A few loiterers hang out on the steps of 1704.

Inside the police substation, Taylor and Vigil welcome Kupfer, who has arrived with a bag of fruit and some paper products for the station, and two well-wishers who learned of the station through Taylor's Web site. Paul Reyes lives in Hampden, and he says he was inspired by the message of perseverance and community that shines through in the brothers' work; he has brought a friend from Burtonsville, Lynn Burke, who was intrigued by the story. Reyes says he wishes more people were able to do as Taylor and Vigil have done.

"I think it's important for people to feel like there's hope for a neighborhood, and a chance for it to return to normalcy," Reyes says. "You don't want to feel like you're living in the demilitarized zone. This gives people the feeling that they are not alone."

Adds Kupfer, who has brought his infant son along to visit the station, "They are very brave in what they are doing and what they're putting together here. This is like a thesis from a social-sciences project from school put into action."

It seems it's the kind of project Mayor O'Malley had in mind when he launched the city's Believe campaign, for which he encouraged residents to overcome complacency, "report details of drug activities they witness," and help the police take back the streets of Baltimore.

"We believe Baltimore can recover from the pestilence of illegal drugs," the preamble to the Believe program's Declaration of Independence From Drugs reads. "We believe the people of Baltimore will now activate in themselves the power to redeem the core identity of the city as the best place in America to live, work, and raise a family. We believe in the future of Baltimore."

But it can be hard and lonely work to be a believer when you're staring complacency--and complicity--in the face every day. Despite the e-mail support he receives on his Web site guest book from visitors as far away as California, Canada, and Sweden, Taylor still gets down sometimes when he looks out his window. A few days before Christmas, he was feeling particularly desperate about the situation on his street, and he wrote an e-mail letter to the mayor.

"I've grown increasingly disappointed with the city and of course, that sometimes includes you as its representative," Taylor wrote. "I've become bitter and cynical. Two and a half years in hell will do that to you. . . . For all our efforts here, from people all around, our centerpiece being the substation, nothing much has changed. We're still a crack haven. An open-air market. A breeding ground of despair and death. I watch the dealers every day peddle their trash. I watch the walking dead every day and night. I see them scour the grounds for a tiny shred of crack all to the tune of 'greens out, greens for $5.' The same at Christmas as it is every day. I know we're only one of many open markets, but that's small solace. I do want to ask, what more can I do? Please don't tell me to call BPD again. I call them several times a day. If you think I should move out of the city, just tell me. Please. If you gave me license to desert, I would in a heartbeat."

Taylor printed the response he got from the mayor's office at his site: "Bryan--hang in there. And have a happy holiday season. --Martin O'Malley, Mayor."

A few days after he received that response, Taylor decided he was going to shut down the Web site. He alerted regular visitors to the site with a note that read: "The website may shortly be discontinued or at least the entries made as sporadic as progress around here, which could mean weeks or months. No one in authority is reading here, or so I'd say from their actions. And it serves no one to read my constant harping interspersed with glimmers of false hope. I appreciate the hope this effort has given some. I appreciate their encouragement, too. But it's lunacy to keep up the battle on one's own."

Within days, he received an outpouring of support from readers who'd been following his struggle. He took a couple of days off from updating the site, then picked up again on New Year's Day with a more hopeful message. Julie Thorne had come by the substation with a big box of toilet paper. Three officers had come in for lunch and to get out of the pouring rain. He'd noticed a bit of aggressive policing over the past few days. He'd decided not to give up on the Web site. A few days later, Taylor says he and Vigil heard from Maj. Joseph Gutberlet of the police department's Central District--Gutberlet had promised him that he'd make fighting the crack problems stemming from 1704 a priority.

He readily admits that his moods go from black to bright a lot lately, and he's forever second-guessing his decision to stick with this neighborhood. But he still believes--at least for now.

Police Substation
Life on the Street: The police substation in
the carriage house at 1708 Madison Avenue

"I'll keep fighting the fight so long as I remain," an entry in his Web log reads. "That's what life in Baltimore's real neighborhoods is . . . a fight. Morning, noon and night. A constant struggle with those who sell and use drugs and with city leadership and bureaucracy. I don't like the alternatives: You either give up and run or become bitter and resigned, oblivious or apathetic. . . . I guess I'm not ready to retire my Internet soap box yet. Thanks again for reading and asking me to stick with it. I hope 2003 is good to you and yours. Maybe this year will be the one when things change on Madison Avenue. We can hope."

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