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One neighborhood's quest to reclaim its streets

After a Baltimore family's murder, activists debate how to wrest drug-infested enclaves from dealers' reign.

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Sitting on a milk crate in the sun across from the burned-out shell where seven members of the Dawson family were killed, allegedly for standing up to neighborhood drug dealers, Jetta Simpson looks down at a button on her jacket. It reads, simply, "Believe."

"It means I believe the police should have been doing their job," she says. "And I believe the Dawsons are in the right place, they're with Jesus Christ – they're in his hands now. Other than that, I don't know anymore."

Ms. Simpson's button comes from an ad campaign started last spring by a group called "Believe Baltimore." The goal is to get people in this rusting industrial city, where an estimated 1 in 8 residents is addicted to narcotics, to believe they can rid their streets of drugs. But on this block of worn row houses, many of which are boarded up, a battle over what kind of faith, if any, to have in the future, has gripped residents.

Now, after the weekend funerals of Angela Dawson and her five school-age children, the optimists are galvanized and determined to take back their streets. But there's an undercurrent of cynicism, too, born of years of tragedies that faded in the public's mind almost as fast as news cameras disappeared. For some, it's left a feeling that nothing will ever improve.

The outcome of this quiet battle of wills could determine whether this decaying neighborhood can be reclaimed by families, local churches, and small-store owners – or whether it will continue to deteriorate, after 30 years of urban flight and neglect that made these streets ripe for drug dealers.

"I don't think anybody can predict today what [the killings'] long-range impact is going to be," says former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. "There's outrage at the perpetrators ..., but there's also a real concern that the law-enforcement establishment didn't serve the Dawson family well."

'People here are going to be scared'

Angela Dawson is one woman who did believe. Her example is now fueling both sides as they struggle to come to terms with the tragedy.


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