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The mess on Durham Street

Unfinished demolition by Pless Jones’ powerful contracting company frustrates residents.

Above: Residents gather Saturday to talk about the slow pace of demolition on Durham Street.

((See UPDATE))

Deloris Hanson has lived most of her life on the 1600 block of N. Durham Street in East Baltimore, but has never seen such a mess as the rubble-filled crater made by City Hall’s favorite demolition company, P&J Contracting Co.

“I don’t like it. When I come home from work, I have to see this,” Hanson said, pointing to the large hole opposite her house that she said was formed six weeks ago when P&J demolished some vacant rowhouses.

Dropping down about nine feet, the hole is unsecured and filled with cinder blocks, spare tires, bricks, plaster and broken rubble. When, she wonders, is P&J going to clean up its mess?

“The kids want to play in there. It’s a safety hazard,” Hanson said, one of several residents giving a reporter a tour of the neighborhood’s unsightly new landscape.

The crater across the street from Deloris Hanson's house. "It's is a safety hazard," she says of the large hole caused from demolition work by P&J Contracting Co. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Near the hole is a shattered city sidewalk and bent light pole. The sidewalk took a battering Friday afternoon after a P&J crew jockeyed a truck up and over the curb to drop off some cinder blocks. When the crew started working, the light pole was straight. A day later, the pole was leaning over.

Last week, The Brew reported how Pless B. Jones, the politically potent owner of P&J, hired his son Rodney’s company, RBJ Contracting, to meet the city’s minority quota on a downtown building contract.

The same father-son team is involved in the Durham Street demolition.

Donald King walks along the debris-filled sidewalk on Durham Street. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Donald King walks along the sidewalk on Durham Street. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

According to residents, it’s been six weeks since a RBJ excavator tore down 11 vacant rowhouses, then pretty much abandoned the project. The company’s excavator is still on the site, its side cab doors swung wide open last week.

“This mess has gone on too long,” said Ornat Erby, who lives around the corner on Biddle Street. “If you knock it down, you should have your trucks rolling to take it away.”

Because the old buildings had lead paint, it’s especially urgent to remove the old plaster and wood and get it away from children and families who live near the congested alley street, neighbors said.

But community leaders believe that P&J is not going to help them any time soon. “This contractor has an attitude of mind-your-own-business,” Erby said. “He doesn’t have to answer to anyone.”

The Jones have not responded to several Brew requests to discuss their city contracts and business operations.

Piles of brick and the jagged side wall of a rowhouse mark the north end of the demolition site. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Piles of brick and the side wall of a rowhouse mark the north end of the demolition site. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The senior Jones’ company has a strong grip on demolition in the city. P&J Contracting has won $12.5 million in contracts to tear down more than 500 rowhouses for the bio-park-themed development north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The project is run by East Baltimore Development Inc., a non-profit organization set up by the city.

Jones has snared dozens more contracts from the the city’s economic arm, the Baltimore Development Corp., and the Baltimore Housing Department, including more than $6 million to demolish city-owned vacant housing such as the properties on Durham Street.

“We’re the Dumping Ground”

Residents who gathered to talk about the demolition said work proceeded quickly in mid-August, then slowed to a crawl. “They blamed the rain for not cleaning up,” said one resident, who said she talked to Rodney Jones and several employees.

"This mess has gone on too long," said Ornat Erby, president of the Biddle-Broadway-North Ave.-Chester Support Council. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

What alarmed block residents was when trucks started dumping fresh debris into the roughly 80-by-50-foot lot.

“We found out this stuff was back-fill from other projects,” said Pat Jackson, who lives at 1627 Durham. “We’re their dumping ground.”

City housing inspectors have made regular appearances on the block, said another resident, Jean Kelly. “They come around in their little white cars, but they just keep going.”

Erby, who is president of the Biddle-Broadway-North Ave.-Chester Support Council, said this is the pattern throughout the neighborhood – “the city inspectors won’t talk to the people, they just talk to the contractors.”

Donald King, whose Rutland Street house backs up on the demolition site, said he’s totally frustrated with the lack of progress. “It’s like a hole in your head, calling the city. You get a bunch of voicemails. You never get called back.”

The Brew’s phone calls and e-mails to Tania Baker, assistant director of the housing department, resulted in a response today: “We are researching your query [about the Durham Street demolition] and will get back to you once we have some information.”

A P&J truck delivered cinder blocks to the demolition site on Friday. Note the vertical lightpole next to the truck. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

A P&J truck delivers cinder blocks to the site Friday. Note the lightpole next to the truck. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This is how the lightpole looked on Saturday morning. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Here's how the lightpole looked on Saturday morning. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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