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Mobtown Beat

Grecian War

Two Greektown Groups Clash Over Roles in Community

CITIZENS ON PATROL: (from left) todd bonicker, don brotherton, and jack dawson formed the Greater Greektown Neighborhood Alliance to look out for the interests of the area's concerned residents.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/16/2008

Sitting in an armchair, the Baltimore firefighter reflects on how he always knew his Greektown teetered in the balance. The neighborhood, located in East Baltimore in the shadow of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, has long been a stable mix of residential and commercial interests known for its abundance of Greek restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. But the firefighter, who asks that his name not be used in this story, says he knew the neighborhood could join the ranks of the many gentrified areas of the city just as easily as it could recede into yet another swath of blight--after all, examples of both lie just blocks from his front door.

But in early March something happened that made him fear the neighborhood was going downhill, not up. His 14-year-old son was asked to join a gang. He says his son refused to give him the name of the person who approached him. Rather than go up the street for a "talk" with the gang recruiter, the firefighter says he's opted to get his son involved in soccer and lacrosse programs--outside of Greektown.

"The less time he spends in the neighborhood, the better off we are," he says. To people like this firefighter, crime and gangs are big issues in the neighborhood that have long been ignored by Greektown leaders. Over the past year, a new grass-roots neighborhood association, the Greater Greektown Neighborhood Alliance, has come onto the scene poking a stubby finger into the status quo, trying to make some noise about the area's problems and chastising the other neighborhood organization--the Greektown Community Development Corp. (CDC)--for being more interested in beautifying the business area and promoting the neighborhood than in addressing the problems faced by those living in residential parts of the community. The Greektown CDC wants to dress up its main street, Eastern Avenue; the neighborhood alliance wants to fight the hard-to-win battle against crime creeping into the blocks behind that main artery.

The CDC rejects the upstart neighborhood association's assertions.

"Seven years ago, our community was at the tipping point," says John Gavrilis, CEO of the CDC. "We were plagued with crime, there was disinvestment. If we didn't invest in the quality of life, we would lose our community, and we were able to turn that around."

But Neighborhood Alliance members say that success and status have put the corporation out of touch with residents' everyday concerns. An example that members of the neighborhood alliance like to point out as evidence of this disconnect is an incident that happened in early March. Someone spray-painted gang graffiti on the railroad bridge over Eastern Avenue, which has long served as an iconic welcome sign for visitors to the neighborhood. Within one day, the graffiti disappeared, painted over as if it never happened. Members of the Greater Greektown Neighborhood Alliance say they suspect that the Greektown CDC quickly cleaned up the tags over the weekend, to avoid dealing with what the graffiti signified.

"That's an exact metaphor for this neighborhood," says Todd Bonicker, founder of the neighborhood alliance and a former volunteer and paid consultant of the CDC. "It's painted over. It's whitewashed to make it look like there is nothing wrong."

According to Bonicker and other members of the alliance, part of the problem is that the leadership of the CDC, including CEO Gavrilis and President Stelios Spiliadis, do not live in Greektown, so important decisions about the welfare of the neighborhood are left to outsiders. Gavrilis, formerly commander of the Baltimore Police Department's Southeast District and currently deputy chief of the Maryland Transit Authority Police, grew up in Greektown, and members of his family still live there, but he now lives elsewhere (Gavrilis would not reveal where). Spiliadis lives in Fells Point, where he co-owns the Black Olive restaurant; he served as the chair of the city's Planning Commission under Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Bonicker and other members of the neighborhood alliance paint the CDC as an old boys' network that serves the interests of the neighborhood's merchants and restaurants by trying to reel in high-end development, such as Athena Square, a project of $280,000-$340,000 townhomes under construction on Oldham Street. So Bonicker thought it might be time to start a new organization that had residents' best interests in mind.

"I figured we could start our own community association, which would do what the CDC should have been doing," he says, "which would take into account the needs of the neighborhood and the desires of the people who actually live here, as a opposed to having a board made up of people [who] decided for us what we should be doing in the neighborhood."

As its name suggests, Greektown is the heart of Baltimore's Greek community, and it has been ever since World War II when Greek immigrants arrived in the city to take jobs at Bethlehem Steel. At that time, Greektown was an insular community where residents could take their time assimilating to American culture. Though many of the original immigrant families, especially those who have prospered, have moved out, the neighborhood still hosts a bustling Greek ambiance and one of the city's most robust folk festivals each June, complete with traditional food, music, and dancing that gives Greektown the air of an extended family reunion.

But as demographics in Baltimore change, Greektown also finds itself home to newer immigrant populations--the neighborhood is home to a burgeoning Latino community, as well as Indians, Koreans, and Bosnians. Community leaders are trying to tie Greektown to the success stories of Canton and Harbor East, but Greektown is still very much a blue-collar community.

"It's still the real world," says former state senator and current Greektown resident Perry Sfikas, who helped start the Greektown CDC in 1998 to draw investment to the neighborhood back when many of the original families started moving to the suburbs to escape the inconveniences of urban living, including drug dealing. "It has not become a Disney World for rich folks."

Many of the families who left Greektown back then didn't sell their city properties, holding onto their homes so they could pass them on to their children. Instead, says Jack Dawson, a former reporter for The Sun and a member of the new neighborhood alliance, those homes have become rental units with absentee landlords. Dawson recalls being asked at a CDC meeting what Greektown needed. He says he blurted out, "More Greeks."

Stelios Spiliadis watches his son Dimitris clip back grape vines he has grown next to a street tree outside his Fells Point restaurant, the Black Olive. He says he feels allegiance to Greektown even though he doesn't live there.

"When I want to feel Greek, I go to Greektown," he says, rattling his komboloi, Greek worry beads. "I sit in the Greek coffeehouse, talk Greek, drink my Greek coffee, read my Greek newspaper, curse in Greek. I've been doing that since 1965, and they say I'm an outsider."

He says the CDC exercises smart tactics by assembling prominent members of the community to represent the neighborhood's interests. The board includes, for example, John Angelos (son of Orioles owner/trial lawyer Peter Angelos), Gavrilis, and 1st District City Councilman James Kraft. Who better to fight crime issues in Greektown, he wonders, than the former Southeast District police commander?

"The real story is how can we can save Greektown?" Spiliadis asks. "How does an ethnic neighborhood that thrived during Bethlehem Steel make the transition into a service community, remain viable, and still retain its color?"

Gavrilis, target of much of the spleen venting about the CDC, laughs when he hears the story about the gang-related graffiti on the Eastern Avenue overpass.

"Whitewashing," he says, claiming no knowledge of the graffiti incident. He says that if he did know about the graffiti, however, he would have wanted it covered up. "That just shows their ignorance. If the Crips put their graffiti on the walls, you're just asking the Bloods to challenge that."

Gavrilis says he and the CDC have made efforts to address crime problems in Greektown. For example, in 2001 he helped get video-surveillance cameras installed in Greektown, making it one of the first neighborhoods in the city to have them. He says due to the organization's work Greektown is one of the only neighborhoods in the city to hire off-duty police to patrol the streets. When he signed on as CEO of the organization in 2001, there were 70 homes identified as being tied to drug activity. After a coordinated effort by the police and the Greektown CDC, he says, most of them have been eliminated. There are three houses left, he says, and these are in the cross hairs. The group has also set up a gang-prevention program that has about 50 participating kids, he says.

"There is not a neighborhood in the city that does not have a gang problem," Gavrilis says. "Ours is at a minimum."

Gavrilis refutes the notion that the Greektown CDC is an elite group. He says the organization pursues all neighborhood problems, from trashed allies and landlord disputes to development.

"Anyone who says we are not taking the job seriously is either blind or has another agenda," Gavrilis says, noting that Bonicker has been the source of much of the criticism. "Todd is a disgruntled employee. It's all about money."

In 2001, Bonicker started volunteering for the CDC as a housing organizer, dealing with zoning issues and problem properties. In 2003, he became a part-time consultant (he describes his position as de facto community organizer). He testified on behalf of the organization at zoning hearings. He organized cleanups, set up police cookouts, and worked on creative intervention programs to fight drug dealing.

Bonicker says the quality of service provided by the organization deteriorated when Gavrilis took a full-time position working for the MTA Police in 2004. The new job meant that he no longer worked in the CDC's Eastern Avenue office during the day, so Bonicker says his own work load increased, but not his salary. In December 2007, Bonicker says he submitted a proposal to go full time, for an annual salary of $36,000; he says Gavrilis counteroffered with less money than he was making as a consultant. Bonicker says he felt insulted and quit.

Gavrilis says the organization could not afford the salary Bonicker proposed. Public tax records filed by the organization with the IRS indicate that it took in only $98,213 in revenue in 2006 and had $260,490 in expenses. He says Bonicker went to board members with complaints. "He wanted my job, to be honest," says Gavrilis, who the corporation's tax records show earns $95,000 from his job at the Greektown CDC. "He was politicking for my job."

In January 2007, Bonicker, Dawson, and neighborhood activist Don Brotherton presided over the first meeting of the new Greater Greektown Neighborhood Alliance. That first meeting drew about 70 residents, they say; a recent meeting held in April attracted about 15 people who talked about mysterious drums found along the railroad tracks and a suspected prostitution ring operating out of a quiet block of Quail Street. A representative from the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners came to the meeting and promised to help the group keep tabs on local bars.

Before the neighborhood alliance, Dawson says, "you felt like the guy with his finger in the dike," because there was so little cooperation from the Greektown CDC to deal with quality of life issues. For example, he says, he tried to get support from the CDC to push for a sound barrier to be erected along Quail Street, to block traffic noise and exposure from nearby I-895. He says he got no help at all.

Brotherton, who received citizen of the year citations from Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office for his work in the neighborhood, felt abandoned by the CDC when he tried to confront drug dealing on his street and received no support from the organization.

"I don't want to move," he says. "But I want a place to live where I can walk down the street, where I don't have to be intimidated."

"We're not running a community-relations campaign," Dawson adds. "We're here to stem this stuff before it becomes a problem."

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