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bob Maginnis 10/15/00

October 13, 2000

For Franklin Street homeowners, this 'cruise' is no carnival



By Bob Maginnis


I pulled my old pick-up into the curbside space at the corner of East Franklin and Locust streets at about 10 p.m., and had just slammed the door when I heard the sound of screeching tires.

I backed away from the truck, anticipating a crash, but the skidding vehicle just slid to a stop at the red light, to be joined by two dozen more mostly new vehicles, all shining brightly under the glare of the orange-colored sodium-vapor streetlights. Then the light turned green, and off they went.

Twenty-five years ago, I lived in this block, in a row house owned by Isabelle Fridinger, who'd set me up with an apartment after my boss, the late George Rash, told her I was new in town, living at the YMCA and not enjoying it much.

The street was mostly rentals then, older people and young couples with children. In the summer evenings I sometimes sat on the porch with one of my neighbors, a retired limestone cutter who had lung trouble, as he listened to Orioles' games on a tiny transistor radio.

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But on Sept. 29 I was porch-sitting with Ted Bodnar, a mainstay of the Downtown Neighborhoods First group. Bodnar and his wife have invested $300,000 in two houses on East Franklin Street. He'd like to spend more, he says, to convert a carriage house behind his property into a recording studio, but that would cost another $65,000 and he's not sure he wants to spend the money if the performers he hopes to bring in won't feel safe.

For a while he'd been bugging me to come down and see what goes on as "cruisers" run a circuit that takes them from the Dual Highway up Franklin to South Potomac Street, then down past City Hall and back out Washington Street again.

The traffic he could take, says Bodnar, who's lived in and around the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. It's everything else that's driving him to think about selling out.

And so we watch, while Bodnar holds a sound meter which he said shows that the noise from the rumbling mufflers and booming stereos would be illegal if someone tried to subject their employees to it.

The cars race from one traffic light to another like New York taxicabs, hitting the gas even though the light ahead is clearly red. Bodnar points out drivers he's seen before. One car with two teenage girls even has their names printed on the window with what looks like poster paint. Another young woman rolls down her window and screams the obscene term for excrement. She does this every time she passes Bodnar's house in a shrill voice that cuts through the din like the whine of a chain saw.

A group of Bodnar's friends begin to file out of the house, fortified with his wife's stew and ready to take back the streets. The group is joined by Trish Ramsey and Gregg McFarland, who've also purchased a house facing the street there.

They both work at Fort Detrick, but settled on the property here instead of Frederick because it was more affordable. Now, says, Ramsey, "we'd just like to have the confidence to put some money into it."

The noise is the biggest thing, Ramsey said but she's also bothered by the attitude of the people who walk down the street and throw trash onto her property.

"Why is it okay to do that in front of my house, but not in front of your house?" she said.

There's also evidence of drug activity and prostitution, she said.

"A car pulls up and four or five people run up to it and stick their heads in. What's that about? And one time a carload of teenagers pulled up to this woman and she leaned in and said, 'Are you 21? Do you want to party?' "

Even inside the house they can hear the noise, as rumbling car stereos rattle the window glass, she said.

I look up and see a young man walking down the middle of Franklin Street, in the traffic lane, with one leg of his pants rolled up and a scarf tied around the calf, as if he'd injured himself.

We would see him all night, roaming up and down, sometimes on a small bicycle, sometimes walking. At one point, he stops in front of Bodnar's house, stares into the street and begins repeating a curse word over and over, as if he's upset over something that should be there, but isn't. One of the Neighborhoods First group asks him to stop cursing and he says "sorry" and moves on.

It's close to 11 p.m. now and groups of a dozen or so young men are walking up and down, in a sidewalk version of the circuit. At one point, a angry-looking young man with a crewcut stops his group to speak to two black youths in front of Bodnars.

He gestures at the Neighborhoods First crew, saying "They're all cops."

His remark is almost humorous, given that the group is mostly gray-haired, one with a cane. But for the Neighborhoods First group, it reinforces the idea that the youths are up to no good. Otherwise why would they care if there were police on the street?

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