In Highlandtown, tension was there long before attack

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 23, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Lombard Street in East Baltimore, Debbie Prestianni strokes her pit bull. The kids will be coming out of Hampstead Hill Middle School in a few minutes, and she wants them to see the dog's teeth. The dog is called Zeus. The school kids are called unprintable names.

On Kenwood Avenue, Maria Ramona Arias is rushing from her home to her car. Her brother is Expedito "Pedro" Lugo, who is fighting for consciousness after mindless kids put a baseball bat to his head last week in Patterson Park. She is rushing to the hospital to see her brother. Not good, she says softly, as she climbs into her car. Not good.

At Baltimore and Ellwood, squad cars with uniformed police have gathered for the closing of school. The day before, none of them was here. But now the newspapers are filled with stories of trouble in the neighborhood. The mayor is said to be angry. The police are relaxed and good-natured. The neighborhood is edgy.

"How long will you be here?" somebody asks the police. "Till it stops?"

"Till it stops being in the newspapers," one of the cops says drily.

The newspapers say there's tension every afternoon in this section of mostly white Highlandtown, when the kids from mostly black Hampstead Hill Middle School hear the final bell of the day and flood the streets on their journeys home.

The bludgeoning of Pedro Lugo has become a symbol for the tension. Three kids -- two 15-year-olds and a 13-year-old -- have been charged with attempted murder. One of the kids went to Hampstead Hill.

The neighbors all have stories. They talk about kids walking on top of cars, about trash randomly tossed in the street, about groups of big kids picking on smaller kids.

Much of the talk is racial. Everything is preceded by: ". . . I'm not racist, but . . ."

We live in ironic times. A generation ago, you walked the streets of Highlandtown and heard casual racial insults flung about by reflex. Today, you sense a new generation trying hard to speak the language of moderation, to look at people as individuals instead of merely as collective skin color.

A generation ago, blacks did not venture into these neighborhoods. The fear was too intense. Today, their children walk the streets each day and some of them -- a minority of them, but a frightening one -- are walking around with their parents' assumptions: that it's still a haven of racism, that it's still a place where no blacks are welcome, that it pays to have a chip on your shoulder.

Somehow, among the city's vaunted neighborhood associations, and its educators, and parents who sometimes seem to be looking the other way, we have managed a complete breakdown of communication here. Two cultures find themselves thrown together, and tension builds in the vacuum, until one day you have Pedro Lugo lying bloody in Patterson Park.

And on Lombard Street, you have Debbie Prestianni with her pit bull. She's standing there outside Willie's Auto Body, with a kid named Paul Cook.

"These kids tried to set a couch on fire right around the corner," says Cook, 19. "They yell at old people. They bust bottles all through the alleys. Is it racist for me to say that?"

The clock is ticking toward closing time at the school. Around the corner, at Baltimore and Ellwood, the city police are getting ready. The police are in uniform. The idea is to show a strong

presence.

"You want to do foot by the school?" a supervisor asks a patrolman.

"Don't matter to me," the patrolman says. "I get paid till 4."

"And time-and-a-half after that," says another patrolman, "so I hope we go longer."

The neighborhood may be tense, but the police are not. To them, conflict is routine business. They see nothing particularly intimidating about the business in Highlandtown -- but then, they're looking at it through a professional's eyes and not a resident's.

"It's not racial per se," a white cop says. "It's life. It's kids having a good time but acting out too far. But it's perceived to be racial. There's all these white people who see all these dark faces coming out of the school and walking down these streets.

"The movement of all those kids is gonna be annoying. It's gonna be scary sometimes. But I haven't seen one race specifically targeting another just because of race."

Another white cop nods his head. He works the area but knows it beyond professional duty. As a kid, he grew up on these very streets.

"Used to be," he says, "if a kid did something bad, one of the neighbors would holler at him. They'd say, 'I know your mother,' and that's all you had to hear. You knew you were in trouble. But you can't say that now. The kids are coming in from different neighborhoods, and nobody around here knows their mothers."

He glances up the street, where there is movement at the school.

"Ah," he says, "the tide overfloweth."

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