In Little Italy, the fear and frustration mount

Rosalia Scalia

September 11, 1992|By Rosalia Scalia

THE woman's scream was followed by a pop, shattering the calm of Little Italy. A neighbor on her way home from work had been robbed of her purse at the corner of High and Pratt streets.

The assailant had shot her in the leg before escaping on foot into the Flag House housing projects to the north.

Several residents called 911. Two workmen stopped to help. The woman, shaking and bleeding, was crying. "I told him I didn't have any money," she said. "All I had was my checkbook."

Like a number of other residents of Little Italy who live near the neighborhood's borders, I have learned to ignore the nightly sounds of gunfire in the projects. The sounds and sights of war -- hovering helicopters playing their beams over roof tops, the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons and the staccato pop of discharging pistols -- have become as much a part of life in the city as police sirens and litter in the gutter.

Because much of the gunfire takes place across Pratt Street -- in the projects -- the violence connected with it is abstract. It is hard to connect the popping sounds to a wounded or dead person if you never see blood. It is hard to envision the effects of discharging weapons when you are not an eyewitness. So it becomes easy to ignore the violence of drug wars -- which, we're told, is what most of this is about.

But the violence has begun to spill over into Little Italy. The gunfire is no longer restricted to the Flag House projects, as evidenced by the shooting of my neighbor. In fact, she represents the most recent in a string of robberies, many at gunpoint, that have become progressively vicious. Little Italy is no longer one of Baltimore's safe neighborhoods.

For a little over a year and a half, the violence has been affecting Little Italy residents and tourists alike. Ask Terri Sylvio, the young woman whose car was stolen from her at gunpoint while she was double-parked, waiting for her boyfriend to join her. Ask the pregnant restaurant employee and her off-duty police officer escort, victims of a hold-up. (The two assailants apparently were not afraid of the officer or his weapon.) Ask Carmella Bolton, who was mugged, viciously beaten and robbed of her purse containing $1 while she was waiting for a 7:30 a.m. bus.

Ask 84-year-old Margaret Petrella, who was robbed at 11 a.m. in front of her house. She had intended to walk to the harbor. Ask John Pente, who came upon a man hiding in his third-floor closet. This uninvited guest had sneaked into the house while Mr. Pente was hosing the pavement and tending to his flower plots one morning.

The list of victimized and violated people gets longer. The undermanned police department asks residents to call 911 to report suspicious characters, but police can do nothing with them unless they are caught in the act of committing a crime. This has a disabling effect on the "block watch" program already in place in Little Italy.

What is especially appalling is the arrogance of the perpetrators. And given the increasing number of robberies at gunpoint, it is easy to see why the frustration level of Little Italy is mounting.

At the same community meeting at which Little Italy residents discussed options for self-protection -- including the formation of vigilante patrols -- the idea of approaching Flag House community leaders was broached. It is not a new notion. After a shooting at the former Club Mitchell at Pratt and Exeter streets two summers ago, Flag House leaders came to Little Italy to express sympathy for the victim and her family and concern over the increasing crime rate. They talked of their frustration, their fear of criminals, their being imprisoned at home for fear of being robbed or shot.

It's easy for Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, to suggest a cooperative approach with the Flag House neighborhood. Ms. Brennan doesn't have to worry about Little Italy when she packs up and leaves the area after her working day. But what about visitors to Little Italy and nearby neighborhoods who are not safe on the streets? What about the folks of Flag House who are as frustrated and disgusted as the people of Little Italy?

During the 1968 riots, Little Italy residents armed themselves to protect their lives and property. No sane person wants to see that happen again. Civilized people do not divide themselves into armed camps.

Rosalia Scalia lives in Little Italy and works at Loyola College.

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