Old neighbors Little Italy and Flag House don't speak PRATT: THE DIVIDING LINE

October 26, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Years ago, they left behind their neighborhoods and childhoods on both sides of a black and white boundary called Pratt Street.

Larry Hicks, 45, was reared north of the line in the Flag House Courts public housing project.

Lou Catalfo, 46, grew up on the south side of the street in Little Italy.

Together they shared boyhood: going to public school, playing baseball behind the old Fleet Street morgue, and visiting each others' homes in the days when "Old Tommy" D'Alesandro was mayor and Ike was president.

It was the kind of friendship that hardly exists anymore between neighborhoods that have bordered each other for half a century, communities that barely speak to one another.

"People have changed," said Mr. Hicks, whose family was the third one to move into Flag House in 1955. "There's fear now."

Although they had not seen each other for 35 years until chance crossed their paths on a golf course, Mr. Hicks and Mr. Catalfo had no trouble conjuring friendly ghosts from the past.

"We were innocents, kids. We didn't know about race," said Mr. Catalfo as the old friends strolled Pratt Street not long ago. "We were just friends."

"It feels good to be standing here again," said Mr. Hicks. "There was harmony here."

Like the barrels of pickles and herring that used to line the sidewalks on Lombard Street just a block away, those days are gone.

Harmony has slowly been splintered by the sour notes of crime: an 87-year-old woman mugged near St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the afternoon; a police officer shot in the head investigating a Flag House drug deal; a young woman shot in the leg on Pratt Street for refusing to surrender her purse.

Those incidents this summer and others -- including 38 reported crimes in Little Italy in September, mostly auto break-ins and a handful of burglaries -- have had people in the old Italian neighborhood talking since Labor Day about hiring armed guards to patrol the streets.

The community association plans to move ahead with either guards or off-duty police officers. A few business owners have said they are willing to help finance a plan, but the restaurant association has decided not to join.

"It's sad that it might have to come to armed guards," said Mr. Hicks, the first black player on the St. Leo's baseball team in 1958. "When we were kids, the stability in those neighborhoods was youth and there isn't any youth in Little Italy any more. It's kind of like the kids left the fort unprotected.

"I see the projects now as a reservation," he said. "There's a set of thugs there now who are a lot bolder and more vicious than ever. They don't care about themselves or anyone else."

Said Mr. Catalfo: "I just felt sadness that the times have come to this. This is not as it was.

"I remember families on both sides. People weren't rich, but they were together. Even though there was the projects on one side and Little Italy on the other, we'd play basketball on their courts and they'd play on ours. We used to go over to the high-rise just to ride the elevators."

Today, even the police are leery of riding the elevators in the Flag House projects.

'It's so bad'

Unlike Larry Hicks and Lou Catalfo, who come as visitors when they return to Pratt Street to reminisce, Lucy Pompa and Doris Randolph have not left their neighborhoods.

Mrs. Randolph works to keep Flag House safe and clean but gets tired of picking used hypodermic needles off the ground and soiled diapers thrown down from the high-rise apartments.

Mrs. Pompa hears about her old friend's frustration when they talk after going to morning Mass at St. Leo's.

Mrs. Pompa has lived in Little Italy since her wedding day 44 years ago. A former teacher's aide at St. Leo's School, she and Mrs. Randolph became friends when the latter's grandchildren attended the school.

Although they have been close for more than 20 years years, Mrs. Pompa says she can't relate to the life Mrs. Randolph endures in the projects.

"It's so bad over there," Mrs. Pompa said, "that some people don't eat in the kitchen because they're afraid of bullets coming through the window."

Though more than a few families in Little Italy and Flag House knew one another a quarter-century ago, the sustained friendship between Mrs. Pompa and Mrs. Randolph is a rarity today.

Little Italy is filled with old people getter older.

About a week ago, the Baltimore Spirit indoor soccer team held a clinic in the streets, just the kind of thing that kids love, an event that 20 years ago would have brought children out by the dozens.

At the clinic, you could have counted the children kicking the soccer ball on one hand. Several of those were visitors.

Both of the elementary schools that served the neighborhoods -- St. Leo's on Stiles Street and School No. 2 at Pratt and Central Avenue -- are long closed.

"There's just a residue of the Little Italy we all knew," said Thomas D'Alesandro III, mayor of Baltimore from 1967 to 1971. "Every time I call my mother, she tells me who's just died."

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