Kids on the Corner

STEPHEN GREENE

May 21, 1993|By STEPHEN GREENE

I live in South Baltimore, on Light Street between Heath and Barney, and I have been here for several years. Though I rent, as most do here, I feel committed to this neighborhood. But South Baltimore isn't just my or my neighbors' home. The boys with baseball caps and team jackets own a piece that no one seems to be able to take back. They sell balloons of rock-cocaine on the corner of Heath and Light.

Now, when it is lighter outside and the Orioles are winning, you'd expect that my neighborhood would be ringing with the sounds of summer, people walking back from Cross Street or washing their cars. Instead, you hear bottles cracking on the sidewalk, the bus-stop sign when rocks hit it -- and the boys.

Last week there was a fight opposite my window. One of the boys -- he looked about 15, was skinny and wore glasses -- and a man I hadn't seen before were arguing loudly. The man swung his fist and yelled, ''I don't need your . . . '' He walked away when a few more boys came down the street. As he left, the man threw back four or five balloons at the boy.

After it was over, two old ladies who live across the street came out. They looked for the balloons but they were gone, the boys were careful not lose a single one. The women just shook their heads and went in.

The corner no longer belongs to the block, it is in the firm hands of the boys now. No one can do anything about it. People know who sells the drugs and where they live, but they are paralyzed by the fear that the boys' business could turn violent if someone intervened. Light Street hasn't become a murder capital yet.

A neighbor to my left told me that the police know what's going on, but that they can't stop them, that ''those boys are too young not to get away with it.'' The bars, across from each other on Barney Street, sell sodas to the boys, cautiously, trying to keep them out, but that has little effect. Bars don't make effective police.

The boys seem immortal. They collect admirers, young girls, and keep on selling. One of them spray-painted ''Twenty-Four Hour Drug Market'' on the transformer box on the corner across from them. You can see the sign whenever you come south on Light. Their corner is also opposite a Drug-Free Zone, the elementary school.

What kind of example are we setting with these boys? What are the consequences of letting them continue?

The legal system exempts those under the age of 18 from trial as adults. For good reason, the law gives these adolescents a second chance. Rather than wear a criminal label through a record or imprisonment, youths can straighten out if they have the will. Yet the juvenile system allows minors to evade serious dTC punishment time and time again. Getting away with small or even no penalties reinforces their notion that selling drugs is a game.

These boys have stolen a piece of the city away from those who own it, those who work hard and have to live here. These boys aren't just selling cocaine, they're stealing South Baltimore's dignity.

A Maryland that cares about these boys, and everyone else around the city, would make it difficult for them to keep dealing. Although the police cannot hold these adolescents overnight or, in many cases, send them to juvenile detention, the police can at least become a thorn to these wayward children if they patrolled more frequently, if they arrested more often than they warned and lectured.

If the police make a stand, the neighborhoods will see that Maryland did not forget about them. In return,the neighbors might be more helpful in stopping the dealers through citizen-watch programs and better cooperation with the police. If police and neighbors work together, the second chance that's available to those young boys might look like an opportunity rather than a loophole.

Stephen Greene graduates this month from the University of Baltimore.

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