Families vs. the lure of the streets How a drug corner casts its long shadow of death

September 12, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

After Corey Baker was murdered last December, Angela Baker searched her only child's bedroom for clues to how she might have saved him from the devouring drug corner. She found a cassette, and played it on the stereo she'd bought him in a fruitless attempt to keep him off the streets.

In a wavering, adolescent attempt at a rap song, the 15-year-old chanted his own epitaph, an epitaph for dozens of boys and young men who have died around Park Heights and Woodland avenues in Northwest Baltimore:

L So living on Park Heights there's only one thing you can do,

Go up and sell some blue tops. . . .

Running up to men and women saying, Do you want a dime?

Park Heights, Park Heights, the girls and the money and all the good stuff.

Not so long before he died, Corey Baker was a cheerful kid who liked to play Monopoly and Othello and was getting better at chess, who played guard on the Little League football team that won the championship in 1991, who spoke of becoming a pilot or a surgeon.

Then he started dabbling in the drug trade, and soon his name went onto the long roll of the dead in this nation's undeclared urban war, a war waged with the finest of modern firearms in the name of no cause greater than adolescent pride and a pocketful of $10 bills. Since 1988, within a half-mile of the intersection of Park Heights and Woodland, a territory pock-marked with drug dealing, 83 people have been murdered, 75 of them male and all of them black, with an average age of 26. Approximately another 300 people have been shot and survived.

As the murder rate heads for a new record in the city as a whole, the violence near the Park Heights drug markets is growing worse. The number of gun assaults in the area has climbed from 52 in 1988 to 96 last year. At least five people have been killed in the neighborhood this summer.

It is a rate of violence not exceeded in many places in the world, apart from the shattered cities of the former Yugoslavia, Mideast hot spots, South African townships and a few other places ripped by civil war. But it is mayhem quite typical of America's street drug markets, of which Park Heights and Woodland is not even Baltimore's worst.

Most of those murdered have been sons of the neighborhood. They have given their lives for the sparkle of a little gold, the right brand name on their tennis shoes, perhaps a sports car to draw a girl's gaze. Like Corey Baker, a striking number have left behind strict, working parents who had struggled to pull their children from the vortex of the corner.

Corey, his mother remembers with tears in her eyes, loved money. He loved to dream about the money he would have some day, loved to read books about making money. When he was 13, he took a grocery cart to the Preakness and hauled coolers from the parking lots to the racetrack all day for picnickers' change. "He came home that night with calluses on his feet and said, 'Mom, I made $40,' " his mother recalls.

The next summer, at 14, he got his first job through a Forest Park High School program. "When he got his first paycheck, $100 and something, he had such a smile," says Ms. Baker, 33, an MTA bus driver. But he also complained about how slowly he had earned it: "He said, 'I have to work so long to get that little paycheck.' I said, 'Corey, that's life. Now you know what I go through.' "

That same summer, Corey discovered another way to make money, a shortcut around the tedious discipline of a real job for modest pay. He was recruited as a street salesman for the Woodland drug crew. His mother found out when police caught him sitting on some steps on Park Heights, holding two vials of cocaine.

Angela Baker, who prided herself on her close relationship with her son, pleaded with him to stay away from the drug corner. But the intoxication of the easy money overwhelmed her warnings. He began skipping his ninth-grade classes, drifting back to the corner.

One winter evening, as he and some buddies played with a dog in the drug zone, a young man walked up, pulled a gun, and ordered the boys to the ground.

"Give me the ring," the guy said.

Corey began to tug off the gold ring bearing his initial, "C." He'd bought it the year before for $49, saved from his $5-a-week allowance money. He'd wanted a bigger, thicker ring in a herringbone pattern, but his mother said no, afraid it would just make him a target for robbery.

"It's stuck, man," Corey told the gunman.

The man answered in the language of the drug corner. The single, .357-caliber Magnum bullet passed through Corey's heart and liver. He lay unconscious at Sinai Hospital for two days while his mother stood sleepless watch.

"The doctor said, 'Your son's a fighter.' But I saw the pain in his face," says Ms. Baker, 33. "He lasted about two days. Then his body started blowing up, and I knew it wouldn't be long."

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