Wasted Lives, Destroyed Dreams

September 12, 1993

Random, drug-related violence has become numbingly common in recent years. As bullets are fired in anger, envy or by accident, the death toll climbs. In Baltimore City, the homicide rate has been skyrocketing steadily -- from about 10 slayings per 100,000 residents in the early 1960s to 46 killings per 100,000 last year.

There is another way to understand those numbers: Since 1970, approximately 3,000 people have been killed in the strife of Northern Ireland. During the same period, violence fueled by guns and drugs has claimed 6,000 lives in Baltimore.

In a compelling two-part series that starts today, reporter Scott Shane and Sun photographers offer a chilling description of how this kind of violence has wasted young lives and destroyed the sense of community around the intersection of Park Heights and Woodland avenues in Northwest Baltimore.

Since 1988, 83 people have been murdered within half a mile of that drug-infested corner, 75 of them male and all of them black. About 300 others were shot and survived.

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

Mr. Shane became interested in studying the effects of drugs on this neighborhood while working on an unrelated story. He was intrigued by the aging suburban area's socio-economic characteristics -- household incomes close to the city average, a varied mixture of middle-class homeowners, students and welfare recipients.

The series shatters stereotypes.

It captures the human agony of kids caught between right and wrong, of parents trying to deal with children they are losing to the streets. The dilemma, explains a middle-class mother who has seen two of her sons shot dead, is that "you don't want your kids selling drugs on the street, but you don't want them locked up, either. It involves the kids you love, kids you brought into the world."

In the end, the conflicting human loyalties render a neighborhood powerless. Drugs erode residents' trust, unity and courage. Those not involved in drug trafficking fear for revenge and do not want to talk to the police. And in any case, dealers arrested or killed are soon replaced by ever-younger kids lured by the promise of easy money.

This is a reality that raises serious questions about any neighborhood's -- and Baltimore's -- ability to defend itself against a growing onslaught of powerful drug gangs. It also provokes another bottom-line question: Is decriminalization -- 11 and removing the excessive profits -- the only way to stop the corrosive corruption and violence of drugs?

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