Pigtown: Wounded neighborhood

January 02, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff writer

Lawrence bought his first baseball bat recently, but for all the wrong reasons.

The 76-year-old Pigtown resident keeps the Louisville Slugger beside his front door to ward off intruders.

"Half my neighbors have been robbed," says Lawrence, whlives four blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

He waggles the bat with wrinkled hands. "I'm not too old to swing this thing."

There's big trouble in Pigtown, a small neighborhood of 6,250 that anchors the southern gateway to the city and is surrounded by tourist attractions. From I-395, Pigtown appears as a blur of tightly knit row homes between the dome of the B&O Museum and the stadium.

Community leaders say that an epidemic of crime is helping to fracture this blue-collar, racially integrated district already stressed by economic ills.

If the stadium symbolizes the New Baltimore, then Pigtown, where pigs once were herded through the streets on the way to slaughter, represents the working-class past.

Here, baseball bats have little to do with fun and games; they're a low-cost means of home defense -- or a tool for robbery or burglary.

Complaining that tourists have more political clout than they do, residents say they want better policing. They wonder if City Hall has forgotten them while providing first-class protection at the stadium, the Inner Harbor and other tourist attractions.

The Police Department acknowledges Pigtown's crime prob

lem but says there is no double standard for policing. Downtown "has to be protected but that doesn't mean we ignore Pigtown," says Capt. Howard Parrott of Southern District. "We do the best we can with the numbers [of officers] we have."

The criminals, mostly young addicts desperate for money, will steal from anybody or anyplace -- even the dead and the local Roman Catholic church.

Not even a policeman's family feels safe. A Baltimore County officer moved out after threats from drug traffickers.

Residents and business owners go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves: pistols, shotguns, dogs, steel bars, videocams, bats.

A house is burglarized perhaps every other day in Pigtown, police say. Last fall, thieves were nabbed in the home of a Carroll Street resident who had been dead in his house for several days.

Some days, automobiles are ransacked, or stolen, as often as one per hour, police say, especially during Oriole games when some fans park free on neighborhood streets.

Weapons are as common as coat racks in the foyers of many homes.

Connie Johnson, a community activist, keeps a loaded shotgun by her front door and a billy club in her pickup truck. Howard Stephens, 84, has a pistol by one entrance and a riot gun in the basement.

Ken Smith keeps a handgun for safety in his sub shop on Washington Boulevard. Brian Sanderoff, a local pharmacist, protects himself and his business with a hidden semiautomatic pistol and a Great Dane on a leash.

"There are more guns for protection in this neighborhood than you would believe," Mr. Sanderoff says. "You can't count on the police to protect you -- you have to do it yourself."

A resident of Sargeant Street has turned her home into a fortress: three locks on both her front and back doors, a home security system, and two watchdogs. "I still don't feel safe," she says.

Small wonder. Norris Fitzgerald, who lives in the next block, also had a dog. Until someone entered his back yard and stole the pooch.

The fear of crime imposes constraints on everyday existence iPigtown, and wipes out small pleasures of communal living.

Some women won't set foot outside their homes without scanning the street for drug dealers, addicts and felons. It's a depressing routine, residents say: having to look both ways before crossing your own threshold.

Before turning in at night, Frank Breidenbach starts his camcorder whirring from a second-floor window. In desperation, after his car, truck and motorcycle were vandalized, Mr. Breidenbach began filming the parking area outside his home on Hamburg Street.

Many elderly Pigtowners cling fiercely to ancestral homes that have become cellblocks for the most fearful residents. Ruth Klimas, 80, is virtually housebound but insists she wouldn't trade her residence "for the White House." Beverly Sipes, a neighbor, admits that she's afraid to even look outside because suspicious-looking persons sometimes stop and return her gaze.

"The elderly are the root of this neighborhood," says MrFitzgerald, 26. "Some have lived here a half-century or more. But these people are petrified to come out of their homes. They work all their lives, retire and wind up living like prisoners. That ain't right."

The stores close early

Fear of crime hurts business as well. Stores close early in Pigtown: Smitty's Sub Shop, which had served food until well past midnight, now stops at 9:30 p.m. because the rowdy youths who gather nearby discouraged late-night customers. And Sappe's Pharmacy closes two hours earlier because drug trafficking picks up outside after 7 p.m.

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