Children's hour becomes deadly on mean streets

April 17, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Children are playing on Greenmount Avenue.

A little girl with pencil legs is dancing to music strictly inside her head while she delights in her reflection in a liquor store window near North Avenue. She's about 6. Two boys on bicycles zip around the corner from 23rd Street onto Greenmount, their laughter echoing off rowhouses that are boarded up, or should be. The two boys are maybe 10. At Lanvale Street, there are five kids, none old enough for middle school yet, sitting on front steps and feeling the springtime air on their skin like velvet.

Along Greenmount from 28th Street down to the Maryland Penitentiary, a distance of 18 blocks, children are practically everywhere, scores of them, easily a hundred or more, kids 3 years old to upper teens, sitting on front steps, riding bikes, dancing to music audible and not, some with their parents and a lot of them not, all of them hanging out, enjoying the balmy weather, and almost all of this is beautiful to watch, except . . .

Except it's 10:30 at night.

It's last Thursday night, to be specific, a night full of gentle springtime breezes, a night of music in the air, some of it banging loudly from radios, a night of cars cruising the streets with windows down, some of them police cars, a night with school coming irrevocably the next morning, a night in a city in which 43 children have been killed in the past 15 months, some of them sitting on front steps with their innocence on display, and the wail of distraught mothers has become familiar as the flash of police lights.

"This?" says a uniformed cop who works the lower Greenmount Avenue area. "It's this way every night when the weather's good."

He means the children in the street. For anyone who's driven this corridor on a pleasant night, it's a familiar sight, and disturbing as well. The children are out here, on Greenmount and on many of the little side streets, late into the night. Where are their parents? Some are here, and some are not. Thus, the original question remains: Where are the parents? Where are their values?

An outsider doesn't wish to play the scold, doesn't wish to deprive the kids of their pleasure, except when it comes at certain cost.

Such as their education.

Or their lives.

In a week in which Tito Taylor, a third-grader, is accidentally shot in the back while playing with friends near a carryout food store at East Chase Street and North Collington Avenue -- at 11:30 at night -- it's worth wondering not only about the violence, but about parental attention to keeping children out of harm's way.

At Greenmount and 26th Thursday night, a skinny little girl who looks about 9 years old strolls about with a child in her arms. The child might be 2 years old. They're all alone. They walk past a billboard declaring: "Save A Dream. Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund."

Who knows if the little girl's ever heard of Thurgood Marshall? But it's a cinch Marshall didn't have this in mind for children when he labored for fairness in the American public schools.

Three blocks down Greenmount, there's a boy who looks about kindergarten age, playing with a dog. There's another billboard here. It says, "Black on Black Violence: Only We Can Stop It."

But there's violence done without a shot being fired. It's the violence to children's psyches, to their sense of discipline, to their ability to function in a classroom the morning after they've been on the street late at night.

At Greenmount and Chase, as the hour drifts toward 11 o'clock Thursday, there are two girls in short, glittery skirts chatting idly. They're about 14. A car drifts past, slows, and the man who's driving eyes the girls up and down as he pauses his car in the middle of traffic.

The girls look up, see themselves being eyed, know immediately what to say.

"No," one of them hollers toward the car. It's a matter-of-fact, bored holler, a holler loud enough to be heard across the traffic but flat enough that you know she's had to say it before, that she's no longer surprised by unwanted overtures from grown men.

"You're not doing business?" the man in the car calls back.

"No."

The man shrugs, as though perplexed. It's a shrug that says: If they're not doing business, then why are they out here?

He should know better. There are scores of kids out here, 28th Street down to the penitentiary, school or not, clock ticking toward midnight or not, the graveyards filling with the corpses of children or not.

None of it matters. The schools can hire more teachers, aim for smaller class sizes, buy new textbooks, and it won't matter. We can talk about curbing the violence, and it won't matter. It's all just talk.

And talk doesn't matter as long as there are parents who won't perform the simple act of taking their children off the streets when the hour is late and the city unleashes its demons.

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