There's no place to hide from crime anymore

June 07, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This is about distance. It's about the geographical distance between Guilford and Oakenshawe, which is negligible, and the distance between somebody getting shot in one neighborhood in this city and somebody getting shot in a neighborhood with another name, which is when we create a thing called psychological distance and try to make the geography sound like light-years in our heads.

Thus we come to a tale of two neighborhoods. The one, called Oakenshawe, arrived en masse at Union Memorial Hospital last week on its knees, while the other, called Guilford, did not. At this newspaper, we are advised not to confuse these two communities, since Guilford at this moment does not find itself on its knees, while Oakenshawe does.

Two homicides in two weeks will shake any neighborhood, whatever it wishes to call itself. Oakenshawe is east of the Johns Hopkins University, and Guilford is just north of Oakenshawe, and while the distinction seems to mean a lot to some in Guilford it surely means nothing to the two people in Oakenshawe who lost their lives under any geographical nomenclature.

"I don't want to see the name Guilford in the newspaper," one Guilford community association official snapped, when apprised by a reporter on this newspaper of the second killing. In this, he kissed off the narrow geographical space separating the Oakenshawe homicides from the Guilford community, and echoed the psychological distance of those in his own neighborhood.

At this time in the Baltimore area, psychological distance is all we have. It's the thing we wish to create every time we hear of some horrible crime anywhere and tell ourselves that it couldn't possibly happen to us.

The only trouble is, such a message gets harder to believe all the time, which is why about 150 people from Oakenshawe showed up at Union Memorial Hospital last week, filling the auditorium there, to talk about life after two homicides in their neighborhood.

It was billed as a Crime and Safety General Meeting, but it felt more like a gathering of souls drawing strength from each other, taking comfort in their shared energy, and even in their shared anxieties.

"I can't walk on Greenmount Avenue any more," said one woman, "without being accosted by some bum."

"The sound of gunfire awakens me," said another woman.

One man, in a lime green golfing shirt, carried a large billy club in his back pants pocket. Another man wore an Oliver North for President T-shirt. When Major Patten said residents should call police -- and not automatically take up arms -- if a stranger rings their doorbell, this man asked, "You mean you can't do anything yourself? Bull----!" And then he stormed out of the room.

Among those remaining in the auditorium were reporters and those operating television cameras. Some residents asked not to be photographed. Somewhere out there -- Greenmount Avenue? University Parkway? 33rd Street? -- is The Unseen Enemy.

"People will see who we are," one nervous woman said.

And so we wish to create distance of any kind. If they don't see our faces, maybe they'll leave us alone. If we say we live in another neighborhood, where they haven't shot anybody this week, maybe they'll think we're impregnable. If we say we live in Baltimore County, maybe we can pretend we're not as vulnerable as those in the city.

Psychological distance is all we have. In the county now, those who live near Metro stations or beltway exits worry the most. They begin to sound like city residents: car thefts here, burglaries there, isn't this why we fled the city?

"Baltimore," said one Oakenshawe man the other night, "would end up like Detroit if not for people like us." And there's the implied threat, which is seen on front lawns in every neighborhood: Homes for sale, the creation of distance from this city.

Only, at evening's end, here was City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, standing in a little alcove outside the auditorium and asking, "Where are they gonna go? This is the best place to fight this war. It's hard, and it's horrible. But we're tough. We're survivors. And there's no place to run where the crime isn't gonna chase you."

Which means that there is no more distance now, except in our heads. And any politicians, any law enforcement people, who do not respond to this will soon find their own distance from the rest of us.

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