Raising City Kids

July 31, 1995|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

Liza Brandli, 5, grabs a water balloon and heads toward her brother, Nathan, 2, who is standing in the backyard with his back toward Liza. It's a hot summer day, and Nathan is about to be drenched. But seconds before Liza reaches her target, Nathan is saved by his mom.

"No, Liza," Mary Ann Brandli quietly tells her daughter. With a shrug, Liza turns away, pricks the balloon and giggles as water gushes all over the place.

The Brandlis' backyard in North Baltimore has got plenty to keep two small kids busy in the summertime: a blue wading pool, a sandbox, a small toy truck, a ball. It also has an 8-foot-high, stockade-style fence with a locked gate.

The Brandlis put the fence up not so much to keep Liza and Nathan in as to keep passing strangers out. They are raising two children in the city, and like thousands of Baltimore families, they face challenges that most suburban parents can't begin to fathom.

City parents can't just open the door and let their kids play hide and seek or ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised. They want their children to enjoy the lazy, carefree days of summer. But it isn't always as simple as that in a city where teen-agers sometimes shoot each other to settle arguments and children riding bikes are easy targets for thieves.

Last week Baltimore imposed a new nighttime curfew to keep children 17 and younger off the streets after 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. The curfew seemed urgent after 10 young people under the age of 20 were shot on a hot Sunday night three weeks ago.

Earlier this month, a Baltimore father was shot in retaliation for retrieving his son's bicycle, which had been stolen by a gang of teen-agers.

Denise Williams hears stories like that and redoubles her efforts to protect her four boys -- Daniel, 13, Peter, 4, and 8-year-old twins Gregory and George -- when they go outside to play.

"I have to literally watch my kids ride the bike up and down the street. Or a gang of children will come up and steal it," Mrs. Williams says. "It does make for long days."

She and her husband, Pete, a city tow truck driver, live in Pen Lucy, a community east of Greenmount Avenue and north of 36th Street that is struggling to stave off urban decline.

Their neighborhood, mostly rowhouses interspersed with a few single-family homes, is pleasant enough, though some of the houses need new shingles or a fresh coat of paint. But the neglect is less of a problem than the proximity of Old York Road, which has become a popular neighborhood strip for drug dealing and hanging out.

"The drug problems are so intrusive," says Angel Entner, who is raising three children, Melahni, 13, Joshua, 10, and Aaron-Forrest, 5, with her husband, Jonathan, in Pen Lucy. "You can watch a man go up and make a drug buy."

Every year more of the city's 175,000 families are fleeing neighborhoods such as Pen Lucy, driven out of Baltimore by the crime, the drugs, the schools, the lack of open space. Between April 1990 and July 1994, the number of people living in Baltimore fell by 33,000, to 703,057 residents.

Michael Gugerty, a psychologist and the clinical coordinator for child and adolescent outpatient programs at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, says city parents definitely have it tougher than their suburban counterparts.

"The most obvious stress comes from the higher level of violence in the city," he says. Generally speaking, "it's much more difficult supervising kids in the city than in the county."

But Dr. Gugerty also sees an up side to the challenge of raising city kids. It often brings neighbors closer together, he says, because they have to rely on each other to keep their children safe.

"Neighbors in the city tend to be a bit more tight-knit with each other," the doctor says. "It is easier to meet people."

That has certainly been the case for four families in Pen Lucy: the Williamses, Entners, Brandlis and Garriotts.

The four families -- two white and two black -- live within four blocks of one another and attend Faith Christian Church on E. 42nd Street, where Craig Garriott is the pastor.

Preserving quality of life

All are raising children in two-parent households where at least one family member holds a full-time job. They are what is right with the city, and they know they are in the front line of trying to preserve the quality of life here.

"What are we?" Mrs. Williams jokingly asks, turning to her friend, Angel Entner.

"Cultural preservationists," Mrs. Entner reminds her friend half in jest. "We are cultural preservationists."

They love so many things about being here -- their homes, their friends, their easy access to everything downtown. And they are committed to making things better instead of just walking away.

"Basically, it comes down to the fact that I am a Christian," says Mr. Entner, a software engineer. "The vision of our church is that it is community-based. And being a Christian means living in the community and doing what you can to help those around you." The other parents agree.

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