While it's the best of times for Baltimore's haves, it's the worst of times in the crime-ridden neighborhoods of its have-nots

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

July 19, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,police reporter for The Sun

The broad smile of the mayor greets the tiny, eager faces of the children. "It's Kurt," one shouts, rushing over to shake the hands of the city leader. The mayor chats for a moment. Poses for a picture.

Then he walks away and slowly shakes his head. The children are about 10 years old. They stand in front of a vacant rowhouse on a drug corner on Baltimore's east side. It's late. "It's 10:40 and they're still out," the mayor sighs.

It's July 9 and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is with his police officers, taking a tour of one of the most dangerous pockets of his city.

He is 13 blocks east of Mount Vernon, 20 blocks north of Fells Point. The giant video screen at the Inner Harbor's new ESPN Zone showing highlights of the Orioles' win doesn't matter here. Neither does the debate about whether the city's next luxury hotel should be built a mile east of the convention center or across the street from it.

Three weeks earlier, during a ride with Western District officers, Schmoke noted that Baltimore is "a tale of two cities."

On one hand, Baltimore's Inner Harbor has become a model for similar waterfront development around the country and the city got global attention for being a stop on the Whitbread Round the World Race. Now there are plans to spend more than $1 billion to rejuvenate blighted areas of downtown over the next decade.

But while it's the best of times for Baltimore's haves, it's the worst of times in the crime-ridden neighborhoods of its have-nots. Have-nots like the children Schmoke chatted with on a drug corner when they should have been home in bed.

Schmoke has been Baltimore's mayor for more than a decade. More than 3,100 people have been killed on his streets during his tenure. Most shot with handguns. Many of them children. It is indeed a tale of two cities.

Unwelcome tourists

On this July night, the mayor sits in the front seat of a patrol car talking about the need to prosecute suburbanites who visit Baltimore to feed their drug addictions, the tourists Baltimore doesn't want. The police arrest them. The courts let them go.

Just then Officer Darrell A. Merrick's police radio crackles to life, interrupting the chief executive. There's a group of drug dealers at 1900 N. Castle St. "They are preventing the children from playing," the dispatcher says.

The call sums up the city's social ills. Drug dealers thwarting children's efforts to play is one problem - the fact that the children are playing in the street late at night is another.

Seeing city life up close has had an impact on Schmoke, the Ivy League mayor whom critics have accused of lacking the common touch. The criticism was especially strong a few years ago, when the city had back-to-back record homicide years and Schmoke's detractors called on him to hit the streets and witness the carnage firsthand.

During Schmoke's Western District tour, he found himself standing over two teen-agers as they lay in the street with gunshot wounds in the back. The best friend of one of the wounded youths wandered up and asked the mayor, "So what y'all gonna do with that boy's cigarettes?" The mayor was shaken by the callous disregard for human life, not just from this man who saw the shooting as an opportunity to get a free smoke, but from a crowd that gathered to gawk, rather than to help.

It had become a game. You shoot someone and get away with it, you win. You get shot and die, you lose. The city comes to life by mocking death.

Schmoke's Eastern District tour got off to a slow start. Merrick apologized. "I can't get nothing for the mayor," he lamented to a colleague. Schmoke didn't mind the lack of activity. "A peaceful night in the Eastern? I call that a win," Schmoke says.

A while later, a call came in that peaked Schmoke's interest. A body had been found in a house on East North Avenue. "It's just a dead body," Merrick tells him. "Would you like to go sir?"

"Yeah," the mayor answers.

To a hardened officer, it's just another body, but it's a tragedy for a grieving family. It turns out that a 39-year-old woman died on a couch in her living room. Her young children thought she was asleep, and had watched television until 10 that night, when they tried to awaken her.

"They thought she was fine," a paramedic tells the mayor, who walks inside and comforts an older relative, the body covered by a white sheet just steps away. "You tried to shake her?" the mayor asks.

"Yep," the man answers. "And nothing happened."

There were no visible signs pointing to the cause of death, raising the specter of a drug overdose. But nobody could say for sure. It would take an autopsy to determine the cause.

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