O'Malley receives lesson from a street corner

This Just In...

June 23, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

Martin O'Malley, the charismatic politician, says that at midnight Monday, the eve of the announcement of his candidacy for mayor, a young man offered to sell him drugs at the corner of Harford Road and the Alameda, by statute a drug-free zone in the city of Baltimore. Too good to be true? Symbolism beyond the dreams of the most creative speechwriter?

He and his brother, Peter, were scouting the location of his Tuesday morning announcement, O'Malley said. They wanted to make sure there was enough room on the sidewalk for reporters and supporters.

While driving through, O'Malley saw a young man "motioning to all passers-by that he was selling drugs." O'Malley made a U-turn and then stopped at the intersection. The young man looked O'Malley in the eye, held out his arms and asked, "What do you want?"

At that point in the story, O'Malley made an impassioned political leap: "What do you want?" is the question voters in Baltimore must ask themselves in this important election year, he said. "The opposing forces of hope and despair," he added, "cannot exist on the same corner."

So he's going to have 10 drug corners cleared in the first six months of his first term. Bang! Just like that, O'Malley crushed his old pal, Lawrence Bell, in the announcement-day speech department. Bell's message, delivered in the City Hall rotunda May 27, had been short, sweet and garbled. O'Malley's, delivered on a street corner, was crisp, clear and punchy.

And bristling with symbolism.

Maybe a little too much symbolism.

The man's a politician and a songwriter, after all, occupations in which great rhetorical license is taken to make and score points.

Though his Monday-midnight story is plausible, it's fair to wonder about the neighborhood O'Malley chose as the launch site for his crime-fighting campaign for mayor. How bad is it there?

I knocked on the door of the house on the corner yesterday morning, right where O'Malley says he encountered the young guy selling drugs. Another young guy answered and stood in the vestibule. He wore only jeans. Through bars that resembled a jail-cell door, he told me his name was Patrick; he wouldn't give his last name. My knock woke him up at 11: 30. Patrick said he lives in the two-story house with his grandmother. The house had belonged to his uncle, the late Maurice Shipman.

I told Patrick what O'Malley had said -- that the corner in front of his house is an open-air drug market.

At this, Patrick cringed and shook his head. "It's not a drug corner," he said. "It's a hackin' corner. Guys hang out lookin' for rides there."

Maybe guys motion with their hands for rides?

How did O'Malley know the young man he saw at midnight wanted to sell drugs?

"It was no big deal. ... The guy was standing right there at the drug-free zone," O'Malley said yesterday afternoon, two hours after he announced his candidacy. "He was doing that hand motion they do when the markets open. It's a notorious corner. That's what they do there."

He can't say for sure that the young guy wanted to sell him drugs.

It's a hunch.

But a hunch doesn't get you convictions.

Wendell Hatcher lives a few doors from the corner where O'Malley made his crime-busting promises.

The police have been raiding houses nearby, on Tivoly Avenue and Fenwick, Hatcher said. They've been slowly cleaning up the drug corners. But making arrests isn't easy. The intricacies of cracking down on dealers has been explained at community meetings by police brass. "Just because we see these guys on the corners doesn't mean the police aren't keeping tabs on them," Hatcher said.

Some of the locals call him "the five-oh man", which is a warning in street shorthand for police. Though he's not afraid to summon police to his block, Hatcher thinks he's made only one call to 911 in the past six months.

Hatcher has lived there 33 years. Drug dealers, prostitutes and hackers -- they've all set up camp on the corner at one time or another.

Recently? What about Monday night? O'Malley said he was approached by a guy selling drugs.

"I'm not surprised," Hatcher said. "Maurice [Shipman] used to call the police all the time. One time he called me up and said, `Hatch, you wouldn't believe it. I came outside my house, stood on the porch, and two guys were sitting in a car shooting up.' "

We sat on Hatcher's steps on the perfect day -- sun, breezes and moderate temperatures. Clifton Park, across Harford Road, was green and beautiful. His mother, Idell, was a single parent who worked as a lab technician at Johns Hopkins. She saved her money and moved her kids into the place when Wendell Hatcher was 13. He lives there alone. He works for the city.

"If I could move to Dulaney Valley, don't you think I would?" he says. "This house was left to me. This is my Dulaney Valley."

He's making his stand here. He's not leaving. The neighborhood is worth saving.

Which is what Martin O'Malley was getting at yesterday.

"The working families of this city, black and white, are hungry for change, hungry for reform and hungry for new leadership," he said. "This election is about building a safe, new tomorrow, not just for downtown, uptown or the Inner Harbor, but for each and every neighborhood in the city."

Good stuff, councilman.

Even without that Monday-midnight story.

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