Street killing of girl galvanizes Walbrook

City Diary: Norman Posner

September 13, 2000|By Norman Posner

TIFFANY RENITA SMITH, a first grader at Walbrook Elementary School, was shot to death July 9, 1991 at 10:40 p.m. as she played around the corner from her house. She was visiting her best friend on Rosedale Street in West Baltimore. Tiffany stepped into the crossfire between two men who were involved in a gunfight.

Arthur Felton, 20, of Brooklyn, N.Y., began shooting from about a block away at Guy Bernard Wilson, 20, of Severna Park, who returned fire with a 9mm handgun. One of these bullets struck Tiffany in the head. She died about 40 minutes later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Felton was convicted of second-degree murder, Wilson of manslaughter. Both will be eligible for parole in the coming year.

Tiffany was one of the 304 people killed by violence in Baltimore in 1991, one shy of the then-record of 305 killings in the city.

Tiffany's death had a galvanizing effect on the Walbrook community and the surrounding neighborhoods. This area, dating to the days of segregated housing in Baltimore, had long been a lovely, peaceful community with middle-class, owner-occupied African-American homes. An array of churches, then and now, spread across West North Avenue, and these continued to be the center of the community life. Then, in the mid-1960s, hard drugs became available in Baltimore in an unprecedented volume and variety.

Simultaneously, open housing became legally available to all and a younger generation of African-American families opted for newer housing in the suburbs and in developments such as Columbia. The older residential communities faded. Drug dealing took over once-peaceful inner city neighborhoods. Older homeowners lived at sufferance.

Many Baltimore street corners with drug sale activity began to look like Middle Eastern bazaars. Tiffany's death had an immediate effect on outraged local residents, who urged police to investigate a drug ring that was believed to be at the center of the shooting. The ring, which ran a car wash, was placed under surveillance. Car wash customers would give money to the ring members who retrieved the drugs, usually cocaine or heroin, from car wash supplies.

On the day of Tiffany's burial, the police raided the car wash, arrested three of the four gang members and seized the drugs. The fourth member, gang leader Steven Hicks, 38, escaped, but was arrested a month later.

None of these gang members could be linked directly to Tiffany's killing. But Hicks was convicted of distributing drugs and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other gang members received sentences of two to four years. One, James Gray, who received three years, was quoted in The Sun two days after the shooting as saying he was concerned about Tiffany's memory and pledged a day's earnings from the car wash to buy flowers and a wreath for her family.

The Walbrook community has never forgotten "Little Tiffany," as she is known.

A block south of the 3100 block of W. North Ave., a picture of Tiffany in silhouette sits over a brick monument with a bronze plaque in a triangular street island bounded by Bloomingdale, Westwood and Rosedale Avenues, called Tiffany Square. A second silhouetted picture of Tiffany hangs on Wabash Avenue by the courthouse. Last summer, the surrounding neighborhood gathered with city officials and the I Can't We Can Recovery House Choir in a reverent evening memorial service to Tiffany.

Little Tiffany has become a forceful focal point in a gradual neighborhood renaissance. Young professionals again are buying homes in the area, finding good value in well-built older houses. Fourteen neighborhood groups have come together and elected a Western Cluster Coordinating Council, a vibrant umbrella organization of neighborhood presidents that meets monthly and sponsors bimonthly Saturday clean-up programs, block parties, empowerment events and promotes the local groups.

Pizza Boli's has just opened an attractive franchise at the much-tamed corner of North and Rosedale. State Farm Insurance built a full square-block office center behind Fredrick Douglass High School and actively participates with the local groups. An area church just built Heaven's Gate Eatery, a restaurant on West North Avenue that is impeccably kept and popular with the residents.

The very successful Mondawmin Mall is to expand, with construction to begin shortly. Detailed architectural plans to refurbish the entire West North Avenue area have been developed by these groups, with the added hope of creating a new generation of responsible local business owners.

The Western Cluster Coordinating Council voted to enhance Tiffany Square, which will be dedicated for her birthday next July 31, when she should have been celebrating her Sweet Sixteenth.

Today's writer

Norman Posner works in the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation. He is a past vice president and member of the board of directors of the San Francisco chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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