Battle over boccie court engages Little Italy

Bright lights, hole in wall divide the community

May 30, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The bright lights that troubled neighbors and diners near the boccie ball court in Little Italy came down yesterday, but peace hasn't returned to the tight-knit neighborhood just east of downtown Baltimore.

The battle line has simply moved about 50 feet to the other side of the court.

In a community that sometimes resembles a family, fights are bitter, filled with recriminations and accusations. Sure, the dispute might center over the boccie court, a narrow patch of concrete at 906 Stiles St., but it is fueled by something much larger.

"All of this is about personalities," said Stephen Kennedy, a spokesman for the Little Italy Owners and Residents Association. "It has nothing to do with boccie. It's all about personalities, people trying to get over on each other."

As so often happens, seemingly little disagreements erupt with operatic drama. Next thing you know, the peaceable kingdom of Italian cuisine and quaint streets has become a hotbed of community dispute.

"We didn't want this to continue going on like this," said Roberto Marsili, president of the Little Italy Community Organization. "Our credibility was getting wiped out."

The latest fight concerns a brick wall running the length of the west side of the court. City Fire Department officials say a hole must be put in the wall to allow a rear exit to the street for the businesses in the 200 block of S. High St.

Mary Ann Cricchio, owner of Da Mimmo's restaurant, got a permit to knock a hole in the wall and had the job done. Turns out, the permit had the restaurant's address, not that of the wall. Problem No. 1.

The Little Italy Bocce Rollers Association responded on Memorial Day by repairing the wall, complete with "We Love Bocce" written on a slab of concrete. But the association didn't have a permit to do any work on the wall, which belongs to the Recreation and Parks Department. Problem No. 2.

Enter Reginald Scriber, ombudsman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, which issued the permit to Cricchio. Yes, he said, both sides were in the wrong, but he sees no duplicity.

"I really believe that [Cricchio] thought she was actually doing the appropriate thing based on information received from the Fire Department," he said. "I think it was an honest mistake."

To some in Little Italy, there is no such thing as an honest mistake. Every move, gesture, suggestion is fraught with levels of meaning and subtext. People grumble about who has connections with City Hall, or had connections, or is trying to make connections.

Lighting dispute

The latest flare-up at the court began about a month ago when three lights were put up along the outside wall of the old St. Leo's parochial school. The wall forms the east side of the court. That work, also done without a permit, sent the community into an uproar. The lights were too bright, interfered with restaurant diners and shone into the back of Cricchio's home.

The city shut off the lights and put a padlock on the switch. The padlock was cut. The lights were turned on and late-night games resumed. Neighbors fumed. Police were called. Some saw another power play by the boccie rollers, or a flexing of political power by restaurant owners, able to call in police at a moment's notice.

Behind all of this was a sense that the rollers broke protocol in putting up the lights.

"None of this was brought to the community," said Kennedy. "Before this incident, if somebody was there at 10:15 p.m., nobody cared. But now, since this thing, people are choosing up sides. It's becoming a cause celebre."

`Buy a shade'

Joseph Scalia, president of the Bocce Rollers, said his request to change existing light bulbs ended with the new lights being put up. He said he has been willing to work with the offended parties.

"I told the police when they came that I will give the lady the $20 so she can buy a shade," he said, noting that the lights on the court are insufficient. "The problem is the lights are on a photo cell, so it has to get real dark before they come on, and then they have to warm up."

Scalia also said he has a July 14, 1994, letter from city officials giving the boccie association the responsibility of maintaining the court, officially known as Thomas D'Alesandro Park.

Cricchio said she believes the disputes over the court can be resolved. "It doesn't matter what I say. The park is owned by the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, and we must look to the city for their guidance," she said. "I am certain, without a doubt, that the city can control anything that needs to be controlled out there on their court."

Finding resolution

As neighbors point fingers and nurse bruised egos, Scriber is taking on the role of peacemaker and trying to get everyone to sit down and talk. The lights are gone, and that's a sign of progress, he said. A truce can be found to end the battle over the west wall.

"It's our position that we can come out with a strong resolution to all of this," said Scriber. "We do not need the community up in arms over this matter."

"It's not the court. It's the people. We have two different groups of people down here ... and they're all Italian and they just don't get along," said Charlie Ferraro, president of the Sons of Italy-Little Italy Lodge.

"I don't know what the problem is. I don't think anyone that's fighting knows the truth of what it is. It'll probably end up in court before it's all over."

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