Baltimore's not-so-mean streets

Issue: The city is safer despite the powerful images of violence seen in some areas.

July 28, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

FOR WEEKS, Baltimore has been hammered by the headlines about children being shot, children being killed, police officers under fire.

Two men walked up on three men sitting on a stoop in the 1300 block of Bonsal St., near O'Donnell Heights, on July 8 and unleashed a hellish fusillade of gunfire, killing all three.

On July 19, someone in a gunfight sent bullets flying down the 1500 block of Baker St., wounding five people, three of them ages 12, 8 and 7.

The steady drumbeat of reports about violent crime and its victims - 72 shootings in 28 days; 26 homicides - overwhelm reports about the city's overall crime rate.

This year, crime is down 6 percent, down 29 percent overall since 1999. But the images are powerful: Tevin Montrel Davis, 10, his lips swollen and a huge white bandage on the back of his neck where a stray bullet entered July 15. The news is so distressing that it seems the city is out of control. Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said last week that the city is on the "verge of a crisis."

Yet, such images present a distorted image of city life. The city is safer. For many Baltimoreans, life is good. Sure, on a quiet night you can hear a distant pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoing in parts of the city, sometimes followed by a siren. But, you can rest easy. Stray bullets probably won't come flying down the streets of Bolton Hill, Mount Washington, Homeland, Roland Park or Canton.

In a city where good and bad neighborhoods may be only blocks apart, if not next to each other, the differences in the level of violence are astounding. Entire neighborhoods are ravaged by drug dealing, poverty and crime. Others are untouched.

"What's embarrassing to me as someone who lives in the city is the disparity in the city," said Jerome E. Deise Jr., a University of Maryland law professor who lives in North Baltimore. "We have areas in our community where there is a high incidence of drug dealing and crime, and good people who live there are frustrated, victimized by the crime and the violence, but also by the police in their zeal to diminish crime."

A map of the 149 homicides and 329 shootings that had occurred as of July 20, presents a stark picture of life in the city. Most of the violence occurs in a zone roughly bordered by North Avenue and Pratt Street; Hilton and Highland avenues, with pockets in the Pimlico neighborhood and in Southwest Baltimore.

The neighborhood surrounding the North Avenue and Bloomingdale Road intersection had nine shootings in the 28-day period that ended July 20. Eight shootings were recorded during that time last year. Such spikes in violence can destroy any sense of safety.

"That perception [of safety] can change from one neighborhood to another," said Deputy Commissioner John J. McEntee Jr. "If you talked to somebody in the neighborhood, I wouldn't be surprised if you had people who said, `I don't feel any safer.'"

The crime is concentrated in poor, predominantly black parts of the city, a condition that dates at least to 1926, when 68 percent of the city's homicides involved blacks killing blacks.

But the overarching issue is not so much race; it's about grinding poverty in the poorest neighborhoods and the toll it takes on the people living on those bleak, treeless streets, which are often lined with vacant houses.

"How can we expect these children to be happy, successful in school, and go on and enjoy the quality of life that we expect for all children, when they grow up in an area where they can be shot, and most of them know someone who has been shot?" asked Deise.

That the violent crime is heavily concentrated in the city's Eastern and Western police districts means many in other parts of the city can take an attitude of "Thank God, it wasn't my child" when they hear about another city youth being shot down.

Mayor Martin O'Malley knows that even with crime down generally in his city, more progress is needed.

"That attitude of two Baltimores lulled us into the false belief that we could have a thriving city when there were places that our children could be shot and killed," O'Malley said. "It's a very dangerous city. I can't deny that."

Baltimore is a city with an acknowledged "danger zone."

Those who try to sell the city to outsiders find that the crime issue can be a nettlesome problem. Questions and concerns are always present, but fear of violent crime doesn't present an insurmountable problem in attracting residents.

Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore, an agency dedicated to promoting the city, said many of the questions about crime and safety pertain to specific neighborhoods that are being promoted.

"It's an annoying issue, but it's not like something we battle a lot," said Gosson. "People can be very antagonistic, `Baltimore, murder capital.' But do you realize that we've cut the crime rate 25 percent? You start hammering them with statistics. ... You have to start hammering people with the good news, but it's not Pollyanna stuff. It's fact."

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