Tough times on Dundalk Avenue

Many residents in despair over prostitution, despite initiatives by city police

October 09, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The former Army paratrooper's ensemble was classy yet understated - gray miniskirt, white blouse, black heels and matching handbag and gloves.

His goatee, however, clashed.

On a gray, drizzly morning along Dundalk Avenue, the cross-dresser was among a Fellini-like cast of two female prostitutes and a dozen of their male customers arrested by Baltimore police in their latest undercover "decoy" operation against a flourishing trade.

In two months, nearly 300 women and their "johns," or customers, have been arrested for prostitution-related crimes in Southeast Baltimore, nearly a third along Dundalk and Holabird avenues. Across the Baltimore County line, police are stepping up similar operations.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, the gender of Sid Ford, director of You Are Not Alone, a Baltimore outreach program for prostitutes, was incorrect in an Oct. 9 article about problems on Dundalk Avenue. Ford is a woman.

Tough times have fallen on Dundalk Avenue, which began in the 19th century as a route for farm produce from the Patapsco Neck peninsula to Baltimore markets .

"It's just awful - this area has gone downhill," said Cindy Messina of Graceland Park, mother of two daughters, ages 15 and 3. "The truckers and other customers of the prostitutes try to pick you up; you can't walk in your own neighborhood anymore."

At its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, Dundalk Avenue boasted the Brentwood Inn, a four-star restaurant with sommelier; the Carlton and Colgate movie theaters; the Circle Bar-B-Q, one of Baltimore's most famous drive-ins; and a safer, more comfortable way of life.

Today, a public library sits closed, a troubled public housing complex a few blocks west awaits the wrecking ball, and some residents are afraid to leave their homes at night.

To the south, across Holabird Avenue, Baltimore County residents want officials to revitalize their end of Dundalk Avenue as a gateway for new waterfront villages, marinas and a museum.

In spite of recent initiatives by the city and Maryland State Police - requested and welcomed by residents - prostitution and related criminal behavior have some people wishing they could move from houses they've lived in their entire lives.

Street hookers have become so brazen that even the most hardened police officers see Dundalk Avenue as a shocking, sometimes bizarre, universe.

"One john drove up to me in his car to discuss sex, and I had to do a double take because he was stark naked," said police Agent Maggie Duffy, who works as a police decoy. Another time, Duffy arrested a man who solicited sex as two small children sat in the back seat of his car.

One summer day, a mother told police that her teen-age daughter was followed by a man for blocks as he waved a sexual toy at her, trying to solicit her.

Hookers and drug dealers have also lured sinister visitors.

John P. Garcia, 55, a forklift operator from Dundalk, was known by police to stalk Dundalk Avenue and Patterson Park. He has been charged with killing two prostitutes and attempting to kill two other women in Southeast Baltimore.

On Aug. 29, Officer Patty Silvers was posing as a prostitute in the 1500 block of Dundalk Ave. when she was approached by a man who solicited sex.

Silvers attempted to arrest him, she said, but he bit her several times on the hand. The man was subdued by other officers, but a dreaded danger of police work immediately struck Silvers, a mother of three.

"The pain in my hand was just awful, but all I could think of lying on the ground was, `What disease does this guy have, what will I catch?'" said Silvers. After a series of tests, she was given a clean bill of health and was back on the decoy squad.

Prostitutes who frequent Dundalk Avenue are at great risk to themselves and johns, said Sid Ford, director of You Are Not Alone, a Baltimore outreach program for prostitutes. He said they are on the lowest rung of the commercial sex industry.

"The women along Dundalk Avenue are very, very sick and likely to have anything from hepatitis and tuberculosis to HIV," he said. "They are usually addicted to heroin or crack, malnourished and often homeless."

As an example, one prostitute arrested there in July was rushed to a hospital instead of jail. "Both of her legs had gangrene," said city police Sgt. Frederick Dillon, who heads the Southeastern District vice unit.

In better times

The neighborhood around Dundalk Avenue, from Eastern to Holabird avenues, did not always have such a dark edge.

"It was a place I wanted to move from the projects at O'Donnell Heights," said Donald Crockett, a county liquor inspector. That started changing in the 1980s, Crockett said. "Now the city is going to tear down O'Donnell Heights. After they do, they should put up signs: `Enter at your own risk.'"

Marge Pagan, for 10 years owner of Pagan's Audio on Holabird Avenue on the county side, is no longer pondering a move - she has decided to go.

"The hookers stagger past my shop messed up on drugs and get picked up by men on Holabird," said Pagan, who resides above her business. "I'm getting out of here."

Residents say the prostitutes are more careful since the police crackdown started in July. But they remain an unfortunate part of the landscape.

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