Finding humanity among the horrors of West Baltimore

City Diary

October 15, 2003|By MARY ELLEN DOUGHERTY

WEST BALTIMORE, home of Hollins Market and the renovated Union Square, is also the home of The Corner and one of the major homicide districts of the city.

I have lived there with another member of my religious community for 17 years. We have encountered everything people encounter in the city: drive-by murders, child mothers and teen-age gangs, a 6-year-old child propositioning passers-by, understanding only that there is money to be had by selling his body and that money will make him matter.

Our house has been broken into and our cars have been slept in. We have been accosted by a bail bondsman at our door at 10 p.m., insisting we were harboring a fugitive. (He was so convincing that when he left I went to the third floor to make sure we weren't.) We have never been personally attacked nor has our property been vandalized. In West Baltimore, crime is strategic.

Sometimes I think I see a change.

For example, I have left a lawn chair outside all summer. It's still there. The rake and broom we keep under the stoop have not been disturbed. Our front gate has not been confiscated for two years. We no longer live between empty houses. On one side, we have a group of mentally challenged adults who are fine neighbors. On the other, a few men, obviously immigrants, who arrive routinely every Sunday morning to rebuild the falling structure. Nevertheless, crime in West Baltimore persists. So does humanity.

Several months ago, after a heavy rain, I walked to Carroll Park, less than a mile from where I live. I was to give a talk that day, and I wanted to focus. Mindful walking helps me do that. Rain diminished to mist, and I felt more centered. To retain that sense of clarity, I decided not to return by way of noisy Carey and Lombard streets, as I had come, but to go up the back of the park, over the tracks through an empty field to Stricker Street. I knew from experience that this is a deserted route.

About to ascend the hill, I saw three young men at the top. They had the city thug look. I hesitated, but went on. Midway, the tallest of them stopped directly in front of me.

"Be careful up there," he said.

Apprehensive, I asked, "Why?"

"Because it's slippery," he replied.

For a moment I was genuinely overcome with shame and gratitude - shame because of the profile I had attached to these young men and gratitude for the simple gesture of kindness. How many acts of goodness are subverted by fear and prejudice? Even in the city.

Diagonally across from us there is a house apparently used as a group home, occupied by several men, mostly solemn and discreet. It is evident from watching them that there is structure in their lives.

I asked one of them recently where they were from. He said, kindly, he was not supposed to say. I then asked if I could talk to the person in charge, perhaps he would tell me. He said no, nobody would tell me; they were not supposed to say. Later, a reliable neighbor told me that the residents are from rehab programs.

These residents give me a sense of security. When I cannot park in front of my house, I park in front of theirs. I believe my car is safe with them. It is not just that I have seen them contribute at times of crisis, shoveling snow, digging out cars, removing hurricane debris - and refusing pay. As they watch the neighborhood, I watch them. They care about each other. I predicate nothing substantial to them, but their presence generates trust, relative trust, I must confess. Something like there is honor among thieves. Even in the city.

Today's writer

Mary Ellen Dougherty, SSND administers a grant to combat human trafficking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Migration and Refugee Services.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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