City officials and police are warning Southeast Baltimore residents and business owners that a widely distributed letter announcing an impending neighborhood curfew is a hoax.
The letter, dated March 1, is addressed "Dear Resident" and written on city letterhead with Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's signature at the bottom. It states that because of surging crime in the area, a curfew will take effect between 2:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. beginning April 1.
Anyone found outside during those hours would be required to carry identification or a "valid work permit," indicating that they either live or work in Southeast Baltimore, the letter states. Violators could risk a fine or jail time.
"Mayor Dixon is dismayed by this bizarre harassment of city residents," Dixon spokesman Anthony McCarthy said yesterday. "We're concerned that someone would use the mayor's signature and stationery to perpetrate this kind of fraud."
Merchants in Lower Fells Point's lively entertainment district said they were puzzled and furious at the letter, while advocates in the area's burgeoning Latino community worried that the flier was an attempt to intimidate the area's new immigrants, some of whom are in the country illegally.
Officer Troy Harris, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said police in the Southeastern District forwarded the flier and other information to the department's Criminal Intelligence Section, which will investigate. Meanwhile, police were contacting businesses and "putting the word out" that the flier was a fake, Harris said.
Lt. Anthony Brown, operations commander for the Southeastern District, said angry business owners in Fells Point told him people had received the letter from South Broadway to more than a dozen blocks east, on Montford Avenue south of Patterson Park.
Brown said he checked with the mayor's office and City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore. He then attended a Latino community meeting in Fells Point to inform people it was a hoax.
"When no one in city government knew about this, I was confident in telling the community that this was not true," Brown said. He said he pointed out to people at the meeting that the curfew was intended to start on April Fool's Day, another indication that it was a prank.
Bob Simko, a manager at Max's Taphouse on South Broadway, said he learned of the letter Thursday night, when customers discovered copies shoved in mail slots around the neighborhood.
"My initial reaction was, `You got to be kidding me,'" he said. "I got a bunch of calls from other restaurants with people asking, `Is this for real?'
"I don't know if someone's trying to target the homeless or illegal immigrants or what," Simko said. "Either way, it's in very poor taste."
Nick Filipidis, who owns Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, said he found a copy of the letter in his neighbor's doorway. He feared early morning customers would be intimidated by the curfew and not patronize the restaurant.
"My business opens at 5 a.m. If the city would come in and try to have a curfew, I would be shut down," he said. "I couldn't believe that the city would try to pull something like that."
Immigrant advocates said they feared the hoax was an attempt to scare the area's growing Latino immigrant community, particularly people who might not have legal authorization to work.
"This is definitely an attack on those who employ Latinos and Latino employees," said Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House at St. Patrick's Church, which works in Baltimore's Hispanic community.
"The timing of the curfew corresponds to when kitchen workers are leaving and bars are closing up," she said. "Asking for their work permit, we all know what that means."
Nicolas Ramos, who owns Arcos restaurant in Upper Fells Point, learned of the flier at the community meeting Thursday night.
He said he and other members of the city's Hispanic Business Association want to meet with Dixon about the letter and concerns among merchants about proposed zoning changes that could prevent some owners from expanding their businesses. Ramos said he fears that the flier was the result of growing tensions between new Latino business owners and longtime residents.
Said Ramos: "We want to work together with everybody."