City is fighting battle against violence - and hopelessness

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

September 02, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Dondrea Ross' backyard is no longer her own. It belongs to the drug dealers who stalk the playground behind her house.

They have knocked down the light poles so they can conduct their illicit business in private. They have chased off the children who used to run and play there.

"I can't cook out. I can't hang clothes," said Ross, 44, a single mother. She doesn't confront the dealers for fear of being hurt. She doesn't call the police because she has convinced herself that they wouldn't respond. "The police are scared to come back here, and I know because we don't get regular patrols."

Ross lives just east of Green Mount Cemetery, not far from where the Dawson home was firebombed five years ago, killing seven members of one activist's family. That crime sparked outrage throughout the city and led to promises that violence and intimidation would not be tolerated.

But Ross has another word to describe the feeling she is trying to fend off now: "hopelessness."

The spike in homicides and violent crime in Baltimore this year has disturbed many, but it has not produced the sense of crisis or unity that can be found in other cities facing crime waves -- or that once was felt in Baltimore. Now it sometimes seems that the city, so accustomed to shocking crimes and ceaseless violence, shrugs at each new tale of terror.

Criminologists who study Baltimore say apathy, alienation and cynicism have taken root. People have seen the criminal justice system fail to arrest and lock up criminals, allowing gangs to proliferate. They have seen politicians announce crime-fighting plans with great fanfare, only to have results fall short of the rhetoric.

At the same time, many of the positive forces of cohesion from the past have disappeared. Libraries have closed. Neighborhood associations have weakened. The number of recreation centers in the city has dropped from 145 in 1980 to 43 today.

"Over time what you see is a powerlessness -- people feeling that they cannot do anything to change their life circumstances, so they put up with it," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.

Ross and others say any effort to turn around Baltimore's culture of violence will take years of sustained work. After all, they say, the city didn't get to this point overnight. Middle-class homeowners, who were the bedrock of neighborhoods and church congregations, began fleeing the city in the 1960s.

"The disinvestment has been taking place slowly, systematically, piece by piece," said Rob English, lead organizer of BUILD, a nonprofit group working to empower communities. "It's unraveling one thread at a time. It's paralyzing people. To act on people's anger, to turn it into hope, they have to see that something is going to change."

But this year change seems to be heading in the wrong direction. The violence considered routine in the city's most desperate neighborhoods is spreading to places once assumed to be safe.

Residents of Charles Village are assaulted and mugged on the street. A Roland Park woman is raped and robbed in her home. Near Patterson Park, a young man is beaten into a coma while walking home from Canton.

"There is a fatalism that worries me very much," said the Rev. William Au, pastor of SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in Charles Village. "In the city, you have to be cautious. But now more people are talking about being afraid. When people start talking that way, that's a really serious deterioration."

After such well-publicized incidents of crime this summer, Au said, even people committed to the city are talking about getting out. They're disillusioned, he said, after five police commissioners in eight years and no clear direction from the city when it comes to fighting crime.

"That lack of leadership, together with a sense of great personal threat in your own neighborhood, makes for a whole different mindset," Au said. "Right now it's angry, it's frustrated, it's somewhat panicky. But if something isn't done, it could lead to just giving up on the city."

Several times over the past decade, Sarah Johnson thought of giving up. For years, she was afraid to sit on her front porch on 25th Street in East Baltimore. When she called the police, she said, they didn't always come. The Off the Top gang took over the neighborhood.

"There were murders," said Johnson, 58, "killings in the neighborhood back to back. You just get tired of hearing fireworks and knowing it might be a gunshot, of not being able to sit on your porch, of seeing these gangs walk around and act like they own the street you've lived on since before they were babies."

But Johnson did not give up and get out, and her persistence is perhaps a flickering sign that there are still some who have not completely despaired. Johnson joined BUILD and met with police commanders. She signed up to mentor two teenage girls from her church. She walked up to the drug dealers on the corner and told them, "If you're gonna stay here, you may as well clean up the street."

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