A mother says best thing she ever did was leave city


December 11, 2008|By PETER HERMANN

It was a day in August 17 years ago, and they were building a public square in memory of a 6-year-old girl caught in a drug dealers' crossfire in West Baltimore. The mayor, the City Council president, the heads of city departments came to honor Tiffany Smith and name the spot where she fell in her honor.

Tiffany Square still stands.

So do the drug dealers the memorial was supposed to shame and push out, which I discovered when I visited to see if we had learned anything after another boy was killed this week and ran smack into an open-air drug market.

Bernadette Devone led the movement to build the square, organized the workers, solicited donations, rounded up Tiffany's parents and got the TV cameras to gather and record the event. Then the cameramen left and the politicians forgot and the residents retreated to their homes, scared and beaten.

Devone had three sons in Baltimore. One was 16 when Tiffany was killed and was gravitating to the corners and to the drugs. She had to get away.

Two years after Tiffany's death, Devone moved to Virginia, where she had another son. The family later moved to Little Rock, Ark., where she helps organize people in rural communities to address social ills. One son is now a minister in New Jersey, another is a budget analyst for the city of Richmond, Va., and a third is preparing for Army boot camp. The son who got in trouble in Baltimore, she acknowledged, sadly, "is still in trouble now."

Devone is sorry she abandoned Tiffany Square, but she says there is plenty of blame to go around. The community built it, the community left it, and City Hall offered no support.

"I did the best I could," Devone told me by telephone from Arkansas. "There were many younger residents who wanted to help, but there were also a lot of elderly people who were too scared to leave their front doors.

"We were unable to do what we had promised we would do. We didn't do what we needed to do to make the community better."

Devone, now 49, said the best thing she ever did was leave Baltimore, the city where she was born.

"It's all up to the community," she told me. "If they want to live with drug dealers, then that's what they are going to get. If they want to be good citizens, they have to be willing to stand up and fight. Unfortunately, at that time, Baltimore was not ready to do that."

Devone said she often thinks of Tiffany - she was steps away from her when the gunshots rang out - and of all the changes that were supposed to happen after her death.

Children keep dying in Baltimore - five 14-year-olds this year alone, 25 of them under the age of 18.

The people who try get frustrated and give up. The people who have the means escape for a better life. The ones left behind fight for every scrap.

We can build all the Tiffany Squares we want. But nothing will ever change when outrage about crime lasts about as long as the tributes to our fallen.

They're selling drugs under the picture of Tiffany Smith, under her name emblazoned on a sign, and the person who led its construction has long fled to seek a better life elsewhere.

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