Downtown Safety Concerns Raise Issue Of Responsibility

May 17, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It was one of those slightly disorienting, out-of-context scenes, a business breakfast held in a failed nightclub. Developers, lawyers and other be-suited downtown execs helped themselves to coffee and pastries at a bar still lined with top-shelf vodkas and whiskeys, then hovered around the dance floor waiting not for the DJ but the mayor.

Sheila Dixon's talk at the Downtown Partnership breakfast on Thursday seemed a mismatch of message and setting. Not that it didn't feature the expected bizspeak - the word "maximize" figured prominently - or applause lines about focusing on road repairs and public transit that were tailored to a crowd dominated by commuting 9-to-5'ers.

But she seemed most impassioned not when speaking about concrete and buses but when she suddenly turned to youth and personal responsibility, or the lack thereof. It was Sheila as the city's mother as much as Dixon as the city's mayor.

"It's not our responsibility to take care of you," she said, not so much to the crowd in front of her but to the city as large. "It's your responsibility."

It was something she returned to after her talk, given as part of the Partnership's annual "State of Downtown" assessment, when I asked her about my particular state-of-downtown issue.

As someone who for more than 20 years has not just worked but lived within the one-mile radius of downtown that the Partnership assesses every year, count me among those both alarmed and enraged by two recent incidents that hit close to home.

First, there were the teenagers who rampaged through the Inner Harbor one Saturday night in April, a melee in which two youths were stabbed and some Harborplace businesses were worried enough to close early or encourage their customers not to leave until police got the situation under control. And even more frightening, last weekend, there were the two people who separately were jumped by groups of young people as they walked in the Midtown-Belvedere area. One victim was so viciously beaten he suffered a concussion and doesn't even remember the attack in which he lost several teeth and now needs surgery.

Those are both areas that have been among the safest in the city. I'm pretty sure I have never felt worried walking, even alone, even at night, around the harbor or Midtown-Belvedere (which actually is just north of that one-mile-radius district).

For one thing, there are always other seemingly non-dangerous people around, in the restaurants, bars, the Meyerhoff and other nightlife venues, something that often is the only thing that makes one neighborhood safer than an adjacent one. (I remember once leaving an Orioles game early and walking home alone through the Otterbein - which at night is as shadowy and still as adjacent Federal Hill is lit up and hopping - and having a very concerned police officer pull up in his cruiser to ask me if I knew where I was and why I was walking around alone.)

The Harbor and Midtown have always seemed quite the urban gifts - something we get in return for putting up with the parking problems and crowds that descend on what downtown residents think of as "our" neighborhoods. They are lively and interesting and, most of all, walkable.

"This is unacceptable," Dixon told me when I asked about last weekend's beatings, which might have involved patrons of a bottle club, Suite Ultralounge, in the basement of the Belvedere Hotel. "People who live in that area deserve to walk in that area."

The city's liquor board stripped the Ultralounge of its bottle license in November, a month after two people were shot and one stabbed in a fight that started in the club, but it remains open as its owner appeals the revocation in Circuit Court.

Dixon said the incidents tell her "we have a problem with our young people ...being irresponsible." She wondered what kids were doing out that late to begin with, or, more to the point, what their parents were or weren't doing about keeping them at home, or at least in line.

"People want us to take care of their kids," she said.

I think it's interesting that Dixon lately has added a fourth goal to her old cleaner-greener-healthier mantra: safer. She noted all the usual measures that her administration would be taking, including increasing police patrols, using surveillance cameras and, in the Ultralounge case, looking at any zoning changes that could force the club to close.

But she also talked about plunging deeper, to the root of the problem, which is how she ended up in the whole personal responsibility thing. It's a subject she returned to Friday, during a meeting with The Baltimore Sun's editorial board, when she said she wants to focus on getting Baltimoreans to become more self-sufficient rather than constantly turning to the government to raise their kids or put a roof over their heads.

"What is it we can do," she said, about "four, five generations of people in public housing ... or three, four generations in addiction."

It's a "tough, tough challenge" to break such cycles, she acknowledged, and obviously not one that will happen as immediately as putting more cops on the street or closing down a problem club.

In the meantime, since I live in Federal Hill (and was previously a Mount Vernon resident), I have a certain proprietary interest in the nearby Harbor and Midtown areas. Since some kids apparently haven't learned the number one parental rule when you go to someone else's house, let me enlighten: If you can't behave, you have to go home.

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