Killing highlights city's dangerous geography

Between islands of calm, derelict blocks await development

  • Gov. Martin O'Malley walks with Pearl Moulton, center, and Patty Prasada-Ral to a press conference Thursday in Baltimore to announce funding for public safety initiatives.
Gov. Martin O'Malley walks with Pearl Moulton, center,… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
July 28, 2010|By Julie Scharper and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Penn Station, the city's bustling train, bus and taxi hub, sits almost exactly in Baltimore's geographic center. Within a two-mile radius lie many of the city's cultural treasures: four colleges and universities, two major art museums, a symphony and an opera hall and the stately main branch of the library.

Youthful entrepreneurs have transformed once-derelict blocks just north of the station with nightclubs, galleries, a movie theater and even a do-it-yourself electronics workshop.

But many of the blocks between these well-lighted places remain unsafe. The fatal stabbing of a Johns Hopkins research assistant as he walked from Penn Station to Charles Village last weekend is a grim reminder that the area has far to go to be a truly walkable cultural center.

"Part of why we bought a house in Charles Village is because we can walk to the grocery store and the park and everywhere else," said Melissa Schober, 31, who moved to Baltimore from Boston with her husband in 2007. "But it feels unnatural to not have the ability to walk from one neighborhood to another, to have these boundaries."

The killing of Stephen Pitcairn on Sunday, two days shy of his 24th birthday, has led residents to reconsider neighborhoods that had been considered among the safest in the city.

Police say Pitcairn was walking in the 2600 block of St. Paul St. about 11 p.m. when a man and woman robbed him of his wallet and cell phone, then plunged a knife into his chest.

John Alexander Wagner, 34, and Lavelva Merritt, 24, are charged with first-degree murder in his death. Wagner was ordered held without bond at a bail review hearing Wednesday; Merritt is also being held without bond.

Wagner and Merritt have a long history of drug abuse and violent crimes, but had served little time. Police say they found Pitcairn's belongings and a pair of bloody shoes in the couple's apartment in the 2600 block of Maryland Ave., two blocks from the crime scene.

City leaders fear that Pitcairn's death — the sixth homicide within the Charles Village Community Benefits District this year — is the type of crime that could drive away the students and families seen as key to the area's health.

"Folks ought to be able to walk from the train station to Charles Village," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who lives a few blocks from the scene of the attack and represents the area. "This impacts persons who would go to the city to go to school or who would work at Hopkins."

The main campuses of the Johns Hopkins University in Homewood and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Bolton Hill have expanded in the past decade, and new businesses have sprung up around the schools. But a continuous cultural corridor is still a distant dream, said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership.

"What you've got is pockets of development that are merging, and the challenge is to knit these pockets of development into a seamless whole," Evitts said.

In the meantime, the city's center remains a complicated tapestry of safe, well-lighted, redeveloped areas separated by blighted blocks where prostitution and drug dealing are rampant.

The Station North Arts District is flourishing, creating a key link between the better-established neighborhoods of Charles Village and Mount Vernon. But the blocks between North Avenue and 25th Street lag in development. And high-crime areas border the corridor to the east and west.

Schober, the Charles Village resident, commutes by MARC train every day to her job as a public health professional. She says the trip between her home and Penn Station — she often walks or rides her bike — is fraught with anxiety.

"It's unnerving," she said. "There are a lot of liquor stores, people getting in your face and asking you for money. Is that guy who is drunken catcalling about to do something more?"

The developed areas appear to be giving young residents — especially students or recent transplants — a false sense of security. Many walk or ride bikes late at night from popular spots such as the Brewer's Art or Joe Squared to homes in Hampden, Remington or Charles Village, seemingly unaware of the hazards in the intervening blocks.

When Pitcairn, who had spent the weekend with his sister in New York, got off a Bolt Bus at Penn Station Sunday night, he had several choices for making his way to his apartment in the 3000 block of St. Paul St.

He could have taken a cab, readily available around the train station; it would have been a $6 fare to his Charles Village apartment. In an interview with WBAL-TV, Pitcairn's mother said she had suggested that he take a cab home.

A university shuttle, which Pitcairn rode between his home and his job at the Hopkins medical school in East Baltimore, would have made its last Sunday stop at the station about 9:45 p.m.

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