The mayor confronted a citizen at a community meeting.
"Is there any crime in your neighborhood?" the chief executive asked.
"Oh yea, it's terrible," the man replied.
Said the mayor: "Well, what specifically? Has anything happened to you or to your wife? A neighbor?"
Said the man: "No. But the morning paper is full of it."
The man wasn't identified in the editorial published in The Baltimore Sun that recounted this conversation.
The mayor was William Donald Schaefer. The year was 1973.
A year later, the ever-quotable, always-irascible and relentless promoter of the city found himself in Charles Village, trying to ease residents' fears after two of their neighbors had been killed on city sidewalks. One was a Bethlehem Steel worker shot by a man with a rifle in a dispute over a parked car.
The newspaper described Charles Village as a "midtown community of restoration-minded homeowners."
It's a description that could be used today to describe the community that is still reeling from last week's fatal stabbing of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn, who lost his life in a robbery on St. Paul Street.
The stabbing prompted outrage from residents and the requisite visits by city leaders and politicians. They promised more police and more attention and expressed anger at failures of judges and the courts.
But privately those same officials complain Baltimore's crime problem attracts disproportionate attention, which feeds on people's fears and drives them from the city, even though the stats show that crime is down.
Here's Schaefer during his visit to Charles Village in 1974:
"There is as much crime in the counties as there is in the city. We get the toughest publicity of any of the subdivisions." The mayor accused the media of "over-emphasizing" city crime, creating a "psychology of fear" that could "destroy the city."
That year, 293 people were killed in Baltimore. But the city had a population of 887,000, giving it a per-capita murder rate of 33 per 100,000 people. Last year, 238 people were killed in Baltimore. Though that number is a 20-year low, the city's population now stands about 638,000, and the murder rate remains near the highest in the country.
But it's not the numbers that matter. It's how people feel.
All the glowing statistics don't matter to residents who conclude crime is out of control when they see police cars screaming by their houses, or the helicopter hovering over the neighborhood, or images of crime scenes in the media. One murder can undermine a year of positive stats.
Some killings draw more attention than others. Many slayings in Baltimore are linked to the drug trade or to people engaged in nefarious activities. It's hard to generate sympathy when the victims have longer rap sheets than the gunmen, as is often the case.
Of course, every killing is a tragedy and a failure, and good people live in bad neighborhoods and they deserve protection and attention as well. They are too often forgotten and left helpless, the headlines of what happens on their streets not prominent, the outrage not loud, the help from the city not swift.
Emily Chalmers bought a rowhouse on Guilford Avenue in Charles Village in 1998, a proud "urban pioneer," as she described herself in an e-mail to the newspaper. Over the next few years, she wrote, she was mugged and had her car stolen twice and later vandalized. She noted killings on streets east of her house.
Chalmers said that a few years ago she moved to Northeast Baltimore near Herring Run Park, and while there are fewer shootings there, her house has been vandalized and she still is frightened by the killings throughout the city.
"And every day I still read the papers, follow the litany of murders, grieve for the dead, and just lately, find myself afraid. All the time. … I ask you how people who can find no relief from the ongoing mayhem in this city can find the strength to pay tribute to their dead, and so many dead, because I don't know."
Leaders say the city is safer. Chalmers says she's leaving Baltimore.
Her fear has taken over. Telling her that crime is down won't make her feel any better.
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