Residents of Northeast Baltimore, an area long regarded as a mostly placid, middle-class enclave of stable neighborhoods and small businesses, are understandably upset over a spike in crime that has left the district leading the city in homicides. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported last week, shootings and other violent crimes in Northeast are up more than 20 percent at a time when homicides in Baltimore as a whole are at a two-decade low. The worst-hit communities have been Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Lauraville along the Harford Road corridor and the Belair-Edison neighborhood astride Belair Road.
All three saw their fortunes rise and crash with the housing bubble, and the resulting foreclosures and evictions have frayed the social fabric in a way that social scientists say is all too predictable. What to do about it, however, is a much harder question.
Last month, for example, the police department deployed 15 officers from its Violent Crimes Impact Section to Coldstream-Montebello and Belair-Edison in an effort to augment the 20 foot patrol officers already there. Yet, at best, they've had mixed success in stemming the current crime wave — and in reassuring anxious residents. The area saw two brazen shootings in late April, one in Coldstream-Montebello, the other in Belair-Edison. Both were fatal, and both occurred in broad daylight. Meanwhile, nonviolent crimes have also soared, including a 32 percent increase in burglaries.
Long-time residents of Belair-Edison say their neighborhood's problems reflect in microcosm the economic dislocation and social disarray that are affecting much of Northeast, which they trace to the boom-and-bust housing market of the last decade and the sudden loss of jobs from the recession. That's when they first began noticing that foreclosures and evictions were increasing in a community where unemployment was already relatively high. It's also when they started to see police installing blue-light cameras on the streets to monitor drug activity.
For most of the first half of the decade, home values rose steadily in Belair-Edison, which marketed itself as a community of 6,600 homes offering something for everyone — porch fronts, park fronts, detached homes and row houses. The neighborhood abuts two attractive urban green spaces, Clifton Park and Herring Run Park, and businesses along Belair Road seemed flourishing. First-time homeowners were encouraged to buy properties by banks offering mortgages on easy terms with low down payments. For a time, it seemed the area could only go up.
Then came the collapse of the housing market in 2008, which affected renters as well as homeowners. People who had mortgages financed through subprime loans suddenly found themselves underwater, owing more than their houses were worth. Inflated home prices also inflated rents, making it difficult for people to stay in their houses when they lost their jobs.
The wave of foreclosures and evictions that followed wreaked havoc on families. While some pulled together to survive, others simply fell apart, leaving their members to experience a loss of social cohesion and morale that ate away their confidence in themselves and others.
Sociologists know that when incomes go down, crime generally goes up; people who feel they've had their legs kicked out from under them and their support networks destroyed are more apt to be angry and violent. If you are 19 years old, broke and homeless, there's a good chance you may rob someone, or break into a house, or join a gang that offers protection and money in exchange for selling drugs. The crimes being committed in Northeast today are rooted in desperation, but the economic collapse that gave rise to such feelings sprang from policies adopted a decade or more ago, when many of its victims were still young children.
Given that the problem of crime is deeply rooted in the economic dislocation and social disarray of families victimized by the housing bubble and subsequent recession, what can be done to heal the distressed communities in which they now live? The obvious answer is jobs and economic opportunities that allow people to get back on their feet and regain their sense of self-esteem. That could take years; there are no quick fixes.
What politicians and other local leaders can do immediately is work with residents to raise the level of trust and social cohesion that was lost during the recession. Belair-Edison, like other Northeast neighborhoods, has suffered a massive shock. The city's elected officials need to pay more attention to their problems and help them rebuild ties of mutual cooperation and respect through involvement with neighborhood groups, community associations and other collective endeavors.
The police department can't be everywhere all the time. But it can increase its effectiveness by concentrating on community policing strategies aimed at winning back residents' confidence and willingness to accept their civic responsibilities. They need residents' cooperation to make a dent in crime, but they will have to earn it. Finally, the business community must make economic development in distressed neighborhoods a priority.
There's no magic bullet that will stop crime in its tracks. But understanding how we got where we are is the first step toward healing the city's neighborhoods and the families that live there.