Kostka said that this past weekend was her first visit to Baltimore, and if she returns again, she will stay someplace other than downtown. She and her husband visit New York City often, "and I've never seen anything like that," she said. She described 75 to 100 youths walking up the street in Baltimore, blocking traffic, and few police. In Times Square, she said you see "tons of cops" even on a peaceful night.
"I would've thought that within two minutes you'd see a cop. One cop car, that's all we saw," she said. "I didn't really see cops in the Inner Harbor or anything. After the shops started closing, a whole different element started coming into the area. How do you expect to get tourists if people are going to say, 'No way?'"
Baltimore leaders are in a constant quandary. They seek opportunities to tout crime statistics that show homicides plummeting to lows not seen in three decades. At the same time, the city's drug and gun trade fuels violence that still puts Baltimore in the top tier of per-capita crime in the country.
The outgoing police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, has long complained of a chasm between reality and perception, and that one high-profile shooting, one riot, one attack at a tourist attraction, can upend years of actual crime reduction.
"I think it's going to take a long time for this city to convince itself that the schools are improving, that public safety is improving," Bealefeld said during an interview a day after he announced his departure effective Aug. 1.
"I think it's going to take years of success," the commissioner said, noting the city's negative image, driven by years of high crime numbers coupled with national television shows highlighting the drug trade here.
City officials are continually trying to put a positive spin on events that call into question the overall crime drop. After four people were killed in a spate of violence on Mother's Day, the police spokesman, Guglielmi, said, "We have to pause and look at the greater picture. We're down right now from last year's 33-year-low [in homicides]."
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, a group that promotes businesses and provides uniformed guides to help visitors, said that the full scope of St. Patrick's Day violence should be known by the public. But he also said it does hurt the city's image.
"It's a balancing act," Fowler said, noting that this past weekend there was a "wonderful" Charles Street festival and other events that many people might not have known about. Of the disturbances, he said, "For all the progress we've made downtown, it's always frustrating for these incidents to occur."
Fowler said that after St. Patrick's Day, his guides voiced concerns, as did some hotel officials. But he said not a single member of the partnership's board of directors, nor any residents, said anything about the disturbances. He also noted that apartment buildings in the area are at "near 100 percent capacity," a feat that could not have been accomplished if crime were rampant.
"I do get phone calls when there seems to be a pattern of something developing, like car break-ins," Fowler said. "I believe most people viewed what happened [on St. Patrick's Day] as an exception to the rule.
"Clearly, what happened was unacceptable," Fowler added. "But I firmly believe that the police did all they could to bring the situation under control. … Other great cities have experienced flash mobs. I don't think Baltimore is unique."
But Barry Richardson, 57, said in an interview, "I will definitely limit my visits from now on until I feel that the city has a handle on this problem." He said he had lived in Baltimore for 13 years before moving away in 1993, fleeing to Warrenton, N.C., because of high crime. He visits family and friends here about once a month.
He called city leaders "negligent for not letting the public know that they might risk life and limb if they come into Baltimore."
"I would assume that the Baltimore City folks would want to cover that problem up," he wrote in an email, referring to the problems on St. Patrick's Day. "It might hurt tourism and the convention trade. However, that is a serious problem that folks inside and outside of Baltimore should know about."
Richardson escaped Baltimore during some of its highest crime rates ever recorded — during the year that 353 people were killed on city streets, the all-time high. The 1990s would conclude with 10 consecutive years of 300 or more killings. In contrast, last year the city recorded fewer than 200 killings.
He still comes back to visit family, to watch the Orioles, to eat crabs in Canton. But, he added, "How can you have a good time when you have a bunch of hoodlums running around? Crime is down? I don't know, I don't feel that myself. What happens if I go to the Inner Harbor and get caught up in something like that?"