At violent summer's end, weary city grapples with the toll

Baltimore shootings, homicides touch all corners of the community

August 31, 2013|By Justin Fenton and Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

Fourteen-year-old Troy Neal grew up in Baltimore. It’s where his friends are, where he scraped his knees learning to skateboard in Carroll Park, and where he had planned to attend Mount St. Joseph’s High School this fall.

It’s also where the precocious teen’s stepfather was murdered in July in the second attempt on his life in a year. After that, Troy’s mother moved the family to the New York area, but the distance didn’t insulate Troy from the tragedies that continued to unfold back home as summer dragged on.

This time, the news came as he scrolled through Facebook while sitting in the living room of his new home: A friend, 15-year-old aspiring rapper Deshaun Jones, had been killed in Troy’s old neighborhood.

“It doesn’t seem real ...” he said quietly as he viewed the “R.I.P.” messages and candlelight vigil photos. When Troy first read that Jones was “gone,” he thought his friend had signed a contract for his rapping and was leaving Baltimore behind. “I didn’t know he died.”

This summer’s violence stretched across the city, coming in such regularity that many — like Troy — felt its toll more than once.

Though still far lower than totals Baltimore has seen in its recent history, shootings and homicides are up 17 percent in 2013, compared with last year. Particularly alarming to police: The number of shootings with multiple victims — indicating more indiscriminate gunfire — is twice as high as it was last year. Much of the spike was fueled by two violent spurts in late June and mid-August.

Seconds of gunfire have made an impact that some Baltimoreans will deal with for decades. The summer violence has turned husbands into single parents, transformed rookie cops into veterans, left missing verses in half-finished rap songs, forced politicians to personally confront the city’s crime problems, and sent longtime residents to new places and new lives.

The widower

”Did you eat?” William Irvin asked his son.

“No,” Shaquille responded.

“Do you want to eat?”

“Not really,” the 17-year-old said, as he slumped on the couch, eyes and fingers consumed with his smartphone.

The two are alone now in their Northeastern Baltimore rowhouse. Joyce Irvin, William’s wife and Shaquille’s mother, was one of two people gunned down on June 22 in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a crime that remains unsolved. The home remains neat, but there are subtle signs of disorder — like the bottle of Tide on the dining room floor.

“I have to raise him by myself,” said Irvin, 48, a contractor. “Might sound corny, might sound however people might think, but she was the best mother to him.”

She could relate better to the boy, and was able to discuss Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross songs. But they worked together to raise him and keep the house.

“I cooked, she cleaned,” Irvin said.

Now, “dust accumulates every day,” he said as he continued to pace, checking the front-door lock, glancing out the screen door, pulling a dead leaf from a plant on the coffee table.

He feels equipped to handle the load that street violence has left him.

He knows Ajax and water can rub the grime out of kitchen counters and rowhouse steps. He knows how to sew, something his aunt taught him after his mother died when he was 6. “I can make a shirt, I can make a woman’s dress, I can cut out the patterns, take pants up,” he said.

He can cook chicken, steak — and a ham glazed with a family recipe that his wife loved. But his son prefers fast food, Irvin said, so that’s often what they eat.

Leaning against the living room archway, next to a framed painting of “The Thinker,” Irvin said he tries not to worry about Shaquille. Worry makes you sick and he can’t afford to miss work.

“I don’t worry about anything. ... “ he said. “I think about making sure he grows up to be the man he wants to be, not the man I want him to be. I think about him getting a job and taking care of himself and being responsible overall.”

Until then, he vows that he will not lose his son to violence.

“I’m going to protect mine,” Irvin said. “If it takes me, I’m gonna protect mine.”

His home is his “castle,” Irvin said. Outside, he acknowledged, he can’t always keep an eye on Shaquille.

“The hardest thing about being a father is making sure your kids are safe all the time,” he said. “But you can’t be everywhere. So you pray a lot.”

The streets are a lot different from the days when Irvin grew up in West Baltimore. Kids fought with their fists, not guns. When they returned home, they got “whooped again” by their parents, he said.

“You like it that way?” Shaquille asked.

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