For their joint news conference on Thursday, the police commissioner and state's attorney of Baltimore chose Mund Park on Greenmount Avenue, where, they said, members of the Black Guerrilla Family and their associates held regular meetings. That moment was fraught with symbolism — top cop Anthony Batts, in uniform, and top prosecutor Gregg Bernstein, in a gray suit, reclaiming a public park from a violent gang.
But the symbolism grows larger when you consider the place — Greenmount Avenue, between North Avenue and 25th Street — in the context of the long struggles of Baltimore: the riots of 1968, the white flight, the concentration of poverty, the rise in crime, the generally sad reputation of the area, and the long wait for transformative help.
While I'm in no position to judge the legal soundness of the indictments of 48 suspects in what is potentially one of Baltimore law enforcement's biggest gang busts ever, I can say this: The crackdown on this violent gang could not come at a better time.
You might not believe me until you see it with your own eyes, but the Greenmount Avenue area — New Greenmount West, and nearby Barclay — has just about arrived at a tipping point.
If police and prosecutors are successful in clearing out the BGF, we could see a real breakthrough where, just a few years ago, it seemed impossible.
A little history is in order first, and I'll start with the name of the park Batts and Bernstein used as a stage for the announcement of the indictments.
Mund Park was not named for anyone named Mund. Rather, the name comes from an anti-poverty program that was in place there in the late 1960s, called Model Urban Neighborhood Demonstration. There is a collection of black-and-white photographs from MUND in the archives of the University of Baltimore; a couple of them show boys and girls with rakes and brooms.
MUND began as a public-private partnership of the Baltimore Community Action Agency, the Greater Baltimore Committee and Westinghouse Corp. The historical note with the collection says: "The goal was to focus the resources and expertise of the private sector on a single district within Baltimore City, applying the best practices of business to the problems of urban renewal." The program ran from 1967 to 1974. Mund Park was created in the process, according to the reminiscences of a volunteer published in The Sun.
Of course, the poverty persisted, and in the 1970s and 1980s, the area seemed to get worse. Baltimore had a renaissance, but it certainly didn't reach Greenmount and North. Federal funds for cities dried up during the Reagan era. In the 1990s, Baltimore had a sleepy administration at City Hall, a crack epidemic, annual homicide rates in the 300s, and a steady loss of population. That stretch of Greenmount Avenue became poorer and sadder.
Then, one spring weekend in 2000, Martin O'Malley, in his fourth month as mayor, took a platoon of volunteers into the area to clean up some of the filthiest vacant lots in the city. That created a grand photo opportunity for the new mayor, of course, but it also got results — the removal of tons of trash that had been in place, I'm sure, for several years.
That was a time of promise and optimism — the time of "Believe" — and people were earnest about mounting a fresh attack against the city's scourges of crime, drug addiction and trash. O'Malley and dozens of volunteers cleaned rat-infested lots near Greenmount Avenue. They swept up Mund Park. They cleaned lots and alleys in the Barclay neighborhood. Baltimore County, Annapolis and the State Highway Administration sent trucks and manpower. Even Jim Mathias, then the mayor of Ocean City, brought a squadron of dump trucks.
"I was born and raised in Baltimore, in Hampden," Mathias said. "I know what happens here. You can't have 300 or more homicides a year, trash piling up everywhere, and expect Baltimore to go anywhere."
I've kept an eye on the area ever since O'Malley's big sweep. Though people still threw trash onto the sidewalks, the city kept up its daily cleaning efforts through the remainder of O'Malley's years and while Sheila Dixon was in office. Then some brilliant murals appeared, and grassy lots. The city knocked down crumbling rowhouses and took the bricks away.
About a year ago, I started noticing a generally brighter appearance to the streets and sidewalks in Barclay and Greenmount West. Fewer abandoned properties had been left to rot. The city's Vacants To Value program rolled into the area; auctions were held, collapsing rowhouses demolished and cleared. The Telesis Corp., a developer, invested in the construction of dozens of properties. When a row of handsome new rowhouses with Victorian touches appeared on 20th Street at Greenmount, I experienced something approaching shock.
So, yes, that area of Greenmount, struggling for so long, has finally reached something like a tipping point. It's impossible to say for sure, but maybe the Bernstein-Batts Big BGF case will be the final push the neighborhood needs. We shall see. We shall hope.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.