Alonzo Smith was walking Thursday in the 1600 block of Darley Ave. when he spotted his 92-year-old neighbor Janie Frieson standing in her doorway.
"You OK?" Smith asked. Frieson smiled and assured him she was fine, and Smith walked on to his Northeast Baltimore home a few doors down.
The brief exchange captured a sense of community that residents say endures on the block of mostly well-kept — and inhabited — brick rowhouses in the Darley Park neighborhood, even as the wider area grapples with the highest homicide rate in all of Baltimore.
Residents say they were stunned by last weekend's fatal shooting of 13-year-old Monae Turnage. Police said she was accidentally shot once in the chest with .22-caliber rifle inside a Darley Avenue home. She was then dragged across an alley and covered with trash bags, police said.
Law enforcement sources say the rifle believed to have been used in the shooting was found in the vehicle of an off-duty Baltimore police officer, who has been suspended while his conduct after the shooting is investigated. Law enforcement sources identified the officer as John A. Ward, 32. Two boys, 12 and 13, are charged with involuntary manslaughter; the officer has not been charged with a crime.
Smith, 43, said the shooting was tragic but should not tar his neighborhood's image. He readily acknowledged the dangers lurking on nearby Harford Road and even on residential streets just a block away, but he insisted that Darley Avenue remains an island of relative calm and security.
"That right there don't affect Darley Avenue or make Darley Avenue a bad place or a bad neighborhood," said Smith, smoking a cigarette outside his house, where he's lived since the 1990s.
Still, some neighbors spoke of moving away because of the incident. And some lamented what they see as the area's decline from earlier decades, when, as Frieson recalls, many of the men earned solid pay at Bethlehem Steel and children dutifully scrubbed their family's marble steps.
"Way back in my day, you would never hear about a child looking at a gun, let alone touching it," Frieson said, leaning on a cane. She said she's deeply unsettled by the regular reports of violent crime occurring mere blocks away.
"Every week you hear about somebody getting shot or stabbed," she said. "And young people!"
Last May, the violence hit close to home when 12-year-old Sean Johnson was shot in the 1700 block of Cliftview Ave., which runs parallel to Darley. He and several friends were watching an NBA playoff game on the front porch of a home, with a TV propped up in the window. Police said two males came around the corner, then returned and began shooting, leaving Sean sprawled on the pavement. He died two days later.
Last March, police Detective Michael Rice was shot and wounded in the 2300 block of Harford Road when he approached a man riding a bicycle and holding a revolver. A decade earlier, Officer Michael J. Cowdery Jr. was shot and killed on the street after interrupting a drug deal.
According to the city Health Department, Darley Park lies amid the most murderous swath of Baltimore. It's part of a larger area, Clifton-Berea, that had a homicide rate of 61.8 per 10,000 residents from 2005 to 2009, nearly triple the rate in the city overall. Clifton-Berea has a lower life expectancy than in Baltimore as a whole and a far higher rate of deaths from HIV/AIDS.
Clifton-Berea is oddly shaped. Much of it encompasses an area several blocks east and south of Darley Park, and residents said their neighborhood should not be lumped in with that wider zone.
In Darley Park, Darley Avenue stretches for two long blocks between Harford Road and North Wolfe Street. Most homes are traditional, two-story Baltimore rowhouses with no front yards and marble front steps. While several houses are boarded up, it is easy to find far more blighted and vacant blocks in Baltimore.
Monae Turnage was shot in a house in the 1600 block, police say. No one answered the door there Thursday.
Relatives said one of the young suspects called Monae's mother twice, once to say that the girl was on her way home and then again to ask if she had arrived. When Monae did not get home by 1 a.m. Sunday, her mother called police. Family members searched Sunday until Monae's 16-year-old brother found her body about 6 p.m.
Kahri Jefferson, 20, lives next door to the house where the shooting occurred. He said he and his fiancee plan to move at the end of the month. They're going to a part of West Baltimore that he believes will be safer.
A neighbor said Jefferson had been planning to move even before Monae's death. But Jefferson, who manages a fast-food restaurant in Randallstown, pointed to the shooting as the reason.