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.
"It was a quiet block," he said, while washing his Buick LeSabre in the breezy sunshine. "But it's not kosher no more — after the incident out back," he said, referring to the shooting and dumping of the body.
While it might have been an accident that could have happened anywhere, he said, the fact is, it happened next door to where his family lives. "It scared me; it definitely scared my fiancee," he said.
"Too many guns around here playing," he said, shaking his head.
Michael Diggs, 33, has rented a house on the other side of Darley Avenue for three years. He summed up his attitude about the neighborhood this way: "When it gets dark, don't be outside." That especially applies to Harford Road, he said, because of prostitution and drug dealing.
"In Baltimore City, you have to stay in the area where you live," he said, "so you can go inside and shut the door."
Diggs' late grandfather once owned a house on the block, and his mother has told him stories about how pleasant the street was. Gesturing at the litter-strewn sidewalk, he said: "Nobody really cares; nobody wants to sweep up all the trash. It's sad, but it's the truth."
Diggs, who is disabled by multiple sclerosis, said he used to live in public housing, which was "way worse."
He said he feels relatively secure in Darley Park. Even so, Monae's death has rattled him. He'd like to take his 4-year-old daughter out of the city, maybe to White Marsh. "After what happened to that little girl, I don't even want to stay here."
Smith, the neighbor who checked on Frieson, takes a brighter view of Darley Park. The building maintenance manager resides with his mother, and relatives live in three adjacent houses.
"This is a pretty good neighborhood, honestly," he said. "Everybody looks out for one another, everybody communicates."
Frieson, who worked as a home nurse before her retirement, has lived on the block since 1961. She and her late husband raised six children there, and at first it was a racially mixed neighborhood.
"It was beautiful. The children were beautiful. You didn't see a piece of paper [on the street]. The steps were all clean and shiny every day. ... I never thought I'd see a house boarded up on this street."
Asked whether she felt optimistic about Darley Park, she paused. "I hope it doesn't get any worse," she said.
Then her thoughts turned to Monae.
"I hope it's a long time before another [incident] like that happens again," she said. "Oh, lordy."
Homicide rates in Baltimore
Clifton-Berea, which includes the Darley Park neighborhood, has the city's highest homicide rate, according to health officials.
Top homicide rates (per 10,000 residents, for years 2005-09)
Perkins/Middle East: 61
Greater Rosemont: 48.3
Madison/East End: 46.3
Source: Baltimore Health Department
Clifton-Berea health statistics
Life expectancy (2005-09)
Clifton-Berea 64.9; citywide 71.8
HIV/AIDS deaths (per 10,000, 2005-09)
Clifton-Berea 7.2; citywide 3.9
Cancer deaths (per 10,000, 2005-09)
Clifton-Berea 31.3; citywide 23.1
Percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels
Clifton-Berea 8.2 ; citywide 3.4
Source: Baltimore Health Department