Rev. Lucille Calloway

The Rev. Lucille Calloway, Faith Tabernacle's longtime pastor, remains optimistic about the East Baltimore neighborhood where the shooting occurred. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / July 31, 2009)

The 55 souls gathered at Faith Tabernacle Apostolic Church kept worshiping Sunday evening when a flash of light danced across the stained-glass windows. Just a police car responding to a call, they figured, a common enough sight in this part of East Baltimore. Probably nothing too serious.

But a parishioner standing on the sidewalk knew something was very wrong. On the far side of Ashland Avenue, a crowd rushed from an alley screaming, "You shot? You shot?" The panic was understandable. A dozen people had just been hit by gunfire at a backyard cookout.

More patrol cars raced up, joined by ambulances. A police helicopter buzzed overhead. "Get off the corners," commanded a voice over a loudspeaker, "or you will be arrested." And so, for over an hour, church members in their white dresses and dark suits huddled in the sanctuary, praying.

It was one of the city's worst nights of violence in years, with a total of 18 people shot in five incidents before the sun rose Monday. Police think Sunday's barbecue attack was the latest bloody twist in a brutal feud between rival drug gangs.

For the tiny Madison-East End neighborhood, the episode is a grim reminder that despair relentlessly stalks hope, and that despite hard-won progress against parasitic drug dealers, many die young and many more live in fear.

As in too many corners of the city, it has tested anew the ability of some to see a future, even as others resolve to make this a good place to live.

"We haven't had anything like this," said the Rev. Lucille Calloway, Faith Tabernacle's long-serving pastor and a neighborhood optimist.

The shooting on Ashland has cast a spotlight on a neighborhood of contrasting qualities that starts eight blocks east of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

As its most dedicated advocates point out, this is hardly a forgotten community. City employees, pastors and retired state workers live here. Whole families, spread over three and four rowhouses, have deep roots. State Del. Talmadge Branch and his brother, Warren, a city councilman, call it home. Another delegate, Hattie N. Harrison, lives nearby.

There are tidy, flower-filled blocks and friendly neighbors, as well as engaged church congregations. There are youth programs, community centers, job training seminars.

There's a meticulously landscaped park, called "the Garden of Eden" by some, planted long ago on a string of vacant lots behind Ashland. It backs up to the yards where all those shots were fired last week.

But behind the foliage and swept steps is a world-weariness and fatalism, especially among the young.

"Personally, I'm not scared of death," said Paigen Paige, a 16-year-old Patterson High senior whose father was murdered a day after her third birthday. "I realize whether you're in the house, on the street, in the county, in the city, bullets have no name. So if it's meant for you, it's meant for you. If you get hit, there's nothing you can do about it."

In a poignant sense, residents say, crime has helped forge a stronger sense of community.

A decade ago, neighbors banded together to fight open-air drug dealing on Ashland. They slept on the streets, cut the cords of pay phones used by young dealers and pushed junkies out of an abandoned house on Rose Street to set up a community center. When someone burned it down, they opened another one.

"We're getting a terrible rap behind that shooting," R.B. Smith, a Luzerne Avenue resident for 40 years, said of the recent violence. "We've made too much progress for that. That's not what we're about here."

Elroy Christopher, a neighborhood fixture who warred with drug dealers in the 1990s, doesn't want the area written off as some hopeless wasteland. "We have a lot of people here dedicated to making a difference," he said.

But despite the work of Christopher and others, urban realities remain stubbornly entrenched. Drug-dealing, though perhaps less brazen than before, persists - flourishes, some say, along Madison Street. Gunfire is part of the soundtrack of the street, so common that people sitting on front steps barely budge when they hear the pops.

This is one of the diciest parts of Baltimore, Health Department statistics show. Here, life expectancy at birth is just 64 1/2 years, lower than 51 of 55 sections of the city. The neighborhood, with a population of about 9,000, holds the same dismal ranking for drug overdose deaths.