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A neighborhood under the gun

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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.

The murder rate has been even worse - second-highest in a city where few days pass without a killing. While one person was cut down in the area last year, so far this year there have been six murders in a roughly 20-square-block area extending just below Monument.

Though homicides are up slightly this year across the Eastern District - which includes Madison-East End - police point to a bright spot: Nonfatal shootings are down 21 percent from last year, says spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

The most vulnerable residents, the ones who sell and use drugs and the children who appear parentless, can seem hopelessly out of reach. One day last week, a woman baby-sitting two young children interrupted a conversation with a reporter on Madison to bark into her cell phone: "Just bring me two bags of something to get me high!"

Christopher and his family - two grown daughters and their children live a few houses away - remember knocking on doors in the 2600 block of Ashland earlier this summer, trying to promote youth programs. No one answered at the home where the cookout shooting occurred.

Demetra Oluwasefumi, Christopher's 35-year-old daughter, shook her head. "If they don't make themselves known to us ... you keep yourself in a little circle. Why not come join the living?"

Then again, neighbors say the cookout's 25-year-old host, Lakeisha Hill, who arranged the event in memory of her slain brother, puts in long hours as a nurse at Central Booking. So maybe she was just at work that day.

Christopher and Smith were tucked away in their rowhouses at the time of the shooting Sunday night. Though it was just around the corner, neither rushed to the scene. They also skipped the vigils and passed on adding a candle or balloon to the memorial that sprang up on the corner.

Those are fleeting gestures, they say, and they want to save their time and energy for efforts that may have an enduring impact on their community, like youth programs and job training.

"The NAACP, the police, they come out here for one night, two nights, and they're gone," Christopher said. "We live here. We want to make an everlasting change.

"What do I think about the shooting?" he said. "I think I better keep knocking on doors."

To Mitchell Henderson, the only hope for lasting change is to connect with youth. For 30 years, he has helped run the Madison-East End Multipurpose Center, and last week wrapped up a six-week program for 21 teenagers in the city's YouthWorks summer initiative.

Optimism about the neighborhood was scarce in the sweltering classroom at the center, a rowhouse on Port Street. Most of the teens said Sunday's shooting surprised them only because of the horrific details - the 12 victims, the cookout setting, the fact that a pregnant woman and toddler were among the wounded.

By a show of hands, 14 of the teens said they had a relative who'd been shot. These were uncles, cousins, brothers, a father. Half said a relative had been killed. Henderson, a 73-year-old retired Army sergeant, raised his hand too.

"I had a nephew killed in the 2600 block of Monument St.," he said. It was earlier this decade. The boy was 15. "Territory and the drugs," he sighed. "I didn't know all the particulars. They just got upset with one another. Whether it was meant for him, he was the one that got killed."

When the group was asked what it would take to quell the violence, more than one replied, "There's no answer." That upset Henderson. He grew up an orphan and resolved early on to help kids succeed. He bemoans the lack of recreational outlets and stable home lives. He's on a campaign to blanket the area with posters bearing the word respect and an image of a lion. The hope is that the idea itself will change attitudes and behavior among old and young alike.

"If everyone thinks, well, there's no solution, we'll remain right where we're at," he told the teens. "But if we come up with solutions, we can make things better. Be creative. Use your minds."

Candance Pearson, a 17-year-old high school senior, blamed the combustible mix of anger and guns. "They take it out by shooting," she told Henderson, "and then you got revenge, then you got gangs, then you got drugs. It's so much stuff."

Later, Pearson said she hears gunfire "all the time" at her home near Orleans and Rose streets. "It's gonna scare you, but then you're going to think, 'Oh, it's just another gunshot,' and you go on about your business."

She confided that her friends include drug dealers. The association puts her at risk of being caught in crossfire, but she professed to be unconcerned. "Then I learn my lesson from that, if I live through it."

Eric Walker, 18, is eager to escape Baltimore for Capitol College in Laurel, where he plans to study computer engineering. He works at JC Penney and the National Aquarium in addition to earning minimum wage through YouthWorks.

"I grew up with a good family," he said. "I'm not just going to go into no drug business. For what? I'd rather work for mine. Don't nobody in my family sell drugs. I don't want to end up like nobody else in jail. For what?"

Paige, the Patterson senior, lost not only her father, but a brother, Roman, four years ago. Now that it's just she and her mother at home, she feels trapped. She needs to stay put, she said, even though a sister has opened her Ohio home to her.

Paige's own experience with violence tempered her reaction to last week's cookout shooting.

"I was like, well, that's sad," she said. Then she heard that a pregnant woman and 2-year-old were shot. "I was like, that's even worse. But my mood wasn't really affected by it. I had to go on with my day. Life goes on. You really can't dwell on it. I couldn't dwell on the fact that my brother died, so I can't dwell on the fact that these people was getting shot."

All last week, Madison-East End might have been the safest part of Baltimore. Police cars constantly cruised up and down the avenues and alleys. Officers stood in pairs on corners and strolled the streets.

But residents say they haven't seen regular patrol officers in years - until Sunday when "what seemed to be a platoon descended," said Smith, the longtime Luzerne Avenue resident.

Mary Bailey, 50, who lives on Madison, said she doesn't expect the police presence to last. "I've never seen so many of them here before. They usually race up and down the streets without getting out."

"The police haven't been here in so long, it's like they've forgotten we're even here," said a 49-year-old woman sitting outside her home of 16 years on Belnord Avenue. "Now they show up."

She didn't want to give her name because "the police will leave us, but the devil will still be here," referring to drug dealing. "You just have to mind your business. I don't ever leave. I'm either inside or sitting right here listening to my music. You gotta kind of police your own house."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III recognizes such complaints and is trying to change the way policing is practiced in Baltimore, said Guglielmi, the department spokesman.

"It has become sort of like fast food," Guglielmi said. "Police officers have these big, fast cruisers and speed through. They have PA systems, so they don't ever need to get out of their cars, even to tell people to move along.

"Then they rush off to the next call," he went on. "But that's not good policing."

Part of Bealefeld's strategy is to bolster "community engagement," Guglielmi said, by having officers more often leave their cars and walk the beat.

"We're working on it," he said.

So is Faith Tabernacle, on the spiritual side. Last week, with Ashland calm again, Calloway, the 85-year-old pastor, fielded calls from friends who suggested that the church find a safer home after 39 years. No way, she says. A third of its 200 members live nearby, and the church is not going anywhere.

"People in trouble" need churches like hers, she said. More than that, the mass shooting has not shaken her belief that this is a solid neighborhood worth fighting to support.

"Things that happen in a community do not corrupt the people if they're good from the inside," she said. "They'll yet remain good. We all work together to try to solve the problems. By you standing and doing what's right, sometimes it rubs off on somebody else and changes their ways and helps them be good also."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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