Bullet holes in a mailbox on Kenwood Avenue

Despite shootings, symbols of commitment and defiance in Baltimore

Monday afternoon, I found Verbal Lee McDonald, an 86-year-old retired truck driver, enjoying the summer breeze on his marble steps in the 700 block of N. Kenwood Avenue — directly across the street from where one of Baltimore's 12 shootings occurred over the weekend.

Mr. McDonald had freckles and a charming smile. He was having trouble opening the plastic wrapper on his red popsicle, so he asked me for help. He wore a cap indicating his status as a veteran, a colorful summer shirt, shorts and comfortable-looking sneakers. He seemed wholly content in the shade of the awning of his East Baltimore rowhouse.

On the sidewalk beneath the front window were urns and pots filled with dahlias, lillies and portulaca — Baltimore rowhouse symbols of commitment to home and neighborhood.

His wife, Thelma Ruth, came to the front door to talk about the shooting, and it seemed like such a shame — two of our elderly citizens, lovely people, having to talk about this sort of thing on a summer day. But you couldn't avoid the subject. Early Saturday, when the McDonalds were in bed, someone fired shots into a crowd of people in front of the house across the street. A young woman died, one of 20 shooting victims between Friday and Sunday and one of eight who were killed across the city.

A police spokesman called this "a little bit of a spike" in violence.

I asked Ruth McDonald about crime on Kenwood Avenue.

"We haven't had much trouble in a long time," she said. "It was years ago, the drug boys were on the corners and one of them got shot over there ... "

She pointed north, to the corner of Kenwood and East Madison Street.

"It was years ago," she said. "We called the police to get the drug boys off the corners."

When there's a problem these days, she added, it's usually outsiders causing it. "It's not people who live here who do that," Ruth McDonald said. "It's people from elsewhere, young people, who come through here, and don't seeme to care about anything."

Ruth McDonald has owned her rowhouse since 1987. There are numerous retirees in her end of the block, including her husband, who only called it quits last year after a long career at the wheel of tractor-trailers.

The 700 block of N. Kenwood Avenue is not like many of the blocks nearby — almost all the rowhouses are occupied, many of them owner-occupied. There are numerous plants and flowers, and touches of kitsch.

Mary Brown's mailbox, for instance, is the kind you see on country roads, not in city neighborhoods. It has the familiar dome-rectangular shape, with the latching door in front and a red semaphore flag on the side. The mailbox is white with a colorful, hand-painted bird motif – the kind of thing you're inclined to declare "cute."

Attached to the railing on the steps of her rowhouse, Brown's mailbox is really a symbol of commitment and defiance — daring the vandals and other vagaries of urban life.

Now the mailbox has two bullet holes from Saturday's shooting.

The shooting started down the street, Brown said, and bullets flew past her house.

Brown went to her front door and took a look outside. "But I ducked back inside," she said. "If I hadn't moved I might have been shot in the head."

Olivia Mullen, two doors down from Brown, sat Monday on the front steps of the house she has owned with her husband since 1998, and there more symbols of commitment and defiance there, too — geraniums in the window boxes, and petunias and hosta in the pots on the sidewalk.

There was also a sign in Mullen's window: "Do Not Sit On Steps."

You see that sign up and down North Kenwood.

"It's not the people who live in the block, it's the people who come through the block," Mullen said. "You know, I don't want people leaning on my window boxes, sitting on my steps and leaving trash outside my front door."

And she certainly doesn't want young people dying on the sidewalk.

I asked Mullen about the shooting Saturday morning. "That girl,' she said of the victim. "That girl never bother nobody. She kept to herself and she minded her own business. I only saw her walking with a friend or her husband, or walking to the store."

I like the sound of defiance in Olivia Mullen's voice. I heard it in Ruth McDonald's voice, too.

You forget sometimes — because the city seems like such a mess, such a hopelessly violent place — that most Baltimoreans want something better.

They hate the gangs, they hate the drug dealers, they hate the shootings. They just want to live safely and securely in the old rowhouse neighborhoods. They want to plant flowers in the window boxes without worrying about kids destroying them. They want to sleep without gunshots. They want to enjoy the splendid summer breeze on their white marble steps.

They want the city to be better than it is.

We all do, and we all keep wondering when that day will come.


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