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After mourning, a pledge to reclaim a playground

Site of killing to become again a 'happy and safe place for children'

Dan Rodricks

7:24 PM EDT, July 17, 2013

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It was so hot the petals of the plastic flower someone left on the spot where Ramon Rodriguez fell had melted on the playground at the end of South Lehigh Street. The petals had been scattered on the spot, and by Wednesday afternoon they appeared as red and white smears in the searing July sun.

The candles had melted, too. Wax from some of the 50 votive candles his friends and relatives had placed outside the playground swirled into white and red puddles on the sidewalk.

A bench next to the chain-link fence that surrounds the playground had become another of those horribly familiar memorials people in the city create after a killing.

Rodriguez was 21 and a factory worker. He was shot in the playground in Southeast Baltimore on Saturday night, July 13.

The playground is supposed to be closed from dusk until dawn, according to a sign on the fence.

But that rule is flagrantly violated all the time, said Alfredo Santiago, a social worker and community activist who lives on Lehigh Street.

Now, he said, "a safe place for neighborhood children to have fun has become a murder site."

The playground is clean and appears new, with a cushioned, rubbery green surface. It sits at Gough and Lehigh, tucked away on the north side of Eastern Avenue near Greektown. The playground is named after one of the neighborhood's longtime residents and overseers, Gloria Hertzfelt. She still lives across the street from the playground.

On the bench outside the playground gate, there were bottles of beer and wine, rosary beads, balloons, a pair of boxing gloves, a T-shirt bearing Rodriguez's likeness, plastic flowers, flowers made of cloth and a color photograph of Puerta de San Juan. Rodriguez's parents are from Puerto Rico.

His mother, Carmen Fonseca, pulled up in a car, walked across the street and started talking about her son. "Everybody loved my son," she said, her expression somewhere between angry and confused. "He never made enemies. Why did some people do this to him?"

Police were not sure why, but they are looking for a suspect.

On July 14, police spokesman Sgt. Eric Kowalczyk wrote The Sun in an email: "All parties involved in this incident knew each other. This homicide is not believed to [have been] retaliatory or related to the recent levels of violence."

That's a reference, of course, to Baltimore's bloody July, with a spike in gun violence.

Court records indicate that Rodriguez had previous convictions for drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. He lived with his girlfriend in Dundalk, his mother said, and the girlfriend is expecting.

I asked Fonseca why her son might have been shot.

"Jealousy," she said. "But you don't shoot somebody because you're jealous, or because you don't like him, or because other people like him. You ask around. ... People I didn't even know tell me how wonderful [Ramon] was."

"There was no reason for nobody to shoot him," said Alicia Vazquez, a cousin of Rodriguez.

Carmen Fonseca used to live in the neighborhood. She raised her three boys there. She now lives in Aberdeen, in Harford County, with her husband, Hector. Ramon lived with them for a while, but he didn't like the suburbs. "He liked to be free as a bird," she said, with a little laugh.

He liked the city more?

"Yes," she said, "he wanted to be in the city."

Santiago worries that families won't want to take their children to the playground now. "They are frightened," he said.

Fonseca didn't want to hear that.

"They can't be frightened," she said. "If they show people they're afraid to come back [to the playground]. ... They can't. They have to fight. They have to come back to the park. They shouldn't be afraid."

An admirable sentiment, of course. But not everyone is as feisty as Fonseca, Santiago said, when we spoke later. People who live in the neighborhood have seen problems at the playground.

Children under 10 play there, Santiago said, but then teenagers come along and push them out. Later, as evening falls, older teens and 20-somethings take over the place.

While he respects the family's need to mourn Ramon Rodriguez, Santiago wants the playground eventually to become a place for children again. That means scraping away the melted plastic flowers.

"Do we want this to be a community playground or a community memorial?" he asked. "We need to reclaim it as a happy and safe place for children."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com