A steady crowd of about 60 people sat on chairs and benches on the sidewalk as the Single Carrot ensemble and guest artists read from the Murder Ink archives, neatly arranged on music stands. They didn't miss a beat as loud city buses roared by, or cars blaring rap music blared at a nearby stop light. For a newspaper column that draws its impact from being distant, that seemed appropriate.
It took about two hours to get through all the names and facts, and to my surprise, most people stuck it out till the very end, hearing about 238 people who in 2009 were shot, beaten, stabbed, burnt, strangled, maimed, tortured, or in some cases, no real explanation at all.
Afterwards, the attendees went inside the theatre, a small space with a black stage, black walls and black floors, and sat in a semi circle for a discussion of the city's crime problems. If there was a theme from their comments, to me it was that the city and its residents need to be mindful of crime and the toll on the community, while not letting it scare them from living in a place that has much to offer. These are sometimes difficult views to compromise.
Ditkoff, who started writing the column in 2004 and continues every week along with her duties as food editor at the CityPaper, said the impetus for the feature was a sense that not every killing was being covered by the local press.
(An aside: At least in the past several years, The Sun has covered every homicide and done so in ways ranging from a Murder Ink-style police blotter item to a front-page, in-depth story, and that's crimes in the city's most troubled neighborhoods to those that shock the communities that are considered generally safe. They're just not in a single repository, with the exception of a database we keep and have displayed on an interactive map on our website. Off my soapbox.)
Ditkoff said that with murders down over the past two years to levels not seen since the late 1980s, "people aren't talking about it." But, she noted, "a good year for Baltimore isn't a good year anywhere else. Compared to DC, Philly, we're just out of whack," she said. "Other cities are seeing significant decreases, and we're just not."
She said she loves the city and has made it her home, but whereas some cities (she noted Boston) have bad areas, Baltimore "has pockets of good neighborhoods, as opposed to the other way around."
A 51-year-old man, who made a point of noting that he was one of three African Americans in the crowd discussing a majority black city's crime problem, said young men have no hope. "They're strapping on bombs, metaphorically. Faced with survival or death, how much would I do just to survive?" he asked.
One woman griped that the city is consumed by a "boys will be boys attitude that's applied to the entire city," and that in her hometown in Colorado, a single killing would be splashed on the news and cause people to move out of the neighborhood.
But another woman offered a different take, asking Ditkoff why Murder Ink isn't offset by a column listing good things happening in the community. She said she lives in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello community, which has seen an increase in homicides this year, and feels that the good things that happen there aren't being reported, in favor of reports of isolated crimes that deter people from fixing up vacant houses or taking part in neighborhood activities.
Then the conversation turned towards illegitimate fear of crime in the city, from people afraid to ride the light rail to folks who make a face at the founders of the Single Carrot Theatre when they hear its location (an area that is increasingly home to hip bars and art galleries but which in many ways remains in transition).
The dialogue encapsulated a real dilemma for the city's residents, politicians and the media: Some were condemning what they see as a lack of comprehensive reporting on homicides, saying the problem needs to be pushed to the forefront and that the city has few generally safe neighborhoods. But then there was frustration, and even mocking, the notion that people from outside the city are afraid to go beyond the Inner Harbor or come to the city at all. It's a great city, and people need to venture outside their comfort zone, they said.
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