Less than six months ago city officials joined residents in the Johnston Square neighborhood to celebrate the transformation of Ambrose Kennedy Park from a dreary cityscape of broken asphalt, patchy brown grass and neglected basketball courts into an inviting space for residents to walk on winding trails, cool off in the swimming pool or simply enjoy the new playing fields.
For one of Baltimore’s most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods, the park symbolized just what was possible when determined residents got public and private investment in their efforts to revive their beloved if bedraggled community.
But early Saturday morning, at an intersection just northwest of Ambrose Kennedy Park, a woman rolled down her car window to give money to a panhandler begging in the rain for help feeding her baby, and was robbed and fatally stabbed by a man who approached under the guise of thanking her. Johnston Square residents, and community and development groups that have been working in the community, were among those horrified by the killing of Jacquelyn Smith, an electrical engineer from Harford County, and especially chagrined that it happened in their neighborhood.
“What happened is really sad,” resident Sharita Thompson, 29, said Tuesday afternoon as she picked up her two children at Johnston Elementary School, just northeast of the intersection where Smith was stabbed.
“I feel bad for her family.”
Thompson can understand how the killing might make people less likely to give money to panhandlers.
“I’m one of the ones that will help someone in need,” she said, adding, “I’m kind of scared about that now.”
Several residents said they hadn’t heard of panhandlers in the neighborhood turning violent.
But Loretta Mwangi, 55, said she refused a “skinny” guy’s request for money on Greenmount Avenue last month and he ran behind her as if he was going to snatch it from her anyway. He seemed to be with a woman panhandling at a nearby bar. Mwangi said she was able to get back into a car without being robbed.
Of the duo involved in Smith’s death, Mwangi said: “They need to be stopped. They are making it hard for the real panhandlers who need money.”
While police said they do not have a specific category for complaints of threatening panhandlers, dispatch records show 111 calls for help so far this year for incidents on the 1000 to 2000 blocks of Valley Street, which includes the spot where Smith was assaulted.
While those who work to improve Johnston Square say they are shaken by Smith’s death, it also galvanizes why they’re there in the first place: to fix the underlying causes of so much of what ails the neighborhood.
ReBUILD Metro has renovated about 20 vacant Johnston Square houses that are available at a range of prices, aiming to create a neighborhood of diverse incomes, said Sean Closkey, president of the nonprofit developer.
The area also has attracted trendy businesses such as Open Works, a shared maker space, and Charm City Meadworks, which produces the ancient honey-based alcoholic drink.
The homes, the revived park and residents who organize cleanups and other improvement efforts all give him hope that Johnston Square is headed in the right direction.
“We’re hopeful for a good reason,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have setbacks. That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen that break your heart.”
Johnston Square, boxed in by Interstate 83 to the west, the correctional complex to the south and Greenmount Cemetery to the north, has long been beset by crime, poverty and poor health, housing and educational outcomes. Life expectancy there, for example, is less than 67.7 years, compared with 73.2 years for the city as a whole, according to data collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance — Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. A third of the residential properties in the neighborhood’s larger statistical area, Greenmount East, are vacant and abandoned, compared with 8 percent citywide, the alliance has found.
Terrell Williams has worked in Johnston Square for about six years as an organizer for the community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD. She said the neighborhood’s troubles reflect inadequate investment in the community by government officials.
“There’s only so much we can do by ourselves,” Williams said. “It’s a wonderful community, but it has to have great schools, great parks, great recreation centers. We have to continue to pressure city leaders, to create partnerships so that people have the necessities to build viable families.”
Despite its woes, the neighborhood is home to widely admired institutions with a history of addressing the area’s chronic needs in the area. St. Frances Academy on East Chase Street dates to 1828, when Mother Mary Lange and the Oblate Sisters of Providence began teaching “colored” students and remains the oldest continuously operating, predominantly African-American Catholic high school in the country.
Just south of the neighborhood is Our Daily Bread Employment Center, which serves more than a quarter of a million meals to the hungry every year from its base on the Fallsway, where it also offers educational and jobs assistance.
Rebecca Lorick directs the nearby My Sister’s Place Women’s Center, which like Our Daily Bread is a Catholic Charities resource for the needy. She worries that the tragedy of Smith’s death will fuel “the myth about homelessness, that homeless folks are violent.”
“They want what you and I want: comfort, shelter, affordable housing and a hot meal, and to be treated with dignity and respect,” Lorick said.
If people are uncomfortable giving to people panhandling on the street, she said, they should redirect their donations to Catholic Charities and other organizations that provide outreach to those populations.
The details of Smith’s death tugged at many hearts — she and her husband, Keith Smith, were driving from the American Legion post on Madison Street in West Baltimore, where they had spent Friday night celebrating a family member’s birthday.
After midnight, in the area of East Chase and Valley streets, they saw a woman who appeared to be carrying an infant and holding a cardboard sign that said, “Please Help me feed my Baby,” prompting Jacquelyn Smith to roll her window down and offer money. Keith Smith said a man approached and stabbed his wife, and the panhandling woman said, “God bless you,” before both of them ran away.
Police canvassed the neighborhood Monday but have not arrested anyone.
Shopkeepers at two small Greenmount Avenue corner stores said police took video from their cameras looking for any footage of the panhandlers.
A bartender at the American Legion Federal Post No. 19, who would identify herself only as Tee, said she had been working behind the crowded bar Friday night.
She said she didn’t know the Smiths well, but she recognized them from their pictures in the media and remembered them having a good time dancing to a deejay there Friday night.
“People were drinking, having fun, laughing, joking,” Tee said. The family “was enjoying themselves.”
Post No. 19 is among the oldest in Baltimore, welcoming veterans from all branches of the military since 1930. It has a bar, a lounge and a restaurant, as well as live jazz and karaoke nights. It also provides its roughly 500 members with community service opportunities, including making meals for senior citizens and donating toys during Christmastime.
The killing shocked and horrified Tee, too.
“She was doing something good for somebody,” the bartender said.
Anthony Thompson, 64, a local resident who was walking Tuesday on Greenmount Avenue near where the stabbing occurred, said he’d heard of violent panhandlers, but never seen them.
“It was a sad situation," he said. “East Baltimore, West Baltimore, wherever you go, there’s a lot of crime.”
Rachel Creek, 54, who has lived in the Johnston Square neighborhood for 20 years, said Smith’s killing left her “heartbroken.”
“She was trying to do something helpful,” Creek said, “but that goes to show, sometimes you can’t because your life is in jeopardy.”
But it won’t change her giving ways.
“I am a giver,” Creek said. “That is how I was raised and I wait for my blessing. So every day I’m blessed when I wake up. You have to be cautious in everything you do and aware of your surroundings.”