Crime vs. Community Ever-increasing violence threatens neighborhood bonds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gold Street. Kendra Owens, 21 years old and five month pregnant, is enjoying a summer breeze on her front steps when a bullet meant for someone else pierces her right thigh and burrows into her stomach. Remarkably, she and her baby survive.

Calhoun Street. Theresa Williams, the head custodian at a city elementary school, is held up at gunpoint after she emerges from the elevator in her apartment building. Two months later, it happens again.

Carey Street. Daisy Bradford, a great-grandmother six times over, is robbed, beaten and kicked on the street only blocks from her home. It is 8 in the morning.

Violence seems to know all the nooks and crannies of Police Post 732. In a time of ever more ruthlessness on our streets, nowhere in Baltimore is worse.

At The Sun's request, the Baltimore Police Department produced an analysis of the city's violent crime (homicide, rape, robbery and assault) by police post between January and September of last year, the most recent statistics available. Generally, a post is the geographic area that a single police officer is considered capable of patrolling effectively.

Ranking No. 1 with 226 violent incidents was Post 732, a sliver of turf in West Baltimore bounded by North Avenue and Baker Street on the north and south, and Bloom and Monroe streets on the east and west. In eight months, there were 123 robberies, 92 assaults, six rapes and five homicides. Almost every day, one person was attacked somewhere within the roughly 40 blocks that constitute 732.

Post 732, of course, is not singular. Other inner-city police posts are close behind in the numbers of incidents, and a few, because they are smaller in size, may have even more crime per capita. (Generally, the smaller the post, the more crime. That is why some officers believe Post 834, a few blocks south of 732, is, in the words of one, "the most hellacious." It had 144 violent crimes but is half the size of 732.)

In a place that prides itself as a "city of neighborhoods," the ever-escalating violence threatens to obliterate bonds between residents and their communities. Delsie Smith, 80, typifies that process. She has lived in her Druid Hill Avenue house on the eastern edge of Post 732 for five decades, long enough to be able to recall when neighbors were like extended family. Today, the sound of gunfire outside her front door is as familiar as car horns on the street.

"This," she says, "is just about the worst neighborhood that can be."

Many others describe the area as a prison they would happily flee if only they were able. William Waldon, a retired Army sergeant who moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, says he hopes to leave next summer. He rents an apartment on Brunt Street, a narrow road behind Pennsylvania Avenue where drug traffickers and their customers congregate daily.

"I call it the street of no return," he says bitterly. "You go in there, ain't no guarantee you'll come out." Like many others, he has taken to sleeping on the floor so he won't be winged by a bullet that finds its way through his bedroom window.

What can be done? Mr. Waldon is asked. "Nothing," he says. "You just pray that you don't get hit."

Such talk saddens and angers Jacqueline Cornish, the 47-year-old executive director of the Druid Heights Neighborhood Association, one of three associations that jut into Post 732. (The others are Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North.) Mrs. Cornish has lived in Baltimore her whole life. She can remember when Druid Heights was home to Baltimore's black professional class. Their handsome 100-year-old rowhouses still stand, although now they occupy the same blocks as crack houses and heaps of garbage.

"At one time, you could sit on your steps and sleep all night long, and no one would bother you," Mrs. Cornish recalls.

Fear has taken over, she admits, but abandoning Druid Heights is not the answer. "If you get out or if you move, where are you going? Because no matter where you go, it's going to be there," she says. "It's not just Druid Heights. Wherever you go, you will have to fight. It's time to stand for something or fall for everything."

'Time out'

Officer Jeff Kazmaier parks his patrol car on Gold Street. "Watch what happens," he says.

Although it is close to 10 o'clock on a biting, cold November night, the sidewalks are full of people -- mainly young men but some women, too -- who seem to be doing nothing but milling about. Under the policeman's watchful eye, every one of them slowly fades from sight. Within 10 minutes, the street is deserted and silent.

Officer Kazmaier throws his patrol car into gear, takes a quick right, a left and then another left until he is on Etting Street, a narrow alleyway that intersects with Gold. There, materializing in the illumination of his headlines, is the bulk of the crowd that had been on Gold moments ago.

"Time out," voices call. "Time out."

"They're dealing," Officer Kazmaier says. "That's what they say whenever they see me coming. It used to be 'five-o,' but they got tired of that. Now it's 'time-out.' "

This street soon empties, too. Officer Kazmaier pulls the car halfway up the block and parks. "Follow me."

Leading the way with his flashlight, he walks up the stoop of one of the narrow, obviously abandoned houses, pushes open the front door and walks in. The rooms inside are filthy; empty vials and syringes are scattered on the floor. As the officer moves toward the rear of the house, a fresh, acrid smell grows stronger. It comes from empty bottles with candles jammed into their necks.

"They use these to heat the drugs, cocaine, heroin," Officer Kazmaier says. "They couldn't have been here more than half an hour ago."

Like most patrol officers, Officer Kazmaier works his post alone during his eight-hour shift, although officers will come to his aid as needed. He says he believes that his presence curtails crime, but only where he is present. "They know when we change shifts. They know which guys work what shifts and how they work the post. Why do they know it? Because it's their business to know it."

Officer Kazmaier has patrolled this West Baltimore turf for almost four years. One of his buddies in the Western District had been Ira Weiner. As part of a tiny minority -- Jewish police officers -- the two enjoyed a special kinship. In September, Officer Weiner was fatally shot near here with his own gun.

It was a reminder for Officer Kazmaier, as if he needed one. "When I come to work I don't think about anything else but the chance of getting hurt," he says. "When I'm working, I'm thinking of one person. That's me."

Officer Kazmaier is 32, too young to remember when his police post was the edge of a prosperous Jewish enclave and the site of several historic synagogues. As the Jews moved to the suburbs after World War II, they were replaced by well-off black families, who enjoyed, among other things, the easy access to the jazz theaters then thriving on Pennsylvania Avenue as well as Baltimore's most influential black churches.

The middle class -- black and white -- has long since abandoned the neighborhood. Few stores remain, and most of them conduct sales from behind thick, bullet-proof windows. During his night patrols, Officer Kazmaier makes a point to come to these businesses at closing to make sure their owners get safely to their cars.

He's back in his car on Gold Street, which has already begun to fill up again. A balding, middle-aged man wanders by. "See that guy?" the policeman says. "We call him Popeye because his hands are so swollen from shooting up. Around here they call him 'The Doctor' because for a couple of dollars, he'll find a

vein."

A gauge of misery

Behind Harry Edgerton's desk at police headquarters are maps of the city's police posts. The most violent ones, including Post 732, are colored in pink or yellow. As one of the original detectives in the department's Violent Crimes Task Force, it was Detective Edgerton's job to remove the stain.

The maps reflect a pattern that has existed for generations in Baltimore. Most violent crime occurs in an east-west band through the center of the city. The safest neighborhoods are usually in the north and at the fringes.

Violence is only one gauge of misery in dangerous neighborhoods. According to census information, poverty is also pervasive in those areas; two-parent families are rare, and home ownership is low. Urban blight -- in the form of abandoned housing -- is also highest in those neighborhoods.

The wealthiest neighborhoods -- Roland Park and Mount Washington, for example -- are among the safest places in the city. But much more modest neighborhoods seem to escape violent crime as well. In fact, the safest police post that is also overwhelmingly residential, Post 431, is the tidy but solidly lower-middle-class Armistead Gardens to the southeast of Archbishop Curley High School in East Baltimore.

The housing there is plain and utilitarian, squat World War II vintage rowhouses planted on meandering, hilly roads. According to the census information, incomes are not significantly higher here compared to Druid Heights. But, there is virtually no abandoned housing, most homes are occupied by their owners, and the chances of households with both a mother and a father present are relatively high.

For every violent crime in this neighborhood, 15 were committed in the Druid Heights area.

Hope exists in Armistead Gardens. In the Druid Heights neighborhood, it is nearly absent, especially among the young. "I asked one young man the other day about the future," says Curtis Jones, pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, which borders Post 732. "He revealed that he did not believe he would live beyond the age of 21.

"He was 19."

Detective Edgerton's analysis of the violent neighborhoods is brutally succinct. There is no economic life in the violent (P neighborhoods, he says. "Nothing is going on there."

That is, nothing is going on legitimately. The other thing the dangerous neighborhoods have in common, Detective Edgerton says, is that they have been the city's most notorious drug areas for at least two decades.

Now, they are worse than ever, thanks to the influx of hundreds of outside drug traffickers -- the Jamaicans, the New York boys and the Dominicans -- who began showing up in the mid-1980s and immediately gravitated to the known drug territories. They use guns as the shoehorn to wedge themselves into turf occupied by others.

'Bad guys stick together'

Daisy Bradford says that carloads of strangers unload on the corner outside her house several mornings a week and disperse to sell drugs. "They're dropped off in the morning and just go," she says with an outward sweep of her hands.

Many of them seem to end up across the street from Ames Memorial United Methodist Church on Baker Street. "The police used our third floor for surveillance and did a raid," says Ada M. Jones, the church's assistant pastor. "They were dealing again there right away."

Baltimore police link much of the increase in violence to the outsiders. The young men have no local relationships to temper their brutality. Also, because they aren't known here, it's easier for them to commit murders and assaults against rivals, and then disappear.

Detective Edgerton talks in almost admiring terms of the New York boys. They are brutal, he says, but they are also good businessmen who try to ingratiate themselves into the neighborhoods where they work. "They always take care of the women and the children," he says. "They'll buy ice cream for all the kids. One guy took the whole neighborhood to the circus. Rented a bus to do it. And they give jobs to the women, paying them to cut and bag the dope."

When he speaks to community groups, Detective Edgerton urges them to report crime. He knows how hard this is. "If you're looking out your window and you see a guy selling drugs and he sees you seeing him, and then he's arrested 30 minutes later, how well are you going to sleep tonight?

"It doesn't take a lot to intimidate a whole neighborhood. The bad guys stick together. The good ones never do."

The lines between the good and bad are not always so clear. "This is especially hard for those of us in the African-American community," says Mr. Jones, the Madison Avenue Presbyterian pastor. "It is easier to organize when the threat is external; it's much more difficult when the threat is internal, when the people we have to confront are our own children."

But that is what Mrs. Cornish, the Druid Heights Neighborhood Association director, is urging people in her neighborhood to do. "I'm telling people that as long as it's safe and legal, we have to do whatever we have to do to protect our homes and our families. If that means losing sleep to walk the streets for a block watch, do it because you're losing sleep anyway. If you have to report your neighbor, report him. We can't wait for someone else to save us."

If there was once affection for this neighborhood, most of it has long since been drained away by the violence and the drugs.

Tyrone Cole, who grew up in the upper Druid Heights area, has no answer. "It used to be," says Mr. Cole, 41, "you could walk the streets, but if you did something wrong, by the time you got home your parents would know about it.

"There was a different element. You could talk to people. Now you can't even greet people. You get an attitude. They're nasty. They're mean."

He has worked in a hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue for 21 years and still lives nearby with his children. With good reason, he worries about rearing children in the inner city. Not long ago, a woman pulled a shotgun on his 14-year-old son. Every time he steps outside, he is reminded of the dangers that now lurk there. "You can buy anything out on the streets here, from a nickel bag of cocaine to a semiautomatic weapon."

Theresa Williams, the 63-year-old head custodian at Belmont Elementary School, was unlocking the school early one morning in February when a thief jumped her and tried to rip her bag from her shoulder. She wouldn't let go and in the struggle, injured her neck and back, requiring corrective surgery.

After the attack, Ms. Williams moved into an airy, sun-splashed apartment in the old Frederick Douglass High School on Calhoun Street. In early July, as she emerged from the apartment house's elevator, a man pulled her into a stairway and robbed her at gunpoint. Eight weeks later, she got in the same elevator and found the same man waiting for her. He took her down to the basement, and ripped off her blouse and bra to get at her money.

"When I came here, I said, 'Oh, my God, I'm living in heaven,' " she says. "Now I know that anything can happen to you here; you can get killed in here."

Deborah Edwards, 39, moved to McCulloh Street with her two young children in November. Almost immediately, she started hearing the gunshots. "I watch people in my neighborhood pick up the bullet shells in the morning," she says. The drug dealing, she says, is never-ending. She is desperate to find a way out of her lease.

Ms. Edwards' doctor, Paulette Hill, attributes Ms. Edwards' depression and sleeplessness to the stress of living in the neighborhood. Her symptoms are not uncommon.

Her own father was a barber on Pennsylvania Avenue for more than 40 years, and until she was 8, Dr. Hill lived over his shop. In 1986, she returned to open a general practice next door. On the other side of her is a building that has been vacant since she moved in. A little farther down the street is a corner occupied by prostitutes.

Dr. Hill says she is committed to remaining in the neighborhood. But, she says, "I wouldn't live there. Not with everything that goes on in that neighborhood."

'Where did it all go?'

Mrs. Cornish sympathizes, but she will not give up. As much as anyone, she is trying to beat back the tide of crime that is claiming the neighborhood. She organizes block watch programs, she arranges for seminars in home ownership, she establishes programs to screen tenants for landlords, and several days a week, she and her husband tutor neighborhood children at a local church.

"I have no despair when it comes to this community," she says. "I have no doubts in my mind whatsoever. I can live anywhere that I want to. We're not going anywhere. We're going to raise our kids right here."

Mrs. Bradford, a handsome woman of 76, remembers when she felt the same way. She talks of her days walking up and down the streets of this neighborhood when she worked for the Community Action Agency and Urban Services. She believed then that a neighborhood's decline could be thwarted and reversed. Now, tired of passing the junkies on her way to the corner, she looks forward to moving from her home of 32 years to live elsewhere with one of her daughters.

"There's no trust now," she says. "There's no parenting, no compassion. Where did it all go?

"My God, where did it all go?"

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