Neighborhood teeters as crime dissolves trust


On Fairmount Avenue, a block north of Patterson Park in East Baltimore, the cops are putting handcuffs on these two slouched, rumple-haired kids and steering them into the back of a police van with blinking rooftop lights.

"What's the problem?" asks a guy driving up.

"Drugs," says someone in the crowd of neighborhood people gathered to watch. "Whatcha expect?"

"And I think they found some guns in their car," says somebody else, standing shirtless in Tuesday's muggy evening air. In fact, the police say later, the two young guys were driving with stolen license plates.

No matter: The reflexive responses -- must be drugs, must be guns -- have become a kind of nervous twitch in the neighborhood. The cops say crime is rough, absolutely. The people who live here talk of a siege mentality which has built over the past year, based on burglaries, based on drug trafficking, based on kids out of control. The East Baltimore Guide, for 67 years the back-porch voice of the community, runs a front-page story this week about scores of bicycle thefts in the district last month.

"Thirty years I've been here," William Burgess says now, watching the police van disappear from Fairmount Avenue. He's a big guy, owner of Guaranteed Vending Service, who looks like he wouldn't be intimidated by anything.

"I've got the best home in the neighborhood," he declares. "And I'm going down to the real estate office tomorrow and putting it up for sale."

Standing behind him is Debbie Vandergriff, who lives at Potomac and Fairmount. She says she was returning from a neighbor's house one night when she was jumped by three girls. She scratched one of the girls with her keys, bit another in the chest, managed to fight them off until help arrived. It was 4 in the morning. The girls who jumped her were 14, 13, and 11 years old.

Standing here in the 2900 block of Fairmount, you begin to hear more anguished voices, one spilling onto the next: the man who runs his video camera all night long for possible intruders; the fellow who carries a police radio as he walks the neighborhood streets; those who talk of brazen drug dealing; and those who send you to the corner grocery store, where the same two fellows walked in twice in three days with shotguns.

"Yes, yes," the grocery owner says, in his tentative immigrant's English. "They pretend to buy cookies. Then I saw gun pointed at me, and they say give us all money. I was very scared. Two days later, they come back. I give them all my money."

There are too many "For Sale" signs in a neighborhood which once prided itself on families sinking roots through the generations. You hear talk of sales to absentee landlords who subdivide the rowhouses and rent to transients with no ties to the community.

There's a swarm of ballgames going on in Patterson Park, with grown men struggling happily to hold onto their youth. But people still talk about the baseball-bat beating there of poor Pedro Lugo. Neighbors sit on their front steps on Fairmount Avenue, blacks with whites, unconscious of color. But there's still talk of uneasiness at Hampstead Hill Middle School, where the cops had to be called a year ago.

On Streeper Street, a woman keeps using a phrase: the death of the American dream. She's worked several jobs simultaneously since her husband left: seamstress, sheet metal worker, bartender. She's got two sons, 15 and 12. All are afraid to sleep at night.

"I've had three break-ins in the last six months," she says. Twice, the burglar was a woman she'd befriended. She was caught on the second attempt, and the cops found stuff from the first burglary.

"Now," says the victimized woman, "I take a baseball bat and a wrench and a lead pipe into bed at night. My 12-year old doesn't want to sleep home. I get off work at the bar at 2:30, and my year old comes down here with the dog to walk me home."

She inhales deeply from a cigarette and then, for the fifth time, or maybe the 15th, she mutters about the death of her American dream.

It sounds like the deterioration of an American community. A burglary happens, and a whole block shudders. A neighborhood teeters, and a city trembles. And everybody asks, "Does City Hall understand what's happening here?" and waits for an answer.

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