Liza Brandli, 5, grabs a water balloon and heads toward her brother, Nathan, 2, who is standing in the backyard with his back toward Liza. It's a hot summer day, and Nathan is about to be drenched. But seconds before Liza reaches her target, Nathan is saved by his mom.
"No, Liza," Mary Ann Brandli quietly tells her daughter. With a shrug, Liza turns away, pricks the balloon and giggles as water gushes all over the place.
The Brandlis' backyard in North Baltimore has got plenty to keep two small kids busy in the summertime: a blue wading pool, a sandbox, a small toy truck, a ball. It also has an 8-foot-high, stockade-style fence with a locked gate.
The Brandlis put the fence up not so much to keep Liza and Nathan in as to keep passing strangers out. They are raising two children in the city, and like thousands of Baltimore families, they face challenges that most suburban parents can't begin to fathom.
City parents can't just open the door and let their kids play hide and seek or ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised. They want their children to enjoy the lazy, carefree days of summer. But it isn't always as simple as that in a city where teen-agers sometimes shoot each other to settle arguments and children riding bikes are easy targets for thieves.
Last week Baltimore imposed a new nighttime curfew to keep children 17 and younger off the streets after 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. The curfew seemed urgent after 10 young people under the age of 20 were shot on a hot Sunday night three weeks ago.
Earlier this month, a Baltimore father was shot in retaliation for retrieving his son's bicycle, which had been stolen by a gang of teen-agers.
Denise Williams hears stories like that and redoubles her efforts to protect her four boys -- Daniel, 13, Peter, 4, and 8-year-old twins Gregory and George -- when they go outside to play.
"I have to literally watch my kids ride the bike up and down the street. Or a gang of children will come up and steal it," Mrs. Williams says. "It does make for long days."
She and her husband, Pete, a city tow truck driver, live in Pen Lucy, a community east of Greenmount Avenue and north of 36th Street that is struggling to stave off urban decline.
Their neighborhood, mostly rowhouses interspersed with a few single-family homes, is pleasant enough, though some of the houses need new shingles or a fresh coat of paint. But the neglect is less of a problem than the proximity of Old York Road, which has become a popular neighborhood strip for drug dealing and hanging out.
"The drug problems are so intrusive," says Angel Entner, who is raising three children, Melahni, 13, Joshua, 10, and Aaron-Forrest, 5, with her husband, Jonathan, in Pen Lucy. "You can watch a man go up and make a drug buy."
Every year more of the city's 175,000 families are fleeing neighborhoods such as Pen Lucy, driven out of Baltimore by the crime, the drugs, the schools, the lack of open space. Between April 1990 and July 1994, the number of people living in Baltimore fell by 33,000, to 703,057 residents.
Michael Gugerty, a psychologist and the clinical coordinator for child and adolescent outpatient programs at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, says city parents definitely have it tougher than their suburban counterparts.
"The most obvious stress comes from the higher level of violence in the city," he says. Generally speaking, "it's much more difficult supervising kids in the city than in the county."
But Dr. Gugerty also sees an up side to the challenge of raising city kids. It often brings neighbors closer together, he says, because they have to rely on each other to keep their children safe.
"Neighbors in the city tend to be a bit more tight-knit with each other," the doctor says. "It is easier to meet people."
That has certainly been the case for four families in Pen Lucy: the Williamses, Entners, Brandlis and Garriotts.
The four families -- two white and two black -- live within four blocks of one another and attend Faith Christian Church on E. 42nd Street, where Craig Garriott is the pastor.
Preserving quality of life
All are raising children in two-parent households where at least one family member holds a full-time job. They are what is right with the city, and they know they are in the front line of trying to preserve the quality of life here.
"What are we?" Mrs. Williams jokingly asks, turning to her friend, Angel Entner.
"Cultural preservationists," Mrs. Entner reminds her friend half in jest. "We are cultural preservationists."
They love so many things about being here -- their homes, their friends, their easy access to everything downtown. And they are committed to making things better instead of just walking away.
"Basically, it comes down to the fact that I am a Christian," says Mr. Entner, a software engineer. "The vision of our church is that it is community-based. And being a Christian means living in the community and doing what you can to help those around you." The other parents agree.
The mothers get together one late afternoon at the Garriotts' home. They sit drinking ice tea and talking about summer in the city.
Five of their nine children scamper in and out as they talk. The children know not to stray too far from their parents' watchful eyes. Although no one is overly vigilant, they are all cautious.
"We call ahead and know where our kids are going. We create routines for them," Mrs. Entner says.
The families function as a support system for one another. They keep an eye on each other's children when they play outside. Their older kids hang out together, which makes their parents feel more secure. The Garriotts' daughter, Becky, and the Williams' son, Daniel, work at the same summer camp as youth counselors.
Although outdoor play usually requires adult supervision, the children don't spend a lot of their summer hours indoors.
There are trips to a nearby park next to Loyola College, swimming at Druid Hill Park and outings to the library. The families take short rides on the light rail to the Inner Harbor.
"We have the museum, the zoo, and my work is five minutes away," Maria Garriott says. "And it's really exciting to be this close to [Johns] Hopkins."
But there are also the other side.
Angel Entner's children want to ride their bikes and skate in the alley behind their home. Mrs. Entner lets them, but sweeps up the ally before the children are allowed outside. Then she makes sure she can see them from her kitchen window.
The old days
Pen Lucy parents didn't always have to be so vigilant.
Mrs. Entner grew up in Pen Lucy. Her family moved here when she was 8 -- part of a wave of African-American arrivals.
"We moved here during a transitional time," she says. "The Caucasians were moving out and the African-Americans were moving in."
She recalls freely riding her bike around Pen Lucy and Govans and playing neighborhood games. Her grandmother would encourage her to visit other elderly people on the block to see if they needed help around the house, Mrs. Entner says.
"And Blessed Sacrament had a Girl Scout troop that I belonged to," she says. "Blessed Sacrament is still around but the Girl Scout troop isn't."
Now, Mrs. Entner has mixed feelings about staying in the neighborhood.
The level of noise disturbs her. So do how some landlords refuse to keep up their rental properties and, especially, the blatant drug dealing.
"I feel really insulted by it," says Mrs. Entner, although she adds that things have improved somewhat since the police opened a substation near her home. "It affects the quality of your life."
None of the parents worry that their children, all from strong families, will be tempted to use drugs. In their neighborhood, they witness the results of doing drugs every day, up close and personal. And it isn't a pretty sight.
"My children do not romanticize drugs or alcohol," says Maria Garriott, who lives right off Old York Road with her husband, Craig, and their four children. "I do not have to say: 'This is what drugs will do.' They see what drugs can do.' "
The Garriotts are among the few hundred remaining white families in the neighborhood, according to the 1990 Census.
Of Pen Lucy's nearly 4,000 residents, 3,567 were black and 343 were white.
"Some people have criticized us for moving into a neighborhood where we stand out like a sore thumb," says Mrs. Garriott, a writer.
"But we are raising kids who are culturally sensitive," she says. "They have a different way of seeing things than if they were raised in a 'white ghetto.' By that I mean in an area where everyone is white."
Their oldest child, 14-year-old Becky, attends Friends School and sometimes hears put-downs about where she lives. When a schoolmate's mother once learned where the family lived, her comment was, "Oh, I know where that is; that's where my maid lives."
Becky took umbrage at the remark and the tone in which it was delivered. "I got so ticked off!" she says. "But I can handle it. Other people have a problem with it. It's not my problem."
It's not easy
Though the Garriotts like their neighborhood, it isn't always easy raising children here. Craig Garriott built a basketball court in the family's backyard, hoping it would provide a place for his children and other neighborhood kids to play.
But that hope ended in May. The court had become a hangout for older teen-agers, who hung on the rim until it finally broke.
And a few years ago, a young teen friend from Columbia was staying with the Garriotts. He took courses at Friends School and rode a bike there with two others kids, including Daniel Williams.
The Garriotts went over a route from their home to the school street by street. "We had plotted out what we thought was a safe route to Friends," Mrs. Garriott says. But it wasn't.
"A gang of boys jumped them," Mrs. Garriott says.
The boy from Columbia rode back on his bike to the Garriotts', screaming for help. When Mrs. Garriott arrived on the scene, she found Daniel Williams trying to hang on to the bike. "We told him: 'Let the bike go!' " she says.
Now the children ride their bikes only when there is an adult around to watch them, the parents say.
The constant worries about safety are wearying, the parents say. When it comes to their children, though, no one is willing to take a chance.
The Brandlis spent about $200 to put up their fence earlier this summer.
"We had problems with people not using the front door. Now people have to come to the front door," Mrs. Brandli says. "It [the fence] has a lock on it. So it helps me a lot in feeling safe."
She's standing in her backyard while her children play on the ground-level deck. This is where they belong, she says. She doesn't want to raise her children anywhere else.
"In spite of it all," she says, "I really have hope for the city."