THE BOCCIE court in Burdick Park in Northeast Baltimore is special -- home to the city's top Italian-American bowlers (they've bested boccie teams from Little Italy in tournament play in recent years) and a great good gathering place for anyone seeking signs of life in the city.
At a time when fraternal organizations (and bowling leagues) have been in decline, in the age of home entertainment and the Internet, as people become increasingly isolated in the suburbs and exurbs, as some Baltimore neighborhoods suffer wholesale abandonment, the regular meeting of friends in a city park is a sign of hope. The presence of the boccie players, middle-aged and elderly men arguing points under the tall trees in Burdick Park, is good for Hamilton, for all of Northeast Baltimore.
You go there, you see that -- people having fun, talking, taking care of their park -- and suddenly Baltimore is no longer the purported hellhole being forsaken at the rate of 1,000 residents a month. You feel the same when you see the summer crowds at the gorgeous swimming pool in Druid Hill Park, or people bunched up and gabbing on the sidewalk after a church service in East Baltimore, or the chess games in War Memorial Plaza, or the nightly boccie games at the courts in Little Italy.
What can I say? Like a lot of people, I get tired of the drumbeat of bad about Baltimore -- so I listen for positive rhythms and I look for signs of life, anywhere I can get them, in any form.
Virgilio Guglielmi and other Burdick Park boccie players assumed responsibility for the court a few years ago, a kind of paisano privatization. They gave the court a new surface. They groomed it, regularly and perfectly, so the boccie balls rolled true. They gathered Sunday afternoons for weekly games. Lights were installed so they could play weeknights during the summer. They pitched in to help the city with park maintenance. They raked leaves. They painted over the graffiti on the restroom walls. That's what Baltimore's neighborhoods need, of course -- people out of their houses, away from their televisions and computers, meeting their neighbors, bringing life to the streets and parks. Burdick Park has always been a neat place -- swings and a sandlot for kids, a baseball field, tennis courts, horseshoe pits. The boccie players make the people of Hamilton feel all the better about it.
Now, the bad news.
The Burdick Park boccie players were robbed.
It happened a couple of weeks ago, on a Friday night.
Guglielmi was there, of course, with about 10 guys. They played several games under the lights. It got to be 9 o'clock. Some of the guys went home. Others wanted to stay and play one more game. It was a lovely evening. Everyone was in a good mood. Guglielmi, a member of Team Cannella, the reigning boccie champs of the city, was looking forward to another tournament in Little Italy, and you can never throw enough boccie when you're preparing for competition.
Still, it was late.
"It was not very smart to stay," Guglielmi says. "Everyone else had gone home from the park. We were there, six of us, under the lights. ... It had to happen, and it did happen."
Three young guys in hooded jackets happened.
"What do you call this game?" one of them asked.
After boccie was explained to the inquisitive one, he and his two pals disappeared into the darkness.
A few minutes later, they came back. One of them had a white scarf pulled over his face. He also had a gun in his hand. As his accomplices rifled through the pockets of jackets on a nearby picnic table, the one with the gun ordered each boccie player, Guglielmi and five others, to empty their pockets. Guglielmi turned over $35. A 66-year-old man named Charles Simino gave up his wallet. One of the players, 74-year-old Lino Albi, tried to grab the gun and was thrown to the ground by the gunman. He was not injured. "No one was hurt," says Guglielmi, who is 68 and a retired construction worker. "But those guys, they took something from us, you know. ... My friends, they're terribly hurt by this. They don't say much, but I can tell, you know. Most of the guys live in the city. They're very upset. They're not going to go there and play at night anymore. The night is out. If we play in the day, we make some calls to make sure we got a bunch there before we go."
The police came in good numbers, Guglielmi says. They searched the streets around the park, Glenmore Avenue, Walther Avenue, Northern Parkway. They didn't find the young thugs. Reports were taken. But Guglielmi has had no further contact with police. "I got a beautiful house in the city, a nice garden, you know?" says Guglielmi, who strikes me as a reasonable and pleasant man. "I've lived in Baltimore since 1956. I love it here. But now, I really think about moving. ... You can't live with fear."
Which goes a long way toward explaining why Baltimore's population has dropped by 90,000 since 1990.
Does it help to mention that, overall, crime in the city has fallen by almost 10 percent this year, and that the downward trend has lasted four years, which makes the city the safest it's been in a decade?
Probably not. Not when you've just had a gun pointed at you.
Here's where a mayor can make a difference, though. Here's an opportunity, in particular, for Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for mayor. He won his party's September primary singing an anti-crime/safer neighborhoods theme song. Here's a situation that deserves some attention -- longtime residents of Baltimore who try to keep a candle lighted in a corner of the city. They're the kind of people, active and visible, the city can't afford to lose. The next mayor can't sit on his hands while good people leave. A man who would be mayor should go to Burdick Park. He should say something to give old men, and the rest of us, hope. He should learn how to play boccie at night, under the lights.
Pub Date: 10/11/99