Rebirth of west side hinges on public safety; Officials will increase police presence in city rehab area


It's 2: 19 on a Saturday morning, and a police officer is aiming a gun at four robbery suspects trying to drive past him in a parking lot behind Crazy John's pizza on West Baltimore Street.

Officer Brian Pedrick barely manages to keep control of the situation when one of the suspects climbs out of the car and tries to sneak away. The robbery victim dances and taunts and points at the remaining suspects from behind the safety of Pedrick's gun.

This is part of an average all-night shift for an officer patrolling the west side of downtown Baltimore, which the city hopes to transform from a dying retail district known for its late-night cruising into an upscale residential neighborhood.

Developers plan to build more than 1,000 apartments and dozens of stores around the renovated Hippodrome Theater, which the city hopes will draw tens of thousands of patrons to Broadway-style shows.

City officials say that the key to the $350 million project's success might be public safety. The city needs to convince potential renters, diners and theater-goers that this ominous-looking neighborhood with its shuttered stores, nightclubs and cruising teen-agers is a safe place to live, shop and attend shows.

The city plans to boost police patrols in the area, work with police who protect the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore, and add a substation on Howard Street.

Demolition might solve some of the problems, said Maj. Steven McMahon, Central District commander.

Although the area is largely vacant at night and has little drug dealing, two of its main trouble spots -- Crazy John's and the Greyhound bus station at 210 W. Fayette St. -- are slated for condemnation as part of the city's effort to rebuild the area around Lexington Market, McMahon said.

Crazy John's, an all-night pizza and video game joint, is the rallying point for hundreds of teen-agers who show off their cars and blast their radios after midnight. In the past, the "car show" crowds erupted into fights and shootings, but police say they've cracked down on this with the help of a 1997 city ordinance that outlaws cruising.

The bus station is sometimes a transfer point for drug dealers, police say. But the city is moving it out of the area, to Charles and Lanvale streets, to put it closer to Penn Station's train lines.

"We cannot allow crime to be a deterrent to development in the area," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of Baltimore Development Corp. "We can't wait until people move into the apartments and the new shops open to say, 'What do we do about the crime?' "

Overall crime is down

Overall, crime downtown fell 11 percent from the first quarter of last year to the first quarter of this year, with robberies dropping from 93 to 81, burglaries declining from 79 to 54 and auto thefts falling from 608 to 574. Aggravated assaults rose from 49 to 58.

Despite the drop, police say the Lexington Market area remains a problem. Drug dealers in the Lexington Market area hawk prescription pills during the day. Patrons from local nightclubs, such as Infinity and Club 320, spill out into the streets at 2 a.m., sometimes getting into fights.

Stores in the area are sometimes robbed. On April 7, robbers tied up and stole money from three cashiers at the Payless ShoeSource at 311 W. Lexington St. The next day, the owner of Eutaw Liquors at 117 N. Eutaw St. shot and killed a man who burst into his store and demanded money.

The area is patrolled by officers from Central District, including Pedrick, an 18-year veteran. A typical night for him:

11: 45 p.m. Pedrick cruises north on Eutaw Street past deserted sidewalks, stores with metal gates over their doors and the dark and shattered marquee of the Hippodrome Theater. Steam gushes from a vent in the street.

He turns onto Baltimore Street, where traffic is heavy. Cars full of teen-agers, windows open and music blaring, roll slowly past Crazy John's and the El Dorado strip club a few doors down on the same block.

Six men lean against parked cars outside Crazy John's.

Inside the restaurant, more than 50 young people huddle around video games, blasting electronic guns at the screens and eating slices of pizza from paper plates. A group of girls who look no older than 12 poke and chase each other.

"Scoot. No loitering. Sign says it," Pedrick shouts to the men in front of the restaurant, pointing to the sign. They go inside.

'The car show'

12: 40 a.m. Traffic grinds to a halt in the 300 block of W. Fayette St. when a Cadillac with tinted windows and extra-large racing tires stops so its driver can chat with the driver of another car with tinted windows.

"It's the car show. They're just trying to show off," Pedrick says, hitting his siren to force them to move on. "A few years ago, it was just thousands and thousands of people down here at night. There were fights, shootings. Now, it's not so bad. Maybe a few hundred."

12: 57 a.m. Pedrick slows his car near the new upscale Redwood Towers to look at two homeless men lying face-down on the sidewalk near vents spewing steam.

He sounds his siren. When they don't budge, he shines his spotlight on them, then climbs out of his car to prod them with his baton. "You OK, buddy?"

They stagger to their feet. After Pedrick questions them briefly, he leaves.

2: 19 a.m. Pedrick again rolls past Crazy John's, country music playing quietly on his car stereo. Three young men outside are watching a woman strut past.

"All these 2 o'clock Romeos," he says.

He rounds the block and heads west on Fayette Street. A 19-year-old wearing a gray Nautica sweat shirt bolts out into the street, waving his arms, screaming that he's been robbed. The youth points to a red car backing up. Pedrick tries to block the car's exit with his squad car, but it keeps rolling toward him. He gets out of the car, raises his gun and arrests four men.

He calms the victim, who is screaming and threatening the suspects. "Back up, sir. Quiet down!" Pedrick yells.

One of the suspects, a lanky kid with a blue bandanna, tries to sneak away. Pedrick growls: "If you don't put your hands on top of the car, you'll be the first to go." He prevents the four from escaping while an undercover officer runs up to help.

Pedrick charges a 31-year-old North Baltimore man with assault and robbery. The man is accused of attacking the victim and stealing his gold chain, ring and sweat shirt. Total value: $640.

In questioning the people, Pedrick learns that the motive for the attack might have been that the suspect's sister had a child by the victim, who is 19 and has fathered five children by four women. The suspect was angry that the victim was showing disrespect for his sister by cruising the area for prostitutes.

"I'm getting too old for this," says Pedrick, who is 39.

Pedrick's supervisor, McMahon, said he expects much of this late-night activity to disappear with redevelopment.

"By the time they start tearing down these places," McMahon said, "a lot of these nuisance crimes at night will be taken care of, so the city will be able to go in there and rejuvenate the whole area."

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