Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon met with a diverse group of Fells Point residents and business owners yesterday to assure them that an official-looking letter warning of a neighborhood curfew was a hoax.
"We are working with the Police Department to get to the bottom of this and to find out what the whole motive is behind it," said Dixon, sitting with about two dozen residents at a long table in the back of Jimmy's Restaurant on Broadway. She said a full investigation into the incident is under way.
"Please go back and tell your residents and community members that this is fake," she said.
On Friday, puzzled restaurant owners and residents awoke to find fliers shoved into their mailboxes and littering the street. The flier began "Dear Resident" and appeared to be written on city letterhead with Dixon's signature at the bottom.
The letter warned that because of a surge in violent crime, a curfew would take effect between 2:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. beginning April 1. Anyone found outside during those hours would be required to carry identification or a "valid work permit," indicating that they either live or work in Southeast Baltimore, the letter stated. It added that violators could face fines or jail time.
Angry bar and restaurant owners worried that the restrictions would harm business. And members of the area's growing Latino community feared the letter was an attack on the growing immigrant community, some members of which are not legal residents.
Advocates spoke yesterday of growing tensions among Latino business owners and longtime residents. The letter came on the heels of a recent city hearing in which Hispanic merchants from Upper Fells Point voiced opposition to proposed zoning changes that could prevent businesses in that area from expanding.
"This zoning would only affect the 100 to 300 block of Broadway, which is exactly the core of our Hispanic community," said Maria Welch, with the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "This debate has become completely divisive."
Eliott Morales, spokesman for Baltimore's Hispanic Business Association, made up mostly of small-business owners in the city's Southeast neighborhoods, urged Dixon to be sensitive to the needs of the Latino community.
"We encourage you to strengthen the links between the Hispanic community and the city," he said. "We need you to help us so we don't become a target of activities like this."
Jeremy Fennema, president of the Fells Point Development Corp., said his organization has reached out to the area's Latino merchants and that the letter is a setback to such efforts.
"It's really unfortunate," he said. "When someone does something like this, it does nothing but damage what organizations like ours and the Hispanic Business Association have been trying to build. If it was meant to be a hoax or a joke, it's not funny."
Other merchants said they feared the letter's claim of surging crime would discourage visitors to Fells Point. They also complained that the flashing blue lights of police cameras along Broadway are branding the neighborhood as unsafe.
Lt. Anthony Brown, operations commander for the Baltimore Police Department's Southeastern District, stressed that violent crime has not increased and agreed to further discuss the concerns.
Dixon ended the meeting by praising participants' commitment to neighborhood inclusion, saying that she wants to engage in discussions about Baltimore's changing demographics in the future.
"If there are differences, we need to communicate that," said Dixon. "Diversity makes our city great."