Drugs and crime ravage, yet define, NW Baltimore neighborhood

The Baltimore Sun

This is the scene twelve hours after gunmen opened fire on a car, killing three and wounding a fourth, and helping to make November the deadliest month of the year: two bullet casings embedded in the mud, shattered glass in an empty parking space on Oakford Avenue, four pairs of shoes, their laces tied, dangling from an overhead power line. Thirty-one slayings in 30 days.

Baltimore's worst November in nine years.

If these numbers mean anything, the city's 216 killings this year are still well below the 265 we had at this time in 2007. And we should finish this year well below last year's mark of 282.

Time to celebrate?

Wait, there's more. A domestic shooting brought Sunday's death count to four. Three other people were shot and wounded at a downtown nightclub. A man was shot in the face when he was held up at a gas station. And two more young men were shot and killed hours later, on Monday, getting December off to a familiar start.

Police have said little about the shootings on Northwest Baltimore's Oakford Avenue. The shoes are used both to mourn victims and to mark drug territory. Residents of this street lined with ramshackle rowhouses on one side and boxy apartment buildings on the other are convinced the violence was the result of a turf war between rival drug gangs.

Over the weekend, they said, the dealers from Oakford shot up a van and sprayed gunfire two blocks away on Ridgewood Avenue. Sunday night, the dealers from Ridgewood sought revenge.

"We knew it was coming," said one man who was too scared to give his name. "We heard a bang. Then, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang."

Viola Bell has spent 22 years working and living in Park Heights, long enough to see drugs and crime not only ravage her Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, but define it.

So long and so many casualties, in fact, that Bell no longer believes the brisk heroin sales, the gunfire and the deaths that follow are the result of failed policies or the inability of police to act.

"People are desperate when it comes to surviving," Bell said. "Because drugs are a mechanism put in place in our communities, shootings are used as a survival tool. The killing is by them, about some not being honorable in their trade. That's what's left in our community. It's not by accident, it's by design. And no one ever wants to address it."

Frustrations run so deep that some people believe there is a conspiracy to allow the city's vast drug enterprise to flourish, with a body count that sometimes offends but does not force real change.

Bell is the community organizer for Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit working to implement the city's master plan in Northwest Baltimore. Her work includes overseeing the razing of the Pall Mall Apartments, a notorious drug haven on Pimlico Road.

I met Bell last month at a meeting to organize a youth summit for Park Heights. Leading the effort is Kenneth Morrison, a young man whose mother, father and older brother dealt drugs in the community. His mother has disappeared, his father just got out of prison, and his brother was killed.

Morrison credits an after-school program with keeping him honest. Bell led that program, and she has known Ken since he was 7. She demurs on taking credit. Ken made a choice.

For the people who choose differently, Bell said, "There are consequences they have to deal with."

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