The latest deadly shooting in Brooklyn unfolded April 29 outside a boarded-up vacant rowhouse on Fifth Street — where candles, flowers and empty liquor bottles memorialize the young father gunned down that night.
Around the corner on Cambria Street, another blighted property has prompted complaints from residents about people trespassing, gaining access to the building through a second-floor window and leaving disabled vehicles in an adjacent lot. Across the street, an unsecured alley provides easy access and potential hiding spots.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott canvassed the area Thursday afternoon, along with housing officials, representatives from the local nonprofit Greater Baybrook Alliance and others involved in launching a new pilot program aimed at reducing crime through environmental modifications. The nonprofit focuses on the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Brooklyn Park and Curtis Bay.
Short-term improvements could include boarding up vacant houses, installing more streetlights, limiting alley access and removing debris. And for longer-term solutions, renovating or demolishing blighted buildings is key, officials said.
Scott said the relationship between crime and the physical environment is obvious.
“There’s no place where it’s more evident than right here, in this neighborhood struggling with violence,” he said, standing at the corner of Fifth Street and East Patapsco Avenue.
The initiative, which will be funded by COVID-relief dollars, comes amid rising violent crime in Brooklyn, Cherry Hill and other south Baltimore neighborhoods. Officials said the program grew out of another pilot program in the area — a Neighborhood Policing Plan, which seeks community input to create a neighborhood-specific approach to increasing public safety.
In Brooklyn alone, four people were killed during the last two weeks of April, prompting serious concern among residents and elected officials that the violence had gotten out of control. The neighborhood has experienced nine deadly shootings already this year, the same number recorded throughout all of 2021, according to records maintained by The Baltimore Sun. The latest victim was Justin Lewis, 22, the young man killed in the 3600 block of Fifth Street.
In Cherry Hill earlier this month, three suspects carjacked a plainclothes Baltimore Police detective outside a convenience store, threatening the officer with a gun and stealing his unmarked patrol car, which they crashed a short distance away on the other side of the Hanover Street Bridge.
And after 10 people were injured in shootings across the city on Tuesday, officials again decried the increasingly brazen nature of violent crime in Baltimore. The gun violence continued throughout the week, with three people killed in shootings overnight Friday, including a pregnant woman and her boyfriend gunned down near their home on East 23rd Street.
The relationship between vacant buildings and crime has also received renewed attention after Baltimore firefighters entered what they thought was a vacant rowhouse in Carrollton Ridge last Sunday evening and found a gunshot victim who was later pronounced dead. Residents said the incident illustrates two huge issues in their neighborhood: a staggering concentration of blighted properties and rampant gun violence, problems that some consider interconnected.
Also in Carrollton Ridge, police found a dead body inside a vacant house in the 1800 block of Wilhelm Street just after midnight Friday. Officials said an autopsy would determine cause and manner of death in that case.
Antonio McDuffie, owner of Antonio’s Hair Designs and pastor at Empowered Church Ministries in Brooklyn, said he recently decided to move his church to a new location off South Caton Avenue in Halethorpe because members of the congregation have become too concerned about violent crime. He said the decision was a tough one, and his barber shop — a longtime fixture on East Patapsco Street — will remain in Brooklyn.
“My parishioners love the church and the worship experience, but what they have to walk through — all the madness and mayhem of drug activity and violence — is just too much,” he said. “As a pastor, I have to put them in a better situation if I want to continue growing the church.”
During the neighborhood canvas Thursday, Scott stopped in the barber shop and chatted with McDuffie while he cut hair.
Scott also stopped to joke around with a group of middle school students outside nearby Maree G. Farring Elementary-Middle School. When a boy asked him what brought him to the neighborhood, Scott explained his team was looking at vacant houses and trying to get them fixed up.
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“Respect,” the student said. He smiled and introduced the mayor to his vice principal, Jim Grandsire, who spoke proudly about their close-knit school community.
“Being in this part of the city, sometimes we feel forgotten, partly because we’re geographically isolated,” Grandsire said. “Bringing more attention to the challenges and success stories is always good.”
The block officials walked through Thursday — stretching between Fourth and Fifth streets and from East Patapsco Avenue and Cambria Street — features a mix of residential properties and businesses, including McDuffie’s barber shop, a bustling corner store and the local Safe Streets office. The area has also become known for drug activity and violent crime, especially around some of the vacant buildings, officials said.
Addressing those issues, both in Brooklyn and throughout the city, will require investing in communities that historically have suffered from decades of serious disinvestment, said Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy praised the mayor for his commitment to blight prevention and pledged to keep working diligently to address the nearly 15,000 vacant houses in Baltimore.
The first step is often securing blighted buildings so people can’t get inside while city officials pursue the necessary legal proceedings, which can ultimately result in the property changing hands — and getting rehabilitated or repurposed — or the structure being demolished. Although the list of vacant houses is daunting, Kennedy said, her office is not deterred from their mission of improving both the physical and mental wellbeing of residents through housing initiatives.
“Now is the time,” she said. “We are making a difference every day.”