Hanging out on rowhouse steps is a typical Baltimore thing to do.
Unless they're not your steps. Then you're loitering. Or trespassing. And probably up to no good.
Cops spend their shifts ushering people off corners and other people's steps and they use the loitering law to stop and frisk thousands of people each year. It's harassment to some, a relief to others, and a tool for police to detain people in their war on drugs and guns.
Loitering is a rarely prosecuted crime, but frustrated residents across the city have devised unique ways to try to keep people off their steps.
One resident on East Lafayette Avenue in Greenmount West — part of the area recast as Station North Arts Entertainment District, where a man was fatally shot while sitting in a lawn chair — decided that a sign wasn't enough.
This rowhouse owner, who didn't answer the door, put an air conditioner on the third-story roof. The discharge pipe is directed over the front of the house, so without warning, water routinely gushes in a 30-foot waterfall that splashes the marble steps below. Or on the head of anyone sitting on the steps.
But many simply put up "no loitering" or "no trespassing" signs. They're simple, to the point and so common they're routinely ignored.
Some are bought at hardware stores. Others are hand-written. One on Pulaski Street is written in stenciled yellow letters. They plead with people to stay off the steps. Some say please. Others threaten arrest and prosecution. Others go one step further.
"No trespassing," reads one sign at a house on East Preston Street. "Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
Further up the same street is a sign that takes up virtually the entire front window. "Please do not sit on the steps if you do not live here," it reads. "Thank you!"
But the warning doesn't end there. There's also a yellow sign warning people not to litter (with a picture of a litter bug), and another sign below: "No soliciting. No loitering. No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted."
Jordan Smith is a caterer who lives on East Lanvale Street. He owns a rowhouse next to a vacant lot and across the street from a corner liquor store. He put not one but three signs in his window, two that say "No Loitering" and one that says "Keep Out."
"It doesn't work for me," Smith said. "I'm tired of coming home from work fighting through people sitting on my steps." He said he's called police and tried the signs. "I just don't know what else I can do."
Smith was one of the few people willing to divulge his name. Most people who put up signs know they're sending a message not only to vagrants but to drug dealers as well, and they'd rather remain as hidden from public view as possible.
Around the corner from Smith, one homeowner outright challenged the dope slingers with the sign: "For the safely of our children, families and businesses in the neighborhood … drug trafficking or loitering is not permitted in this block. Anytime!"
It's not just homeowners who don't want people lounging on their steps.
The Rise & Shine Daycare Center on Edmonson Avenue has a sign with an oversized "NO" to warn loiterers they can be arrested for standing around outside for too long.
Work With You Bail Bonds, also on Edmonson Avenue, doesn't want you hanging around too much either: "No loitering. Will be arrested." Presumably they'll work with you to post bail if they work with the cops to put you in cuffs.
Back in 1993, a Baltimore Sun photographer took a picture of a body lying face down in front of a rowhouse on West North Avenue. The man had been shot in the middle of the afternoon in May, and blood trickled from under the white sheet into the gutter.
A cop stood over the corpse, staring down. On the steps leading to the front door, someone had carved into the marble a permanent warning: "KEEP OFF STEPS."
Smith, on Lanvale, said he's not going to escalate his rhetoric beyond his simple "no loitering." The 26-year-old said, "I've gone as far as I plan to go."