Sitting in the hair salon she has owned for 27 years, Pamela Coleman was saying she hasn’t been a victim of crime herself. Then she quickly knocked on the nearest piece of wood — to avoid jinxing not only herself, but also her city.
“I’m not going to say we’ve hit bottom,” said Coleman, the 52-year-old owner of X-Cetra Salon in the Hamilton neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. “But we’re not far from the bottom.
“I think it’s the worst I’ve ever seen, and I have been living in Baltimore my entire life. I don’t really feel safe anywhere anymore.”
Even in a city where crime seems like a chronic rather than an episodic disease, the recent string of killings, shootings and robberies has felt qualitatively different. Mayor Catherine Pugh says the violence is out of control. Three years into a historic spike in killing, it’s not clear that anyone has any idea how to curtail it. In conversations private and public, in neighborhood gathering spaces and on social media, fear is rising.
On Wednesday, Baltimore showed it still had the capacity to shock, in the fatal shooting of police Detective Sean Suiter. The 18-year veteran, who joined the homicide unit in 2015, as the violence began rising, was investigating one of last year’s 318 killings. He became this year’s 309th. The shooter remained at large, even as police descended on the Harlem Park neighborhood, shut down streets and banged on doors in search of the suspect or evidence that would lead to him.
The daylight shooting of Suiter came hard on the heels of another brazen attack. Just the day before, a Locust Point man was killed in a robbery as he left a Royal Farms on Key Highway. He had stopped at the convenience store after work to pick up a snack of cookies and milk. Three suspects are in custody.
That Alexander Wroblewski, 41, was killed within view of the security cameras that guard the nearby and just-opened Anthem House luxury apartments seemed emblematic of where Baltimore finds itself at the moment: striving for a better version of itself, and yet seemingly trapped in a dangerous, impoverished past.
Baltimore, and the image it has sought to present to the world — and to Amazon, which is looking for a place to build its second headquarters — has taken a decided hit, as even those most devoted to polishing that image conceded.
“We have experienced a very disheartening week and a rash of incidents of violent crime and homicides,” said Don Fry, president and CEO of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee. “One of the things that this clearly does is it overwhelms the good news and positive things that are occurring in the city every day.”
Marc Weller, lead developer of Port Covington, where Under Armour is building its headquarters and hopes to welcome Amazon’s as well, said businesses will continue to flock to the city.
“Unfortunately, and many times tragically, crime is up in many cities, and Baltimore is no exception,” Weller said.
He was quick to add that the city’s political, police, business and community leaders “are all working hard together to find solutions to reduce crime now, but also create jobs and educational opportunities so we can change these trends for the long-term.”
But in neighborhoods beyond Port Covington — home also to The Baltimore Sun’s printing plant — the wait for those fixes has felt endless.
Owen Keith surveyed the crumbling and vacant rowhouses, the empty lots and wind-whirled debris outside Harlem Park Elementary School.
“This is what you get,” said Keith, 49.
By “this,” he meant the angry crime, the dilapidated housing, the rampant drug dealing and all the other urban woes that he blames on general neglect — especially to the needs of young people in Baltimore.
“They don’t have enough for these kids to do,” he said. “And you look around and see all the vacants. They could get the kids to help build the community up.”
Instead, Keith said, he sees kids on the streets, not in school or working, and headed, perhaps, toward the path that he took. He used and dealt drugs and served prison time, he said. Now he’s clean, he said, and in a program to become a peer counselor for addicts.
Keith had stopped by the school to pick up his girlfriend’s grandson. As kids freshly sprung from school jumped onto playground equipment or streamed toward home, their shouts and laughter mixed with the thrum of a helicopter circling overhead. Blocks nearby remained cordoned off as police continued to investigate Suiter’s killing. Keith fiddled with his phone, going through pictures, one after the other, of a stepson and others he’s lost to homicide over the years. And those are only the ones he personally knows.
“I don’t think a day goes by now that something doesn’t happen,” Keith said. “Everywhere you walk now, you wonder, what’s going to happen? Are you going to be a victim of crime, or are you going to be hurt by mistake because of something that’s going on in a neighborhood?”
It’s not just the crime, Sharon Johnson said. It’s the accumulation of crimes.
The Federal Hill woman owns the Cheese Galore and More stall in the Cross Street Market.
“Every now and then there’s a flurry of crime, and you’re kind of alert,” she said. “Then it subsides and you take it easy again.
“Now, it doesn’t seem like it’s letting up.”
She worries for both herself and her business of more than six years. She and her friends at the market walk each other to parking spaces at close of day. She sometimes taps 9-1-1 on her phone when she’s walking at night. If something happens, she can quickly hit “call.” But then she heard that walking with your phone out can attract robbers.
Johnson is alarmed by the most recent crimes in the area — in addition to Wroblewski’s killing, there were multiple street attacks on Halloween night attributed to groups of teenagers. But she would date the beginning of the current troubles even further back. She thinks the city still hasn’t recovered from the riots of April 2015.
“Business has been awful since then,” she said as she trimmed herbs for a cheese tray. She works across from one of several empty stalls in the market. She said fewer visitors to the Orioles or Ravens stadiums are stopping by.
“People are going to the game,” she said, “and then just leaving and going home.”
Erricka Bridgeford, the founder of Baltimore Ceasefire 365, understands the sense of despair washing through parts of the city. But the West Baltimore woman said the focus seems off.
For one thing, she said, it shouldn’t take more victims for Baltimoreans to find the situation unacceptable.
“One person being killed, things are out of control,” she said.
For another, people need to build on the positives, however small.
With Baltimore Ceasefire 365, Bridgeford has organized two weekends this year built around a simple message: “Nobody kill anybody.”
After the second weekend, she noted, “Baltimore went for six whole days without anyone being killed.”
It might seem a small, even pitiful victory, and one perhaps no other city would brag about. But Bridgeford argues that violence in Baltimore didn’t “pop up overnight” nor should it be expected to vanish in such swift fashion.
“I truly understand why people feel hopelessness. I carry their hopelessness. I got their back,” she said. She has lost her brother, a stepson and others to homicide.
“I’ve buried people since I’ve been 12,” she said. “Everyone has a time when they’ve been broken, when they’re a pile of ashes.
“We need to look at how things got this way. The only way it won’t change is if we don’t keep pushing. Our commitment has to be stronger than our hopelessness.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.