Jan Crye was walking home after a night out with friends in Upper Fells Point in May when a man in a red bandana pointed a gun at her face and demanded her purse.
“I didn’t have a second to think, scream, anything,” Crye, 61, said. “I just handed him my pocketbook and off he went.”
Such confrontations have become more common in Baltimore’s Southeast District, a diverse corner of the city that includes the historic Fells Point, Canton and Butchers Hill neighborhoods.
As street robberies have increased citywide, the Southeast District is suffering a greater share. One of nine police districts in the city, it has seen 19.9 percent of the city’s 2,073 street robberies through July 22, according to city data. That’s up from 17.8 percent through that date last year, and 12.4 percent during the same period in 2015.
By comparison, the Central District — which includes Downtown Baltimore — accounted for 10.8 percent of the city’s street robberies through July 22. The Western District, traditionally a high-crime area, has accounted for only about 5 percent.
Crye said the uptick of crime in the area has caused a “shift” in her neighborhood. Some now are reluctant to spend time outside, she said.
“There are some people really questioning: Do we want to live like this?” Crye said.
“It’s made me think, too.”
Police are increasing patrols in the district, introducing mounted units and using helicopters to track robbery suspects, Capt. Jarron Jackson said. They’re also encouraging people to get to know their neighbors, walk in pairs or groups when out at night, and keep an eye out for one another to avoid being targeted.
Police believe robbery was the motive last month when a local bartender was shot to death on Boston Street in Canton. Sebastian Dvorak, a 27-year-old who worked at several Ryliegh’s Oyster locations, was walking home in the 2600 block of Boston Street early June 13 when he was shot in the head.
On the night that Crye was robbed, her neighbor, Mark Adams, was walking to his home when he was greeted with what he described as a familiar sight.
He saw three men in hoodies turn the corner onto the 300 block of South Chester Street, less than a minute from his house. Adams, the victim of two robberies and a burglary in the past decade, says he had no doubt about what was coming next.
One of the men pulled out a gun and held it to Adams’ face. The others took his cellphone and his wallet, which contained his driver’s license, a debit card and $700 in gift cards.
The robbery was over as quickly as it began. He said he doesn’t know whether city police have apprehended the men who robbed him.
Adams, a former bail bondsman who has lived in Southeast Baltimore for 27 years, said his neighborhood is “under siege,” and the street robberies have forced him to contemplate moving elsewhere.
“Everyone asks me, ‘why are you still here?’” Adams said. “And I like it here. But there comes a point where you have to evaluate your safety.”
Police, city officials and residents say there are several reasons for the uptick in street robberies in the area.
City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the district, said the relative wealth in some neighborhoods in Southeast Baltimore makes it an inviting target. The median household income in Fells Point is $77,433, nearly double the citywide median of $41,819.
Adams, who lives in Upper Fells Point with his wife, said he’s watched the neighborhood evolve in the past decade from a predominantly blue-collar area to one filled with young, white-collar workers. He believes this “new affluence” attracts criminals.
Other areas of relative affluence in the district include Canton, Patterson Park and Highlandtown.
Jackson said robust nightlife in the area also plays a factor in street robberies. The Baltimore waterfront offers access to an array of trendy, upscale restaurants and bars.
“People leave intoxicated and impaired and not paying attention to their surroundings, which makes the area more susceptible to crime,” Jackson said.
Officials and residents say the scarcity of parking in the area is another problem. Neighborhoods such as Fells Point and Canton are packed with rowhomes, which can make street parking a challenge, especially late at night.
When Adams was robbed in May, he had parked his car on Boston Street — nearly a 10-minute walk from his home — because the streets by his house were so crowded. Adams said he could’ve avoided being mugged that night if he hadn't been forced to walk such a far distance.
“Parking and crime are the two drawbacks to living here,” he said.
Cohen agreed parking is a challenge. But he said the “real problem” is a lack of high-quality public transit that forces people to drive cars.
“We have, in my opinion, a poor system of public transportation here in Baltimore, and we need to do better,” Cohen said. If more people used the system, he said, it would open up more parking spaces.
Police say the “lion's share” of street robberies in Southeast Baltimore are committed by juveniles. Jackson said young suspects often use replica guns to intimidate victims. The department has seen reports of robbery suspects as young as 10 years old.
Jackson said Southeast police have a particularly difficult time curtailing violence because problematic youths end up back on the streets shortly after they’re arrested.
He called the situation “frustrating” for officers in the district.
“We’re trying to catch bad guys and we’re arresting the same juveniles” Jackson said. “Obviously something is broken if we’re arresting the same person over and over again.”
Commissioner Kevin Davis said this month that the young people who are committing carjackings, assaults and other types of street robbery aren’t facing serious consequences.
To keep these juveniles off the streets, he said, Maryland needs to lower the threshold for pre-trial detention — a form of locked custody for youth who are deemed likely to re-offend or to fail to show up for court.
Jackson said police also need to identify what’s driving these youths to commit crimes in the first place.
“It has to be more than just arrests,” Jackson said. “We have to be doing something [about] the production of the criminal as well.”
Cohen said he’s working with other council members on a comprehensive plan to reduce crime that targets repeat adult and juvenile offenders.
He said the city needs tougher penalties for people who commit gun crimes. The City Council is considering a bill that would impose a mandatory one-year sentence for carrying a handgun within 100 yards of a school, church or other place of public assembly.
He also said it’s important for people who are released from prison to have a “pathway back into society,” including health care, housing and job opportunities.
“Police alone are not going to solve this problem,” Cohen said. “It takes all of us and all of our city agencies and everyone working together.”
Larry Romanowicz, general manager of Southern Provisions in Canton, said staff at the bar and restaurant get off work as late as 3 a.m. He recommends they park as close to the bar as possible, and walk in groups late at night.
He said he also gives his staff rides whenever they need them, even if they insist on walking home.
“I don't let anybody walk home, even if it's just a block away,” Romanowicz said. “Especially when it's that late at night."
Adams described his neighborhood as convenient and walkable, in spite of the robberies. Until recently, he hadn’t considered living anywhere else.
But if he and his neighbors continue be victims, he said, he’ll have no choice but to move somewhere safer.
“Before all this stuff happened, I would’ve been content to stay here forever,” Adams said. “But those little Cape Cods in places like Timonium and Linthicum look nicer every day.”