It has been 20 years since Baltimore was a city of 700,000 people. It has been shrinking ever since. We've lost about 80,000 residents since 1995. For that reason — the trend toward a smaller city — I started to believe that we'd never again see 300 homicides in a single year. There just can't be that much anger, stupidity and hatred in this city.
And certainly fewer people could only mean fewer chances for the conflicts that lead to the senseless shootings and the premature deaths.
In fact, until Saturday, we had not experienced 300 homicides since 1999, the last year of one of the dreariest decades in the city's history.
The 1990s in Baltimore were marked by two things — lots of homicides and years when up to 10,000 people left the city. It seemed like nothing could stop either phenomenon. Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor, a good man overwhelmed by these trends and at a loss to arrest them. Officially, Baltimore seemed to shrug with surrender in those days.
The decade started with a jump in killings, from 262 in 1989 to 305 in 1990, and then 300 or more in each of the nine years that followed. Crack cocaine had come to Baltimore, and it was generally understood that the insane market for crack had fueled many of those killings: 304 in 1991, 335 in 1992, 353 in 1993, 321 in 1994.
Sometimes I find myself thinking back to the 1990s, and the time is a blur. To bring the decade into focus, I try to remember what happened around here in those years. Call me pathetic, but a lot of what I remember has to do with sports. The Orioles moved from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards. Major League Baseball staged the 1993 All-Star Game here. Cal Ripken Jr. tied, then broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record. The Orioles made the playoffs a couple of times. The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. A new football stadium opened in 1998.
It was also the decade of the Persian Gulf War, Bill Clinton's election, re-election and impeachment. Parris Glendening succeeded William Donald Schaefer as governor. Pope John Paul II visited Baltimore in 1995; he celebrated Mass in Oriole Park. Those are the things of a public nature that stand out, and I mention them because they provide a set of guideposts for the decade.
They also suggest what we all know — that life went on in Baltimore even as the homicide rate went off the charts (321 in 1994, 325 in 1995, 331 in 1996) and residents fled the city by the thousands.
I look at my city in those years and always wonder what might have been had more Baltimoreans been able to get a greater piece of the pie as the U.S. economy started to click during the Clinton years. Where would Baltimore be had there been a real peace dividend after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War? Where would we be had the gap between rich and poor not widened to historic levels during those years, had we recognized that "the other Baltimore" was a part of this great municipality and not a distant province where only poor people live? Where would we be today had we opened our eyes to Baltimore's profound social problems the way they have been opened this year by the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed?
The 1990s also had what I thought would be a tipping point — that is, one of those events that actually shakes the ground and moves people to act. When little James Smith was killed on the third day of 1997, I thought maybe there would be a breakthrough. On that Friday in January, a gunfight broke out in Fresh Cuttz, a West Baltimore barbershop, and James, who was there for his birthday haircut, was struck and killed by a stray bullet. He was 3 years old.
Across a city numbed by decades of killings, there was an outpouring of anger and grief. I remember thinking: That's it. We've hit the tipping point. We're going to see Baltimoreans, even those in the poorest neighborhoods, rebel against the thugs with guns.
It was wishful thinking. In 1997, there were 331 homicides. In 1998, there were 313. In 1999, there were 305.
But, after that, the homicide numbers started to fall — 261 in 2000, 256 in 2001, 253 in 2002. By 2011, the count was 197, still too high for a city of 626,000, but a good trend over more than a decade. And it got us thinking, with reason as much as wishfulness, that we were headed at long last to a better place, where the dominant story in this tough, old city would no longer be senseless shootings and premature death.
It's as if we've been pushed down some old, dark, haunted well.