On Sunday, downtown Baltimore was the greatest city in America. There were people everywhere, even in Camden Yards to see the Orioles win the final game of the team’s worst-ever season. There was a robust and fanciful atmosphere around the convention center, site of the three-day Comic-Con. I had to step around dozens of men and women dressed like comic book heroes (and at least one Harry Potter) to get to the busy Baltimore Book Festival at the Inner Harbor. Later, in prime time, the Ravens beat the Steelers.
And just imagine: Seventeen people were murdered across the city in the week leading up to all that.
It is insane. It is surreal. It is beyond maddening. And you’ll have to excuse me for running out of adjectives and for skipping over the deep sociology and demographic science that commonly explains why this homicidal culture persists in a city that has so much going for it. We’ve gone over those bleak grounds so many times; I have developed contempt for the words that form the explanations (or excuses) — the lack-of-this and the too-much-of-that.
On Monday there were two more killings, and by the time you read this, there might be two more. Or four more. The violence of drugs, gangs and retribution is absolutely pathological here. In a sprawling city with blocks of vacant houses, in the far-flung corners of abandoned Baltimore, police seem unable to arrest the contagion of revenge and the availability of guns.
1. Assign Maryland state troopers and Baltimore County police officers to the homicide division to help clear cases. There’s no way city detectives can keep up. Both Mayor Catherine Pugh and interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle say there are not enough cops. They should ask the governor and county executive for more help right now, and not just for specific periods for fugitive apprehension, but for homicide investigations on an indefinite basis — at least until the murder number falls below 200 for a year.
2. Get the state and the counties to loan some health and social workers to the Pugh administration’s ongoing efforts to flood small, deeply troubled areas with more services. Additionally, maybe the counties can spare some public works crews for a few weeks to clean up bulk trash in those areas, and maybe some housing inspectors to help city officials with code enforcement.
Of course, the mayor says she’s already doing plenty to fight crime and, if you don’t believe her, she says, just read The Sun’s recent editorial on the subject. Crime in general is trending downward, in case you were not aware.
Initiatives and statistics impress on an intellectual level, but not on the visceral. Even the truest, in-the-bones Baltimoreans are not convinced their city is getting safer. How could they be?
It was good that the mayor went out Monday evening to talk to people about this because too many days go by when, it seems, the bodies start to pile up and no one in public life says anything, when the city as a whole seems to have lost its sense of urgency about the killings within our boundaries. I still hope the new class of City Council members, elected in 2016, will bring back that urgency about crime. I don’t see it or hear it nearly enough yet. Maintaining a spirit of outrage, of impatience and insistence in Baltimore is exhausting. It’s why the city constantly needs new blood, new leadership.
To be sure, there are a lot of people working on making ours a less deadly city, but, because the killings have been going on for so long, a sense of futility breeds complacency. And then, one day, there’s a national news story and a searing headline about Baltimore being the most violent city in America, and everyone who cares about this place — their homes, their businesses and restaurants, their jobs — feels a collective kick in the gut. We worry about sliding into a hole of more population loss, a terrible prospect for the city.
I drove recently through West Baltimore — first, to check out the big reservoir project in Druid Hill Park, then to meet a community leader. I was awed by the number of people running and working out on a misty Saturday in the park. Then, a few blocks to the south, I was awed by the number of vacant and decrepit rowhouses. I mean, it still takes my breath away.
Baltimore spreads so far and wide, east and west, but with 300,000 fewer people than were here half a century ago, leaving plenty of room for crime and other depravities to fester and grow. Far from the Inner Harbor, those places seem hopeless, the parts of the body that do most of the bleeding.
Those are the stretches of the city that need the most help, and the mayor should ask for it before another year spins out of control.