If it’s possible to mark history while you’re still living through it, still in shock and sorrow — when everything that caused shock and sorrow just happened — then I’ll offer this: Those of us who were here on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, will remember it as one of the worst days in 21st century Baltimore.
The Dawson family horror was a low point of the new millennium. A mother, father and five children were killed in October 2002 when a firebomb hit their house, in retribution for Angela Dawson’s constant vigilance and efforts against drug dealing in her East Baltimore neighborhood.
There have been many bad days in the city since then. But few as bad as Monday.
Three firefighters died fighting a fire in one of the city’s too-many vacant rowhouses and, as I write this, another firefighter clings to life. The popular manager of a Little Italy restaurant was shot to death on Eastern Avenue. Someone with a gun killed a woman who worked for a delivery service in an apparent robbery in Northeast Baltimore.
And all that within a few hours.
And all that after a weekend of violence.
And all that after the killing of a police officer in the line of duty.
And all that after a year of 300-plus homicides, the seventh such year in a row.
For Baltimoreans, the death of one of our firefighters is profoundly sad — the first responder who goes “up the stairs, into the fire,” to quote Bruce Springsteen’s elegy for those of the NYFD who died on 9/11. It’s the selflessness, the sense of duty, the willingness to battle fire and save lives that awes the rest of us.
In a city or town, when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, the rest of us feel not only sorrow but gratitude, and some of us guilt. When three die at once, it’s jarring and humbling and God-where-are-you?
So you have to stop — stop right here — and say this is no ordinary day. This is an awful day. It won’t wash away in the rain of news to come.
And not just because three firefighters died, but because of the context, coming, as this tragedy did, with the city suffering through an incomprehensible level of violence, and with 2022 off to a horrible start.
Considering all of it, a citizen of this city might wonder if Baltimore is cursed.
It feels overwhelming: hundreds of shootings and deaths and wasted lives; too many guns and their wild use leaving all of us feeling vulnerable; distracting and embarrassing corruption scandals, and a fresh one brewing; the loss of major transit and redevelopment projects (the Red Line, State Center); an opioid epidemic and deaths from overdose; abandoned houses — like the one that collapsed and killed three brave firefighters and gravely injured another on Monday.
I keep hearing lines of a Dick Allen poem: “You reach a point, a peninsula really/ where the sea-roar comes from all three sides at once, and out ahead of you there are dark waves/ eight hours of night and you back off.”
That’s the temptation — to abandon your post as a concerned citizen, to detach from the civic psyche, to avoid the pain of the ongoing municipal tragedy and turn inward, or leave town altogether.
I get letters all the time from people who have done the latter, and many express great satisfaction with that decision. Some write to condemn what they see as weak city leadership as the core problem.
But many of the people I hear from express heartfelt concern about their native city; they know all that’s good about Baltimore and can’t stand that incessant violence has become part of the city’s identity.
Pardon my meander. Days of such overwhelming tragedy, and tragedy on top of tragedy, prompt reflections.
Ever since I arrived in Baltimore, during the nation’s bicentennial, I’ve understood this to be a city struggling with change and loss, trying to recover from decades of racism, white flight and industrial decline.
With a falling population and increasingly concentrated poverty, city leaders declared the Baltimore Renaissance, and it was real for a time; it made the Inner Harbor a destination for visitors and gave the city positive national buzz.
But a Goldseker Foundation report in 1987 described “rot beneath the glitter” and warned that Baltimore would continue to decline unless political and corporate leaders throughout the region mustered the will to get ahead of the city’s growing economic and social problems.
Here we are, 35 years later, a smaller city with lots of problems, and the problems overshadow all the good that happens here every day, even in a pandemic.
A last bit of perspective: Feb. 7-8 will mark 118 years since the Great Baltimore Fire that destroyed 140 acres of the downtown business district. More than 1,200 firefighters fought the inferno in freezing temperatures. One of them, James McGlennen, died a month later from pneumonia; he had been soaked several times but had refused to abandon his post.
Baltimore recovered from the 1904 fire. It will recover from the problems it faces today. Most of us who are still here still believe that, even on awful days like Monday. We stay. We don’t give up. Like the Baltimore firefighters we admire, we refuse to abandon our posts.