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Dan Rodricks: Shootings keep people from coming to Baltimore; minor crime will drive out those already here | COMMENTARY

Ann Costlow has operated Sofi's Crepes in Baltimore's Station North for 18 years. Despite a recent spate of break-ins, she says, "I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet."
Ann Costlow has operated Sofi's Crepes in Baltimore's Station North for 18 years. Despite a recent spate of break-ins, she says, "I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet." (Baltimore Sun staff)

As if the pandemic had not hurt Baltimore businesses enough, some teenage boys decided to make life even tougher for Alma Cocina Latina, Tapas Teatro, the Charles Theatre and Sofi’s Crepes in the 1700 block of North Charles Street.

Since September, two boys have broken into these popular establishments in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District numerous times — at least 10 times, according to a business owner who keeps track. The boys smashed glass doors and windows, broke open cash drawers, grabbed a modest amount of money and generally caused headaches for people trying to keep their businesses alive in the wake of the pandemic.

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The shootings and homicides continue in Baltimore, and, barring a sudden change of pace this month, the city will likely finish the year with more than 300 killings again. So I’ll agree right away — compared to violent crime, what happened on Charles Street is not that serious. No one died.

I’ll also agree that, while the last two years have been tough for the businesses I mentioned, causing them to worry that all their customers might not return, life might have been hard for the two boys police finally arrested after weeks of repeated vandalism and theft. Maybe they were hungry. Maybe they were homeless. They would not be the first Baltimore juveniles who committed crimes to support their families. But we don’t know their motives because, according to an email from a police sergeant on Sunday morning, the boys were not talking to detectives, and their parents had not been responsive, either.

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Based on what they saw in surveillance videos, the business owners believe the same two boys committed the break-ins, each time between 2 and 4 a.m. Three of the break-ins occurred the day after the business owners met with police officials and representatives of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office to discuss their problems.

Sunday’s arrests might bring an end to this crime spree without any damage obvious to the public. No business has closed. But, after 18 years in Station North, Ann Costlow of Sofi’s Crepes thought about calling it quits. There’s always been petty crime and panhandling in the area, she says, but nothing like what she’s seen in the past year — four break-ins and one attempted break-in that shattered her creperie’s glass door, costing her $650 for another replacement.

“The businesses owners in the Arts and Entertainment District suffered a massive blow from COVID-19,” Costlow says. “The Charles Theatre, Parkway Theatre and the Baltimore Improv Group were shut down for almost a year, the colleges closed, and the restaurants struggled to stay afloat. This rash of crimes was incredibly discouraging and disheartening for the business owners and community leaders in our area.”

(I’ll tell you what else is discouraging and disheartening — the amount of graffiti and trash in Station North. Has the mayor or anyone on his staff noticed that?)

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Costlow worries there will be more nuisance crime because juveniles do not fear consequences. Mark Demshak, who runs Alma’s with his wife, Irena Stein, noted how the boys in the surveillance video appeared to be relaxed, not worried about being caught. “The kids took their time and walked through, roaming around, looking for stuff,” Demshak says. “They’re maybe 14 or 15 years old. It sucks that they’re doing this, and don’t understand how it’s affecting their lives. It sucks for us, too.”

Demshak says it was enlightening (in a distressing sort of way) to hear police describe the long list of property crimes that take them months to investigate and clear because the city’s incessant shootings get so much time and attention.

Everyone understands that, says Costlow. Everyone understands that the police department is still short-staffed, says Stein. But small, nonviolent crime needs to be taken seriously by police and prosecutors. It’s the stuff that eats away at the will of Baltimoreans to get up and conduct business every day.

“We all understand that using a majority of resources to focus on violent crime is essential,” Costlow says. “But additional resources and focus need to be paid to the petty and nonviolent crime that will move businesses out of the city.”

My requests to the mayor’s office and police for more information about this juvenile crime spree received no response.

The business owners don’t blame police for their problems and they seem well aware of law enforcement priorities as the city experiences what is likely the seventh consecutive year of 300-plus homicides. At the same time, they expect more from City Hall in return for the taxes they pay.

“We all love our block and we want to stay here,” says Stein, a public-spirited restaurateur who probably would have fed the boys who broke into Alma had they asked for food. “We are located just north of [Penn Station]. These streets have to be welcoming to visitors. Station North attracts people. It needs to remain lively.”

And it will only be that way if people like Stein and Demshak, Costlow and others stay. Despite all that happened — the pandemic, the recent crime problems — they seem committed to that. But for how long?

In a city with persistent violence, a few off-hour break-ins seem like minor inconveniences, but not if you’re the one sweeping up the broken glass. “The shootings keep people from coming into the city,” Demshak says. “The nuisance crimes will send people out of it.”

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