Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, one of Baltimore’s most committed and resilient citizens, counts 17 open-air drug markets in or near his Matthew Henson neighborhood in West Baltimore. He pointed to one, about 80 yards away, Tuesday morning.
Four men, in either sweatpants or jeans, their hoodies up, stood outside a convenience store at the corner of Baker Street and McKean Avenue, where a shredded Mylar memorial to a homicide victim dangled from a stop sign pole. The same men gather on that corner every day, says Cheatham.
When a minivan suddenly roared past us, Cheatham said the driver, in all likelihood, had just made a delivery to the dealers.
When a Western District police officer pulled his patrol car up to the corner, the men disappeared. When that happens, Cheatham says, some of the dealers go inside to conduct business, or they duck into an alley.
Cheatham knows this stuff too well. He is past president of the Henson Neighborhood Association, and onetime president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. He keeps his eyes on things in his neighborhood, one that vandals and arsonists hit hard following the funeral of Freddie Gray in April 2015. Cheatham says 14 Henson businesses were burned or in some way damaged. By now, all but one have recovered.
But the drug dealing persists. It infests neighborhoods like this one. It destroys lives. And, as Baltimore and the world learned from the federal government’s takedown of the Gun Trace Task Force, it flashes huge amounts of cash and corrupts cops.
“We have more open-air drug markets now than before the April 2015 riots,” Cheatham says. Given the activity I saw Tuesday morning, along several blocks in the Henson neighborhood, along Fulton Avenue and on the side streets between Presbury Street and North Avenue, I’m not about to argue with him.
Cheatham’s census of drug dealers reflects the opioid epidemic: More addicts, originally hooked on painkillers, are taking to the streets to buy relatively cheap heroin. Someday a comprehensive study will find what, given the circumstances, common sense suggests — that a primary reason for the surge in violence across Baltimore since 2015 was the demand for heroin by people who previously obtained painkillers by prescription from their doctors. As the commerce in heroin, then fentanyl, surged, so did street competition and, inevitably, violence.
Cheatham agrees that the opioid epidemic accounts for the increase in open-air drug markets. But he also blames it on a lack of police pressure on the corners. The sequence of developments — a new and robust demand for opioids, an uprising against police practices, the police response to the uprising — might have seeded the perfect storm that has hit Baltimore for three years.
Are we finally climbing out of this? You hope and pray, but you don’t make any bets.
And if you’re at all like Doc Cheatham, you just stay committed to your city. You acknowledge the bad around you and work toward the good so that, one of these days, the good crowds out the bad.
Cheatham invited me to meet him on McKean Avenue so I could see what had changed there since Freddie Gray. There might be more open-air drug markets, but there is also a park, officially called the Easterwood/Sandtown Park and Playground.
Some people call it the McKean Miracle.
“It was nothing but a dumping ground,” Cheatham says. “It took us three days to remove all the trash that had been dumped here. ... You could not get up the alleys.”
The space in the 1500 block of McKean, between Baker and Presstman, has been cleared and landscaped, with walkways, picnic tables, a stage for outdoor concerts, a Little Free Library book exchange, a swingset, stationary grills and a new sidewalk.
Even on a winter day, with dead grass and dormant trees, it’s beautiful.
I visited the site two years ago, when a salvage crew from Brick + Board, a social enterprise of the workforce development nonprofit Humanim, took apart the last six rowhouses on the east side of McKean Avenue joist by joist, brick by brick. Now the rowhouses on the west side are abandoned and slated for deconstruction.
I see why they call it the McKean Miracle.
Cheatham credits Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Keiffer Mitchell, an adviser to Hogan, with getting the last rowhouses removed and kick-starting the park. In 2016, Hogan announced plans to devote state funds to demolishing thousands of vacant rowhouses.
But it’s one thing to turn whole blocks into parks and green space; it’s quite another to redevelop them into affordable housing and places to buy healthy food, which is what West Baltimore needs.
It all seems to happen so slowly, if it happens at all. But Doc Cheatham has not lost hope. He starts with the park, the park for now, and maybe someday something better, something more — a lot more good to crowd out the bad.