I received one of those Baltimore-is-hell letters from a reader who perceives that crime has become so bad that the city is now "a nightmare that cannot get worse." I found it very depressing, but then I was already feeling dark when the letter arrived. A homicide count that we have not seen in 20 years — and that we thought we'd never see again — will do that to you.
And this was before news of the killing of a young father of three small children in Park Heights. Kendal Fenwick, shot to death Monday night, was the 295th homicide victim of the year.
The woman who wrote the letter was from Bellona-Gittings, in a very different part of town, the leafy and affluent north-central section of the city. She did not want her name mentioned. She said she was "just a concerned citizen." Here's what she's concerned about:
"Having traveled extensively since April, I have seen the unbelievable responses that are given when you say you're from Baltimore. Black and white, oriental — does not matter, the response is the same: 'That city is a war zone, a mess, a disaster. How do you live in that type of place with all the problems? Aren't you scared? ... I never will set foot in that city. It is a third world city in the US.'"
("Oriental"? I can think of only one person who still uses that term to describe Asian people or Asian-Americans, and he's a white man in his mid-70s and very comfortable with his old-world views.)
So the letter-writer's concern appears to be that everyone perceives Baltimore as a hellhole, a concern shared by many in the local tourism and entertainment industry (the restaurants and hotels, the small retailers who count on visitors) and something that should be of concern to all of us who remain invested in this city.
But our international image was really not the letter-writer's main concern. Her worries were more immediate.
"Go to my neighborhood," she wrote. "The criminals feel that the police are scared to touch. Cars constantly being broken into. Now brazen break-ins with people in the house. My neighbors, 9 at night, hear a window being broken by someone trying to break-in. Another woman comes downstairs to a dog bark; finds burglar behind her drapes at 2:30 am. We are talking one of the best neighborhoods in Baltimore.
"Finally, runners in [the Baltimore Running Festival] telling me of being yelled at with very nasty comments in the areas between Lake Montebello and Union Memorial Hospital, near York Road, with one woman almost hitting a runner trying to get past a barrier."
As you can see, this woman threw a lot at the wall, including hearsay about an incident far from her neighborhood during the recent marathon.
I checked crime reports for Bellona-Gittings, which had 246 households in the last census. For the five months of May through September, the Baltimore Police Department reported no homicides, no rapes, no robberies, no shootings. There were six property crimes (four burglaries and two larcenies from motor vehicles) and one auto theft.
As to the particular incidents described in the letter, I asked for more information in emails but heard nothing more from the woman. She was correct about a daytime assault and robbery in September in Homeland, another affluent neighborhood on the north side, but an incident she described as a robbery turned out to be a nighttime burglary of a liquor store.
I think it's safe to say that Bellona-Gittings is relatively safe — "relatively," of course, being a key word. If it's happening to you, or to your neighborhood, crime appears to be out of control.
A few years ago, as the crime numbers were trending down and Fred Bealefeld was police commissioner, both he and the two mayors he worked for, Sheila Dixon and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, talked about "perception" being worse than reality. They were sympathetic to people who still spoke of crime problems as if they had never changed or even gotten worse, despite positive trends and, in 2011, an annual homicide count below 200 for the first time in three decades. Still, Bealefeld and the mayors were quietly frustrated by the difficulty in convincing people that things were getting better.
Now, it's even harder: A pace for more than 300 homicides in the year, the first time that has happened since the dreary, crack-infested 1990s; citywide robberies up 15 percent, business robberies up 125 percent, carjackings up 79 percent, street robberies up 14 percent, burglaries up 11 percent.