Trying to give thanks in one of Baltimore's worst years ever

Baltimore's 2015 has been among the worst, but we're still here, we don't give up

It's the public part of giving thanks that poses a challenge this year, the idea that there must be, perhaps in a Thanksgiving Eve newspaper column, some accounting of the things for which an entire municipality should be grateful. But I'm not feeling it. What I'm feeling instead are potholes. I'm sitting by the window of an MTA bus, watching the city go by as dusk falls, and the potholes rattle my bones. Could Baltimore have had a worse year than 2015?

I wasn't here in 1904, but that must have been pretty bad for our mustachioed ancestors. A fire destroyed the downtown business district. The honorable mustaches rebuilt the place within a couple of years, but the young mayor who guided the city through that trauma killed himself.

The year 1918 was no party, either. The most insane war in history stopped, but the Great Influenza killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. Deaths from the virus reached at least 650,000 in the United States, more than 4,000 of them in Baltimore.

In 1968, there were riots, and they were much larger in scope than the rioting that broke out here in April. The riots of 1968 went on for three days. Six people were killed, 700 injured. There were 800 fires and 1,000 small businesses looted or burned out. You look at those numbers and wonder how the city came back at all. In fact, some parts of the city never did.

I'm sitting on the rattling bus and thinking about our collective municipal experience, the crucible that Baltimore became in 2015. I'm thinking of the rioting on April 27 and all the problems that it laid bare, and all the homicides since then. We are over 300 and counting for the year, numbers we have not seen since the crackhead 1990s. We've reached a level of per-capita killings this city has never seen before.

An email pops up on my phone. It's from Steve Dixon, chief operating officer of the Penn North Recovery Center on North Avenue. The subject line is: "Kendal Fenwick." That's the name of the young man who was shot to death outside his home in Park Heights a couple of weeks ago. He's the one with the three little kids. He was building a fence around the house to keep the drug dealers from walking through, and that effort might have made him a target for some thug with a gun.

"I was horrified," Dixon writes. "I was one of his counselors at Northwestern High School. I remember how happy Kendal was on Senior Day. That was about six years ago. I only saw him twice after his successful high school years. Once a few years ago he told me that he was getting his commercial driver's license. Then I saw him in the gas station on the corner of North and McCulloh about a month or so ago. I asked him about the guys that he went to school with and he told me that he didn't see them much because they were stuck in some street stuff. Kendal was adamant and serious about not agreeing or participating in street life. When I read about his death I sat up in the bed and screamed. It really, really grieved my spirit. He was a very good guy and the 300-plus murders so far this year are crushing the soul of this city, but Kendal's murder was especially sad ..."

I get depressed thinking about all this — a city with so much promise and so much pain. I like when the bus stops and students from the Baltimore School For the Arts get on. It might be the end of a long day, but they almost always seem bright and cheerful, one of them with electric-blue hair, and I'm grateful for that, the sight of young people who sing and dance and study music and art in the city of Baltimore.

I look out the window. Mount Vernon Square looks as superb as ever, the Washington Monument scrubbed clean for its bicentennial this year, and well lighted. The sidewalks on Charles Street, approaching the University of Baltimore and Penn Station, are full of people. The bars and restaurants are busy at happy hour. There are people going to the movies, people waiting for buses.

Same city. Same city as the one with all the senseless killings, and all the edgy uncertainty about its future. Same city.

I don't know if it relieves Dixon's anguish and anger, but dozens of neighbors and police officers went to Fenwick's house on Park Heights a few days after his death and finished the fence he started. They dug holes, poured cement, nailed the fence in place and planted flowers. That counts for something. We should give thanks that the city still has people like that, people who won't give up on Baltimore, no matter how bad things get. We're still here.

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