Someone shot and killed my nephew last month in Park Heights. He was 26.
Like so many other black Baltimore families, I guess it was our turn to huddle outside of the entrance to Sinai Hospital’s emergency room. To look through Justin Fenton’s Twitter feed for confirmation or scroll through the comments of @murder_ink_bmore’s Instagram posts for a hint of wtf happened.
He is murder #289 in the City of Baltimore.
He had just gotten out of jail in July.
Yeah yeah… He could’ve — should’ve really turned it around…
But the truth of the matter is that he did the best with what he was given, what Baltimore gave him.
Born to a closet addict in the ‘90s, he landed as a newborn in a rented room off of North Avenue behind the Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters, and in later years was raised by his mother's friend on Castle Street and North Avenue, surrounded by vacant houses. North Avenue is a major corridor that runs west to east through the entire city, and in the ‘90s, nowhere along that road was safe or decent to live.
With lead-infused blood and attention deficient disorder, he was barely literate graduating his zoned elementary school (the ADD pills made him feel sluggish).
Using funds meant to help poor families find affordable places to live, Baltimore's public housing agency has paid nearly $6.8 million to satisfy long-standing court judgments against it for lead poisoning suffered by six former residents when they were young children years ago.
By By Timothy B. Wheeler and Scott Calvert
Aug 14, 2013 | 5:01 AM
By middle school, his mother, who never looked like she struggled with addiction, had died from complications of HIV and a mother figure had died from what appeared to be diabetes. He was now in and out of juvenile group homes, therapy sessions and youth programs.
From selling water and candy up and down East North Avenue, he was promoted to selling weed.
I’m his second cousin. His mother and I were first cousins. He and I adopted the term “aunt” to describe me because it was easier to say “aunt” than give the long explanation as to why and how we were related. Also “aunt” had both authority as well as an endearing nature, as if he was being cared for by his mother’s sister, the next best.
By the time he landed with me while attending his zoned Baltimore City public high school — after stays with other extended family members in more stable home environments and neighborhoods — there was no inspirational chat left that could reach him, no mentor who could connect with him, no amount of new clothes or fresh kicks that could make him feel brand new.
Park Heights is where he found his crew — a community among the other lost men and addicts. Like many other regions of Baltimore City, there are large portions in the community of Park Heights (21215) that are socioeconomically depressed. Those areas should be considered third world: a (drug) war zone.
With a forehead tattoo obtained in his late teens, trademark braids, stints in and out of jail, and a long criminal record, his commitment to Zone 15 was sealed. He operated within the blocks of vacant housing and corner stores in Park Heights as a menace to police, unreached by social programs — simply hustling, laughing, drinking, popping pills, smoking and selling weed; picked up, locked up, on probation. Repeat.
Death was a constant factor. Along with the death of his mother and maternal figure, two of his closest neighborhood friends were killed in ‘09 and ‘10 along the Garrison and Liberty Heights corridor. I believe he was present (running for his life) for at least one of those killings. A few years ago he was beat down and left for dead along Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak, in the space next to the vacant theater across from ShopRite. In addition, another childhood friend was locked up for murder in 2014. That is not including all of the other young men living in Northwest Baltimore City that he may have known who are now dead.
My nephew/cousin was good-natured, light-hearted, funny and forgiving — and high energy, from the time he was a boy. Despite a record (two whole pages on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website), he did not harm anyone that I know of and was not known to tote a firearm. He just wanted to survive. He was gentle enough to sleep on the couch or in the basement of many friends and older adults who trusted him in their homes for a night or two. Although he was routinely kicked out of my house or his sister’s home, he was still an active and loved family member. We slid him a 20 or necessities if we could. On cold nights we let him stay. He was an uncle/friend to his nephews, picked up his son on occasion after school and had a girlfriend. He was asked to be on time for family functions.
Some days he looked high.
The last time we saw him he looked good.
He just got out of jail in July.
Yeah yeah… He could’ve, should’ve really turned it around…
While Episcopal Community Services of Maryland has a successful track record of working with Baltimore's formerly incarcerated population, we need to constantly look for ways to do even more. Every year, roughly 10,000 people leave prison and return to Baltimore City; 4,000 of them — 40 percent — will return to prison within three years. This must change.
By Nancy Fenton
Mar 30, 2015 | 12:24 PM
With this last jail stint, exhausted — I just couldn’t do it anymore: be that cheerleader, show up for the counseling sessions, be the contact for his probation, pay for cell phones and research training programs.
I wonder if there really is a clear path of social programs and housing programs that could have assisted with his redemption, especially when he got out of jail. What do you do when you made mistakes in your youth, and are now entering adulthood and in need of a pathway to turn it around?
Jeez — he didn’t kill anyone; he sold weed. Had he been rich, white and lived in Hampden, he could’ve opened a dispensary. Had he lived in the Midwest, the president would have called it all a crisis.
Where do you find hope if your every day is surrounded by vacant housing and addicts?
Were the ADD meds, weed, alcohol and pill popping a direct result of being born from an addicted mother or raised in lead-filled housing?
A menace, my nephew. But he represents our young black brothers, cousins, boyfriends, fathers (he leaves behind a 5-year-old son) — the part of Baltimore, very poor, left behind and Un-Revitalized; Un-Gentrified.
Sunny Luisa Cooper is a graduate of Baltimore City College High School and Coppin State University. She has a Masters Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan and lives and works in Baltimore City. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @sunliteshyne.