BALTIMORE—It could hardly feel more hip in downtown Baltimore, with the pedestrian bridges arching from pier to pier of the Inner Harbor, strewn with millennial mainstays such as Whole Foods, Shake Shack, and The Cheesecake Factory, overseen by the giant neon lights of the Hard Rock Cafe and traversed by sharp-dressed young men and women on app-rented electric scooters.
However, it’s only a 10-minute bus ride westward to one of the most depressed areas in America. There’s no buzz here. No scooters. In fact, on some blocks, there’s barely a living soul.
“You got to be really strong here,” said Danny (not his real name), an owner of a small grocery store in one of the most notorious West Baltimore neighborhoods.
Some blocks away, in the middle of the day, a man is sitting on the stairs in front of one of the row houses, thousands of which stand empty and neglected, as the city bleeds residents. He said if somebody stands there and talks to him, police think he’s selling drugs.
A man several blocks away intimated that he used to be a drug dealer. He said youth in the area are going ”crazy” because the government shut down recreation facilities long ago. Everybody used to comingle at those places, he said, and people had to behave themselves if they didn’t want to be kicked out. That actually helped people get along.
Now, he said, people are just depressed. Youth with nothing to do are killing each other. It was also a bad idea, he said, to combine elementary and middle schools, exposing younger children to bad influences from teenagers.
The government is more interested in giving opportunities to new immigrants than helping the people already here, he said. A few other locals expressed a similar sentiment.
Several blocks away, two young men, perhaps 18 years old, stood on a street corner with a younger boy, perhaps 13. It wasn’t clear what they were talking about, but it seemed one of the older ones was chastising the boy, telling him to work harder. A bunch of cash in the young man’s hand offered a clue. Danny explained that some young adults are making younger boys sell drugs for them, since the young ones are likely to get more lenient treatment when busted. He didn’t want his name published for fear of retaliation.
Three times somebody has tried to break into his store. Once, he punched a man who was trying to steal from him. The man left, called the police, and Danny was almost arrested himself.
“The city, they don’t do nothing. Not even the cops. Instead of helping you, they’re against you,” he said.
He showed a trash-strewn area behind his store used by drug addicts. Pointing to the debris on the ground, he explained that the small pieces of glass are crack cocaine vials. The small ones go for $10 each, the larger ones for $20—apparently common knowledge for a small business owner in the area.
“I don’t like it here,” he said, his eyes welling with tears as he remembered his family that he left behind years ago in another city, another state.
Still, he has hope.
Crime in Baltimore
The city has long had a crime problem, but it was gradually getting better. In 2011, it saw 197 homicides—a shocking number given its modest size, but still the lowest since 1977.
That all changed on April 12, 2015. Six police officers failed to secure Freddie Gray, 25, in the back of a police van after his arrest for illegal knife possession. Gray’s neck was broken during the ride to the police station. A week later, shortly before Gray died at a hospital, activists gathered to protest in front of the police station. His name was used to bolster the narrative that police were killing black people out of racial prejudice on a national scale—an assertion disputed in research.
In the weeks ahead, the protests escalated into riots. More than a dozen police officers were injured; some stores were looted and burned. Maryland Gov. Lawrence Hogan deployed the National Guard to the city and, for several days, imposed a curfew. The protests died down after State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the officers involved would be charged.
But something in the city changed. Homicides jumped from 15 in March to 22 in April and a whopping 42 in May, remaining unusually high thereafter. The body count reached 344 in 2015—a number only surpassed by the record year of 1993.
More recently, city leaders made a big deal of the crime wave’s abating in 2018, but the numbers are up again this year, on par with 2015’s carnage. Baltimore is, hands down, the most violent city with a population above 500,000.
Not all of Baltimore is like this, though. Many areas in the south, east, and north of the city are virtually free of such lawlessness.
On the contrary, the homicide rate in the West Baltimore zip code, with only about 25,000 residents, was 134.7 per 100,000 in 2018—more than 25 times the national average. With 25 slayings this year so far, the area is on pace for yet another record.
The most affected neighborhoods appear to be Carrollton Ridge (four homicides this year) and Franklin Square (five homicides) in the west and Sandtown-Winchester (six slayings this year) in the northwest.
Much of the recent crime wave has been blamed on the police disengaging, jaded by a lack of support from city leadership. They still respond to 911 calls, but don’t go out of their way to intervene as much as before.
“What officers are doing is, they’re just driving looking forward,” Kevin Forrester, a retired Baltimore detective, told the USA Today in 2017. “They’ve got horse blinders on.”
After Gray’s death, the Obama Justice Department forced the city into a consent decree (pdf) that, among other things, demanded more detailed paperwork for every stop-and-frisk by the officers. It also forbade them from using only “boilerplate” language, such as “proximity to the scene of suspected or reported crimes” in the paperwork. Arrests for low-level crimes, such as disorderly conduct, now must be cleared with a supervisor first, “unless not practicable.”
The concern was that officers were stopping and arresting people for no good reason. It’s not clear, though, how much the increased administrative burden helped.
Moreover, training on how to conduct and document stops and arrests in line with the decree has only been planned for this year. The more substantive reforms, such as moving toward community policing, are set to begin next year or even further in the future. So far, it seems officers are just avoiding the paperwork by conducting fewer stops and arrests.
Michael Harrison, who has been police commissioner since March, is the fourth person in the role since the beginning of 2018. He’s a veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, which he headed during that city’s own consent decree process.
He recently announced a “crime plan” for Baltimore that calls for focusing on areas where violent crime is concentrated, checking in more frequently with local businesses, engaging more with the community, cutting response time to a maximum of 10 minutes, and more.
The local police union slammed the plan as untenable. “There are not enough Officers to even respond to the number of calls to 911,” Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in a July 30 statement.
Since 2017, the department has lost more than 400 officers and other staff. That’s a major hit for a 3,000-strong agency.
“Any crime plan must begin with the stark reality of the current resources available, not the resources that are desired,” Mancuso said. “Those resources must certainly include Police Officers!”
It goes without saying that Baltimore’s problems go way beyond an understaffed police department. As with Chicago, the breeding ground for the violence in Baltimore was paradoxically fertilized by the arrests of prominent gang leaders in the past decade, according to Patrick Burke, a reporter and expert on gang violence. The perception of lawlessness during the 2015 riots then emboldened the gangs’ underlings to take matters into their own hands. With the top-down control dissolved, profit and personal grudges took priority as they went on to try to kill their foes. The downward spiral of vengeance ensued.
What makes the youth join gangs in the first place? Depression, isolation, and bad incentives, it seems. There’s really not much to do for young people in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Sports centers and hobby clubs are few. Schools don’t provide much hope, either. Less than 18 percent of Baltimore public school students are proficient in math. Only about 25 percent are proficient in English by the time they get to high school. (pdf).
Many children in the neighborhood are “not guided,” Danny said. “Nobody’s investing in them.”
The culture of gangs and drugs, on the other hand, is already generational and the opportunities abound.
The surroundings aren’t a pretty sight, either.
The city has more than 16,000 uninhabitable houses, concentrated in the crime-ridden areas. Often decrepit eyesores, the deserted century-old row houses lend their blocks a bleak, forsaken air. They add to the crime too—a refuge to drug addicts, a hideout for criminals. And then there’s the fire hazard. The homeless often sneak in and use candles. While they tend not to care much for fire safety, they care even less while on drugs.
Fires abound, said David, a 15-year veteran of the city’s fire department, who declined to provide his last name. There’s been an arsonist-at-large in the area for a year as well, David said. Just a few days ago, that person set 11 vacant houses on fire in one night. Moreover, battling the blazes in these buildings is extra dangerous for the firefighters and injuries are common, he said. Just recently, a colleague of his was buried under a collapsed ceiling.
In the past, Baltimore’s declining population has been blamed on blockbusting real estate schemes, as well as the collapse of its steel industry and manufacturing. But those trains have long departed. Today, the residents just seem to be voting with their feet.
What to do about the empty houses then? “Fix them up and put people in them,” one of the locals suggested. But it’s not that simple.
Houses in the neighborhood are already dirt-cheap, going for as little as $6,000 for those that need substantial repairs. But rents are still surprisingly high, around $1,000 a month or more, utilities not included. Locals largely rent. With their credit low or nonexistent, they can’t quite put the money together to buy a home. And if they do, they’d rather move to the safer suburbs. Another factor is that the city’s property tax is more than twice as high as in surrounding counties and even further above the rest of the state, giving yet more incentive to leave to anybody lucky enough to climb into the middle class.
There are millennials moving in, interested in the urban lifestyle, but they huddle around the downtown area, where their jobs are.
Islands of Hope
Danny believes the city will turn around. Even his neighborhood, eventually.
“It’s getting better, but it takes time,” he said. “It’s going to be like Boston within maybe five years.”
He pointed to big players such as John Hopkins Hospital and the Maryland Institute College of Art that are buying and fixing real estate around their campuses. But they are expected to rent to their own staff, rather than locals. It’s also not clear whether the rejuvenation efforts will reach Danny’s neighborhood in the foreseeable future.
Some of the most dangerous people in the area are gone too, Danny said. But that’s because they either moved, went to prison, or were killed, he added.
To fix the fabric of the community itself is a different story. That’s not to say there aren’t people trying, though. The Wilkens Ave. Mennonite Church has run a food donation program for the past three years; a farmer from Pennsylvania drives in a truck of fruit and vegetables every week and locals pay $20 for the whole season or need to volunteer three times to get the food. Rather than dependency, the initiative promotes commitment and gratitude, not to mention a healthier diet.
The church has run a school too. It started in the 1990s to take in some of the children who were, at the time, often dropping out after sixth grade. It costs just $25 a month, due to outside donations. Here, the teachers care about the children learning, while at a public school, they didn’t, one of the students said.
The government is helping too, here and there. It tears down some of the worst abandoned houses, for instance. But it’s a months-long process. For the most part, locals were under the impression that City Hall was doing nothing for them.
One of the local prostitutes who roam the streets around the church once attended its service. Linda Johnson, a longtime member of the church, felt a calling to talk to her. She got to know the girl and eventually took her in. She fed her, cared for her, even performed an exorcism for the girl. After nine months, she left. Then later, she returned to the church to say thank you. She looked healthy and said she was able to get her children back.
“You need to acknowledge people,” Johnson said. “They’re worth something.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly characterized the relationship between research and the assertion that police have been killing black people out of racial prejudice on a national scale. The assertion is disputed in research.