As part of her violence reduction initiative, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has been meeting daily with the heads of every city agency. On Tuesday morning, she took another step, a walking tour of one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and a crowd of 30 city officials and police officers have gathered in an empty alleyway in the 1700 block of North Carey Street. Commander John Webb from the police department’s Western District greets the crowd.
“Good morning everyone! First of all welcome to the Penn/North walk in the Western District,” says Webb.
The mayor and Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa are the last to arrive.
“You know I know we come through here individually, but this is an opportunity for us to take a look at this area collectively and how we continue to work together,” says Pugh.
Back in November the mayor started daily meetings with heads of every city agency and police districts, but De Sousa says they realized they needed to get out into the community.
“So the mayor tasked us with coming outside and just walking and talking in the community and have a conversation and hear it from the citizens that are living in the seven communities that we’re doing the VRI,” says De Sousa.
Since Pugh initiated her strategy in November, violent crime has trended downward. But this month, the violence has erupted, with 29 homicides, nine of them in the western district.
De Sousa says that uptick is not related to the strategy.
“It was these two competing organizations that started doing retaliatory violence against each other,” says De Sousa. “We know who they are, we have their names.”
The mayor and her team come on a string of vacant homes between North Carey Street and North Calhoun Street where piles of garbage define the corners of an abandoned lot.
Annie Hall, who has lived here for more than 50 years and is president of the local community association, tells Pugh that illegal dumping and vacant homes are attracting more crime.
“If we can get some of these vacants cleared up. Spruce up some of these house,” Hall tells Pugh. “Then maybe we can deter that crime.”
“Well, we gonna do that we’ve taken down 11 so we know we’re going to do that part,” Pugh responds.
Pugh and Hall stop at North Carey and North Avenue, eyeing a row of vacant houses on North Avenue. Pugh asks Hall what is being done about them.
“All of those houses are being placed into receivership. So that we can build North Avenue back up,” explains Hall.
“Ok,” replies Pugh. “So when we walk back over here a year from now, we gonna see change?”
“Thank God,” shouts Hall.
The group turns east on North Avenue toward Pennsylvania where Life Riddick, 19, sits on the stoop of one store eating his breakfast sandwich. He shrugs at the heavy police presence.
“I don’t mind it, I don’t do anything too much bad so,” says Riddick. “Doesn’t bother me.”
The herd continues south down Pennsylvania Avenue, where Pugh enters the first of a string of small convenience stores, A & M Grocery, and begins peppering the owner, who doesn’t speak English, with questions.
“How many people get energy drinks? You’re not selling loose cigarettes, are you?” asks Pugh.
And what time does he close? An employee says 11:30 pm.
“Isn’t that late?”asks Pugh scrunching her nose.
“It be kind of quiet around that time,” the employee response for the owner.
“Nine P.M. would be better,” says Pugh. “Think about it.”
“We work on that,” responds the owner.
Pugh leaves. But the owner is not impressed with the idea of closing at 9.
“It don’t mean no problems or troubles after nine o’clock. It’s quiet, a few people walk around,” says the owner.
So, will he close at 9?
“No, I’m not giving you answer for that, as of right now we’re closing around 11- 11:30,” says the owner.
A few doors away, the mayor and De Sousa walk into the back of the Penn Super Mart. Shelves sit empty, the floor surface is uneven, and the back glass counter is sparsely stocked with a few pieces of meat inside. De Sousa and Pugh peer into the case looking for expiration dates on food.
“Health department. Where’s the health department? Health Department,” Pugh says in a loud voice.
D’Paul Nibber, director of legislative affairs for the department says, tells her the next inspection is scheduled for November. She tells him to move it up.
De Sousa says that 78 percent of their violence this year has occurred near businesses like these mini marts.
“We have to make sure those businesses are up to par and operating in the best interest of the city,” says De Sousa.
Pugh says that allowing multiple mini marts to be open until late at night doesn’t work for the community.
“How many mini markets do we need in one area? How many carry outs do we need in one area?” asks Pugh to the VRI team. “Come on you all. This is not a food desert. We can do better, and we gotta do better.”
And just as the walk through ends and Pugh and the others head off, a police siren blares. There’s a commotion at the corner of North Carey and North Avenue.
A group of officers have chased a young man down and are arresting him. They place him in a police and confiscate his bag. The senior officer pulls out a black and grey gun.
Carefully, he removes the magazine and a single gold bullet lodged inside the chamber ready to fire. And life at Penn North goes on.