It only took Michael Harrison, Baltimore’s new police commissioner, a few days on the job to express what some of our local political, community and law enforcement leaders have failed to figure out over the last half a century.
Responding to a 24-hour span late last week in which 14 people were shot and five killed, Harrison called this “totally unacceptable.”
Around the city, such an observation marks Harrison as a quick study. There are mayors, City Council members, and police and prosecutors who go through the motions every year. They compute the body counts, and nothing that leads to last week’s madness changes, including the empty words that come out of their mouths.
I write this as I look at a photograph from the Feb. 23 edition of The Sun. Five uniformed city police officers stand across from St. Ambrose Catholic Church at the scene of a shooting at Sumter and Park Heights avenues, where we had one of the 14 shootings.
I’ve driven through the area thousands of times over the years and find it increasingly tougher to remember when it didn’t make my eyeballs bleed. Long ago, Park Heights was one of the city’s proudest boulevards. For the post-war generation that settled above Park Circle, if you landed anywhere along Park Heights, you felt as if you’d found a piece of the American middle class.
For Jews who were a big part of it, many even had an affectionate nickname for it: “the golden ghetto.”
But now so much of it looks like rust and decay and the stuff of broken dreams. Every few years, I drive slowly up and down Park Heights, counting and counting, from Belvedere Avenue in the shadow of Pimlico Race Course, down to Park Circle, and then back up again, a total distance of maybe two miles.
I make this trek just to count the bodies – not of human beings but of houses, which once comforted families and now are empty, boarded up, falling down, and trash all over the place, many looking as though God, on a real bad day, got angry and let loose some real serious thunderbolts.
I made such a drive Sunday afternoon. From Belvedere down to Park Circle, there were 48 homes that are utterly empty, boarded up or falling down, roofs caved in, walls falling down. On the way back up, 49 such homes. My count may be off by one or two, but it’s pretty close.
Plenty of these were big, stately homes. When the original owners moved out, in the white exodus to suburbia, a lot of the owners were so frantic to leave that they turned the properties over to professional landlords. They, in turn, realized they could multiply their profits by turning these single-family houses into units for two or three or more families.
The homes went downhill, and so did entire blocks. A sense of despair kicked in, and so did the drug trafficking and the violence that inevitably follows. Lower Park Heights Avenue is a municipal disgrace, and has been for more than half a century.
And everybody at City Hall has watched this happen, and every one of them has found a way to lie about it and declare great changes are on the way, including the current leadership.
And if this new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, means it when he finds violence in the city “totally unacceptable,” he can take a little drive along lower Park Heights, and when his eyeballs stop bleeding he can march over to City Hall and ask somebody, “How can such a thing happen, and nobody in all those years comes up with some ideas to make it stop?”
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.