BALTIMORE — Ground zero of the April 27 rioting in this city, at least symbolically, was the hard-knocks intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues. It’s where James Carter, a hood-savvy ex-crack peddler gone straight years ago, runs a cellphone store, and where Murshaun Young, bereft of prospects yet stubbornly hopeful, lingers on stoops, mulling how to escape his circumstances.
Each man dreams.
Young’s dream: “This house right here,” he says, chin-gesturing to a shabby, three-story tenement on West North. “There was an auction the other day. The house was going for, like, $5,000 initially.” Young, 27, says he pestered some of his pals in the corner drug trade, begging them to chip in cash with him. “I’m like, ‘Hey, we can get together $5,000. Buy it! Five bedrooms! And the first floor’s zoned for business!’ ”
He says: “Not only can we fix it up, rent out the five bedrooms, we can open up a business. You feel me? A legitimate business.”
Sneering, he lets out an exasperated hiss. “No one wants to. It’s like, who can I go to? I’m talking to drug dealers who do not understand the value of real estate.”
A few boarded-up doors away from Young’s dream rowhouse, Carter, 48, manages a Metro PCS outlet, close to where a CVS pharmacy is being built, the previous CVS having burned to a husk April 27 in a nationally televised arson.
That blaze formed an indelible video image from the civic mayhem sparked by Freddie Gray’s fatal encounter with Baltimore police, and the city’s Penn-North neighborhood came to be viewed as the epicenter of the widespread violence and looting.
Now, with six police officers accused of felonies in Gray’s death, the first of a half-dozen scheduled trials is underway, and the denizens of Pennsylvania and West North are waiting uneasily for justice. The small-fry merchants, the sidewalk habitues, the ubiquitous down-and-outers: They say they want truth and accountability.
In the meantime, at this crossroads smothered by despair, life trudges on, same as it ever was, long before you heard of Freddie Gray. There are dreams in Penn-North. But there’s also a crushing gravity, the weight of economic helplessness, which breeds frustration, which fueled the rage that exploded in violence more than seven months ago, and could again.
Carter’s dream: He’ll be a Metro PCS franchise titan in Maryland someday. He’ll pull dope dealers off the streets and give them honest jobs, open the gates to salvation.
“I’m thinking, two stores in Timonium, two in Towson, two in Owings Mills and 14 more down the Eastern Shore,” he says. And he’ll quit working at the franchise on West North, one of 20-plus outlets that belong to an absentee entrepreneur.
“When I can get the capital,” Carter says.
Opening one store costs about $40,000, he says.
“So I’ll definitely need investors.”
Until then, seven days a week, he stands behind the counter of a shop he doesn’t own, while nearby, Young sits idly on the stoop of a ramshackle house he can’t purchase. The core reason for the unrest in impoverished West Baltimore that awful day and night last spring, the two men say, was this: People have dreams that feel forever out of reach.
“It’s like, you teach a man to fish, he eats forever,” Young says. “You give a man a check, he’s just going to keep waiting around for another check. . . . You give him opportunities, you give him employable skills, teach him how to go out and get things for himself, legitimately, and you won’t have this bulls--- going on.”
In that sense, all is static at Pennsylvania and West North. The rioting erupted, the rioting abated. And Young shrugs. “Ain’t nothing changed out here.”
For weeks after the mayhem, the nonprofit Baltimore Development Corporation dispatched “geographic teams” to canvass nearly every block on the city’s west side and hand out offers of financial help for property repairs, according to spokeswoman Susan Yum.
“We identified a little over 400 businesses that had been directly impacted by the riots,” she says. Her group awarded 72 grants totaling $206,000 and issued 30 interest-free loans amounting to $660,000. Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development says it awarded about $1.4 million in loans to nearly 50 businesses and set aside an additional $2.7 million for other post-riot revitalization efforts.
As of last week, Yum says, about 380 of the more than 400 businesses had reopened, many of them small neighborhood markets and retail stores.
No one has come up with a reliable estimate of the overall financial cost of the unrest. Maryland officials told the federal government that police overtime, National Guard activation and damage to public buildings totaled $19.4 million. And by the end of July, three months after the rioting, the state says, insurers had paid $13 million in riot-related damage claims by merchants and residents.
Gray, 25, was chased by police April 12 because he made eye contact with an officer on a West Baltimore street, then ran, authorities say.
As prosecutors tell it, Gray was arrested illegally and suffered a severe spinal injury while being criminally manhandled. He died a week later in a hospital. The six accused officers are set to go on trial one after another, starting with Officer William G. Porter, charged with involuntary manslaughter and other offenses. Testimony in his trial began Dec. 2, and the prosecution rested its case Tuesday.
Amid nationwide concern about overzealous police conduct, particularly in poor communities, the fiery rioting after Gray’s funeral put Baltimore on TV screens across the country, damaging Charm City’s brand, civic boosters say.
After a few convention cancellations last spring, however, that segment of the tourism economy is booming again, says Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city’s official marketing organization. “Our first-quarter numbers, July to September, were almost double what they were last year,” he says, referring to convention bookings.
“Leisure tourism,” meaning day trippers and weekend visitors, also dipped in the weeks after the unrest, and some restaurants and attractions continue to struggle. Still, as with the convention business, the overall numbers for the leisure part of the tourism trade have steadily edged back up, Noonan says.
Four miles from Pennsylvania and West North, on the 12th floor of the 40-story Transamerica Tower near the Inner Harbor, the Visit Baltimore staff is busy planning for the months ahead: a waterfront holiday celebration, a college basketball tournament, music concerts, a festival-of-lights extravaganza — all downtown, from now to April.
“When this initially happened, we figured we’d be in it for a year,” Noonan says of the rioting. “Right up to the one-year anniversary media opportunity. And the trials. We’d be in it until this coming April, probably, and that would be it.”
In Penn-North, they’re in it for more than a year.
“You know what comes to mind?” Carter says in the cellphone store, discussing the spate of trials. “The L.A. riots.” If there’s a perception in West Baltimore that justice has been thwarted, as there was in Los Angeles after the 1991 police beating of motorist Rodney King, “they’ll turn this city upside down, believe me.”
Gesturing to a window, he says: “You look out there. You see those people? If you treat them like human beings, they’re going to act like human beings. That’s my philosophy around here. If you treat them like dogs, they’re going to act like a pack of wild dogs.”
Carter’s side of West North, between Pennsylvania and North Carey Street, is a forlorn stretch of three-story brick tenements with storefronts — Hair Jazz, A&M Grocery, a payday lender, Smitty’s Furniture, Tax Pro$ (“No cash kept on premises”) — and is anchored at one end by the upstairs rowhouse law office of Ike Dixon. “Bankruptcy, Criminal Defense, Personal Injury,” his sign reads, the gamut of legal concerns in Penn-North.
In the mass of ever-shifting foot traffic, the faces seldom change. Elderly women with market baskets and old men with canes show up, vanish, then reappear later down the street. Knots of young people in hoodies and Timberlands loiter on stoops, break apart, wander to other clusters and, in a while, regroup elsewhere on the block, on different stairs.
They’ll tell you that the mobs of rioters here at ground zero came from outside the neighborhood. The 24-year-old looter who torched the CVS, igniting a fire in the paper-goods aisle in view of a surveillance camera, lived a mile away in Reservoir Hill. He pleaded guilty to a federal crime and was sentenced to 48 months in prison.
“A lot of our senior citizens depended on that CVS for their medicine,” Carter says ruefully. He has a soulful voice and flecks of graying hair — gray that was “hard earned” in his misspent younger years, he says.
After growing up in a tough pocket of northwest Baltimore, he was arrested twice for carrying loaded handguns in the early 1990s, when he was in his mid-20s. He says he was a cocaine dealer then. He says he stopped selling drugs 23 years ago, after the birth of his first child, and did a five-year hitch in the Navy. He says he smoked crack for a time after his girlfriend died in 2010. And there have been other indiscretions along the way.
Now he carries himself with a military bearing. “I tell these kids down here, ‘Learn from an old guy’s mistakes,’ ” Carter says.
Out front sweeping, or taking the sun, or dragging on a Newport, he has a pleasant word for all who pass. “Mister James,” the drug boys call him, politely. He counsels them, but never nags. And there’s a rapport: The boys don’t hang on the Metro PCS stoop or duck into the store to do deals. But if they bop in at night, asking to recharge a cellphone during their business hours, Carter will gladly oblige.
In return, they’ll leave a few dollars in a kitty under the counter, to help customers who are light in the wallet when they stop in to pay their bills.
“They’re just trying to survive,” says Carter, whose workplace was only slightly damaged by the rioting. “When I see people selling drugs, I see a question: Why are you selling drugs? Is it to put a roof over you? Is it to feed your kids? Because jobs are scarce, very scarce. And once you have a criminal record, nobody wants to look at you.”
He says, “They got their backs against the wall.”
And he says he’s going to change that.
“The way I want to set up all my stores is, you show me an ID, you show me a Social Security card, and you’re hired, let’s do this thing,” Carter says. “I don’t care if they were locked up. Because I know they want to do the right thing.”
He says: “I tell them, ‘Just hold tight.’ I tell them, ‘As I open my stores, if you can sell that crap out here, you got a talent for selling.’ I tell them, ‘You can come work for me.’ ”
As soon as he gets the capital.
Murshaun Young, street name “Freezer” (“Like up top the frigerator”), is as bright and funny as anyone you’ll meet on a West North stoop.
He graduated in 2006 from Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High, a magnet school for information technology; he studied at Baltimore City Community College for a while, then went to trade school to become a pharmacy technician. “I finished the training, but when they gave me a drug test, I didn’t pass that,” he says. “Sooo . . . yeah, yeah.”
On the corners, one thing led to another, and he caught some possession charges. He has one case pending, to wit: “controlled dangerous substance, not marijuana.”
Tall and slender, and frenetically animated at times, he speaks with the stagy cadence of a stand-up comic, his eyes dancing.
Place of residence? “With friends; I got a spot.” Occupation? He guffaws and looks at you askance, and a minute later, when he’s finished laughing, he says: “What I do, I sur-vive. . . . Yeah, write that down. . . . I sur-vive.” The rest of his biography is an old story in these parts.
“I grew up in a rough environment,” Young says. “My mom really doesn’t have much, you feel me? Like, she really couldn’t provide the Gucci and the Prada and everything they go for on TV. The people who glorify this are the hip-hop, the rappers. . . . So how do you get it? You sell drugs, right? And as a kid, I’m thinking the only way to get this stuff, easily, is to sell drugs. So what are you going to do?”
He says: “And then you turn 18, and you’re locked up for a drug charge. Cocaine. Now you got a drug charge. Now you can’t get a legitimate job. But it’s easy to get money selling drugs. So that’s what you do. You sur-vive, you sur-vive.”
Young likes to read and keep up with municipal affairs. He’ll offer a stinging critique of the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. He has some highly developed socioeconomic theories, which, like many of his ideas, he expresses in streety metaphors. He’ll also hold forth on world history. And he has a whole speech about gentrification, about the expansions of Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“That’s why I’m trying to run for mayor,” he says. “It’s like this: If you give somebody a pack of drugs to sell, and they f--- up your pack of drugs, are you going to give them more? So if you vote for someone” — Rawlings-Blake — “and they don’t do their job, why would you vote for that same person again? You could vote for me.”
His voicing trailing off, he says, “I would like to, yeah.” But certain impediments to a campaign keep occurring to him: “I got too much s--- going on, too much s--- behind me.”
In the weeks after criminal charges were filed against the six officers, many of their colleagues, demoralized and fearful of being second-guessed, seemed to dial down their enforcement tempo on the streets. And Young, like others, took notice.
“They just backed off,” he says. “You could do whatever the f--- you wanted to out here for, like, a month.” In that environment, from late April to late May, the city recorded more than 30 homicides — a startling total even for Baltimore, which has long been notorious for its high murder rate. As of Tuesday morning, 322 people had been slain here this year, compared with 152 in Washington, a city of comparable size.
As for what will come next, as the trials unfold and folks in West Baltimore look for justice, as they define it, Young shrugs.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he says. “The day they burned that CVS down, I told the CNN reporter, I told him: ‘The stuff they’re doing right now is minuscule. It’s a fraction of what people are actually capable of doing.’ So, I don’t know. Like, if they get slapped in the face again? I’m pretty sure they’re going to react.”
One day last month, Young saw a real-estate flier advertising the Nov. 23 auction of the distressed rowhouse at 1627 W. North, the address of one of his stoops.
With the starting bid set to be $5,000, Young immediately sought to form a syndicate.
“I told them, ‘Donald Trump made most of his money off real estate.’ I’m like, ‘We can open a store in the front, a barbershop in the back. Make money off it! Then you rent out all the bedrooms upstairs, $400 apiece, maybe. You get all your money back!’ ”
He says he tried to explain the bidding process to his friends. “My actual plan was, we get that $5,000 together and just kind of — what’s the proper word? The word to say that nobody else was going to get to bid more than $5,000 on that?”
Right of first refusal?
“Nah. . . . I was going to say, ‘Extortion.’ But not your typical extortion. But, yeah, something like that.” He grins and says: “I’m trying to tell you nicely. I mean, someone might have thought they were going to come down here and raise their hand for more than $5,000.” Still smiling, he shakes his head. “Nope, nope.”
The corner boys wouldn’t go for it, though, and the house sold for $21,000.
Now Young is perched out front, shoulders hunched against a late autumn wind.
“It just didn’t click with them,” he says of his pals. “They didn’t get it. It was like trying to tell somebody that lived in the 1300s that the Earth is a big circle, and we’re floating around in the middle of nothing, revolving around this big, hot ball. They’re going to look at you like you’re crazy or something.”
Recalling his friends’ reaction, he says, “They were like, ‘Yeah, you keep on with that, and your mayor idea, and we’ll holler at you.’ ”
He falls silent on the stoop for a moment, then shrugs again.
“Would have been a gold mine.”
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