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Safe at Home?

As Property Values in Canton Rise, so Do Concerns About Violent Crime--Whether Anyone's Talking About It or Not

Jefferson Jackson Steele
It Could Happen Here: In March, a man was murdered on South Luzerne street in Canton
The Can Company development
O'Donnell Square, in the heart of Canton
Safety First: Canton Community Association crime and public safety chair Virginia Rouse and president Kim Stallwood (below) discussed crime issues with residents who attended a Canton Community Association Meeting in March.
Talk Amongst Yourselves: Jackie Gilbert, president of the Southeast Community Organization, says residents of Canton need to speak out about crime.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/7/2003

At about 8:30 on the evening of April 12, Michael Palaia was at his Eastern Avenue home, watching television and waiting for his friend, Martin Cross, to stop by. They had talked earlier in the day, and Cross told Palaia that he'd be over some time after 7.

"I was just sitting on the couch, eating, watching the tube," he says. "And I heard a knock on my door. And he has a key, so I didn't answer the door right away. But after the third knock, I was like, 'Okaaaay.'

"I walked over and I looked out the window, and it looked like somebody with a crazy latex Halloween mask was standing outside. I didn't think it was my friend at first. He was leaning against the door, and there was blood all over the window, and he was bleeding out of his ear and eye. And then I started to recognize his bald head."

On his way to Palaia's, Cross had been jumped. A group of teenage boys with boards and pipes attacked him as he walked down Eastern near the corner of Ellwood Avenue. He was beaten so badly, Palaia says, that at first he thought his friend had been hit by a bus. His face was disfigured, and he had three compound jaw fractures and several skull fractures.

"He couldn't really talk," Palaia says. "His jaw was fractured, his mouth was full of his teeth, his tongue was swollen. . . . He was trying to figure out what happened, and his pupils weren't doing the same thing, and he was in shock."

Two surgeries and a wired jaw later, Cross was finally released from the hospital last week.

This wasn't the first such attack in Palaia's neighborhood in Hampstead Hill, which is part of Canton to the north of O'Donnell Square and immediately south of Patterson Park. On April 1, just a few days before Cross was beaten, Palaia says a "loiterer" pushed him through the front doorway of his house at knifepoint, asking for a cigarette and help getting back to Essex.

And on April 3, another friend of his, LeeRoy Allen, was attacked by a gang of teenage boys wielding boards on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Spring Street. "It was stupid," Allen recalls. "I came around a corner, and I didn't see them. At first I thought maybe I startled them. They hit me in the chest with a board, and I thought I had scared them, and I was like, 'Hey, wait a minute guys.' There was, like, six of them." Allen managed to escape when a passerby stopped to help him.

After those three incidents, Allen says, they started asking questions. "Was this happening to other people?" Allen says. "All of our taxes are going up, but you still have to deal with all this stuff and you just don't see a lot of cops."

Palaia says the culprits of the attack on Cross--vaguely described only as a group of teen boys of different races, wearing long white T-shirts--were not caught, and he heard that there had been similar attacks in the neighborhood in previous weeks. Only a month earlier, a man named Ricky Nelson had been shot on the 600 block of South Luzerne Avenue after he walked out of a neighborhood bar. (Rumors abound about Nelson's murder--chatter in the neighborhood speculates that it was not a random attack.) And in the neighborhood, several reports of joggers being accosted in Patterson Park were making the gossip rounds.

Palaia and Allen say they were surprised not to see any of these incidents reported in the news. "You look at the Baltimore Sun or channel 11 or 13 and you're not going to get any of that," Allen says. "They're invested--they're more interested in turning over real estate deals for $300,000. But it's still Canton. It's still Highlandtown. Just because some yuppies moved in doesn't mean it's not."

So Palaia sent out an e-mail to friends and neighbors asking them to gather at the corner of Eastern and Ellwood avenues at 8 p.m. on April 16. "Some of us are taking up a foot patrol armed merely with cameras and each other," his message read. "We're going to take pictures of any groups fitting this description."

Palaia says that there was "a good showing" at the event, which included members of local community organizations such as Jean Pula, president of the Hampstead Hill neighborhood association. It was the lead story on WBAL-TV and WMAR-TV's 11 p.m. news broadcasts that evening. And since the event, he says his phone has been ringing off the hook. "It's crazy--I would get home to like 45 messages," he says, many of which were from others who claimed to have been victims of violent crime in the Canton area.

"There was one woman . . . who was pushing her baby carriage in daylight, and some crack whore came up to her and put a knife to her throat and said, 'Give me your money,'" he says. "That's on South Clinton Street in the middle of the afternoon. I've heard lots of stories like that. My phone was out of control."

Canton is a true urban-renewal success story. Its streets are filled with mostly tidy, turn-of-the-century brick and Formstone-covered rowhouses, and its residents are a mix of longtime middle-class residents, young families, and a recent influx of urban professionals.

Canton was once a neighborhood where many blue-collar families who worked at Baltimore's various industrial enterprises made their homes. But as industry fled the city beginning in the 1950s and '60s, the neighborhood declined. Property values dropped, and many of the residents who could left Canton for quieter homes in the suburbs. But in the late 1980s and early '90s, Canton experienced a surge in popularity. Though the neighborhood was in rough shape at the time, and property values were extremely low, the area's convenient location--close to downtown and right on the waterfront, adjacent to Fells Point--attracted prospective homeowners.

In 1996, Safeway opened a 55,000-square-foot supermarket. One of the first supermarkets constructed in the city in years, it helped spur a spike in commercial real estate prices in Canton. Shortly after that, local development powerhouse Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse expressed interest in renovating the deteriorating 300,000-square-foot complex that used to house the American Can Co. In 1998, the Can Company, as it is now known, reopened as a popular retail and commercial venue. Today, it's home to a wine store, an upscale home-décor store, a café, restaurants, hair salons, and offices. The boom caused by the Safeway and the Can Company's introduction to the area fueled an investment boom that's turned Canton's quaint, middle-class rowhouses into upscale, sought-after real estate. O'Donnell Square, at the heart of Canton, just a couple of blocks away from the Can Company, is now home to a thriving mix of residences, shops, nightspots, and restaurants.

Just a decade ago, a typical Canton rowhouse could be bought for as little as $34,000. Today, houses that sold for $40,000 or less in the early '90s are being assessed and sold for well over $100,000. The average price for a Canton home in 2002, according to the Live Baltimore Home Center, was $165,498--much lower than in Federal Hill, say, where the average 2002 price was $243,923. But while only 93 houses sold in Federal Hill last year, a whopping 499 houses were sold in Canton. The only other neighborhood that even comes close to Canton in terms of home sales is Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore, where 254 houses were sold in 2002.

According to data compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, no murders or rapes occurred in Canton at all in 2001. (The only other city neighborhoods that can boast such a claim are Greater Roland Park and Cross-Country/Cheswolde.) Whereas many neighborhoods in the city reported well over 100 violent crimes in 2001, only 48 violent crimes were reported in Canton. The area, statistics say, is relatively safe.

But is being relatively safe safe enough? Not, it seems, for some residents who are frustrated to see that despite escalating real estate prices, beautification efforts, and the construction of $200,000 luxury condos and townhomes on their streets, there are still well-known drug corners in their neighborhoods, and they might have drug addicts or prostitutes for neighbors.

The Canton Community Association, a neighborhood organization that promotes the beautification, stability, and safety of Canton, acknowledges that, like in any neighborhood in the city, crime can be a problem. The organization encourages its members to talk to local police officers and their neighbors about crime, and to "get involved" in keeping the streets safe. Virginia Rouse, crime and public safety chair for the Canton Community Association, says the CCA encourages residents to come forward with their questions or concerns and encourages them to be aware of what's going on in their neighborhoods by visiting the Baltimore Police Department Web site, where up-to-date information on crime statistics is available. At the organization's March meeting, president Kim Stallwood and Rouse addressed strategies for combating crime, and Rouse presented detailed crime statistics on the neighborhood.

Rouse also said that "it takes a village. Speaking as a Canton resident, I view Baltimore City and not just Canton as our village. It talks all of us villagers to deter crime by keeping our village from deteriorating physically and socially."

Most of the Canton residents City Paper spoke with did not want to give their names, but almost everyone interviewed for this story said they were becoming increasingly uneasy about crime in their streets. One local business owner says he's heard of groups of kids roaming the neighborhood, looking for people to rob; a woman who lives on the outskirts of Canton, near its border with Upper Fells Point, says, "it's getting worse around here all the time." Another talks of drug dealing, underage drinking, and "shady" clientele at a local bar notorious for being a source of neighborhood problems. Several people tell stories of friends or acquaintances being assaulted, harassed, mugged; they all seem frustrated that though the neighborhood has been thriving--and many of those residents interviewed noted that they had invested hefty sums to buy or rent rowhouses in the area--street crime is still a problem.

"I've certainly seen the quality of the homes improve," notes Palaia, who has lived in Canton since 1989. "And the quality of the vehicles parked in front of the homes has improved. But until last year, for most of the 13 years I've lived here--and I've been a walker and taken public transportation--I've never, ever, ever seen such a rapid decline in safety in this neighborhood. Let alone at the fault and hands of juveniles."

According to the Baltimore Police Department crime-mapping system, the number of aggravated assaults, murders, and armed robberies so far this year in the Canton area has jumped as the weather has improved. From Jan 19 through Feb. 1, there were four aggravated assaults reported to the police, one unarmed robbery, and three armed highway robberies (which is how the police Web site refers to carjackings or robberies from a vehicle). During the entire month of February, there were four aggravated assaults and one armed robbery. But in March, the crime maps report seven aggravated assaults, two armed robberies, four highway robberies, and one murder. For the month of April, data is only available to April 19. So far, according to police statistics, Canton residents have reported four aggravated assaults, one rape, two armed robberies, and one highway robbery. The police department public information office did not respond to repeated requests for comment or more detailed information on crime committed in Canton so far this year.

"This was never Guilford," says Jean Pula, current president of the Hampstead Hill Association. Pula, who grew up in Fells Point, bought her house in Canton 11 years ago, and she says her group has been "tracking crime in the area for a long time." She says that a lot of crime in the neighborhood--smaller crimes, or so-called nuisance crimes--have been eliminated. "But all you need are a couple of violent crimes, and everyone's upset."

Pula says that many of the people now living in Canton "did not grow up in Canton" and don't always realize that even though it's nothing like the neighborhoods portrayed in TV shows like The Wire, it still has crime issues. "A lot of crime is committed by people who live in this neighborhood," she says. "You can't move all the quote-unquote bad element out."

Jacqueline Watts, editor of the Baltimore Guide, a community newspaper that serves Baltimore's south and southeast neighborhoods, says that some crime is to be expected in any neighborhood in Baltimore--even a neighborhood like Canton. A longtime Southeast resident, she says that the crime rate in Canton seems stable to her. A few high-profile attacks have made news recently, she acknowledges, "but are you going to be safe if you leave a bar at 10:30 at night and walk to your car? Yes, I think so."

Nonetheless, Pula says her organization is working to curb crime where it very often starts: with kids. Like Palaia, Pula believes that the perpetrators of the recent assaults in Canton are young--14 to 22 years old, she estimates--and she would like to see them "brought to justice for their violence." And for the future safety of Canton, she hopes her organization--and other community organizations and the police officers that they work with--will search for ways to engage children in activities that will keep them off the street.

For example, she and incoming president Susan Thompson are organizing youth forums in Hampstead Hill to find out what the neighborhood can do to keep idle young people from causing trouble. "Sue and I found out that the one thing these kids want is a roller-skating rink," she says. "So Sue and I have been walking around the neighborhood looking for a possible spot. . . . With kids, when you leave them to their own devices, it usually turns out no good." Pula says her group has also been working with the police department's Southeast District to enforce the citywide curfew in Canton and other Southeast neighborhoods.

"With these guys who were attacked, I'm very worried about that," Pula says. "Are they being picked on specifically, or is this just random? To me, this indicates a trend."

She says that even though crime can be a difficult and "personal" thing for people to discuss, she'd like community residents to be more open and aware about the goings-on in their neighborhoods.

"I'm glad this is out in the open," she says. "I'm glad that people are motivated [to stop crime]. I don't like any kind of crime secrets."

The problem is, say some residents, that many people who have invested in Canton do want to keep quiet about crime. Jackie Gilbert, president of the Southeast Community Organization's board of directors and former crime chair for the Canton Community Association, says that there are two different Cantons--the more pristine Canton close to O'Donnell Square and the Can Company, and the less bucolic Canton a few blocks further away from its revitalized center. "I was one of the [community association] board members who lived closer to Patterson Park and the drug dealing and the prostitution," she says. "And folks just didn't want to understand how close those problems were."

And those who did understand, she says, would not let on that it was going on outside their front doors. "I know folks who have been assaulted and did not report it [to police] because they were afraid it would affect property values," Gilbert says.

At an April 28 Southeast Police District Community Relations Council meeting, Major Jack Long and Sgt. Rufus Dawson acknowledged that they would be making an extra effort this spring and summer to keep kids off the streets during curfew hours--11 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on weekends. Long also said that foot patrols in the district will be increased in areas that need them most. In addition, he said, the Citizens on Patrol program--in which a resident rides along with officers to identify criminal activity and suspects--will be revived around Patterson Park.

Long reassured the room full of more than 30 concerned Southeast citizens--elderly residents, young people, including Palaia, and neighborhood association representatives, including the Canton Community Association's Virginia Rouse--that though it may seem like "things are running wild out there," the area is still "not doing too bad, in terms of murders and shootings" and other violent crimes. In the entire Southeast District, there have only been eight murders so far this year, whereas other districts are reporting as many as five or six murders a night.

Pula agrees that Canton is relatively safe, as Long indicated. But she says that doesn't mean that people who live in the area should be less concerned about the crime that does occur. "If you relate us to the rest of the city, we live in a safe neighborhood," Pula says. "But that doesn't mean it's safe enough. It means our concept of safety has diminished."

For anyone who wants more information on crime in the neighborhood, the Canton Community Association encourages people to check in with the Baltimore Police Department Web site, which allows citizens to access crime statistics for the past 90 days. "Ongoing communication and being active in the community, even if it's just between neighbors, raises awareness," the Canton Community Association said in a statement e-mailed to City Paper earlier this week. "These are powerful weapons people can use to reduce and prevent crime."

Michael Palaia plans to sell his house this spring and move out of the city--but not, he insists, because of crime. He says he'd planned to move out anyway, but now he says he's ready to "get the hell out of here." He had pitched the idea of a group called PPATROLS--Possible Peaceful Alternatives to Restore Our Living Space--as a way to bring crime victims and concerned residents together. He wanted to get people talking and thinking about crime problems and solutions--and he wanted to make sure that the crimes against his friends did not get swept under the rug and forgotten.

He has been criticized by some residents for making a big commotion about his friends' beatings, stirring up a frenzy in the neighborhood, then not sticking it out to make things better. But he says it's up to the people who stay in Canton--crime victims, community organizations, all residents--to keep their neighborhood (and their neighbors) safe.

"This whole thing started making me think, Jesus Christ, how fragmented are people in these community associations?" Palaia says. "Are people like, 'Oh, over here in my backyard, this is what happens.' And, 'Oh, but we don't talk to the community association over there behind us by Marge's house.' And, 'Well, no one's talked to Jimmy.'"

He says the one day the group of concerned citizens gathered on Eastern Avenue to talk about crime was a good day: Lots of people came together from all walks of life in the community, the TV news was there, people were finally admitting that, yes, it can happen here.

"I know a lot of real estate agents in this area, and they want to sell my house," Palaia says. "And this whole topic makes them very nervous. And justifiably--this is full of economics--but that doesn't negate the fact that this is an important thing and it needs to be done."

Even though he's on his way out of Canton, he is still determined to find the kids who attacked Martin Cross. He's working with a couple of women on a block of South Curley Street where a group of teen boys has been terrorizing the neighborhood. He says one of the women agreed to let him place a camera in her yard to gather evidence that these kids may be committing some of the crimes that are happening in Canton. "People need to be proactive," Palaia says. "I don't think people should run and hide. And I don't want people to think this is chasing me away."

And when he leaves Canton for good, he's leaving his neighbors with a warning: "This is like SoWeBo," Palaia says. "I saw what happened over [there]. All these people moved in and all these nice restaurants. But crime got so bad, and everybody was afraid to talk about it because they wouldn't be able to sell their houses or people wouldn't come visit or they wouldn't come to the restaurants. But I would go visit friends there, and you'd just hear, 'poppoppop!' It made no difference that you were inside this beautiful Victorian. First, the restaurants left, then the neighbors left. I can see that happening in Canton."

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