Aiming a Lens at Life in McElderry Park
Larry, 25 and shy about giving his last name, also stands as a monument to survival in McElderry Park, where gun battles have long been part of the landscape, and where men in their teens and 20s all too routinely fall to a life that has become a rueful urban cliché.
Glenn Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association, has lived near Larry for most of the past 20 years; he's nicknamed his neighbor "Bulletproof." "Larry's one of the guys who wanted to get away from the neighborhood and its drugs," Ross says. "But other guys see that as a weakness and challenged his manhood. He got all shot up again."
Despite a road-construction job and other stabs at other work away from McElderry Park's bleak corners, Larry says, "I came back again." Back to a place where, paradoxically, he feels "safe," according to Ross: "They feel protected by their own cliques, no matter what's happened before."
To most of the public, the tales of Larry and others in similar situations are often reduced to a police-blotter blurb or a death notice. But during a walk through McElderry Park's graffito-ed streets and past its boarded-up rowhouses two years ago, Ross and Michael Seipp, then the executive director of Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC), thought the lives of local residents merited more than after-the-fact mention. Ross hatched the idea of a film about McElderry Park, where two drug organizations run by young residents--one at Jefferson and Port, the other two blocks away at Jefferson and Madeira--have torn apart families. "This is a family-oriented neighborhood," Ross says. "But you're sitting here with two drug gangs, and the family members are killing each other. That's a story in itself."
Ross' vision may soon come to celluloid life. With the help of the Towson University film department, the sad saga of McElderry Park could be turned into a documentary on the neighborhood's stifling street life. Last year, Towson student Craig Greene signed on as the project's director, with Seipp saying he'd help locate funding sources. By this spring, Greene was talking to Charles Dutton, the East Baltimore native and actor who directed HBO's The Corner last year, about providing a well-recognized voice for the film. (Dutton says he is considering the request.)
The project still lacks funding, but Greene says he plans to start shooting later this month anyway. A 30-year-old Catonsville native who has worked on commercials and experimental films in locations as far flung as Los Angeles and South Africa, Greene says he has no qualms about being a white suburbanite directing a story on a troubled African-American neighborhood. That issue "worried Charles Dutton a bit," Greene says. "Obviously, regardless of who it is, [the documentary is] going to take on the flavor and ideas of who's holding the camera. My take on this whole thing--and I don't know whether it's a race issue or not--is as an artist. I'm looking at how I can capture the essence of the situation."
Walking a dangerous neighborhood with a camera doesn't daunt him, Greene says, although he recognizes that he needs to become a part of the landscape on a project such as this: "You have to be an extension of the environment to make things work. I have to hang around a bit more before I start shooting." Greene plans on talking to some people in the street, but he and his crew of two also plan to use a neighborhood recreation center as a "safe haven" for interviewees who may be involved in the drug trade and prefer to keep a low profile. "I want to make sure my subjects don't get arrested" by virtue of talking to him, he says. "It's important that everyone feels safe enough to tell their story."
Greene expects the production to take about a year, but he has already given a good deal of thought to how the movie should look. He plans to create a softly lit set inside the rec center to create a "rich, warm feel on film," contrasting with street footage shot with a handheld digital camera. "It blurs things a bit," he says of the handheld. "That will accentuate the blurriness in the issues we're exploring." He hasn't decided yet whether to shoot in color or black-and-white, but he does note one advantage to the former: "Red brick rowhouses will drip--red is so saturated on digital film that it will drip like blood."
Such cinematic choices might seem to suggest a somewhat overheated outsider's take on urban violence, but Greene has witnessed the area's bloodshed firsthand. When Ross introduced him to McElderry Park last summer, Greene saw a 15-year-old kid beat his cousin with a baseball bat over $20. A second visit was punctuated by a shooting around the corner from where Ross and Greene were standing. "It's easy to see that this whole neighborhood has been imprisoned by the drug trade," Greene says.
Ross' anecdotes bear out the filmmaker's assessment. In the 2400 block of Jefferson, marble stoops have been smashed by thieves, who rammed stolen vehicles into them. "They think it helps their [drug] business to have a neighborhood that's all broken up," Ross says. Since the violence took hold in the late '90s, that block has become vacant, except for two homes.
Late last year, before Greene got involved with the project, Ross had collected 38 signatures from local people who agreed to be interviewed; since then, five have died or been imprisoned. City police spokesperson Kevin Enright says the crime rate in the police sector that includes McElderry Park was down for the first three months of this year, but the fruits of violence are still ever-present. Memorials to dead friends serve as graffiti on Port, while territorial tags such as welcome to kill hill decorate old storefronts on Jefferson.
Dutton--whose longtime connections to McElderry Park include Norma Thompson, an aide to City Council member Bea Gaddy (D-2nd District)--says he'll lend his voice to the film "if I see something fresh and compelling to it." Dutton says he is intrigued with Greene's idea of following a child and using him or her as a guide through the neighborhood: "The idea interests me a lot. There are 1,000 stories like that." He adds that Greene's project could turn out to be more visceral than The Corner, HBO's adaptation of David Simon and Edward Burns' nonfiction look at the drug trade surrounding Monroe and Fayette streets in West Baltimore.
"Documentaries are different--nothing is staged or performed," says Dutton, who grew up on the rough streets around Greenmount Avenue. "Maybe this story could be more penetrating."
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