The Year in News
2. A Little More Life on the Street
The leading plank in Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign platform was a reduction in crime. So far, so good: Recently released police statistics indicate a safer city (with violent crime down 15 percent this year), and Baltimore's TV-fueled reputation as the nation's murder capital seems about to take a sizable hit. At press time, 253 people had been killed in Baltimore in 2000; barring an unprecedented explosion of seasonal savagery, the city's homicide rate will dip below 300 for the first time in 11 years. (Whether the administration can match O'Malley's campaign pledge to cut the killings to 175 by the end of 2002 remains to be seen, but there is a precedent: Baltimore suffered two brutal years in 1971 and '72--323 and 330 homicides, respectively--but the number plummeted to 171 five years later.) O'Malley staffers attributed the improvement to the police department's use of CitiStat data to coordinate its operations and the closing of open-air drug markets; others cited a decade of declining population and a better local job market as factors as well.
3. My Name Is Joby
For 15 days in March, Joseph Palczynski held central Maryland in thrall. In the act of abducting his girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, in Bowleys Quarters on March 7, Palczynski killed three people, then murdered a motorist the next day. After Whitehead escaped, Palczynski eluded police for 10 days, hiding in wooded areas in his native eastern Baltimore County and the homes of people he abducted in White Marsh and Chase. A side trip to Virginia resulted in a carjacking. Kids were pulled off playgrounds because of Palczynski sightings, helicopters hovered over neighborhoods from Sparrows Point to Towson, and TV stations were instructed by the cops to tone down their coverage so "Joby" wouldn't get upset and hurt Whitehead's family, whom he shanghaied on March 17 in their Eastpoint home. Four days later, Whitehead's mother slipped Palczynski a mickey and she and her boyfriend climbed out a window, leaving their 12-year-old son asleep inside. Fearing for the child's safety, SWAT team members nailed Palczynski with 27 pieces of lead and rescued the boy. Even though the ordeal was over, residents of Bowleys Quarters questioned the county's handling of their grief and fear, and many Baltimore Countians wondered why police couldn't catch the terrorist in their midst. Local TV-news operations may have run way over the top with the story--most notably by staying on the air for hours with nothing to report during the final siege--but for those two weeks there as no doubt that Baltimore's Most Wanted was on everybody's mind.
4. Dutch Mistreat
Palczynski may have been the most immediate terror stalking Baltimore County's beleaguered east side in 2000, but later in the year residents slew what many considered an even more fearsome beast--County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger's plan to condemn dozens of properties in swaths of Essex/Middle River and Dundalk (as well as a portion of Randallstown to the northwest) to stoke developer interest in the "stressed" communities. After Ruppersberger got the state legislature to OK Senate Bill 509, which authorized the condemnation, with virtually no public notice or input, fired-up residents (who delighted in calling themselves "rabble rousers" after a state delegate dismissed them as such) petitioned SB 509 on to the November ballot as a referendum and out-lobbied the executive and his allies, who watched their ambitious plan go down by a two-to-one margin. The rabble rousers celebrated what they characterized as a message to governments across the state that they can't just take whatever land they want whenever they want it; a politically damaged Ruppersberger, considered a prime candidate for the 2002 governor's race, can only hope the electoral drubbing wasn't a preview of things to come.
5. Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
It didn't take long after his inauguration for Martin O'Malley to confront his first potential political blowup, one that threatened his "honeymoon" and his support among the city's African-American majority. Ronald Daniel's decision to step down as police commissioner in March, 57 days after he was confirmed by the City Council, sent shock waves through city political circles. Daniel, a hero to black cops and local African-American leaders who respected his fight against departmental racism during the reign of former Commissioner Thomas Frazier, resigned rather than implement a New York-style policing system, as O'Malley insisted. That O'Malley so quickly replaced him with white New Yorker Edward Norris raised some eyebrows, but O'Malley and Norris didn't back down, even when confronted with 800 angry citizens who gathered at a West Baltimore church April 3 to call for Norris to step aside. O'Malley explained his impatience with Daniel's reticence as the city's homicide rate rose during the year's first quarter, then mailed out thousands of letters to rank-and-file Baltimoreans urging them to lobby their council representatives for Norris' confirmation. By taking his case to the public, O'Malley survived his first mayoral test. And while some resentment lingers from Daniel's departure, Norris' stewardship of the police department, marked by a reduction in the murder rate has made the transition relatively easy since then.
Daniel's wasn't the only head to roll. O'Malley's acceptance of his resignation was followed by the mayor's replacement of city parks chief Thomas Overton (with former Prince George's County parks guy Marvin Billups) and housing Commissioner Patricia Payne, who failed to placate Northeast Baltimoreans angry over a plan to move public-housing residents into their community and stepped aside in favor of New York housing chief Paul Graziano. Unlike his predecessor, Kurt Schmoke, who was often criticized for moving too slowly to boot recalcitrant managers or reform troubled departments, O'Malley has proved that he doesn't mind shaking up City Hall to implement his vision of public policy.
6. Flipping Out
After buying more than 100 homes at rock-bottom prices over the years, cosmetically repairing them, then "flipping" them at premium prices to poor families for whom he's falsified loan documents, Robert L. Beeman was sentenced Dec. 11 to three years in the big house. Two mortgage brokers also earned jail time, and a settlement attorney and an appraiser were found guilty of forging, falsifying, or artificially inflating the value of homes in teetering neighborhoods; the attorney is serving a year on home detention and the appraiser is awaiting sentencing. Beeman may have claimed in court that he was merely helping depressed neighborhoods reclaim their value and poor folks achieve the American Dream of home ownership, but the damage he, his associates, and other real-estate scammers have done to clients (many of whom defaulted on bad mortgages) and inner-city communities is immeasurable. Others allegedly tied up in similar schemes now face civil charges. Lee Shpritz, of L&R Properties; American Skycorp Inc., a Timonium-based subprime lender; and two appraisers have been accused by state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. of a setup eerily similar to Beeman's. City, state, and federal investigators are to be commended for finally devoting the resources to going after real-estate scofflaws. But one can't help wonder whether "flipping" could have been nipped in the bud years ago--when former Mayor Kurt Schmoke and his housing commissioner, Daniel Henson III, turned a blind eye to the evidence as the city's home-ownership rate rose artificially due to the dubious work of flippers.
7. Parking for Dollars
Year one of the O'Malley administration, the conventional wisdom goes, was one long honeymoon marked by the new mayor's resiliency and a reform-minded shakeup of city government. We find it hard to quibble too much with that--O'Malley has lived up to a slew of campaign promises--but there was one topic that never failed to be a thorn in His O'Honor's side: parking. He took guff from Hampdenites for favoring the parking needs of a corporation (Royal Farms) over the wishes of the neighborhood, additional guff from east-side activists who thought the city too generous in its financial support of new garages sought by the Little Italy and Fells Point business communities, and more guff still from preservationists who unsuccessfully opposed the razing of two buildings in the city's old financial district to make way for yet another automobile-stacking edifice. The prospect of the mayor kowtowing to wealthy downtown financial interests at the expense of the city's heritage struck a chord with those who decry the city's reliance on the automobile and O'Malley's embrace of the mercantile crowd. Amid rumors that the city's new parking authority, formed this past summer, is already in the red, O'Malley will likely face more questions about just how much Baltimore City should subsidize the parking needs of local companies' largely suburban workforces.
8. Unnecessary Roughness
Hailed for his on-field defensive prowess, Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis relied on a different kind of defense to bail him out of a Super Bowl night altercation in which two revelers in Atlanta's Buckhead district died of stab wounds inflicted by members of Lewis' entourage. Lewis and two others who fled with the Ravens star in a limousine were charged with murder. In a last-minute pact with prosecutors, Lewis swapped his testimony for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. As the star prosecution witness, Lewis' eyewitness testimony featured an account of his friend and former co-defendant Reginald Oakley getting hit over the head with a full bottle of champagne, thus buttressing Oakley and Joseph Sweeting's ultimately successful claim of self-defense. Lewis--now facing an $8 million civil suit filed by two women who claim he attacked them in a Baltimore County bar--ended up as the only person who came out of the affair with a sentence: One year of probation. He'll spend part of it with the rest of his team in the playoffs.
9. Moose Gets Loose
Things bottomed out for the Orioles' front office even before a prankish radio talk-show caller recently asked the team's putative general manager, Syd Thrift, for his opinion on a minor-league pitcher who doesn't exist--and got one. The departure of Mike Mussina rocked our baseball-crazy town plenty hard enough, crushing municipal pride like a star slugger (say, Rafael Palmeiro) slamming a hanging curve (thrown by, say, Sidney Ponson). That the ace righthander defected to the Evil Empire (the Yankees, for $88.5 million over six years) on Nov. 30 was too much for the team and its fans to bear. Unfortunately, only the fans seem to realize this; the firm of Angelos, Thrift, Angelos, Foss, and Angelos keeps talking about being "competitive" in 2001--a notion they should forget in favor of a patient, from-the-farm retooling. Once again, the negotiating "strategy" of Orioles owner/tort king Peter Angelos deprived the team of a cornerstone. As he did two years ago with first baseman Palmeiro, Angelos gambled that he could wait until the end of the season to get serious about contract offers--and again, he lost. But we can look on the bright side: With Mussina opting for pinstripes, Angelos decided to hold the line on ticket prices. And this year, seat availability should be no problem.
10. Party like it's 1989
It may not have been as hallowed an event as a rebirth of the Royal Theater or even the second coming of the Marble Bar--neither of which has happened yet, unfortunately--but the reopening of Hammerjacks a couple of blocks from City Hall ranks as a prime cultural event in this head-bangin', Bud-guzzlin' town. Times have changed, of course, and the working-class mega- saloon with the name to match now features bars imported from that high-priced flop, the Fish Market, as well as regular cover charges ($5 to $15). Neither will conjure up memories of the wet T-shirt contests or "balloon drops" of the '80s, nor will the mainstream dance music blasted by 'jacks' industrial-strength sound system. But owner Lou Principio has promised some T&A (scantily clad "beer girls" and the like) as well as other nods to tradition (the strains of AC/DC were heard there recently). City leaders, meanwhile, view the spandex destination's return as a harbinger of a revival of downtown nightlife.
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The Year in News (12/9/2009)
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