Summer in the City
Seasons of Change Growing Up in Edmondson Villge
I remember how the late afternoon sky quickly turned a deep auburn and the light smell of burning candles mixed with the scent of freshly baked cake with vanilla icing. The four sticks of melting wax lit up all our faces, and I was asked to make a wish. At the time I wished to be the fourth member of the Chipmunks or to get that Nintendo thing everyone was talking about, but in retrospect there were other things I should have wished for.
I should have wished to keep this moment alive. Over the next 20 years, drug trafficking and violence would wipe away this joyful memory. But this was my first recollection of my summers in Edmondson Village. This was my time to make a wish and enjoy being a 4-year-old living for the freedom of summer in Southwest Baltimore.
The summertime daze and craze captured the minds, bodies, and souls of every kid born in the Village in the early 1980s. Each day presented a mosaic of beautiful brown faces accompanied by the musical fusion of laughter and ice-cream truck melodies resonating within the brick corridors of rowhouses lined with deep-green lawns. I was a small fixture in that grand montage of children soaking up the sunlight and living only for the day. I wore cuts, bruises, and scrapes like badges of immortality. Pain was only temporary, but fun was eternal.
Games like hide-and-seek and freeze tag were cool, but not when the sun was beating us into a malaise. We needed water. So we flocked to public pools in Elliott City, Patterson Park, Lake Clifton, and the newly renovated Druid Hill Park for relief only to leave with chattering teeth. When we couldn’t get there, we begged the adults on the block to let us use their hoses to cool off or to fill our balloons and water guns. The nights cooled off our exhausted bodies as the streetlamps lit up telling us to go home.
Despite our freedom, roaming the streets of Edmondson Village playing games, we were raised under watchful eyes. When our parents weren’t around to instill the fear of raised voices and brown belts, the elders of the neighborhood made sure we were on our best behavior. They watched over us from the easy chairs on their porches and governed us with rhetorical questions like: “You sure you wanna act up?” and “You know what’s going to happen when I tell your parents, right?” It was the best form of surveillance and a window into the creed that it takes a village to raise a child.
The 1990s brought with it a tidal wave of drug trafficking. Baltimore City’s war on drugs screamed through my bedroom window every night as sirens blared up and down Edmondson Avenue and helicopters circled overhead. I used to enjoy the summer nights with anyone who came on my block. Now, my parents watched all my friends with critical eyes, warning me about the ones they thought might be dangerous. Even though I shrugged off these warnings, they were too often right. Friends who once dreamed of becoming police officers started ducking the cops as they stood on street corners exchanging crack for currency. The same kids that I played football with on the field at Mary E. Rodman Elementary School were now recovering from catching bullets in the chest. This was no longer a naive game of cops and robbers, but an assortment of massacres over monetary gain, the casualties outlined in white chalk on the same concrete where we once played. My parents saw this and feared the worst.
My father, a man who had already seen this community change as a teenager during the 1968 riots and the Vietnam War, took matters into his own hands one afternoon. Every weekday afternoon in the summer I would do the same thing: watch television and play video games. It wasn’t because I was lazy. I was just too frightened by what was going on in my neighborhood to go outside. He offered to take me around the neighborhood and buy me some ice cream to make me feel better, and as a sugar-hungry 12-year-old I eagerly agreed.
We walked the streets of Grantley, Mount Holly, Edgewood, Denison, Lyndhurst, Allendale, Wildwood and Hilton parkways, and Edmondson Avenue. He didn’t say much, but the landscape of each street spoke for itself. Trash was starting to pile up on lawns, and the street gutters were littered with used syringes.
Still, he described to me how the neighborhood used to be. He pointed out abandoned buildings that used to be places of business or vacant houses where college graduates grew up before they went on to do great things in life. He made it sound really good, but I couldn’t believe it. The houses had for sale signs in the front lawns with furniture from fresh evictions slumped on the sidewalks. The once thriving black-owned businesses of dentists and other professions were now covered in alcohol and cigarette advertisements. He showed me some of the guys he grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s. Most of them were drug-addicted parents of children who were begging people for change or asking to mow lawns to make some quick money.
These sights were too real for my young eyes. Rather than cheering me up, they made me feel discouraged, like there was no way to succeed if I was from this part of town where my peers were dodging bullets and their parents were nowhere to be seen. As the sun started to set, we began to walk home for dinner. I remember thinking about everything he told me and trying to make sense of how it became like this. I still don’t have an answer.
Grunner’s Cut-Rate Liquor Store, the oldest of the three stores at the intersection of Caton Avenue and Monastery Street, was the store to go to if you were a neighborhood kid in need of a handful of sweets. I remember how my friends and I used to run into the store with a pocketful of nickels and dimes to buy sweet-and-sour candies and two-for-a-dollar ice pops. While paying for our treats, the Jewish owner and African-American employees would ask us how we did in school over the past year and how our parents were doing. I would always reach up to grab my change and shake the cashier’s hand before I left the store. They knew us and we knew them, but the summer of 1995 changed all of that.
I was 14 and Grunner’s was under new management. The storekeepers, who once knew my friends and me by name, greeting us with kind words and smiles, were gone. We were no longer seen as regulars but as possible thieves as the new owners watched our every move with suspicious eyes. The nickel and dime candy that used to sit in arm’s length of each customer now sat behind the counter near the expensive alcohol. And the newly installed bulletproof divider on the counter eliminated any hopes of a friendly handshake between merchant and customer. This was not my Edmondson Village. It was a community on the edge of becoming the ghetto.
Out on the streets, things were getting worse. The police officers we once idolized slowly drove around our blocks in search of descriptions dispatched over their radios. Cars full of wealthy suburbanites, playing rap music, drove in with wads of money hoping to get their drug fix from the teenage kingpins who now stood tall on corners. My friends were featured in articles in The Sun for being arrested in drug busts and served time in juvenile detention facilities. There was no more “us,” just reputations based on street cred. My friends who didn’t succumb to this too common way of life moved to the county to escape.
I don’t know if it was my Catholic school upbringing or the fact that I always felt the watching eyes of the now-deceased elders who once presided regally over my block, but I never followed my friends speeding on their way to a dead end. Either way, I was blessed. Unlike most of the kids in my neighborhood, I didn’t have to sell drugs to make extra money to keep the lights on and food on the table or raise a child as a teenager.
Even in the chaos there was one place where I fit into the tapestry of this community. On Saturdays during my summers in high school, I was a regular at McKoy’s Barbershop. Most people went there to get their haircut to look good for the parties later that night. I went for that reason, too, but McKoy’s had a deeper meaning for me on that day of the week.
Saturday was always a madhouse. The heat outside was no match for the air conditioner mounted in the wall. If you came in past 1 p.m., the place would be so packed you’d have to wait two or three hours for your turn. But I went to McKoy’s as much for the waiting as for the haircut. People of all ages filled the seats lining the wall opposite the black-leather barber chairs where the skilled artists realigned hairlines. Older gentlemen exchanged laughs and colorful anecdotes, their stories struggling to compete with buzzing electric clippers, hair-spray blasts, and oldies music. Most of the teenagers sat back and tried to ignore these stories and Earth, Wind, and Fire by talking on their cell phones or blaring rap on their headphones. But I listened.
The summer after my high school graduation, I rarely got to McKoy’s. I was too busy traveling and getting ready for college. But the week before I left for school I walked to McKoy’s to get my last haircut before officially leaving Edmondson Village for higher education. I wanted to soak in that atmosphere of unity one last time before I left. I was greeted with a silent head nod from one of the barbers as he continued to cut a customer’s hair. The music was still set on the oldies station and the conversation now included twentysomethings seeking advice about their girl troubles from men in their 50s and 60s. Smiling and sweating from the heat of the late August weather, I waited my turn to get my hair cut.
Three hours later—I got there late—Mr. Neal, a small stocky man who all but disappeared beside the other barbers, brushed the clippings off my neck and I headed for the door, assuming that no one would remember that I was going off to college the next week. But before I could leave, Mr. Neal, looked up from cleaning his clippers and said: “Have a great time at college. Take each day at time.” My regular barber since sophomore year, he had heard all of my stories of wanting to see the world beyond Baltimore, and his words let me know that there was still a safe haven for me here when I got back from school.
The drug trade is still booming in Edmondson Village. The houses on Edmondson Avenue, which were once the best in the area, are now eyesores, wooden planks covering busted windows and doors and spray-painted signs warning away trespassers. The beautiful green lawns of the 1980s are unkempt and covered in trash. Community groups are trying to stem the tide. These coalitions of working-class people are trying to bring back the now nostalgic-seeming ideas of safety and neighborliness that were once staples of the area
As for me, I still live here in the Village. Even though I’m a college graduate now, this is still my home. No longer one of the masses of sugar-fueled children, I now watch them from the easy chair on my porch. They talk about Xbox games that would crush my eight-bit Nintendo, long white T-shirts have replaced primary-colored ones covered in cartoon characters, and motorbikes have wiped away any thoughts I had of my Power Wheels. But I always smile when I hear children playing on my block. It lets me know that there is still something pure left here. Maybe they’ll be the ones to rebuild this crumbling empire before it breaks apart completely. But before they experience the pain and hardships of life, just let them be young and enjoy these three months of summer madness.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201