My husband nearly became Baltimore’s seventh homicide of the year. He was robbed at gunpoint a block from our house on a dark street corner just a few hundred feet from the local Safeway.
He noticed a young man who had slipped on the ice and approached to help him up. At the same time, the young man got up from the sidewalk, pulled out a pistol, and sprinted toward my husband. An accomplice restrained my husband and the two men proceeded to steal all his identity documents, his wallet, and his phone.
We have all become sadly resigned to the random violence—especially gun violence—occurring throughout our city. We all hope that our neighborhoods will be spared. We certainly hope that our loved ones will be safe. But two nights ago, my husband very easily could have been shot and killed. He is alive because he was lucky.
My husband was robbed on that street corner, and nearly lost his life, because that street is empty. There were no businesses open at the time of the incident, because there are no businesses. Had there been one restaurant, bar, or other venue supporting patrons at that time of night, my husband would have benefited from eyes on the street, lit storefronts, and a place to call the police after his phone was stolen.
For the past five years, my husband and I have been actively working to improve conditions in our neighborhood. We began by planting trees. We then moved to buying and installing brightly colored benches and chairs to beautify the area. . . . We’ve begun to bring in businesses—we’ve helped Brown Rice open, we supported liquor licenses for Terra Cafe and the Eagle. We currently work directly with investors and property owners to promote the neighborhood.
By now, we would surely have more businesses in the neighborhood, and it would be a safer place to walk at night if our ongoing efforts were not frustrated by the narrow view that the only people who are out at night are predators or prey. For the last nine months, we have faced stiff opposition against all efforts to open new late night businesses in our neighborhood. From the Planning Commission, our elected officials, and the few citizens with enough influence to make demands of both.
Too many people in the city have an unfounded fear of corner stores, bars, and any venue open late at night (not that 10:30 is so late). Too many are opposed to storefronts they subjectively deem “tacky.” And too many have convinced themselves that the only sign of a successful neighborhood is a shiny new Whole Foods with valet parking.
We make it deliberately difficult for small businesses to thrive in our neighborhoods. Healthy cities, safe cities, are those with pedestrians on streets at all hours. Who feels unsafe on New York’s 5th Avenue at 5 a.m.? Or 2 a.m.? Who believes my husband would have been robbed at gunpoint on Baltimore’s own Cross Street?
In recent months, we have had various meetings with Councilman Robert Stokes and the director of planning about simple zoning changes in our neighborhood that would permit more businesses of the type that would have been—at the very least—a place where my husband could have called 911. In a separate meeting, I advocated for a neighborhood business that the mayor herself challenged, with Bill Cole in tow. Each of the businesses we have supported is a source of tax revenue, jobs, and eyes on the street.
Ten small businesses employing 12 people is as good as any shiny new Whole Foods.
The violence that occurs in each individual’s case is sometimes random. But the culture of violence that currently permeates Baltimore most certainly is not.
Every day the people of the city have less and less hope, and the desperate young people with the least hope of all will take what they can get from anyone on an otherwise empty street.
The streets are empty because the city is empty. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised thousands of new families would move to Baltimore, but in truth thousands have actually left. To bring them back and to welcome newcomers, the city needs hundreds of new small businesses (hopefully, many of them black-owned) located in neighborhoods where people live. Like my husband, one should not need a car to feel safe while fetching milk. These new businesses will put jobs within walking distance of people who now spend hours on transit for jobs paying less than a $15 minimum wage at the Amazon warehouse.
It goes without saying that small businesses that create jobs also pay taxes. This is tax revenue we need to fund our schools, replace our pipes, and pay for the 6,000 new lights the mayor has promised us.
We cannot solve this problem with more policing. The people who oppose small businesses are the same who have turned the police into the enforcer against every minor act of “trespass and loitering.”
The irony of the situation is that we demand more police to patrol more empty spaces—spaces that are empty because there are no businesses to fund the police.
The worst culprits in the crime that victimized my husband are such policies perpetuated by the mayor and those who share the “Narrow View.”
My husband is shaken by the incident. But he’s alive. And neither of us blames anything other than the city’s policies for the crime that made him a victim.
As a result of what happened, and because of our deep commitment to the neighborhood and the city, we will continue to fight for new businesses here. We intend to continue our efforts until it’s safe to walk from the Washington Monument to University Avenue; and from Penn North to Broadway.
We would like to thank the members of the Baltimore City Police Department who responded to this incident. And we would like to especially thank them for their extra effort in calling the Department of Public Works to replace the failed streetlight at the corner where it all happened.
Kelly Cross is president of the Old Goucher Community Association and a former Democratic primary candidate for 12th District City Council. He is on twitter @Kelly4Baltimore.
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