The Chop Leaves the City

Last week we listed our house for sale.

It’s not that we’re leaving Maryland- not yet, anyway. It’s not that we’re struggling to meet the payments. It’s not that owning a house is too much to manage in terms of maintenance and we want to downsize. It’s not that we’re starting a family or anything like that. And it’s not, as we’d hoped when we bought it that we’re trading in our modest starter house for a much nicer one in a better neighborhood.

For us, the decision to sell is entirely a sociopolitical one. We don’t want to live in Baltimore City anymore. While identity politics were in full swing and the city was busy voting for Pugh, Young, Pratt and Mosby (who are bumbling incompetents at best and criminals at worst) we were busy voting with our wallet and our feet. We’re giving up home ownership in the city voluntarily to go rent an apartment in Towson, two miles above the city line and an entire world away.

This is the part of these kind of posts where we’re supposed to give a long list of reasons why Baltimore City is a civil and political disaster. We could give you in links the career highlights of the politicians we just mentioned, and there are some doozies in those highlights to be sure.

We could conjure a very long list of Baltimore’s social problems but we’re not going to do that. Anyone who’s lived in Baltimore City for more than a month is acutely aware of virtually all those problems, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who thinks things are going just great in Baltimore. Besides, a year ago- even before the rioting, we wrote extensively about the city’s problems and the difficulties we’ve faced living here on a permanent basis as a home-owning, middle aged, middle class adult. In more than twelve months since, the state of the city, and the state of our neighborhood in particular has declined even further.

This is the part where we’re meant to link extensively to recent news articles on various topics so that you can see it’s not just our imagination. The way these things work, we’d be sure to put the most horrific and impossible phrases in the hyperlink text, so that they jump out on the page in red and you can see piece by piece the violence and trauma and pathos that goes on in Baltimore every day. Off the top of our head maybe we’d mention the home invasions of the elderly, the bands of machete and shotgun wielding thieves (separate bands of thieves, you understand… one with machetes and another with shotguns!), the little girls under ten shot on their front porches a block or two away from our own porch, and the alarmingly high number of homeowners who have shitwater rising up out of toilets and flooding their basements regularly here. We’re not going to do that either. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of trauma, and a lot of very literal shit. Take our word for it.

Another necessary part of this essay is the one where we run the numbers. In a different set of hyperlinks we could show you the census data which say that Baltimore is still losing population. We could highlight the affordability crisis by comparing rents and home values to income, and we could do the old compare-and-contrast that certain media outlets love which show inequality increasing and all sorts of social and economic disparities in very tight quarters on a map. We could write reams on the property tax rate and how those taxes are pissed away freely on things like casinos and auto races and light festivals… And shiny new mini cities for the rich like Harbor Point and Port Covington. We could even cite some projections to back up our opinion that the way to fix inequality is not to add more cloistered rich people to go alongside the huge concentrations of poverty. But it’s tiresome. By this point in the essay you’re probably done clicking links anyway.

Even if we cited all those numbers they wouldn’t do much good. We’re just going to say it plainly: crime is up. We don’t want to hear what anyone has to say about national statistics on violent crime: we don’t live all over America- we live in Baltimore Maryland USA where crime is UP. We don’t want to hear about what crime was in the 1990’s either. We remember the 90’s thank you very much, and we are no longer living in them. We live in 2016 when crime is UP. And we definitely don’t want to parse out the differences between major and minor crimes or talk about arrest rates or any of that. The kinds of crimes that are really fucking scary and traumatic and serious are UP. Just today there were two separate domestic disputes that spilled into the street on our block. One went unreported. We called 911 on the other and no cops ever showed.

They’re even inventing new kinds of violent crime in Baltimore now. Our whole life we never heard of bump-and-rob carjackings. Now they’re commonplace. Phone snatches? Never happened until a few years ago. Besides, there’s just no way of knowing how much crime is out there. People only call the cops for a fraction of crimes, and the cops only bother to file reports in a fraction of those, just as we were reminded yet again today.

Finally there’s the part where we breathlessly list off all the positive qualities about Baltimore. Nope. Startups, Tech, luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, the JFX Farmers’ Market, Johns Hopkins & MICA, nightlife… these are all more trouble than they’re worth. We still like being able to bike to the ballpark, but honestly we liked it a lot more when a ticket cost half what it does now and bicycling was safer.

But before we end this post and start packing up boxes we want to tell you what the last straw was: it was the murder of Robert Ponsi.

Ponsi, 29, was riding his bicycle home from work in January when six kids ran up to his bike and stabbed him to death in a robbery. As a city resident, one who did not confine himself to the White L, Ponsi was street smart enough to recognize what was happening to him. He got off his bike and made a heroic attempt to fight off his attackers, but even at six on one these pieces of shit were too cowardly to fight and one pulled a knife and stabbed him. At nine o’clock. He laid bleeding in pain in a hospital until 4 am when he died.

This murder was right around the corner from our house. We had been chased by a gang of kids a block away from the spot where Ponsi was killed shortly before it happened. It’s not a stretch to say that could have been us. Two weeks ago we attended a public safety meeting specifically on the topic of gangs of teenagers attacking cyclists. It was highly discouraging to say the least. In the two years since we wrote about the problem in this post, it is safe to say it’s gotten worse. Not only could Ponsi have been us, but the same thing could yet happen to us at any time. After all, three of those very same attackers are still not arrested- still hanging around the neighborhood. Presumably they’re still enrolled in high schools, and are showing up to class and sitting next to good kids. Maybe your kids.

We’ve also heard it said more than a little in public that a murder like this should not garner more interest or concern than any other murder and that this one has been picked up by the media because of white Baltimoreans’ own racism. We call bullshit on that. The fact is that all murders are not created equal. Some victims are targeted because of choices they’ve made in life. Some victims, like McKenzie Elliott, are not targeted at all but are just a chaotic sort of tragedy. But Robert Ponsi was targeted because a bunch of violent scumbags thought he’d make a good victim. That’s both more terrifying and more outrageous than most murders and it’s not racism to say so.

There are also people in this town who would blame us personally for abandoning it, and for not fighting harder and doing more to make our neighborhood a better place. Perhaps they themselves should volunteer to head up the years long boondoggle it takes just to close one problem bar in this neighborhood, and personally risk the sort of threats and harassment one comes in for when one does volunteer for something like that.

Let’s pause to take a look inside some Waverly community meetings. CityPaper columnist Kate Drabinski did just that at a Waverly safety forum…

“The first 28 minutes (I timed it) were for the public officials to tell themselves and all of us what a great job they’ve been doing. [The mayor] SRB told us how hard she’s been listening and how much change she’s been making. She gently chided the City Council members in attendance about not yet calling for her vote to increase funding for rec centers, as if we were all going to quickly forget about the ones that have closed under her watch. There was some ego stroking for the lieutenants and commanders and lieutenant commanders, gentle laughs shared among these city officials as we all sat in our chairs, waiting for our turn to ask questions.

A man who called 911 to report a burglary in progress asked why no one every picked up the phone. A 79-year-old woman from Ednor Gardens asked if after three or four years of calling the Department of Public Works, the police, the mayor’s office, her city councilmember, could crews finally come clean up the mess on her street made after a repaving effort. A man from up York Road asked if, when the cops bring their tactical vehicle to the neighborhood, they could maybe think about the unsafety they bring to the blocks around said tactical vehicle. A woman complained about the time somebody in the city set up a floodlight outside her house that shined into her kid’s bedroom, and no city agency would agree that they’d done it, so it took days to find someone to turn it off. Won’t happen again, she was promised.”

In a subsequent column about a different Waverly meeting Drabinski paints a picture of a gathering that is equally exasperating and ineffective. It’s hard to get past eye rolling phrases like ‘enforced poverty,’ ‘mass incarceration’ or ‘the violence of civic abandonment.’ Look, this isn’t goddamn Gilmor Homes or the deepest ghetto. People choose to live here. We chose to live in this neighborhood, and presumably Drabinski did too. But anyway if you can get past her decrying Capitalism and harkening back to Slavery you get to the point of the meeting where attendees voice the opinion that we need to raise each others’ kids and cook each other spaghetti.

It’s entirely possible that one of the very same people voicing those opinions was Thomascine Greene, the mother of the kid charged with doing the stabbing in the Ponsi case. The Sun profiled Greene shortly after Ponsi was killed, and we had quite a few issues with the way the whole thing was portrayed.

First of all, Greene is described as an activist. We’re going to call bullshit on that, too. Attending a few community meetings only makes one an activist in the most general sense of the word. The article doesn’t cite anything she’s done beyond going to meetings, although we imagine it would’ve had there been any more substantial activism to cite. The Waverly Improvement Association is pretty ineffective, weak and small. Hell, we’ve been to civic meetings ourselves, haven’t we? Did we not march and protest too? If Greene is an activist she’s no more of one than the Chop or anyone else you’d care to name. We also want to say that especially in the last year there’s been a sort of holy righteousness associated with activism here in Baltimore. It’s all bullshit. Calling someone an activist doesn’t magically imbue them with grace and righteousness.

We also noticed that the article says Greene is 66. So if she’s actually the boy’s mother that would mean she was 50 when she had him. We think this is unlikely and we believe she’s probably his grandmother. So it seems likely that the boy’s mother/father are not present, possibly having some serious problems of their own. But even if Thomascine Greene didn’t fail as a parent with the boy’s mother/father she certainly failed with him. Her quotes in that article like “It’s not hard for me to wrap my head around it” and “My eyes don’t go around corners” make us hit the ceiling every time we read them. Here’s someone who shows up at meeting to bitch and moan about “why won’t they do anything for these kids?” but she herself is in charge of one of those kids and strikes us as a lazy failure of a parent.

If she or anyone else thinks we’re going to make the world a better place by volunteering to cook her spaghetti and raise her son, who’d just as soon kill us as look at us, she’s wrong.

Look, we live here in the neighborhood. That YMCA she mentions is pretty nice and there’s a brand new library nearby. Greene says that programs at the Y are too hard to access. That’s bullshit. We’ve been a member of that Y. It’s right there. The programs are scheduled and published well in advance. They do their level best to make it inclusive, especially during after-school hours. If her kid wasn’t using the Y it’s because she was too goddamn lazy to walk over there and enroll him in something. This neighborhood may not be the best, but again it’s not Gilmor Homes or something. You can walk to a lot of shit from here and what you can’t walk to is a short bus ride away. The whole city and large parts of the county are easy to access.

Ms Greene would have you believe that her son wanted to steal Ponsi’s bike because there’s nothing else for him to do. If Prince Greene had wanted a bicycle he should have walked himself down Guilford avenue to BYKE collective which exists solely to let kids earn free bikes and teach them how to maintain them. He could have looked into Jam Squad, Velocipede, or Baltimore Youth Cycling or any of several other groups. If Ms Greene wanted something for her kid to do she should have taken it on herself to go find these things which are out there and are accessible and are trying to reach kids exactly like hers.

There are plenty of families in Ednor Gardens and Waverly whose kids are not out robbing and murdering people so we really don’t want to hear about how she’s way down in the poverty hole. Another kid arrested in that attack lives in Ednor Gardens which means his house and block are probably nicer than our own, in Waverly.

There was much made at the time about Prince Greene’s former involvement in a debate club. He was generally portrayed in a way that, frankly, black children rarely are in crime stories. But we suspect that portrayal may have been misleading. We heard it said online by a kid who knew Greene that he was involved in debate only briefly, and lost interest in school around age 13 or 14. A 12 year old in a too-big tie and a shiny pair of hush puppies was not the same kid lying in wait for Ponsi at the corner of Venable Avenue. That article said he was in the sixth grade at Loyola Blakefield. Do you know what tuition is at Loyola Blakefield? It’s twenty thousand fucking dollars a year. The idea that this kid had no resources, lived in dire poverty and couldn’t have helped getting caught up by the streets just doesn’t hold water.

We don’t know what happened in Prince Greene’s life between the time he was in debate club at a fancy county private school and the night he killed Ponsi. We’re not going to speculate on the events of his life. But if Thomasine Greene had been a better parent, had forced her kid to stay involved in debate club at whatever school he attended last year, and checked his homework every night and known his friends and who he was running with he might be in school right now and not jail. Whatever it is that leads a kid to make these choices it is sad, but we don’t know or particularly care what was going on in Prince Greene’s life. We’re just glad he’s been arrested and charged.

We say all this because it’s too easy to believe the media narrative. It’s too easy take the blame off of criminals because they’re young. It’s too easy to shake your head and wring your hands and pretend a kid like that doesn’t know he’s doing wrong by stealing and stabbing and that he had no choice.

But when you’re on the ground in Waverly, when you’ve put your life’s savings into a house just off Greenmount, one of the hardest and oldest racial dividing lines in all of America, when you’re hyperaware of absolutely everything that goes on around you real life doesn’t always match the media narratives. We wish life weren’t that way but wishing doesn’t make it so.

We’ve been a crime victim multiple times in Baltimore City. We’ve had many friends who have been victims of crimes. It’s not all abstract statistics and it’s not all drug dealers getting what they had coming. In the last four years alone we’ve had half a dozen friends who were victims of serious violent crimes up to and including murder and attempted murder. Some of them were attacked by gangs of teenagers. Not a week goes by that we don’t scroll through our Twitter feed and see that someone we follow has been a crime victim… and we can think of at least 3 recent instances where the same people were victims of two separate crimes. When you live in this city it is not a question of whether you’ll be a crime victim, it’s a question of when and how severe your next victimization will be. We’ve had to watch our back every single time we step out of the house since the day we moved in here and we’re fucking tired of it.

Baltimore, and Waverly, could have given Prince Greene a better life than the one he ended up with. But it can’t give us the kind of life we’ve worked hard to build and know that we deserve for ourselves. We’re going to take the first step toward living that life in Baltimore County.