Baltimore’s Leaking Sewage Problem Just Got Interesting

by Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June. 4, 2014

For years, people in Baltimore have lived with the presence of sewage in local waters, be it in the harbor, the Jones Falls, the Gwynns Falls, Herring Run, or any of their tributaries. City Hall, in order to avoid costly litigation and the likelihood of extreme penalties for failing to comply with the Clean Water Act for this problem, in 2002 agreed to spend about a billion dollars over 14 years to fix its leaky sewer system. Since then, users of the system have seen their water-and-wastewater bills rise dramatically, as efforts to pay for the costly repairs have mounted. Yet still, the sewage leaks, the air reeks, and waterways remain fouled.

Now we know why: Blue Water Baltimore, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the degraded water quality of the area’s waterways, today filed lengthy legal papers demonstrating the abject failure of city, state, and federal regulators to properly uphold their legal duties under the Clean Water Act and the 2002 agreement, known as a consent decree, that avoided costly litigation. In seeking to intervene in the federal court case under which the consent degree was entered, BWB’s lawyers have done an admirable job demonstrating the facts of the matter: despite underwriting expensive efforts to deliver a sealed sewer system that keeps waters from being fouled by delivering sewage only to treatment plants, the city’s residents still live cheek-to-jowel with sewage that’s erupting up through manhole covers in storms, steadily flowing directly into the Jones Falls from an outfall, and chronically leaking from upstream pipes that haven’t been replaced or repaired.

City Paper published a painstakingly researched article about this problem in 2007, and the regulators’ response at that time was utterly naïve. “I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on,” said Angela McFadden, a high-ranking EPA water-pollution enforcer – a declaration that many Baltimore residents would find laughable, then and now. Eventually, CP‘s follow-up coverage included the EPA getting its hackles up about the problem and the city admitting to under-reporting and professing to make much-needed improvements. Now, EPA and the city are reportedly negotiating to revise the consent decree so that it’s 2016 deadline for fixing the system can be extended, and BWB is asking to be allowed in as a party to the litigation in order “to give citizens a voice in the revision process and to formally request that all parties do more to stop sewer spills and protect public health,” according to an email BWB sent out today.

According to the filings, BWB is asking the federal court for six things: “1. A declaration that the City of Baltimore is in violation of the Clean Water Act and the 2002 Consent Decree; 2. A modification of the 2002 Consent Decree to address the lack of compliance and enforcement of the City of Baltimore’s obligations; 3. An injunction against the City of Baltimore compelling compliance with the Clean Water Act and the 2002 Consent Decree; 4. An order enforcing the Clean Water Act and imposing civil penalties against the City of Baltimore pursuant to 33 U.S.C. §§ 1319, 1365; 5. An award of attorney’s fees and reasonable litigation expenses incurred in this case; and 6. Such other relief as this Court may deem appropriate.” 

In building up to those requests, though, BWB’s filings, authored by its Covington & Burling attorneys, provide compelling evidence that Baltimore’s chronically leaking sewer system is far from repaired, despite huge public investments. Now that BWB has thrown down the gauntlet, accusing regulators at all levels of failing to protect the environment and public health in this arena, it’s up to U.S. District judge Frederick Motz, who presides over the case, to decide what is to be done.

“100 Years”

by Olive Pierre

Olive Pierre’s recitation copy of “100 Years.”
As recited by Olive Pierre, Feb. 2021.

On August 18, 1920, “women” got the right to vote,

but did they really?

Women are still women

black skinned or white skinned,

and yet on August 18, 1920

black women still didn’t get to vote,

even though they fought for this right too.

If there was a zebra with no stripes,

would you not give it the right to eat?

It’s the same.

Black women had no say

in the rights

they’d been fighting for since slavery.

After 1920, they fought for almost 50 more years,

just to be able to cast their vote

for who would run their country.

50 years later black women put Joe Biden

in office with our first black woman vice president.

Dog Tags: An Astrological Take on Our Dog and Daughters

by Van Smith

These three, about five years ago.

Early on in the pandemic, we made flash cards using a business-card app and our newly obtained printer. Our home having suddenly become a school/office, cafeteria included, an occasional practice after lunch for our daughters, then 8 and 10, was to zoom an astrology class with my Renaissance-mama sister, an artist up in Philly.

This home-schooling activity produced a set of self-descriptors that quickly proved useful as a vocabulary builder, when together we made a set of cards with definitions and sentence uses on the back. Collectively, it produced a wonderfully devastating portrait, a hybrid Hydra of all our celebrations and challenges as parents. “Aspiring,” “acquisitive,” “rapturous,” “enterprising,” “overzealous,” “foolhardy,” “egocentric,” and “pragmatic” combine quite artfully among them.

Zeroing in on the six words in the flashcard set that have as the sentence subject our dog, a 14-pound rat terrier on Prozac named Elphie (whose eternal existential battle is over territory dubbed “The Couch” by her owners), produces a mash-up of our daughters and dog, a montage to inspire both fear and adoration. Let’s take it in alphabetical order. 

Assertive: Having or showing a confident and forceful personality. “If someone pats Elphie’s chest and stops, she assertively scratches at the person’s arm to get them to resume.”

Conservative: Disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions, limit change, and restore traditions thought to be on the wane. “When it came to the couch, Elphie was a staunch conservative.” 
Demonstrative: Tending to show feelings openly, especially affection. “Elphie was demonstrative whenever Mom walked into the room, positively brimming over with pure love.” 

Fervent: Having or displaying a passionate intensity. “It was Elphie’s fervent belief that danger forever was knocking on our front door.” 

Impetuous: Prone to rash action or emotion. “Elphie, always the impetuous dog, suddenly bit Olive in the face.”

Substantial: Of considerable importance, size, or worth. “Though small and nearly given away to us, Elphie holds substantial value in our hearts.”

So there we have it: an assertive, conservative, demonstrative, fervent, impetuous, substantial lot, they are. We wouldn’t – indeed, we couldn’t – have it any other way.

Dear Madame Vice President

My name is Rye Pierre. I am a student in 6th grade. First, I wanted to say that you are my idol and I support all of your decisions. I know that your next 100 days will be busy. Over the next four years, I wanted to ask if you could do a few things that might improve our country.

First, I would really, really like to go back to school and Mr. President said he would work on that first thing when he went into office. I’ve never actually seen my school before and I don’t want to spend my full first year at this school online.

Another thing is getting the vaccine out as fast as possible to as many people as possible. My father has bad lung problems and is very vulnerable to the virus. But he isn’t qualified as a senior citizen so he won’t get it very quickly, being 55.

Something else I would love to happen as quickly as possible is definitely getting someone to prosecute our old president, Mr. Trump, as quickly as possible. I wish I could do it myself, but I’m only 11.

I’ve been rooting for you since your ran for President, but even VP is so important for all women. One last thing that I would like you to do in your four (and hopefully more) years in office is teach some men how to respect women. It really bugs me how women are still treated like they are lesser than men, even though we could be more powerful if some men weren’t telling young girls that they were nothing, and they were just there for men’s entertainment purposes.

I trust that you will do all these things because you are my idol and I believe that you are an extremely strong woman.

Sincerely,

Rye Pierre

The Wind: Hope is a Way of Life

Our eleven-year-old atop a West Virginia ridge.

This is the child who coined the phrase, “the Jesus Generation,” to describe kids like her: living sacrifices for the sins of her forebears. As a culture, we’ve done so much wrong while achieving so much good across generations, and our collective excesses, our greed, our hatred, our selfishness, our thoughtlessness, all come with a price exacted on those now growing up or still to be born. It’s shameful. Here is our hope, taking in the wind with sacred beauty stretched before her.

Welcome to Stalin World: Terror, Tourism, and Soviet Art

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 5, 2003

When Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin died 50 years ago this March 5, Leningrad was celebrating its 250th year. Now the old Russian capital is called St. Petersburg again, and for its 300th anniversary the Baltimore arts establishment is throwing a party: Vivat! St. Petersburg, a month-long celebration of Russian culture. While neither Stalin nor Soviet art have been featured, the dictator and state-sponsored work from the former U.S.S.R. no doubt left impressions on Baltimore’s large community of immigrants from the former Soviet states. They, too, were largely left out of the Vivat! parade.

With Vivat! winding down and Stalin’s death day upon us, the time is ripe to showcase official Soviet art. But where does one go to find it? Near the Baltic spa town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, about 75 miles southwest of its capital, Vilnius. Here is Grutas Park, opened on April Fool’s Day in 2001, styling itself as the world’s only “attempt to accumulate and duly exhibit the relics of Soviet ideology.” Dubbed “Stalin World” by the press, the sculpture park exhibits 86 Soviet-era works, many of them damaged by crowds as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

When in the planning stages in 1999, Grutas Park was met with protests and hunger strikes in Lithuania. Yet the park has hosted more than 300,000 visitors so far, and a debate over Soviet tourism as a whole–of which Stalin World is as fine an example as one can hope to find–has begun in Baltic newspapers. Even in Western academia, where official Soviet art has long been dismissed as worthless, its cultural value is, in some corners, being reassessed.

When asked, many in Baltimore’s Soviet-immigrant community, tens of thousands strong, said they would rather not remember Stalin or reconsider the severely constrained artistic expressions he and other Soviet leaders permitted. But some were willing. Artists, in particular, shared their thoughts after looking at images of Grutas Park that were brought back last fall by Baltimore artist and photographer John Ellsberry. Most reacted with a shrug.

“Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime . . . they will be interested to see these images.” –Gennadiy Gurvich

“It’s funny stuff,” chuckles Noi Volkov, a ceramics maker and painter who moved here from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1989, when he was already an established artist in his early 40s. “It’s just government propaganda. A group of members of the Communist Party took the power and they want to have this power as long as possible. It’s why they say art must be way under control and about just one idea. The idea? That the communist regime is the greatest regime in the world. That’s it.”

Official Soviet art is often seen, like the U.S.S.R. itself, as an outgrowth of the paternalism that long characterized Russian culture. Stalin, like the czars, bred a cult of personality around himself, lording over his nation like a conqueror over the vanquished. But the czars’ patronage underwrote a more “democratic” arts environment, Volkov says, while Stalin stoked and shaped the creative class to pay homage to the state’s ideals–Stalin’s ideals–and brutally oppressed those who tried to express anything else.

Stalin held sway over the U.S.S.R. and Soviet art until his death in 1953; his monomaniacal cult of personality would outlive him long. In the mid-1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev denounced “how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing,” becoming “the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions.” Soon after, the Soviet Union began removing many of the publicly displayed statues of Stalin, which helps explain why Grutas Park has only two sculptures of the regime’s most infamous icon.

But even after Stalin’s era passed, the centralized Soviet approach to the arts never ceased. It was immortalized in the Soviet constitution: “The state concerns itself with protecting, augmenting, and making extensive use of society’s cultural wealth for the moral and aesthetic education of the Soviet people, for raising their cultural level.”

Art, in other words, was used to shape and mold the populace rather than as a means of self-expression. For 74 years, the Soviet regime used this legal foundation to fuel the production of prodigious quantities of anonymous official art and persecuted artists who didn’t make use of the approved style, Socialist Realism, typified by the realistic yet idealized renderings of Soviet leaders and stoic workers found at Grutas Park. “They lived very hard lives,” says Noi Volkov of the nonconformist artists. “Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor life, full of difficulties. Terrible life.” Volkov knows of these hardships from first-hand experience. He was held and interrogated by Soviet police for two months for his illegal artistic activities, he recalls, and underwrote his unofficial art endeavors by making and selling ceramic clocks on the black market. “This clock is very popular,” he says, pointing to a timepiece on a bookshelf in his studio. “It helped me live probably 10 years.”

“I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images.” — Nino Leselidze

In 1917, when the Russian Revolution brought czarism to its knees, monumental statues of previous Russian leaders were destroyed by fervent masses. In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled in a series of bloodless coups, its statues, too, were toppled. Ten years later, Grutas Park started to put some of the Soviet remains on display. “This is not a show park,” writes Grutas Park founder Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian pickled-mushroom exporter, in the first issue of the park’s newsletter. “This is a place reflecting the painful past of our nation, which brought a lot of pain, torture, and loss. One cannot forget or cross out history, whatever it is.”

Elena Volkov (no relation to Noi), a 27-year-old photographer and recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate originally from Kiev, Ukraine, says, “It surprises me that this would happen in Lithuania. . . . The Baltic countries always resisted the Soviet regime, so it is interesting that someone is collecting Soviet sculpture there.”

Norton Dodge, a longtime collector of Soviet art from Mechanicsville, fills in the history. “The Baltics were taken over two times by the Soviets,” he says. “First they were under Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again. Under Hitler, 30,000 to 50,000 Baltic intellectuals, including many artists, were taken to camps in the Urals. Then, when Stalin came back in, tens of thousands more were sent to camps in [eastern Russia]. So it was a very rough beginning with the Soviet situation in the Baltics.”

Visitors to the Grutas Park are given an eerie taste of totalitarianism upon first arriving. Just past the entrance is a railroad cattle car–a grim reminder of how unfortunate Soviet citizens were hauled off to worker camps. Authentic Soviet mortars from World War II greet kids entering the park’s playground, and a boardwalk trail meanders through a dense pine forest and bogs. A moat-like canal, electrified fences, and mock guard towers with loudspeakers broadcasting tinny Soviet marching music help re-create the feel of a Siberian gulag. Here and there are clearings in the woods, filled with immense Soviet-era sculptures.

The squeals and squawks of Stalin World’s petting zoo are more appealing than the sculpture to Regina Buloviene, a bed-and-breakfast owner from Vilnius who served as an unofficial guide for Ellsberry’s visit. “I like the ostriches better than the old statues,” she said laughingly.

“They lived very hard lives. Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor lives, full of difficulties.” –Noi Volkov

Back in Baltimore, Nino Leselidze, a 23-year-old photographer whose family moved to Baltimore in 1992 from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, looks at the Stalin World images and thinks first and foremost that “people were getting brainwashed by this propaganda.” But she still believes “they have value–historical value at least. And also technical value. Technically, they are very well done. But historically, the people growing up now, the younger generations, they should know the history. So [Grutas Park] would be a very good way to learn and see, because they are not growing up with these images anymore.”

Leselidze also attaches a grander importance to these images in the development of art in Russia. “I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images,” she says. “Even though it was propaganda, it helped people get into another frame of mind and make different kinds of work.” The monolith of Socialist Realism, Leselidze suggests, pushed artists to find room to breathe in other, more experimental styles that have since been lumped together as Soviet nonconformist art.

“I can’t be very much surprised because this is what I grew up with,” Elena Volkov says dryly while looking at images from Grutas Park. “A collection of such sculpture at one place, it can be very depressing. But if this type of art served the country, I can’t call it useless.

“During [World War II], it really inspired people and helped people to overthrow the Germans and deal with the humongous power of the Nazis,” she continues. “After that, it was like, ‘We defended ourselves and we won the war, and this is what helped us do it and so we are going to continue in this direction.’ And it was all about the happy life that we were building–this is our future and everybody’s happy. The only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.”

Gennadiy Gurvich, a ceramics maker and designer who moved to Baltimore nearly six years ago from Belarus, says Stalin World’s value is akin to that of the miniature models of communist icons his Russian real-estate agent displays in his office. “I ask him, ‘Why are you collecting that?’ And he answer, ‘This is best medicine for nostalgia,'” Gurvich says. “So [Grutas Park] is to treat the mentality. Because many people grow up in the Soviet era and they have communist mentality and they can’t change in so short a time. Because, you know, this new period for former Soviet republics is not so good. And when they come see this exhibition, maybe it is like a treatment for them.”

“This type of art served the country . . . the only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.” –Elena Volkov

Gurvich has another idea, though: “Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime, they will be interested in what happened in the past. And maybe they will be interested to see these images. So maybe it is all for a commercial idea, to sell [tickets] to monuments.”

And that may be the nicest thing about Stalin World. At five Lithuanian litas–about $1.50–admission is light on the wallet. The weighty part is what that buys: a bizarre trip through the iconography of Soviet repression, full of reminders of power gone amok amid lies and terror.

“After the revolution, Lenin came to power,” says Noi Volkov, giving a thumbnail sketch of his view of Soviet history. “And he killed a lot of people. And after Stalin came to power, he killed more people. A couple of generations become very much afraid. They remember everything.” On the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death, perhaps too many don’t remember. And that, Volkov says, is what makes Stalin World worthwhile: “Like Gennadiy [Gurvich] said, it is best medicine for nostalgia.”

The Mizeur Effect

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2014

After the polls closed at 8 p.m. on June 24, it quickly became clear that Heather Mizeur was not going to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer heading into November’s general election, much less Maryland’s first gay, woman governor elected by tapping into the state’s public campaign-financing system. But judging from how her supporters reacted as they gathered on election night at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to hear her concession speech, she—and they—somehow still seemed victorious.

“Heather! Heather!” the crowd of a couple hundred supporters and campaign workers cheered, as Mizeur basked in the intense glow of the TV news teams’ lights.

“We now have a core, organized movement going forward—I have names and numbers,” said Karen Stokes, the Mizeur campaign’s Baltimore City coordinator and the executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. State Del. Mary Washington, who represents Northeast Baltimore, added that “no one feels tonight that they’ve lost. They’re moving the progressive agenda forward. Their voices were heard. This is exciting. Six months ago, could anyone imagine her breaking 20 percent?”

In a telephone interview two days after the election, Mizeur makes it clear “I was in it to win it,” but says the campaign was “never really about winning an election as much as it was about raising consciousness and encouraging people to stay involved.”

Mizeur did break the 20-percent mark, getting about 100,000 votes from Maryland’s Democratic electorate, only 11,000 or so fewer than Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a well-established statewide political figure who came in second behind the overwhelming victor, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, whose campaign raised and spent many millions. Not bad for a two-term state delegate from Takoma Park.

“Maryland politics will never be the same,” declared Delman Coates, the Prince George’s County pastor who ran for lieutenant governor as Mizeur’s running mate. “This is not a moment in time, but a movement,” he said while addressing the crowd, adding that Mizeur “compelled us to believe in new things to make our communities better” and “did not run for governor to make history or further her political career,” but “to make change.” Addressing Mizeur directly, Coates added: “You have started a movement and I will happily ride with you.”

When Mizeur spoke, she declared that her supporters “have shown the power a movement can have when we work together for positive change.” Claiming that “the pundits, the media, the politicians all agree: We ran, hands down, the best campaign in this election,” Mizeur exhorted the crowd for having “changed the way campaigns will be run in Maryland” and argued that “we have restored so much integrity to the electoral process” by showing that voters “can come together to build community again.” That process, she continued, “does not stop with an election”—after “building this movement” and having “changed the conversation” in Maryland, her supporters need to make sure “Maryland becomes a truly progressive state and heeds your call for change” by creating “Maryland’s new ruling progressive class.”

The progressive policy template that Mizeur touted on the campaign trail was tailored to advance basic notions of societal equality though targeted government policies. Tax relief for working families and small businesses, educational reform funded in part by legalizing and taxing marijuana, assuring workers earn a living wage, ending what she calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” created by existing criminal-justice policies, and expanding access to affordable healthcare—these and many other proposals she advanced on her website, her campaign advertising, during media interviews, and in the televised debates.

The extent to which Mizeur’s ideas resonated with Maryland’s Democrats can be measured not only by the 100,000 votes she received, but by the grass-roots fervor reflected in her campaign finances, as compared to Brown’s, during the final weeks leading to the election. Brown’s campaign took in almost 1,300 contributions totaling more than $1.1 million since May 1, for an average donation of almost $900. At the same time, Mizeur’s campaign got more than 3,800 contributions, yielding around $420,000 in private contributions (another $270,000 or so came in the form of matching funds from the state’s public-financing system), for an average contribution of just over $100. That’s an impressively broad base of citizen donors.

The preliminary election results show where Mizeur’s campaign did best. While nearly 60 percent of her votes came out of Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and Montgomery County, she led the pack in Kent County on the Eastern Shore—where she and her wife, Deborah Mizeur, have a farm—and came in second in Baltimore City and Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, and Howard counties.

After Mizeur’s speech was over, the crowd slowly thinned and the camera crews broke down their equipment. In the days following, City Paper contacted some of Mizeur’s Baltimore-area supporters to see if they thought Mizeur’s stab at the State House could have a lingering effect on Maryland politics.

“I think other politicians will take notice of the type of campaign she ran and realize that they can run positive, idea-driven campaigns and thrive because of it,” suggests Keith Gayler, a former research director at the Abell Foundation and policy analyst at the Maryland State Department of Education. “She ran an unapologetically progressive campaign when progressive is often used as term of derision,” Gayler continues, adding, “who else was really talking about inequality, the issue of our time?”

Thomas Dolina, a lawyer who says he first met Mizeur when both were at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, says Mizeur’s qualified success as a gubernatorial candidate is partly due to the fact that “she’s a progressive without demonizing those who disagree with her, and I find that to be a rare attribute.” He says the fact that she performed so well at the polls “while making a sacrifice not to take money” the way campaigns traditionally do—without the constraints of the public-financing system, which limits a campaign’s fundraising and spending—”creates a model where that kind of methodology is successful.” He’s not so sure that the progressive coalition that backed Mizeur will be able to keep its momentum going. “I’ve seen that happen so many times,” he says. “It’s a ripple. It might turn into a wave.”

Joanne Nathans, the founder of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that seeks to economically empower the working class and unemployed, says Mizeur “carried off a really impressive grass-roots campaign” in which “a large number of people supported her and her ideas” even though “she sort of came out of nowhere. She’s now a force to be reckoned with.” As for the “future impact” of the campaign, Nathans notes that Mizeur is “a progressive, principled person” who “respects the voters” and “became a credible candidate despite having very little name recognition initially,” so “other candidates will pay attention to how Heather conducted herself in this campaign.”

Mizeur says her campaign organization and supporters “have loosely discussed having a retreat to explore how to keep everyone engaged” after the election. The issues her campaign sought to address, she continues, “are not going away, so I’m thinking about the best way for me to continue to make a difference” through “this movement of people who are pressing our government and leaders to make these changes.”

In particular, Mizeur says she believes work needs to be done to change the culture at like-minded, progressive institutions in the state that “support me on the issues, but weren’t willing to back the campaign because they are part of the establishment. There’s a sense that some of these organizations have become part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we have to figure out how to harness that.”

Despite the loss, Mizeur says she is committed to continuing the work her campaign started. “There are lots of ways for me to serve,” she says, “and I’m very open to figuring out the best way. I’m not walking away from this work, or this movement, or this state that I love so dearly.”

Drifting for Drinks: The Boat-In Bars of Furnace Branch Make for a Fine Day’s Outing

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 18, 2011

Arriving at a bar by boat seems to make the subsequent drink more rewarding. The adventure of getting there, of steering a vessel according to the liberal rules of the road that boaters get to enjoy, of having the sky above and the water below as you glide across the surface, soaking in the sights along the shore—somehow, enjoying these freedoms, though they are their own reward, calls for a toast. You worked for it, even if the work itself was really recreation.

Baltimore City’s waterfront has opportunities for this: a few, select places where you can tie up your boat, disembark, try to pay the harbor master, and head for the closest watering hole. You can go for a boat-in drink at, say, the Inner Harbor’s Rusty Scupper, Harborview’s Tiki Barge, or Bo Brooks and the Bay Café in Canton. But if you’re departing from the Patapsco River’s Northwest Branch—the harbor’s geographic name—these don’t really qualify as destinations. To get to them, you don’t even leave the harbor and its 6 mph, no-wake speed limit inside Fort McHenry.

Beyond the harbor, you can dock to get a drink at Nick’s Fish House and Grill, next to the Hanover Street Bridge on the Patapsco’s Middle Branch. It’s a dandy place to boat to, with a mile or two of fast boating along the way, but it’s not quite enough of a voyage to feel you’ve earned much reward. You’re still in the city, and all you’ve done to get there is hug the Locust Point shoreline.

To claim a trophy drink, you need to go some distance. You need to head out over open, unrestricted waters, get a little wet at a high rate of speed. You need to build your thirst, see some new sights, gain your sea legs.

Some local old salts who know the lay of the land suggested this: Glen Burnie’s Furnace Branch, about eight miles over water from Fells Point. Along its sandy shore, there’s a biker bar called Reckless Ric’s, in a neighborhood known as Point Pleasant. There, you can dock your boat, take a table perched on sand among palm trees, have your drinks and grub brought to you by barely clad waitresses while you listen to 98Rock-style jukebox music, and look out over the water you came in over.

If that sounds like a worthy outing, rustle up some friends, board a willing vessel, and head out of the harbor past Fort McHenry. Keep to the Patapsco’s south shore, giving the industrial peninsula of Fairfield a wide berth until you reach the mouth of Curtis Bay, just shy of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Hawkins Point, with the W.R. Grace and Co. chemical plant and the Quarantine Road Landfill, looms in the background.

As you go upstream, Curtis Bay gives way to Curtis Creek. Along the way, remaining vestiges of Baltimore’s industrial past still show some muscle, though its ghosts—partially submerged wooden barges and an old tugboat, rotting slowly in the shallows—also haunt the scene. Further along, the very active U.S. Coast Guard’s Curtis Bay Yard comes into view, across the creek from the old U.S. Army Depot, largely abandoned as authorities try to clean up its contamination.

Here, where Curtis Creek forks to become Marley Creek and Furnace Branch, the industrial shoreline gives way to woodlands and, on the Point Pleasant peninsula, a special kind of suburbia where nearly everyone’s backyard has a dock. And here, along Furnace Branch, is where you’ll find Reckless Ric’s dock, with enough room for maybe six small boats.

If you enter Reckless Ric’s the way most people do—from its parking lot, generally packed with motorcycles and muscle cars—it seems like just another biker bar. But if you enter from its dock, you can pretend you’re in Key West. Next door is an old-fashioned, family-style joint called Duke’s Tavern, with its own dock (in disrepair during a recent visit) and, rather than palm trees and sand, a giant oak tree and a grass lawn with a horseshoe pit and picnic tables.

After hitting Reckless Ric’s and Duke’s, you can re-dock downstream at the Point Pleasant Beach Tavern, maybe shoot some pool and get one more for the road—or the river. You’ve earned it.

Federal Judge Notes ‘Troubling Issues’ Involving Baltimore Police Conduct in Gun Case

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 30, 2014

U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ruled in the government’s favor in a gun case today, allowing a gun to be used as evidence in the case of Arthur Jeter, who’s charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. But Blake noted “troubling issues” involving the conduct of Baltimore police officers who seized the gun from Jeter.

Without elaborating, Blake writes that Jeter’s attorney, Brendan Hurson of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, “raises troubling issues concerning the handling of a confidential informant (‘CI’), the apparent failure of the city police to disclose the existence of that CI to the city prosecutor, and the reliability of the lead detective’s recollection.” During a September motions hearing in the case, according to the transcript, Blake commented that “this is a fairly unusual case,” noting that at an earlier motions hearing, Hurson “was surprised” when he “learned a lot of information . . . that had not previously been disclosed.” 

The informant “was not anonymous,” Blake continues in her written opinion, “but rather agreed to become a CI to avoid a drug charge (and backup time on an armed robbery).” In October 2013, the informant “told Det. Robert Clark ‘he would be able to have a friend bring him a gun,'” and Clark “told him that if he did so, he would not be charged with the drug offense.” So, “outside the Baltimore City Police Department’s Southeast District,” the informant spoke with Jeter “on a cell phone placed on speakerphone so Det. Clark could hear the conversation,” and told Jeter “he needed a gun,” and “Jeter agreed to give him one the following day.”

The next day, Jeter was indeed found in possession of a gun while in a car with the informant, and Blake ruled that the officers “had reasonable, articulable suspicion that Mr. Jeter possessed a gun when they seized him by approaching and surrounding the car.” However, she adds in a footnote that “the defense identified numerous inconsistencies in the testimony concerning the events leading up to the seizure of the gun,” as well as “omissions from the statement of probable cause to support the initial charges” against Jeter. But she concludes the omissions “appear intended to protect the identity of the CI.”

Hurson, in previous motions in the case, argued that Clark, “in addition to drafting a statement of probable cause riddled with misrepresentations and critical factual omissions,” offered testimony at a motions hearing that “was repeatedly contradicted by the government’s purported eyewitness, the CI.” He pointed to “undisclosed calls to internal affairs by the CI and his girlfriend, the failure to record or  memorialize any of the critical interactions between the CI, Mr. Jeter, and the police, and the apparent inability of Det. Clark to recall any detail adverse to the government’s case at all” in urging the court to suppress the gun evidence because of “inconsistencies in witness testimony coupled with other glaring ‘red flags’ of improper police conduct.”

“While a jury may reach a different opinion on credibility” of the officers on the case­—Clark, Sgt. Edward Davis, and detectives David Kincaid and Sabrina Hill—Blake writes that “I do not find the inconsistencies and omissions sufficient to conclude there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when the officers seized the individuals in the car.”

Sounds like a close call in favor of the government, and plenty of doubt-raising fodder for Hurson to play up before a jury, should this case go to trial.