Point Break: Riding Fells Point’s Wave Of Prosperity

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 27, 2007

On the wide-screen television perched high above the bar at the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point, Providence College is losing to West Virginia University in the first round of the Big East Conference men’s college basketball championships. But the sound is turned down and the patrons lined up on barstools aren’t paying attention. It’s 8:30 on a Wednesday night, early in March, and instead of watching the game, people are chatting as big-band jazz plays over the stereo in the background.

A white couple who look to be professionals in their mid-50s, dressed casually, talk and drink–a glass of white wine for her, a bottle of Coors Light for him. They banter about the media’s misplaced obsession with Britney Spears’ personal life when what people really need to know about is how many Iraqis are dead from a misguided war. The bartender passes by, a gray-bearded, pony-tailed fellow, his barrel chest filling out a T-shirt advertising a long-ago motorcycle rally somewhere in Pennsylvania. The man stops him to ask, “Who’s playing tonight?”

“Automatic Slim,” the bartender gruffly answers them, looking impish as he peers through his glasses. “Automatic Slim and his four-man trio.”

“I like them already,” says the woman, delighted by the answer.

“Automatic Slim and his four-man trio,” her friend echoes the bartender, chuckling. “The man’s got a sense of humor.”

As the bartender pops the top off a bottle of National Bohemian for another customer, the couple returns to their chat, moving on to Barack Obama’s chances of becoming president.

Welcome to Fells Point in 2007, where conversation and moderation are taking over from loud music and drunkenness, the bulk of the bar patrons seem to have graduated from college or grad school, and home prices are well on the way to $1 million and the typical monthly rent has long since breached $1,000.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Forty years ago, Fells Point was a target for demolition, a waterfront slum of centuries-old buildings about to be sacrificed for a highway. Thirty years ago, with the neighborhood barely spared the wrecking ball, bohemians, bikers, and the John Waters crowd had settled in to wallow in the post-industrial grit of the seaport, cheek to jowl with sailors, immigrants’ sons, and the not-quite-working class that had long called it home. Twenty years ago, college kids and professionals had joined in the fun, their sharp elbows and fat wallets often giving old-timers a rash, while a rising tide of tourists gawked. A decade ago, the moneyed crowds had made even greater inroads, some of them moving into reasonably priced homes or fire-sale fixer-uppers, attracted to the same everyone’s-welcome feel of a waterfront place that kept bringing in the out-of-towners.

Today, Fells Point is largely given over to money and sophistication, and lots of it. Only hints of its grizzled old soul peek from beneath the prosperity. Taverns that used to draw a local crowd of limited means have changed hands for outrageously high sums, and they face catering to a more well-to-do crowd or making way for new owners who will. Civility is the rule, juvenile drunken hijinks the exception. As one local who grew up in Fells Point, Ted Lubonovich, put it recently, “Gone are the days when sailors would drink with a judge on Saturday, and then appear before him in court on Monday for whatever they’d done after the judge left.” For some of the old bars and taverns, the newcomers are inscrutable, but at least they bring in the cash.

Not everyone’s happy about this, and not everyone has adjusted to the new reality, including this writer, who, after a quarter century of Fells Point meanderings, including a stint as a bartender, freely admits to a fondness for the bohemian leanings of earlier times. Fells Point remains a welcoming place where the it-takes-all-kinds mentality that city living demands remains deeply rooted in the neighborhood values, but with money often comes an investors’ attitude. Having mortgaged to the max on a $750,000 rowhouse, or having signed a $2,500-a-month lease, many newcomers’ interests in their own properties take precedence over broader communitywide concerns, such as how to protect and promote the Point’s small businesses.

The wave of prosperity also has overtaken the longtime hosts of the Fells Point scene: its bars and taverns. If you’ve owned a bar for 30 years and you’re tired, it’s tempting to sell out for $1.5 million and let the next guy see what he can make of it–which damn well won’t be a dusty old corner bar for the shallow pockets of old. The changes are palpable, and, by the look of it, more are on the way.

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Larry Silverstein spent much of January and February tending to a development project he’s undertaken in Costa Rica, but on a recent Saturday morning he’s back in his office where he got his start in the development business: Fells Point. The 41-year-old native of the Baltimore suburbs settled in the Point in 1996, flush from making buckets of money off technology stocks during his post-college years in New York. Even 10 years ago, as he acclimated to his new home, he noted the changes in the neighborhood from when he used to carouse in its bars in the mid-1980s. And he smelled a rich opportunity.

“Growing up, when we went out in high school, Fells Point was a much different place,” he says, recalling his reintroduction to the neighborhood. “It had gone from biker bars to a post-high school and college hangout–places like the Greene Turtle and that bar in Brown’s Wharf, [the now-defunct] Surfside Sally’s. So I started coming down, spending time here, and thought that an area like this–no flow-through traffic, with cobblestone streets, on the water, with all the old buildings–could only go up. I started looking for something to do down here, and I found this building.”

It was the old Union Box Co. building at the corner of Wolfe and Lancaster streets, and Silverstein picked it up for $350,000 in 1997, turned it into 50,000 square feet of office space, and soon was on his way to creating substantial personal wealth out of old Fells Point spaces. He also has completed redeveloping 900 S. Wolfe St., which houses his restaurant Red Star, and 906 S. Wolfe, which houses office space, and acquired the old Arundel Concrete plant across the street from it. His other Fells Point projects include two housing developments, one on Lancaster Street and the other on Aliceanna Street. And in 2005, he bought the Waterfront Hotel building for $1 million.

Ironically, Silverstein believes the “dead end” quality of Fells Point makes it especially suitable for prosperity.

“It’s an enclave,” Silverstein explains. “It’s a place that people have to go to, as opposed to pass through. It has a serious geographical barrier, with the water, and it actually is a little bit of a peninsula. From Aliceanna Street south, you’re not going to drive through there, it’s not a shortcut to anywhere, so you get these quiet residential streets that are narrow. You get density on the street, which is lacking in other places in the city. Fells Point has maintained its old historic fabric, so I think it’s a place people like to congregate. It’s Baltimore’s original mixed-use neighborhood. It’s stayed that way for 300 years now.”

Part of that mixed-use tradition is the bar scene, going back for as long as people have been thirsty. But Silverstein notes that the standby bars are changing hands with the advent of a more prosperous Fells Point.

“What you’re seeing is kind of a passing of the old guard,” he observes. “You have a lot of people in the same age bracket that have been in a tough business and done reasonably well for a while now down here, and they see the real estate values have gone up, and it’s a good time to cash out. And I imagine that for a lot of these people, that’s their retirement.”

Howard Gerber, for instance, had owned the Horse You Came in On on Thames Street since the early 1970s; he auctioned it off last November for $1.58 million. In 2005, the Glyphis family sold the River Drive Inn on Thames Street (better known as Miss Irene’s) after decades of ownership for $1.15 million. And Read and Louise Hopkins, who had owned the Whistling Oyster at the foot of Broadway since 1973, fetched $650,000 for their place in 2005, according to real estate records.

Silverstein starts rattling off other Fells Point bars that may be in the same boat–the Dead End, the Wharf Rat, Bertha’s, and others. According to Paul Haslup, a real estate agent who helps broker Fells Point bar deals, each of those three bars is currently listed: the Dead End for $1.8 million, the Wharf Rat for $1.1 million, and Bertha’s for $2.9 million. “Virtually every bar has changed hands or looks like it will change hands in Fells Point,” Silverstein says, though he adds, “I’ve never heard anything about the Cat’s Eye.

“Some of their businesses are based on a model that no longer is working in Fells Point,” Silverstein continues. “The dollar beers, the shots–that’s no longer the crowd down here. You get some of it, but the neighborhood is pushing toward more tavern, more restaurant, than bar.”

It’s not that Silverstein thinks the old-guard bars of Fells Point are vestigial artifacts that have no place in the new prosperity; they just have to figure out how to strengthen their standing in the face of all the new money. “They have an appeal, even to the people who are moving down here,” he says. “They just have to kind of get it together with a little bit with marketing, or maybe eventually people just will rediscover them.

“In my mind, that was the appeal of Fells Point,” Silverstein continues. “A place like the Wharf Rat, that’s off the main path–I think that’s a great bar nestled in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, with who lives here now, you will never be able to do a place like that again. What’s here is here, and once [the old bars] close, it will get in-filled with residential or something different. But there’s not much left down here–the Cat’s Eye being the exception–where you have that regular crowd.”

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“It’s getting kind of dull around here,” Glenn Moomau observes between bites of food and sips of red wine at a table in the tented backyard garden of John Stevens Ltd. Moomau, an American University literature professor who for the last 16 years has played harmonica on Sundays at the Cat’s Eye with Steve Kraemer and the Bluesicians, is a little blasé about the current state of Fells Point, where he owns a building with four apartments and three stores. But he says he still loves it for the little bit of soul that remains. Moomau, 47, arrived here in 1990 from Washington, a little late for the true grit of the old days, but early enough to get a taste of it.

“At the Cat’s Eye, you’d get a guy who worked at the General Motors plant standing next to a heart surgeon from Hopkins,” Moomau recalls. “That was the beauty of Fells Point, all these people mixed in harmony at the bars.”

He talks of the neighborhood characters who are still around–Jaguar, who takes photographs for tourists and barhoppers; Digger Andy, who burrows for treasures beneath long-abandoned backyard outhouses; Bankrobber Jerry, an old vet who wears a helmet to protect what’s left of his injured head. He also lists those who are missing in action–the transvestite hookers, the guy who tap-danced at the bars, characters with nicknames like Muldoon, the old ethnic joints that closed down years ago.

When Moomau took up residence in Fells Point in 1990, “it was already being gentrified,” he explains, “and the old-timers were already complaining that it was kaput.” But the changes had only just begun. Some are reflected in the U.S. Census Bureau figures for Fells Point. In 1990, nearly a quarter of the Point’s residents were living in poverty, and nearly half the households were making $20,000 or less annually. In 2000, less than a 10th of the population was poverty-stricken, and less than a fifth brought in $20,000 or less. The median rent in 1990 was $455–meaning half of the residents were paying less than that. By 2000 the median-rent figure was somewhere in the neighborhood of $700. One can only imagine, given the prosperity that’s taken hold in the seven years since, what today’s figures are.

While the Point is more prosperous these days, Moomau says that the proliferation of money-based self-interest has hurt the neighborhood’s feel. “The problem with this neighborhood now, with the exception of a few people, is that most people in this neighborhood only vote their pocketbook,” he explains. “They’re only concerned about their block or their corner. And that angers me. And the people who own these antique houses around here, they’re very anti-business–especially small business–and I think that’s a problem. That’s what the neighborhood’s built on, the small businesses, so it’s not really a cohesive neighborhood.

“Back when none of this property was really worthy anything, people were much more relaxed. You had a different kind of person–it wasn’t a person who was buying something for an investment. Now, you have people who are like, `I don’t want somebody opening a coffee shop right next door to my house.’ But that’s the thing that made this neighborhood kind of cool, was that there was kind of frontier element–you know, you could do what you wanted with your property.”

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What Moomau is driving at when he talks about restrictions on how people can use their property in Fells Point is an issue currently before the Baltimore City Council. On Feb. 28, the council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee held a hearing on City Council Bill 06-0464–Rezoning–Properties in Historic Southeast Baltimore. As City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District) explained at the hearing, the bill is the culmination of a process that began in 2005 as an attempt to clear up confusion over property-use rules that had built up over several decades of piecemeal zoning measures. The point, Kraft said at the hearing, is to simplify matters “so that when a person purchases or sells their property, they would know what the zoning is, and they don’t have to deal with the multiple layers on top of it.”

As one might expect, Fells Point’s rezoning prospects are the source of deep controversy. The proposed zoning map has especially rankled people concerned about the fate of small-business uses of property. Larry Silverstein is not alone when he notes that the map reflects “the influence of the wealthier, more organized people who live here now, who want this to be more of a homeowners’ neighborhood, and less of a business neighborhood.”

The map proposes that Broadway and Thames have the highest-density, most-uses-allowed business zoning, and that fewer businesses will be allowed on the streets off those two main drags, including switching to residential zoning in several areas where businesses are now allowed. Current businesses are grandfathered in, but when they stop operating, if no commercial use replaces them within a year, the grandfather clause lapses, and only uses within the designated zoning would be allowed from that point on.

Silverstein says he’s finished all the development he planned to do in Fells Point, so the issue will not affect his bottom-line interests. But, he points out, “with the current rezoning, every single project I’ve done in Fells Point would not have been allowed. And I think that’s a mistake.”

Lily Adlin, who with her husband, Nelson Adlin, owns several properties with commercial tenants in Fells Point, is wary about the zoning changes proposed for Fleet Street, east of Broadway–changes that are also proposed for similar stretches of longstanding Fells Point commercial corridors.

“They are planning to dam up Fleet Street by creating two locks,” Adlin explains, using a canal metaphor. The two blocks of Fleet from Broadway to Ann Street, she explains, will keep its B-2 zoning, which allows a relatively wide variety of commercial uses, including such businesses as check-cashing agencies and restaurants and taverns without live entertainment. But then, from Ann Street to Washington Street–the next four blocks heading east on Fleet–“they’re going to put a lock on it by reducing it to B-1, which is terribly restrictive, and then east of Washington, it is going to be R-8, and you can’t have business at all in R-8.” The B-1 designation does not allow taverns, bars, or check-cashing operations, among other uses.

“We want all of Fleet Street to be B-2,” Adlin continues, “because it needs more business to bring in more people, which is what the merchants on Fleet Street desperately need.” She worries that if B-2 zoning (which allows 134 types of business uses) is switched to B-1 (which allows only 39 types of business uses), the businesses that remain will lose their critical mass and stop drawing customers from beyond the area. “They can’t depend on the neighbors to keep their businesses afloat,” she says.

Adlin reiterates Silverstein’s point about Fells Point residents having disproportionate sway over the task force that has guided the rezoning process. “The task force was made up primarily of residential groups,” she explains. “There were only two business groups on it, and about 16 residential groups. So the businesses were not well-represented, and the residents there don’t want businesses encroaching on their comfort.”

Indeed, at the two-hour Feb. 28 Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing, Adlin and a few others testified about their concerns over ratcheting down business zoning in Fells Point, while residents’ representatives gave blanket support for the proposed zoning. (Hispanic groups forcefully voiced concerns similar to Adlin’s about the area of South Broadway north of Fells Point, where less intensive business zoning also was being proposed.)

Silverstein surmises that merchants failed to participate as much as the residents because, even though everyone was invited to join in what he calls “an open process” that resulted in the proposed zoning map, “business owners are busy, and they don’t have time to go to these meetings. And they don’t really think anything’s going to affect them until it actually hits them in the face. But if you buy a house for a million dollars, you don’t want to live next door to a bar with live music. So you’re getting friction between the new homeowners and the existing businesses.”

The result over time, Adlin and Silverstein argue, will be fewer businesses in large areas of Fells Point. “Unfortunately, if this goes through, you’re not going to get any new businesses on some of these blocks that are one or two back from the main streets,” Silverstein says. “And that really has always been part of Fells Point–you walk through these alleys and back streets and stumble onto a store that you didn’t know was there. That’s going to get much harder.”

Kraft was out of town and unavailable for comment for this story before press time.

The points that Adlin and Silverstein make about the Fells Point rezoning are not challenged by Arthur Perschetz, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association. Except, he points out, there’s a “tension that exists” within the homeowners’ group “between those who are looking for Ruxton on the Patapsco and others who like the mixed-use environment as it is. Some people really like the synergy, the vibe, the rough cutting edge of Fells Point the way it’s been, but some who have moved in over the last few years, when prices for property have gone up so significantly, didn’t necessarily want a store right next door to them.”

Perschetz acknowledges that, yes, the effect of the proposed zoning map is that portions of Fells Point where shops and bars have long been operating will have fewer businesses there as the years go by. But, he adds, the small-business operators still have a chance to have their voices heard.

“The business owners had an opportunity to go to the hearings [over the last two years], as did everyone,” Perschetz says. “But they’re not shut out yet.” The City Council rezoning bill still has to make its way through the legislative process, he says, so “they still have an opportunity to come and make their case.”

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For 23 years, from 1976 to 1999, Fells Point was home to a charismatic character who marshaled the neighborhood forces when such controversies as the current rezoning battle occurred: Steve Bunker, owner of the China Sea Marine Trading Co., which traded in maritime curiosities. Bunker is still an absentee presence in Fells Point, often visiting, more often spending quality phone time with the locals from his home in Maine. But he’s no longer present for the fights, except as a long-distance adviser.

“I wish it were still a little rougher around the edges,” Bunker says of Fells Point, after having paid a recent visit. His eye-catching countenance–a thick mustache, long locks hanging from under a Greek fisherman’s cap, and a parrot on his shoulder–is easily imagined, though he’s speaking by phone.

“On the one hand, the cute-sification of the place–a lot of it is just a facade, because, on the other hand, two or three blocks back from the water, a lot of it is still there, with the immigrants and the Gypsies, if you can find them,” he expounds. “But the city is getting greedy, and they’re running off the stable part of the neighborhood. In the long run, the city is not going to prosper when the new people come in, buy expensive homes, live there for a couple of years, and then run off to the suburbs to live out the rest of their lives.”

In Bunker’s day, Fells Point was a long-term haven for people seeking new beginnings after a bitter turn. “It was the kind of neighborhood where you could come in from somewhere else and, with very little money, make a new start,” he explains. “I loved that.” At the same time, the neighborhood drew some powerful people, he recalls–sometimes under the cover of night, for covert vice sessions with the salty crowd that hung out after hours in the back room of the Cat’s Eye Pub. “The back room at the Cat’s Eye was kind of a local institution,” Bunker says. “Politicians of some note have showed up there at 3 or 4 in the morning. The local cops all knew about it, and people behaved themselves.”

These nocturnal connections proved valuable during the various fights over Fells Point’s future. “We had people slipping us information in the middle of the night, and professionals with skills and knowledge and connections helped us,” Bunker continues. Those connections helped during what he calls “the end of the road fight,” which stopped the proposed highway from coming through Fells Point in the late 1970s, and helped Bunker and other Fells Pointers resist unchecked development as the neighborhood’s star rose.

“What we wanted to do was maintain the neighborhood as conservatively as possible for as long as we could, maintain its livable scale,” he says. “So we fought the condoization of Fells Point, and a lot of the developers who came through were empty jackets who would’ve left us with a bunch of white-elephant rental towers–we beat ’em, every one of them.”

The experiences strengthened Fells Point’s resolve as a community, Bunker recalls. “And that continuity and institutional memory was terribly important, as was the spirit that everybody keeps in mind the interests of their neighbors, and the understanding that small business was the engine of it all,” he says. “We developed a lot of skill, and you could deal with us–once a bad plan was beaten back, we would sit down and talk it out. But there was that break in the late 1990s, the early 2000s, when everyone kind of was lulled as a real pressure was being exerted to bring in intensive development. We knew that Fells Point was going to change–that’s why I left when I did.”

Other old-timers disappeared over time, as well. “Most of them have pretty much died, and a lot of others have been forced out of the neighborhood by high rents or, if they were owners, by higher taxes–or they were forced out just by the feel of it,” Bunker says. “The newcomers kind of bleached out the neighborhood.” And even though “there is probably more [political] skill in the neighborhood now than when we were there,” he adds, residents and business owners are having trouble keeping up the resistance.

“A lot of them are like deer caught in a headlight in the face of all that’s coming so quickly,” he says. “Some of the professionals there now don’t have time to deal with the neighborhood, or they see it as an investment, not a home. We were able to keep development down to a dull roar, but today, I don’t know what you can do about it.”

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“They’re doing somebody’s bidding and I don’t know whose, and I don’t understand it,” fumes Alicia Horn from across the bar at Birds of Feather, which she’s run on Aliceanna Street since the `80s. She’s talking about the city government and its current rezoning proposal, which, along with another proposal to designate Fells Point a historic district and a “renewal area,” would supercede the Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan–one of the longstanding land-use overlays that, city planners say, confuse the zoning. “Don’t fix something when it ain’t broke, and they’re getting rid of it,” Horn says. “You have a problem with that plan, then tweak it. Because we’ve had that plan since the ’70s, and it’s worked.”

The Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan has guided development in the area for more than 30 years, with numerous controversies over the years regarding modifications to it. Horn fears that the end of it would lead to ever greater heights and densities in the neighborhood.

“When density and height restrictions go away, the properties that are available down near the water are going to get big,” she says. “And then it’s all going to get to be like Inner Harbor East, where Spinnaker Bay and all that is.

“It’s good for business, for people like me–it really is,” she continues. “I get a lot of neighborhood people in here now, and that will only get better. And, as this happens, my property’s going to be worth more money for me to retire on. But I’m against the city trying to restrict certain people through zoning and historic guidelines, and helping others to build big buildings. It seems to me that they’re working with developers rather than working with the community.”

So what’s wrong with big buildings surrounding the small-scale historic structures of Fells Point? “Well, it’ll be sort of like Little Italy, where those big tall buildings shadow the areas right adjacent to it,” Horn says. “The wind will start funneling through, and it’ll be gross. And the traffic will get worse and worse and worse. And historic view corridors straight to the water will be blocked. The area won’t be livable like it is now.

“Things change, yes, and everything changes. Yes, it’s making it nicer for people to live here when you have condos and high-end apartments. But then you have to ask, how are all those people going to get into and out of this neighborhood every day, and where are people going to park?”

“So in other words, we should put a horse farm down there?” asks Brown Benson, Horn’s friend and patron and a master of sarcasm. He’s eating a Quiznos sandwich and sipping a glass of wine and, after more wine, he’s primed to play a strident devil’s advocate. “Then, what? The only places we can put the tall buildings is in Columbia, Hunt Valley? Where we going to put the tall buildings, in Mount Vernon? Charles Village?

“I live in Inner Harbor East, and you know what? I think they should have built it taller,” Benson continues. “I mean, I get the argument that the water view can get blocked, but look at it–we’re not looking at the Mediterranean here! Yes, there can be some city planning, but urban areas evolve. And they should be allowed to evolve. If people want high buildings, well, fine. I just don’t get it.”

For 10 years, Patrick Hill has owned the Unicorn Studio, a frame shop and art gallery on the 600 block of South Broadway that sits next to a proposed redevelopment centered on the north end of the Broadway Market. It’s called the Marketplace at Fells Point. As proposed by the developers–Dave Holmes and Dan Winner–the $50 million project would involve a nine-story complex consisting of a five-story parking garage and four stories of new residences. To say Hill is thrilled to the core about the proposal would be an understatement; he can barely contain himself when asked about the plan.

“What these guys wanted to do initially just seemed to be too good to be true,” Hill recalls of his first encounter with the idea about a year ago. “I mean, [Winner and Holmes are] just going to come in and sink all this money into trying to build things up without trying to seize properties and not get the city government involved really. I mean, come on, it’s too good to be true. But it looks like it’s a go. And the city is way behind the project, is what I understand.

“This is the point that I want to make,” Hill sums up. “This block here, the 600 block of South Broadway, has been falling apart for years, and everybody’s been turning a blind eye to it. Everything that gets done in Fells Point stayed down there on the square at the foot of Broadway, Thames Street, and on the 700 block, and this block was totally neglected. It was the red-headed stepchild of Fells Point. So what do you think’s going to happen? Well, it’s either going to be torn down or redeveloped. We’re down to five businesses on this block, and the Broadway Market has virtually nothing to offer. Now somebody wants to do something about it, and it’s going to be a gateway north to the rest of Fells Point. Finally, people might start wanting to come up here. This is long overdue. It should have happened years ago.”

Many Fells Pointers agree, though not everyone, and the sticking point is over the proposal’s height–the same issue over which Horn and Benson disagree for Fells Point as a whole.

“Dan Winner and Dave Holmes are good guys, and their hearts are in the right place,” Bunker says, diplomatically. “And I view the revitalization of the north end of Broadway Market as wonderful, but you’re a little naive if you fail to worry about what the height is going to mean in the long run. Height and density are the big bugaboos down there, and if a 10-story project goes in, then a 20-story one eventually will go in right behind it. And you can end up creating a canyon down there pretty easily. Again, the scale of living is what has kept Fells Point unique, and very livable, and that’s what’s wrong with this project–it’s out of scale.”

Holmes and Winner have overcome a lot of initial hesitation about their plan, including from Kraft, regarding its scale. “We respect that,” Holmes says of Bunker’s concern about the scale of the project. “But we won the hearts and minds of a lot of folks.” The need to include the parking garage was what added height to the proposal, he explains, and “without that parking this project could not be what it needs to be.

“This isn’t about trying to build some high-rise,” Holmes says. “As for what comes in the future, 50 years from now hopefully people will see the benefit the community gets from this project. It might raise the question of just how important is height to the future of Fells Point.”

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Another one of the “big bugaboos” in Fells Point for years was a woman from Ruxton, in Baltimore County, named Lucretia Fisher. Now in her 90s and still living in her Ruxton home, Fisher came down to Fells Point as an investor in the 1960s and started to buy up bundles of overlooked old buildings. When she found out about the plans for building a highway through the area, she became one of the most important players in stopping it. Still, despite her role in saving the Point, she earned the ire of the bar owners and residents who came in after her, including Bunker–though he gives her credit where credit is due.

“Lu Fisher was a speculator in her own right,” he explains. “She grabbed her property, got it cheap, rented it out as slum property for years, and then sold it out. I had many friends who lived in her run-down places. And when [former Cat’s Eye owner] Kenny Orye died in 1987, everybody expected Lu Fisher to grab for it. The day after his funeral, she came into the Cat’s Eye with a couple of the biddies from Ruxton and started talking, `Let’s put a tea room here.’ It was a vulgar thing to do. But she was there at a time when she was needed, when a lot of folks were needed to do what had to be done, which was to buy a lot of property so they could stop the road.” (Anthony Cushing ultimately purchased the Cat’s Eye; if he’s plans to sell it, he’s keeping mighty quiet about it.)

These days, Fisher is almost entirely divested of Fells Point properties, but she’s happy to talk about what was once her “favorite place in the world.” While she’s a little vague on the dates and proper names of places and people, she’s still on the ball when it comes to her opinions about the Point. She acknowledges that she never liked the Cat’s Eye and its ilk. “They were mostly drunks, people who were more concerned about getting drinks in those building than they were about the buildings themselves–or Fells Point, for that matter,” she says. Instead, Fisher says she was busily “trying to get people to care about the area, which I thought had a big future.” Now that the future’s here, with all the money and new residents and offices and parking garages, and more on the way, she’s thoroughly disappointed.

“I think the whole area is going to be ruined,” Fisher asserts with helpless frustration. “I feel that I’m not going to see it when it happens, because I’m so old. But it’s already starting with all this wealth coming down there, and these big buildings covering up the waterfront. It’s going to be overdone, and by the time they’re finished, you won’t see any water. You will have lost the original attraction completely. And they say they will put protections in place [to prevent overbuilding], but I have no belief in protections when they can be changed so quickly.”

Fisher is especially disappointed by the current state of the the City Recreational Pier. The mammoth historic building, jutting out into the harbor just east of the Broadway Pier, has been largely derelict for many years now. In 2004, the city put out a call for redevelopment proposals, attracting a host of interested parties from around the country with substantial financial backing. In the end, it was awarded to J. Joseph Clarke, the husband of Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), but after a series of setbacks he has yet to start the project. This frustrates Fisher no end.

“Why did they think that Joe Clarke was so good for it?” she wonders with a mystified laugh. “I was so surprised that it ended up with him, because it is a perfectly huge thing, and it’s got to be done right. But now, it’s nothing again.”

While the Rec Pier redevelopment has been delayed, Fisher’s engaging in a bit of hyperbole to state that “it’s nothing again.” Clarke, reached by phone on March 15, says several key hurdles are almost cleared, and he expects to begin work on the $50 million, 130-room hotel project this summer, “assuming all the pieces fit together.” He estimates that, once started, it will take two years to build, though adds that “it may be more.”

The Rec Pier aside, Fisher’s pessimistic view that Fells Point is falling victim to its own prosperity suggests that her strategy–to disinvest–may be wise. The old-guard bar and restaurant owners have started to follow suit, taking advantage of a flush market by cashing out. So has Silverstein. Because eventually, as Glenn Moomau likes to point out, the big wave will come, one that Fells Point investors may have a hard time riding.

“In 50 years it’s all going to be underwater, you know,” he says with a knowing grin. Sea-level rise, after all, is no joke, and the Chesapeake Bay is rising even faster due to land subsidence, making Fells Point flooding on the order of 2004’s Hurricane Isabel, when kayakers were able to paddle blocks back from Thames Street, an ever more likely occurrence. “I plan on selling here in a few years,” Moomau says, “before the deluge comes.”

Pardon Our Filth: City Sewage Keeps Flowing Into The Bay While Baltimore’s Sewer System Gets a Billion-Dollar Fix

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2007

David Schmidt is president of a marine-supply company in Hanover, Pa., who keeps a boat in a slip at Canton Cove Marina, where Linwood Avenue ends at the harbor. As he approaches the marina gate and gangway on Sept. 12, he notices me and another paddler holding back gags as we nose our kayaks toward the storm water that empties into the harbor beneath the waterfront promenade in front of two condominium buildings there. Schmidt sees us look down at the gray-colored water we’re floating in, into the darkness of the tunnels where it’s coming from, and then back down at the water.

“It’s raw sewage coming out of the storm drain,” Schmidt says flatly as he walks along the dock. “I’m down here all the time for the last five years, and it’s been going like that the whole time. It’s not always this bad, but it’s always bad. God forbid anybody fall in. You should see it when it rains.”

There’s been no rain to speak of for weeks, and yet here is enough sewage to turn the water at the marina a striking shade of gray and to thoroughly stink up the surrounding blocks. It’s entering the harbor out of a drain outlet, or “outfall,” that’s designed to funnel runoff from city streets and pavements when it rains, not the waste water that the city’s sewage system funnels to its water treatment plants. If there had been a good, hard rain, then one might expect some sewage in the storm drain; the sewer pipes running down streambeds tend to get hit by large objects in storms, sometimes getting blown open and causing nasty messes downstream. But there had been no storm. There had to be some other explanation.

Schmidt keeps talking. He’s indignant but resigned, complaining that he pumps out his boat sewage so it won’t get in the Chesapeake Bay, as the law says he must, and the city should, too. But apparently, he concludes, the city would rather keep paying fines than obey the law.

Schmidt has many ways to complain about the odor, perhaps because that’s the main topic of the conversations he has with others who rent slips here. “I got my boat sealed up so I can go down below and get away from it,” Schmidt says, and points to other boats similarly protected. “But you never really can. That restaurant”–he points at the nearby Bay Café–“keeps its patio awnings zipped up on this side because of it. That pool next to it [at Tindeco Wharf] is hardly used, most of the time. Look at all those condo windows,” he says, gesturing at the Canton Cove building. “Nice weather, but they’re closed up tight. Same thing. It’s the smell.”

Schmidt walks onto his boat and goes below, and we glide away in our kayaks, marveling that fish are jumping just 50 yards away from the foul outfall. What’s more, a quarter-mile away, at the bulkhead of the Korean War Memorial Park, men are fishing for those fish.

The Linwood Avenue outfall has been polluting the harbor with sewage, on and off, for a long time. Schmidt’s account confirms what I’ve occasionally observed firsthand while kayaking or walking by here since the late 1990s. The federal Clean Water Act calls for all U.S. waters to be returned to swimmable and fishable conditions, and while fish sometimes jump near here, swimming, while never advisable, would at times be suicidal. So the next day, I call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, which enforce the Clean Water Act, to find out whether or not the sewage coming into the harbor from under Linwood Avenue is somehow allowed. After a couple of short back-and-forths about what was observed, it quickly becomes clear that it is not.

“We’d be very interested in investigating,” adds Angela McFadden, a high-ranking pollution enforcement officer at the EPA, in a Sept. 24 phone conversation, “because I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on.”

The EPA and the DOJ are the plaintiffs, along with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in a Clean Water Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed against the city of Baltimore a decade ago over its illegally leaky sewer system. Five years ago, a “consent decree” was entered in the matter. Under the decree, the city must spend almost a billion dollars over 14 years, starting in late 2002, to get its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. So far, with less than a decade to go, the city has spent nearly $260 million and has repeatedly raised water-and-sewer rates to pay for it.

A few weeks pass of phone tag punctuated by short conversations with the EPA and DOJ, and as September turns to October, I file a request to look at the EPA’s consent-decree records and periodically return to the Linwood Avenue outfall. The scent of sewage becomes less intense over time, but it still has that unmistakable reek, especially right after it first starts to rain and whatever’s pooled up in the pipes during the dry weather gets flushed out.

Meanwhile, the city’s 311 system for logging citizen complaints and service requests steadily registers calls from along Linwood Avenue as it heads north from the waterfront into the city. The 311 system is alerted seven times about sewer odors along the Linwood corridor during September, and another nine times for the 12 months prior to that. Some of the calls are quite specific about the source, describing “a strong sewer smell coming from the storm drain in the street,” for instance, or “a very strong sewer odor coming from the inlet.” On Election Day, Sept. 11, the day before Schmidt talks to us in our kayaks, someone reports that it “smells like sewage inside and out” of a house on Linwood, two blocks north of the outfall.

Citywide, 31 other complaint calls came in to 311 operators in September about sewer odors. “There is a strong sewer odor in the area,” the city is notified by a caller from the Northwest Community Action neighborhood, on the west side near Walbrook Junction. Another caller points out that there is a “strong odor of sewage in the air” at East North Avenue and Broadway, near the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. A “bad sewer smell” is reported at Gay and Lombard streets, a block off the harbor downtown, and a “very powerful sewer smell” is noted in Waverly. “A very strong sewage smell is coming from the pond” in the woods behind Uplands, another caller notes, giving the location where Maiden Choice Run begins its rough-and-tumble journey through Southwest Baltimore before it reaches the Gwynns Falls just above Carroll Park. The list goes on.

Aside from the sewage stench rising from below the streets, the 311 system also logged a myriad of complaints that sewage was flowing in city streets, sidewalks, alleys, and into storm drains in September, which was an extremely dry month with less than half an inch of rain. As the weeks passed, the city responded to a total of 19 calls described as reporting “sewer overflows” and “sewer leaks,” and numerous other calls that described sewage flowing in the streets. When sewage runs on the streets, it enters storm drains and, ultimately, enters the Chesapeake Bay. How to estimate that flow–especially at a storm-drain outlet like the one at Linwood Avenue, which is designed to be partially submerged in the Patapsco River’s tides–is anybody’s guess.

The consent decree requires the city of Baltimore to estimate the amount of sewage released in leaks the city deems reportable, so if anyone’s trying to guess how much Baltimore City sewage is leaking, it’s the city’s Department of Public Works. It looks like DPW is lowballing it.

Whenever an “unauthorized discharge of wastewater” from the city’s sewage collection system into “any waters” of the United States, the consent decree dictates that a written report must be provided to EPA within five days. In the report, the city must describe the cause, duration, and volume of the flow, as well as “corrective actions or plans to eliminate future discharges” at the site and “whether or not the overflow has caused, or contributed to, an adverse impact on water quality in the receiving water body.”

Once DPW estimates the amount of sewage that leaked and reports it, the city is subject to fines based on the number of gallons of sewage that the city says leaked. Since January 2003, EPA records reflect the city has been levied fines totaling $416,200 (the payments are split evenly between EPA and MDE) for 255 reported leaks.

The sewer-leak reporting also forms part of the quarterly reports that the city must prepare and submit under the consent decree, to keep all the plaintiffs up to date on progress in improving the sewer system’s performance. The tally of reported leaks listed in the quarterly reports since December 2002 is 419, releasing a total estimate of nearly 190 million gallons. The smallest reported leak was 12 gallons lost to Western Run, which joins the Jones Falls near Mount Washington, on a rainy day in April 2004. The largest was the July 2004 bulkhead failure at Braddish Avenue behind St. Peter’s Cemetery in West Baltimore, which released a rush of sewage into the Gwynns Falls initially estimated to be 36.25 million gallons, though online MDE records put the guess at 1.5 million gallons.

The trend on paper has been fewer leaks reported as the consent decree progresses, with 143 reported for 2003 and 72 reported for 2006. By the end of June this year, summary details on 31 leaks were included in the quarterly reports, so 2007 appears headed for an even lower total.

As of Nov. 7, when I went to Philadelphia to review EPA’s consent-decree files, the city of Baltimore had not notified the agency of any reportable sewer leaks occurring in September 2007. There were some reported in August and some in October, but none in September. Thus, whatever spewed raw sewage out into the harbor at the end of Linwood Avenue in September, and whatever prompted citizens citywide to lodge complaints about sewer leaks, overflows, and odors over the course of that very dry month, it wasn’t sewer leaks reported by the city under the consent decree. It must have been something else.

Oddly, the 311-calling public appears to be more attuned to sewage leaking in Baltimore City when the leaks aren’t reported under the consent decree than when they are. A year before, in September 2006, when at 7.5 inches there was nearly twice the historic average rainfall for that month, the situation was reversed. The city reported five sewer discharges totaling 39,255 gallons, occurring in Waltherson, Grove Park, Cherry Hill, Violetville, and the state’s Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street downtown. But on 311, not a single call about a sewer leak or overflow came in all month long.

“The consent decree requires the City to report releases from the collection system that reach receiving waters or storm sewers,” EPA spokesman David Sternberg writes to City Paper in a Dec. 7 e-mail. “It does not require the City to report releases that don’t meet these criteria (i.e., basement backups).”

Perhaps September’s citywide sewage funk that had residents reaching for their phones–and sewage contaminating the marina where Schmidt keeps his boat–was due to something as routine and hard to stop as a whole lot of basement backups occurring during what amounted to a drought. And perhaps the absence of 311 sewer-leak complaints in September 2006, when heavy rains prompted the city to report one big leak and grease clogs caused four smaller ones to be reported, is attributable to the fact that the leaks the city detected were in areas where residents didn’t see or smell them.

But one thing is clear, based on the September flow out of the Linwood Avenue outfall: Sewage from Baltimore City is getting into the storm drains and, thus, into the bay–a lot more sewage than the amounts being reported by the city under the consent decree.

“The harbor is being polluted with sewer overflows, especially at Linwood Avenue,” Phil Lee explains. As a founder of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association and an engineer, he’s being asked to comment about the Linwood outfall and its impact, and he says he’s spoken with environmental authorities about it over the years. At some point, he says, he was told that an “illicit connection into the storm-drain system upstream” was contributing to the problem. “I don’t think they’ve fixed it,” he observes, adding that “it’s still like Old Faithful.”

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Lee’s not the only one who’s been keeping track of the Linwood Avenue outfall. A man whom Lee calls “a one-man army” in the cause of tracking sewer problems, Guy Hollyday, has been telling authorities about it for years.

Hollyday’s group, the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, targeted the Linwood Avenue outfall as an “acute” sewer problem–one of three it had identified citywide–during a meeting held for city officials at Loyola College in November 2005. The group, formed in 2000 when four Baltimore watershed groups combined and coordinated their ongoing efforts to keep sewage out of city streams, issued its annual report for 2006 in May this year, updating the situation.

The report pinpointed an illegal sewer connection to the storm-drain system at the site of Pompeian Inc., an olive oil bottling company located on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, about two miles away from the outfall as the crow flies. It’s not clear whether the illegal connection has anything to do with Pompeian or if it just happens to meet the storm drains under the company’s property; attempts to contact Pompeian for comment were unsuccessful. Based on information from the city, however, the group’s summary explained that 300 feet of sewer pipe upstream had been lined to try to keep the sewage from entering the storm-drain system there, but as of September 2005, with sewage still entering the storm drain, the city had resolved to replace the next section of sewer downstream, too.

“It’s still not fixed, as far as I know,” Hollyday says over lunch at nearby Kiss Café in late November.

He’s right. In a Dec. 10 e-mail, DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher identifies the illegal connection at the olive oil company’s property, and explains that “the city is awaiting this company’s final plan for plant expansion,” which “will include a new proposal for the relocation of the sewer line” that’s been causing problems. “The city has continued to keep [MDE] informed on the status of this project,” Kocher adds, though apparently EPA has not been in the loop. Nothing about it appeared in the voluminous EPA files reviewed by City Paper, and the EPA’s Angela McFadden had not heard of the sewage appearing at the Linwood Avenue outfall, much less where it might be coming from.

In all likelihood, sewage will from time to time continue to contaminate the harbor at the Linwood Avenue storm-water outfall. Citizens, whose rising water and sewer rates are paying for the billion-dollar sewer-system overhaul, will endure the fouled water and reeking air until the sewer is fixed at Pompeian Inc. If the sewage still flows then, the city likely will seek out and fix other sources of sewage in the storm drains as more years pass. Perhaps it will turn out to be an never-ending battle, and there always will be sewage flowing into the harbor beneath Linwood Avenue, for as long as people flush toilets and have basement backups in Baltimore.

But none of that changes the course of progress. DPW is deeply proud of its work so far under the consent decree, and is bound to stay that way. “As of this date,” Kocher wrote in his Dec. 10 e-mail, “all but 5 of [39] construction projects [required under the consent decree] have been completed and 54 engineered [sewage] overflow structures have been eliminated.” Up next are sewershed studies and sewer flow monitoring across the city, he continued, which aim to root out the sources of unpermitted sewage discharges. “The current estimate of the program at $900 million,” Kocher concluded, “continues to be a reasonable estimate at this time,” adding that once the upcoming studies are completed “the City will be able to better refine that estimate.”

Because of the progress that has already been made, and because of more progress that’s required before the consent decree expires, Lee believes in swimmable, fishable harbor water by 2020–that’s what the law has set out to do. His optimism is commendable and was likely shared widely in 1972, when the original Clean Water Act first passed, calling for swimmable, fishable waters by 1983. But 2020’s a long time away, and hundreds of millions of dollars still has to be spent in a little less than a decade on sewer improvements. Lee seems truly to believe it’s doable, and he sees the sewage flowing beneath Linwood Avenue, while a longstanding condition, as a temporary one requiring patience before the city finally puts an end to it.

When it comes to water-quality issues, Darin Crew has to be nearly as adept at understanding sewersheds as he is at understanding watersheds. He came to Baltimore to take a job at the Herring Run Watershed Association, aiming to improve water quality in the Northeast Baltimore watershed, which is a tributary to Back River in Baltimore County. That was 2003, and in February of that year, the Herring Run hosted what was immediately billed as one of the worst sewage spills in city history. An estimated 36 million gallons of sewage was released after two massive sewer lines embedded in the stream became blocked.

Four months later, in June 2003, an estimated 35 million gallons of sewage leaked out of a damaged manhole along Herring Run, poking a hole in the largest-in-city-history theory about the first one. The following May and July brought two more 30 million gallon-plus gushers at Braddish Avenue, affecting the Gwynns Falls. For Crew, knowing about the weak links in the sewer system in Herring Run’s drainage area was to be a major part of his new job.

“It’s right down here, directly beneath this bridge,” Crew says as he pulls up in his pickup truck. The Mannasota Avenue bridge spans Herring Run, connecting the Belair-Edison and Parkside neighborhoods, and Crew promises to show me and a City Paperphotographer that sewage is running out of the storm drain constructed in the bridge foundation. We follow Crew as he scrambles down the stream bank and goes under the bridge. Concrete was used to channel Herring Run as it passes beneath the bridge, and the clear water coming out of the storm drain splashes on it and runs, pooling here and there, into the clear running stream. There’s no odor of sewage.

“It doesn’t always smell,” Crew explains. “You can tell that sewage is a likely component of what’s coming out of here by the gray scum that collects on the surfaces wherever the water is for any period of time. It’s just gray scum. Other than that, you can measure ammonia in the water. That’s a pretty good indicator. And the ammonia levels are always pretty high here. This flows about a gallon a minute, and that works out to be 60 gallons an hour–you do the math. It’s a constant flow, except when it rains. And this low-level kind of thing, by itself, doesn’t really do much damage, water quality-wise, given all that’s already getting into the stream. But it’s still a problem.”

“What about that one over there?” the photographer asks, pointing across Herring Run to another outfall coming out of the opposite stream bank. “I don’t know, let’s go see,” Crew suggests. Again, the water is clear. But this time the sewage odor hits while approaching the opening. “Whoa, that’s definitely sewage,” Crew says of the smell. But there’s no telltale gray scum. Turns out, there’s another outfall beneath the one the photographer spotted, and down there–it takes some effort and contortions to see it–there’s plenty of gray scum forming as the clear storm-drain water courses out of the pipe and into Herring Run.

“Taken all together,” Crew concludes, “these types of small, steady sewage leaks do become a serious water-quality problem. It’s not as serious as the 30 million gallons that came down here a few years ago, but it’s a problem, and I think it’s about time we kicked up the enforcement effort on this kind of thing.” He shows us one more example, under a bridge on Hillen Road next to the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, and gets back to work.

On Nov. 30, the photographer and I go to the 4500 block of Fairfax Road in West Baltimore’s Windsor Hills, looking for a plumber. A&A Plumbing is listed at an address on this block, and, since no one from the business had returned a phone message, we came to knock on the door. Once there, we found three men in baseball caps standing beside three pickup trucks, backed up toward the entrance. They know nothing of the plumber listed at that address.

“What, are you bondsmen?” one asks, and everyone laughs.

I explain that we’re almost as unwelcome, under most circumstances: the press. But when it becomes clear that the story has to do with the city’s efforts to fix its chronically leaky sewer system, and that this area has a particularly rough history of sewer problems, and that a plumber’s anecdotes of Windsor Hills sewage nightmares was sought, the three men grow friendly and relaxed. One, a 40-year-old truck driver from Randallstown who introduces himself as Rick Edwards, steps up and starts talking.

“I keep my boat down at the harbor,” Edwards explains, “at Canton Cove Marina at the end of Linwood Avenue. Been keeping it there like four or five years, and there’s sewage coming out of the storm drain there, stinking things up so bad I hardly even use my boat anymore. Can’t even go sit on your boat down there, can’t entertain or have friends down, because it smells so bad.” The infamous outfall’s reputation apparently remains intact all the way across town in Windsor Hills.

We take leave of the men to check out the sewer-main stacks protruding up from the streambed next to the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, at the end of the block. We return a half-hour later to announce there’s no sewer odor, but the water coming out of the storm drain shows evidence of the likely presence of sewage: gray scum on the rocks and concrete where the water runs.

“The boats down at the marina,” Edwards says, “you have to clean gray scum off of the bottom of them, just like the stuff you see on them rocks. It’s the same stuff. I’ve had it scrubbed and cleaned off, and it looks like it grows off the bottom of the boat, literally. It’s just this muck.

“There’s sewage coming out all over. But what’re you gonna do? I talked to a city worker about it, he said the pipes are so old, it’s just always going to leak, and they’ll just keep on trying to catch up with them all. The leaks up here, on this street, they don’t go to Linwood Avenue, but it all ends up in the same place eventually.”

Edwards is standing seven miles away, in a straight line, from the Linwood Avenue outfall. Sewage that leaks here travels downhill to the end of Fairfax Road, where it drains downstream into the Gwynns Falls and, having joined up with more sewage-laden water as it goes, reaches the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River right near the BRESCO waste incinerator. From there, it joins the Patapsco’s North Branch–better known as the Baltimore harbor–at Fort McHenry. Right across the harbor from Fort McHenry is the Canton Cove Marina, where Edwards wishes he no longer kept his boat, and where David Schmidt complained in full three-part harmony that September day to two kayakers about the powerful dose of sewage coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall. Everything, as they say, is connected.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to be on the bay at all,” Edwards says of what the sewage, and pollution in general, is doing to his boating habits. “At this point, I think I’d rather be in Ocean City, any day.”

We say goodbye and drive up the hill from Fairfax Road onto Talbot Street, pulling over to speak with a gentleman raking leaves on the curb. “Sure, I know about the sewer problems over the years,” he says. “They did a lot of work trying to fix them in the ’70s and ’80s, and they did more in the ’90s. Used to hear the heavy machinery down in the Gwynns Falls, and now they’re doing more under the streets here. As for the details, I’m probably not the best person to ask. That house right there”–and he points to one across the way–“David Carroll lives there. He’s some kind of environmental expert. You should ask him.”

“David Carroll,” he announces, when he picks up the phone at his Towson office in early December. Carroll is the director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental and Resource Management, an agency that manages a sewage system under a consent decree much like Baltimore City’s, which went into effect in 2005 and involves the same plaintiffs. He’s held similar high-level public positions as an environmental manager in Baltimore City and in state and federal government over the years, including a stint as MDE secretary under Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s and ’90s. This impressive résumé qualifies Carroll, in the words of his neighbor in Windsor Hills, as “some kind of environmental expert.”

But Carroll is also a longtime resident of Windsor Hills, where sewer leaks have historically plagued the city’s underground pipes, and that gives him some personal perspective on the impact of sewage on city neighborhoods, and the challenges of making improvements to sewer systems.

“Frankly, we haven’t tracked it all that closely,” Carroll says of the Windsor Hills community’s sewage-leak monitoring efforts. “We got together and started the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, there at the end of Fairfax Road, and people out on the trail have been reporting leaks there for the last 10, 15 years. There have been lots of leaks reported over the years, but it’s been pretty sporadic, given the fact that we’re not really monitoring it in an organized fashion.

“The community association in the neighborhood has been working with the Windsor Hills Elementary School,” he continues, “to use those sanitary stacks sticking up in the stream along the conservation trail as education tools. And that’s important, because the neighborhood kids actually do swim in the Gwynns Falls. And, in fact, the effort’s working. There was an environmental festival for the schoolchildren down along the stream, and some kids jumped into a pool of water in the Gwynns Falls, and another kid said, `Get out of there! There are fecals all in there!’ He was talking about fecal coliform, and that kid understands it’s in the water and it’s dangerous, and he’s telling other kids that. That’s good.”

Carroll has heard of the ongoing stench and foul water coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall–“that one’s pretty infamous,” he says–but he’s not convinced, even with all the expensive sewer reconstruction and extensive efforts to curtail the sewage entering the harbor, that the harbor will ever improve to the swimmable, fishable standard set forth in the Clean Water Act.

“When we get all the pipes working as they should, we’ll still have all this organic matter in the system–crap from geese and dogs and cats, dead animals, the grease and oil and food scraps and trash that gets washed off the streets, all the rest of it. And we’ll still have a problem. And then what are we going to do? But the first thing you got to do is get the human stuff out of there. And as this gets done, there will be major improvements in the amounts of raw sewage going into our streams.

“As for the city,” Carroll continues, “it’s just this network of really old sewers, and there’s a lot to do. Blockages occur in the main sewer lines, and the resulting backups usually cause leaks–that, or a standing [sanitary] stack gets severed, or a pumping station fails. Grease collecting in the lines and clogging them–that’s a big problem. The way we do it, every time that happens, if there’s anything at all that leaks–anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gallon or not–we have to report it to MDE and EPA, even if it doesn’t reach the waters of the state. It’s anything that leaks. Zero tolerance, that’s the threshold.

“But it’s not the amount of sewage spilled that matters,” Carroll emphasizes. “It’s the impact it has on water quality on an ongoing basis. And the big overarching context here is this–you want us to get swimmable and fishable waters, but how do you do that? Where has it worked? I’ve got sunfish in the Gwynns Falls, but is it really ever going to be safe to swim in it? Because there’s still going to be a lot of things that make the water yucky that are still going to be there, after all this work on the sewers is said and done. And that’s what the public, who’s paying for all of this, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not the message they’re getting. They’re hearing that all this billion dollars of sewer improvements is going to make the harbor clean, but that’s simply not the case.”

City Paper awaits the outcome of the investigation EPA says it’s conducting into the sewage that comes out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall. Also pending are full responses from EPA, MDE, DPW, and DOJ to two November letters from City Paperabout a variety of consent-decree compliance issues that jumped off the pages of the EPA’s records. As a result of numerous 311 complaints describing what sound very much like sewage leaks that are discharging into city streets, gutters, and storm drains, and yet aren’t reported under the consent decree, a major question was whether the city has been routinely failing to report leaks as required. DPW provided a partial response in a Dec. 7 e-mail.

“The majority of the [311] complaints listed in your letter pertain to sewage in basements,” the statement reads in part. “These types of complaints are not applicable to reporting under the consent decree. At some locations listed, the 311 complaint code was characterized as a sanitary sewer overflow, however, there was no associated report sent to the regulators. This is due to a variety of reasons,” but in most cases “it appears that [DPW] corrected certain problems but did not observe a reportable discharge.”

In essence, the statement says DPW reports all sewer leaks, as required, without exception. Yet the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition’s Guy Hollyday says he’s been pointing out ongoing sewer leaks to DPW for years, and DPW’s been confirming that they exist and continue leaking, and yet many remain to be fixed. The group’s 2004 annual report, for instance, states that during that year DPW confirmed the existence of 17 ongoing sewer leaks around the city, yet they weren’t repaired. Some, Hollyday says in late November, still haven’t been.

The last time I checked, on the evening of Dec. 10, turbid, brown, debris-laden water was coming out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall, but it didn’t stink of sewage. The next day, Rick Edwards, the Randallstown truck driver, calls. That gray scum is building up on the hull of his boat, he explains, and he repeats that he’s about had it with all this sewage in the harbor.

“It smells like sewage half the time,” he says. “Everyone is talking about it–it’s a common issue.”

By all appearances, the stench in the harbor is not going to go away anytime soon, so everyone can still go on talking about it until it does–be that 2020, or beyond.

Old Business: Martin O’Malley’s Failed Promise As Baltimore Mayor Will Stay With Him, No Matter Who Wins The Governor’s Race

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 1 2006

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In the summer of 1999, when then-City Councilman Martin O’Malley was running for mayor of Baltimore at age 36, he wrote With Change There Is Hope: A Blueprint for Baltimore’s Future. It was a two-part, two-booklet title (pictured), one bound in a green cover, the other blue. They were handed out far and wide during the last weeks of the 1999 campaign. O’Malley dubbed them collectively as “my epistle” or “my book,” and separately as “the Green Book” and “the Blue Book.”

Today, With Change There Is Hope represents a sweeping archive of O’Malley’s promises to voters. In politics, that’s a contract, a document that sets down what’s expected of the victor in return for votes. There is no penalty for failing to uphold the contract, but when its terms aren’t met, elections–such as the gubernatorial one that will decide between Democrat O’Malley, Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich, and Green Party candidate Ed Boyd on Nov. 7–can result either in punishment or forgiveness.

Baltimore’s voters held up their end of the bargain with O’Malley when they first backed him seven years ago. O’Malley was expected to deliver–a lot. He’d set his plan down in the 40-page Green Book, which focused on crime reduction, and the 80-page Blue Book, which covered everything else–and how all of it is tied to the crime rate. Those who supported O’Malley’s re-election in the 2004 election did so despite the fact that many of his pledges remained unmet. Now, joined by voters in the rest of the state, they will decide whether to back him again in his bid for governor. O’Malley still owes Baltimore. If he wins the election, he’ll be expected to pay it back from the statehouse. If he loses, he’ll work off his debt at City Hall.

O’Malley focuses on the debt paid, not the debt remaining, as he makes the campaign rounds for governor. He has plenty of accomplishments with which to fill speeches. The main one, perhaps, was described in an Oct. 5 speech at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health: “Instead of wallowing in a culture of failure and excuses, we came together to take on the tough challenges and made progress.”

Running to replace Ehrlich this year, O’Malley recites a concisely packaged 10-point plan instead of handing out lengthy manifestos. Copies of With Change There Is Hope are hard to come by today. They are not available online. Google its title with the word “Baltimore,” and all that comes up is a link to City Paper‘s 2002 Best of Baltimore “Best Scandal: Police Corruption” blurb. But O’Malley’s 7-year-old collection of green and blue IOUs remains in the archives of history, ready to be dusted off once again.

“My approach as mayor will focus on two basic concepts–urgency and accountability,” he wrote in the Blue Book’s conclusion, after setting the bar for his own performance. He wanted change, urgently, and change came after he became mayor. But it often came not as promised, or sometimes not at all. That’s not surprising, given O’Malley’s great expectations. Urgency is hard to measure (he certainly seemed urgent), but accountability is O’Malley’s middle name. Now he’s accountable for how things changed, or have not.

Just as the mayor’s CitiStat program tries to keep city agencies on their toes by measuring government activities, journalists can apply statistical yardsticks to O’Malley’s promises. There are two sources of information for this exercise: what O’Malley said would happen, and what happened according to the numbers and known circumstances. (Numerous phone messages and e-mails to the mayor’s communications director, Steve Kearney, and O’Malley spokespersons Rick Abbruzzese and Raquel Guillory, were not returned.) Given the vast landscape of his panoramic vision for Baltimore in With Change There Is Hope, it’s best to begin by concentrating, as O’Malley did when he first ran for mayor, on a single issue: crime, and how everything hinges on it.

 

O’Malley’s June 23, 1999, mayoral campaign announcement speech, delivered at the corner of Harford Road and the Alameda, drew a small crowd. He made up for the lack of attention by using the speech’s text as the Green Book’s opener: “My name is Martin O’Malley. I believe I can turn this city around by making it a safer place, and I mean to begin doing it now.”

First, though, O’Malley had to get elected, and right off the bat his credibility was questioned. He told a story in the speech about having been to the same corner the previous midnight, when he was approached by a drug dealer, who asked, “What do you want?” The exchange gave O’Malley a rhetorical hook for his announcement.

“That’s a question,” the would-be mayor said to 30 or so supporters gathered to hear his speech, “that each of us in this city needs to answer in this important election year.”

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks suspected the hook was hogwash and immediately got on the case. Rodricks visited the neighborhood and found a resident who said that Harford Road and the Alameda is not a drug corner, but a “hackin’ corner” where “guys hang out lookin’ for rides.” O’Malley told Rodricks “it’s no big deal,” and explained that the guy on the corner who gave him his “What do you want?” line for the speech “was doing that hand motion they do when the markets open. It’s a notorious corner. That’s what they do there.” But, Rodricks reported, O’Malley “can’t say for sure that the young guy wanted to sell him drugs. It’s a hunch.” The columnist gave O’Malley’s poetic license its propers: “Good stuff, councilman. Even without that Monday-midnight story.”

O’Malley is prone to hunches, and has thus far benefited from people forgiving him when they don’t pan out. His main hunch as a councilman with mayoral ambitions was that if you solve the crime problem, everything else will fall into place. From O’Malley’s perspective, the revival of schools, housing, health, jobs, population, investment, tax revenues, the real-estate market–in short, all that makes cities tick–depended on public safety, government’s primary responsibility. He waxed on this theme in the Green Book, asking voters to “Imagine how quickly our great City will come back to life when we get hold of public safety and start closing down our expanding drug markets.” He pointed to other cities, such as New York, as crime-fighting models and suggested we simply copy what worked elsewhere.

In a 1999 phone interview about his crime plan, O’Malley was emphatic. “There is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets. So that’s first and foremost,” he asserted. “It affects everything.” He went on to spell out his policing strategy, which had various names: “quality of life,” “zero tolerance,” and “broken windows.” The idea, he said, was to “improve the reality of public safety” by “changing enforcement priorities, by redefining the mission of the police as restoring public order on our corners and improving quality of life on our corners. When you do that the bigger crimes become easier to solve and easier to deter, and you drive the drug markets indoors, which drives down the random violence that is inflating our numbers to be some of the worst in the nation.”

At O’Malley’s announcement, he called the corner where he was standing an “open-air drug market,” and promised within six months to make it and nine others like it “things of our city’s past.” He added that “in the second year, 20 more open-air drug markets will likewise be shut down, and thus will the people of this city easily measure our success or failure.”

After six months in office, in a letter to The Sun, the mayor explained that he’d taken care of the 10 drug corners. And he described how it had happened: Police, city inspectors, and public-works crews had tidied them up, pronto. It was that easy.

The two-year mark in 2002, by which time O’Malley promised 20 more cleaned-up corners came and went without fanfare. As 2003 began, public frustration about the continuing crime problem was evident.

“We still have open-air drug markets on our corners,” City Councilman Bernard “Jack” Young (D-12th District)–usually, like most members of the council, an O’Malley ally–told the Baltimore Afro American in late January 2003. “Point-blank, nothing’s changed. We’re paying all of this overtime to the police. Where is the change?” O’Malley’s hunch was being called into question.

The experience of crime in Baltimore neighborhoods is as varied as the neighborhoods themselves. What feels to many like improvements under Mayor O’Malley–seemingly safer and clearly more prosperous communities around the waterfront, along the north-south axis of Charles Street, along the Northeast Baltimore thoroughfares of Belair and Harford roads, and in certain other key neighborhoods like Hampden–feels to others like it’s not happening in their neighborhoods. Because the improvements are concentrated in waterfront neighborhoods and the central north-south spine of the city, they are more evident than the sluggish expanses of the east and west sides, where change has come more slowly, if at all.

With or without dramatic crime reductions, though, the city has been rebounding in many ways, and O’Malley’s re-election in 2004 affirmed and affixed the notion that he was doing alright as mayor. Many understood that he would soon run for governor. Once he announced his candidacy for state office, O’Malley’s record as mayor became Republicans’ main message when promoting Ehrlich. They can do that because O’Malley’s hunch hasn’t worked itself out yet.

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If O’Malley was wrong about crime being the foremost determinant of the city’s fortunes, then there’s room for forgiveness. Crime in many ways has trended downward, particularly in some parts of the city and for some types of crime. But low interest rates, not reduced bloodshed, likely had more to do with the city’s improved performance under O’Malley.

In the Blue Book, O’Malley noted that in 1999 “City houses fetch roughly one half of what they do in Baltimore County,” because of the prevalence of crime in the city. Since 1999, “thanks to reductions in crime and increased investment in the city, average home values in Baltimore have risen 120%,” according to O’Malley’s campaign web site.

Crime reductions may have helped, but the key factor was the residential real-estate market boom created by historically low interest rates and rising demand. The 2004 median sales price for a Baltimore single-family home was $130,500, compared to $215,000 in Baltimore County. Thus, instead of city houses selling for half the value of county houses, under O’Malley they began selling at about 60 percent of what county houses get. The value of city single-family homes gained slightly more than 35 percent between 2002 and 2004, an amount a tad higher than in Baltimore County.

Real-estate values and tax revenues tend to rise and fall together, and they both jumped under O’Malley, as expected during times of cheap money. In 2000, city revenues stood at about $1.4 billion. In 2004, they broke $2 billion, and stood at $2.1 billion in 2005. Increasing real-estate values helped a lot on the property-tax front, aided by new taxes instituted by O’Malley.

The level of private investment in the city, likewise, has increased substantially. Little scaffolding and few cranes were part of Baltimore’s streetscape in the 1990s, but they are common sights today. The O’Malley administration says the value of development activity under way in 2005 was estimated to be $2 billion, whereas ongoing projects in 2000 added up to a little less than $900 million.

O’Malley’s gubernatorial campaign biography states that, as mayor, he has “promoted job growth by attracting over $10 billion in economic development” and “nearly ended Baltimore’s decades-long population loss.” But jobs and population declined in the city, and unemployment rose from 5.9 percent in 2000 to 7.1 percent in 2005. Job loss from 1999 to ’04 hit Baltimore hard, taking away about 40,000 jobs–the most among Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, as was the city’s loss of about 15,000 residents from 2000 to ’05. A 2002 U.S. Census snapshot of the city’s unemployment situation pointed out key disparities: While the overall unemployment rate was 6.8 percent, white men were at 2.1 percent and black men at 11.8 percent. The city made the top-10 list in the country for average weekly wage growth in 2005, but at the same time lost more jobs–5,800–than almost all of the 323 large cities and counties studied. While the city’s employment outlook hits some harder than others, the jobs that remain are paying better, and the loss of jobs went along with ongoing loss in population.

The jobs lost under O’Malley came on the heels of all the jobs lost before him. In the Blue Book, O’Malley painted a bleak picture of the Kurt Schmoke years, describing job declines in manufacturing, transportation, retail, banking, and hospitals. The situation hardly improved after O’Malley was elected. Between 2001 and ’04, Baltimore lost nearly 5 percent of its jobs. A quarter of its manufacturing jobs, 15 percent of its banking and finance jobs, 5 percent of its retail jobs–all disappeared in a four-year span. The drop in public employment was pronounced, especially local government jobs, which fell by nearly 4,000 positions, more than 12 percent. Only three sectors posted major job gains: hospitals, educational services, and the hotel and restaurant industry.

Under Mayor Schmoke, the city lost an average of 722 jobs per month, O’Malley calculated in the Blue Book. Between 2001 and ’04 under O’Malley, the city lost an average of 432 jobs per month. That’s a dramatic improvement, but it is still a drastic rate of job loss–especially when the surrounding counties are alive with job growth. The Blue Book pointed out that the surrounding counties posted a gain of 104,000 jobs when Schmoke was mayor, an average of 963 new jobs each month. Between 2001 and ’04, with O’Malley as mayor, the surrounding counties added nearly 63,500 new jobs, an average of 1,322 jobs per month.

Thus, while the city’s job loss has slowed under O’Malley, it has not reversed, as O’Malley predicted. And the surrounding counties’ job growth accelerated by about 40 percent. Baltimore remains the hole in the doughnut of regional employment trends.

The public schools, well, they’re still a mess, but there are bright spots. As the city’s population declines, so does school enrollment–by an average of 2,900 students per year since O’Malley became mayor, bringing the total down to about 85,000. While some of the trends in standardized test scores are good, many others are not. Graduation rates are up for seniors getting a regular education, but down dramatically for the increasing share of students in special education. The money spent to achieve these results has increased dramatically on a cost-per-student basis, and has been the target of near-permanent scandal over the school system’s financial accountability.

In the Blue Book, O’Malley reported that in 1997 only 16.6 percent of third-graders’ scores were “satisfactory” under the state reading tests. This statistic is recited again on O’Malley’s campaign web site, and updated with the claim that O’Malley “helped 61% of the third graders meet those state standards last year.” The standardized tests were changed in 2002. Under the new ones, the percent of third-graders with “proficient” reading scores has risen annually, from 38 percent in 2003 to 59 percent in ’06, when the statewide scores had risen from 50 percent to 63 percent. The same happened with third-grade math scores, with the percent of proficient third-graders rising to 52 today from 40 in 2003, when the statewide scores had jumped only four points, from 50 to 54. That’s some of the good news.

Some of the bad news is that only 2 percent of special-education high-school students passed the high-school English standardized test in 2005. That 2.1 percent passed in 2006 is nothing to brag about, since it indicates that students in the city’s large special-education program don’t have much of an education to look forward to.

As students continue in school, their improved scores in earlier grades should be reflected in improvements as they reach higher grades. In some cases, this has happened, but not in others. The third-grade class of 2004, for instance, was tested again as fifth-graders this year, when its proficiency in math and reading both were significantly higher than those of prior fifth-grade classes. But the sixth-grade class of 2004, which was entering first grade when O’Malley was elected mayor, is another story. When the class reached eighth-grade this year, its share of students scoring proficiently dropped in both math and reading compared to its sixth-grade scores.

O’Malley’s Blue Book measured city schools’ graduation rates harshly, saying that “only 25 percent of ninth graders . . . ever graduate. This is unacceptable.” The percent of regular-education 12th-graders graduating is rising, from 58 percent in 2002 to 64 percent today. But the drop in the share of special-education 12th-graders graduating went from 65 percent in 2002 to 35 percent today.

When running for mayor, O’Malley’s intentions about special education were clear: He wanted significant improvements, and a reduction in the size of the program. He said that, at the time, 18 percent of the student population was enrolled in special education, and he wanted that number to drop to 13. By 2000, it had dropped to 17 percent, which is where it remained in 2005. Meanwhile, by O’Malley’s figures from his first mayoral campaign, the cost of educating each special-education student per year was $9,680. Since then, it has increased by a fifth, and stands at $11,722 per student.

In his governor’s campaign biography, O’Malley expresses pride in city schools, claiming that “for the past three years, elementary school students have posted higher scores in reading, language arts, and mathematics at every grade level.” That’s an accomplishment that would make any mayor proud. But O’Malley, by law, does not control the city school system. As mayor, he is an equal partner with the state in its success or failure–an equal partner with the government headed by his gubernatorial opponent, Robert Ehrlich. “Our children should not suffer due to adult disagreements,” O’Malley wrote in the Blue Book. “In the future, Baltimore should, once again, take greater responsibility for our school system. But we also must build continually on the partnership we have established with Annapolis–it is in the best interest of our children.”

The city-state partnership has suffered from scandal after scandal arising from lack of accountability in recent years, leaving the city school system in such a shambles that it is surprising some children are able to learn adequately. Neither the city nor the state has stepped up to take unilateral responsibility, though their collective responsibility is there for all to see. O’Malley takes credit for the good where he can–with some improved test scores in some grades–and, either as governor or as mayor, may be in a position to do more for at least a couple more years. But he’ll also have to live with the bad, until the system gets fixed.

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Baltimore under O’Malley is a mixed bag of results, and it’s hard to say changes in the crime rate made it so. By the raw numbers, though, Baltimore is safer now than when O’Malley started. In the first six months of 2000, when he was working off his obligation to clear the 10 corners, the city logged 141 murders, 161 rapes, 3,010 robberies, and 4,530 aggravated assaults, including 700 nonfatal shootings. In 2005, the totals from January to June were much rosier. Murder was down 3 percent, rape had dropped by more than half, robbery saw a 40 percent reduction, and aggravated assaults were reduced nearly a quarter, including a near 30 percent drop in shootings. The same number of under-18-year-olds–47–were murdered in 2002 as were in 1996, but in the first 10 months of this year 22 kids were killed, and all of last year saw only 14 juvenile homicides, so the situation appears to be getting less bloody for Baltimore’s teens.

Yet, despite these numbers and O’Malley’s optimism and declarations of success, frustrations and distrust about the prevalence of crime abound. Some of O’Malley’s crime numbers remain under the pall of a state effort to audit his numbers this year, an effort that the mayor rebuffed. And O’Malley’s earlier use of an audit of the 1999 figures to establish the baseline for his claims of crime reduction has been called into question.

O’Malley’s handpicked benchmarks in the Green Book set a high bar, and, although he didn’t meet many of them, they often moved in the direction he promised. His Green Book said public-safety improvements in the first two years of the O’Malley administration, for instance, should reflect New York’s as it first adopted quality-of-life policing under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the mid-1990s. When Giuliani was first starting out, murder went down 40 percent, robbery 30 percent, burglary a quarter, and rape by 8 percent, according to the Green Book’s figures.

By three of these measures, O’Malley fell short. His first two years saw nearly a fifth fewer murders and burglaries, and a quarter fewer robberies–all smaller drops than what Giuliani delivered. (Given the doubts about the Baltimore’s 1999 crime numbers, 1998 was used as the base year for this analysis, giving O’Malley three years to accomplish what Giuliani did in two.) But on the fourth category, rape, O’Malley achieved a reduction of about 40 percent, more than five times larger than New York’s. Rape later became a category of crime suspected in 2003 of being under-reported by Baltimore police, and, after an audit, a 15 percent upward correction in the 2002 numbers was ordered.

O’Malley’s second-guessed crime numbers have historical poignancy. When he was a councilman, O’Malley made a name for himself by proving that then-Mayor Schmoke’s police department was cooking its books to augment its mid-1990s crime-reduction claims. Today’s data-accuracy doubts suggest that perhaps O’Malley’s police department somehow has been aping the bad behavior of Schmoke’s department, though hard evidence of this has yet to arrive. Pending future findings, which themselves may end up subject to charges of inaccuracy, the numbers O’Malley’s police department reported to the FBI are the best available data about Baltimore crime.

The raw numbers about crime reduction that O’Malley likes to cite, though, tend not to take into account the decline in the city’s population. Do so, and Baltimore’s murder rate goes from 40.3 murders for every 100,000 residents in 2000 to 42 in 2005. Thus, it makes sense that many people believe Baltimore remains as murderous as it was before O’Malley became mayor–because Baltimore was, in fact, a bit more murderous, per capita, in 2005 than it was in 2000.

O’Malley pledged in the Green Book to make Baltimore a lot less murderous, by taking the toll down to 175 homicides in 2002. This bold goal helped him get elected 1999, when there were 305 murders. But when 2002 closed out, there were 78 more homicides than he’d promised. Boston, a city of a little less than 600,000 people, and one which the Green Book points to as a model for Baltimore to follow, had 60 murders that year, by way of comparison.

Baltimore’s crime rates look bad when compared to other large U.S. cities, and the numbers hardly improved from 2000 to 2005. After five years of O’Malley, there were 17.6 violent crimes for every 1,000 Baltimore residents in 2005, nearly 80 percent more than the big-city average. In 2000, as in 2005, the city’s murder rate was nearly three times higher than the average for cities of between a half-million and a million people. Robberies in 2000 were 2.6 times more common in Baltimore than in other large cities, and aggravated assaults (including shootings) were 2.2 times more prevalent. Five years into the O’Malley administration, the violence had fallen off, but still occurred at nearly double the rates in other large cities.

In With Change There Is Hope, O’Malley observed that “Baltimore is today the fourth deadliest city in the nation, and the city’s murder rate is seven times higher than in the average city.” Time hasn’t changed much in that regard. In 2005, Baltimore’s murder rate was still seven times the average for U.S. cities. In the 2005 Detroit mayoral race, the fact that only Baltimore had a higher murder rate than Detroit was put in play on the campaign trail. This year, in a ranking against 31 other cities with populations over a half-million, Baltimore was second most dangerous, with Detroit earning the top dishonor.

Where violence is concentrated is where the greatest crime reductions are possible. Traditionally in contemporary Baltimore, the brunt of the violence has disproportionately fallen on the Eastern and Western police districts, compared to the other seven districts. After a period of increasing violence in O’Malley’s first term, it is here, in the Eastern and Western districts, where crime numbers show improvements–fulfilling some of the expectations O’Malley created.

From 1999 to ’02, the share of the citywide homicides happening in the Eastern and Western districts rose from nearly 30 percent to more than 40 percent. Murders were dropping in the city (from 305 in 1999 to 253 in 2002), yet these two districts were showing substantial increases in their body count. That’s now changed. In 2005, the Eastern and Western’s combined tally had dropped 30 percent from 2002’s level, while the rest of the city’s homicides had jumped up a quarter. The burden is shared now by four other districts–the Southern, Southwestern, Northern, and Southeastern–joining the Western with more murders in 2005 than they’d had in 1999.

The recent geographical shift in Baltimore homicides suggests O’Malley in some ways is starting to mirror Giuliani’s 1990s crime-fighting success in New York. In 1999, just before O’Malley declared for mayor, the New Republic ran a cover story on Giuliani that examined an important trend in the Big Apple’s crime reduction: The sharpest crime drops were seen in the area’s that needed them the most. Harlem’s crime fell 61 percent between 1994 and ’98, for example, and East New York’s murders went from 110 in 1993 to 37 in ’98. Similarly, in Baltimore, the Eastern and Western police districts have recently shown substantial improvements, although several other districts have experienced increases in crime.

Overall, though, the picture on the crime front is pretty bleak compared to O’Malley’s expectations and how it compares to the rest of urban America. “With public will, energy and political leadership,” O’Malley wrote in the Blue Book in 1999, “Baltimore will join the ranks of America’s great rejuvenated cities that are growing safer, larger, and more diverse . . . That is my pledge.” Now it’s seven years later, and Baltimore continues to earn its title as one of the most violent cities in America.

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Unlike his crime figures, O’Malley’s budget figures aren’t a matter for debate. In the Green Book, O’Malley indicated that the added cost of his crime plan was, well, nothing, or not much more. “The real solution in Baltimore is not to double size of the broken system,” he wrote about the police department, “but to implement the simple procedural reforms that will make greater use of the substantial resources already in place.” And in the 1999 phone interview, he said crime reductions under his watch would cover the reform costs, explaining that he planned to “increase city revenues by making this city a dramatically safer place quickly, and thereby reversing our loss of population.” He predicted that crime reduction would pay for everything, and then he pulled a George Bush I, promising that “I am dead-set opposed to raising taxes.”

The upshot from the police budget trends is this: a growing proportion of cops at desks, costing a larger amount of money. The department’s budget went up 25 percent from 2002 to ’07, the current fiscal year. Two parts of the departmental budget went up more than 100 percent: Administrative Direction and Control jumped from to $15.5 million to $32 million, while money for the Office of Criminal Justice Policy more than tripled, from $3.5 million to $12 million. Together, the administrative and policy slices of the police pie grew from 7 to 13 percent, while all other parts of the department saw their slices shrink. Though the overall budget went up, department-wide staffing levels dropped by nearly 5 percent from 2002 to today. Administrative staffing jumped nearly 8 percent–the only kind of police staffing that grew. Yet O’Malley’s campaign web site states that he “put more cops on the streets as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce crime.”

The five-year growth of the police budget wasn’t paid for with revenue resulting from an increased city population, as O’Malley had predicted. Population continued to fall, though more slowly. Rather, money was available to expand the police budget because of rising real-estate values and the mayor’s new taxes on energy, cell phones, and real-estate transactions, O’Malley’s prior no-new-taxes pledge notwithstanding. Because of the additional revenues, he was able to keep some promises.

O’Malley vowed in the Green Book to increase funding for the State’s Attorney’s Office “as long as it stays committed to the path of reform, and committed to keeping repeat violent offenders off the street.” The city’s contribution to State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy’s office has been boosted from $21.6 million in 2002 to $30.4 million today, a more than 40 percent raise that has allowed staffing levels for prosecutions to increase by 55 positions.

The mayor has been true to drug treatment, too. “Since 1996, annual funding for drug treatment in Baltimore has doubled from $16.5 million to $33 million,” O’Malley wrote in the Green Book, indicating this is a positive trend he’d like to continue. And he has. Drug treatment funding under O’Malley increased to $53 million in 2005.

Teen motherhood and other health indicators affect crime trends over the long term, and O’Malley aimed to oversee their decline. He pointed out that in 1997 “nearly 10 percent” of city girls aged 15 to 19 had babies. There was a steep decline after O’Malley took office, and in 2004 the proportion of girls that age who had babies was 6.8 percent. He wanted infant mortality to decline, reporting that the city in 1997 lost newborns at a rate of 14.4 babies per 1,000 live births, “nearly double the state’s rate,” he wrote. It dropped significantly. In 2005, the infant mortality rate had declined to 11.3, half again as high as the state’s.

O’Malley pointed out in the Green Book–as Jay Leno was saying, too, on The Tonight Show at the time–that Baltimore is “the syphilis capital of the United States.” As O’Malley wrote those words, the syphilis rate was in steep decline. In 1999, Indianapolis became the syphilis capital, after Baltimore’s rate had dropped 45 percent in one year. In 2002, Baltimore was ranked 11th among U.S. cities, with an incidence rate of 18.6 cases per 100,000 people. That year, 120 cases were reported. But the disease jumped sharply in 2004, when 209 cases were reported for a rate of 33.2, placing Baltimore third in the nation, behind San Francisco and Atlanta.

Two other sexually transmissible diseases were mentioned in O’Malley’s book, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Baltimore “is rated number two in the U.S. for active cases of gonorrhea,” he wrote at the time. It has dropped significantly since then, but Baltimore was still the fourth-highest city on the list for active cases of gonorrhea in 2004, the most recent ranking available. When O’Malley sought to become mayor, he explained that Baltimore’s national rank was “third for active cases of chlamydia.” The city’s chlamydia rate has actually risen significantly since then, yet its national ranking dropped to seventh highest–an improvement, of sorts.

O’Malley recently summed up his disease-fighting record much more succinctly, and no less truthfully: “Syphillis [sic] is down 75% since 1997 and Gonorrhea is down 45% since 1995.” These surgically selected statistics are posted, along with the rest of O’Malley’s Oct. 5 Hopkins speech, on his campaign web site (www.martinomalley.com).

Baltimore’s improved status on drug-related emergency-room visits, an important indicator of drug abuse, is impressive, but still marginal in the national context. In 1999, O’Malley wrote that Baltimore is “rated number one in the nation for hospital emergency room admissions involving substance abuse.” In 2005, it was tied with New York and Boston for third in the nation.

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But O’Malley failed on some important other promises, such as the one about reducing the need to arrest people. The Green Book was adamant about giving police expanded power to issue civil citations for minor crimes, which was expected to free the courts of petty cases. “Through the use of citations–which make fewer arrests necessary–and courthouse reforms that keep innocent people and minor criminals from languishing in jail for weeks before trial,” O’Malley predicted that “fewer people may actually be locked up using quality-of-life policing strategies.” At the very least, he promised that “quality-of-life policing does not mean arresting and locking up our city’s young men indiscriminately.”

Under Schmoke, there had been 70,000 arrests in 1997 and 85,000 in 1998. After several years of quality-of-life police work, in 2004 O’Malley’s expanded civil-citation powers were put in place. In 2005, city police logged around 100,000 arrests. In 2006, the city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who raised charges of widespread indiscriminate arrests. So much for the less-arrests theory of zero-tolerance policing.

O’Malley’s record on police corruption and misconduct has a level of intrigue appropriate to the cloak-and-dagger milieu of internal investigations. His campaign pledges on the issue were zealous. “We know,” he wrote in the Green Book, “that when the police are encouraged to be more assertive, government must become more assertive and open in its policing of the police.” He’d been complaining about police corruption and misconduct under Schmoke’s commissioners for years, and yet “our problem has only gotten worse,” he insisted, adding that “There is nothing more harmful to effective law enforcement, and more devastating to the morale of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement officers, than police misconduct.”

To fight it, O’Malley pledged in the Green Book to “open the Police Department’s internal investigation process, to assure the public that police problems are not being swept under the rug by colleagues’ complicity.”

Immediately after gaining City Hall, O’Malley asked outside consultants to look at the department’s problems. Among their tasks was a survey of police personnel about street-level corruption, which showed that 23 percent of the department believed that more than a quarter of its officers were “involved in stealing money or drugs from drug dealers.” The survey put numbers on the idea that the Baltimore police had a corruption problem.

And yet nothing much happened. Not for years. There were two corruption arrests that didn’t pan out. The case against officer Brian Sewell, suspected in 2000 of planting drugs on an innocent suspect, became suspicious when police evidence against him disappeared during a break-in at internal investigators’ offices, and the charges were dropped by prosecutors in 2001. Officer Jacqueline Folio, accused of a false drug arrest, was found not guilty in a 2003 criminal trial, and the department’s administrative case against her was so full of exculpatory evidence and apparent attempts at cover-ups that she was cleared entirely–and settled her own lawsuit against the city over the whole, career-ending episode. At the end of 2003, police said they had conducted 202 “random integrity tests” to catch bad cops since 2000, yet the only cops nabbed were Sewell and Folio.

The quiet continued. In early January of this year, The Washington Post reported that O’Malley had been booed at a legislative hearing over his department’s high volume of arrests, and that the mayor countered that aggressive arrests would be reflected in increased misconduct complaints, which were down. He was soon to lose the use of that argument at hearings, for 2006 quickly became a memorable year in the annals of Baltimore police misbehavior.

Two days after the legislative hearing, on Jan. 6, a city grand jury charged three officers with rape, unearthing evidence that their undercover squad was corrupt in other ways as well. In April, a federal jury convicted two Baltimore police detectives for robbing drug dealers, a city grand jury charged an officer with stealing rims off a car belonging to an arrested citizen, and an officer caught a gambling conviction. In July, two officers were charged in Baltimore County in separate crimes–fraud and theft in one case, and burglary and stalking in the other. And in August, a Baltimore officer was charged with identity theft in Pennsylvania.

As a councilman and mayoral candidate, O’Malley was passionate about the idea that the police department needed a housecleaning. Police officers “after all are only human,” he said in the 1999 phone interview, so they must be policed “to insure that temptation, unchecked anger, and prejudice do not tarnish the moral authority necessary for a police department to effectively perform its job.” After five years of relative quiet punctuated by weak corruption cases under O’Malley, what he predicted in 1999–“well publicized arrests of clusters of officers who are lured away by the easy money and lucrative money of the drug trade,” as he put it in a 1999 phone interview–is finally coming true.

 

The Green Book set down an anecdote about Schmoke’s police commissioner Thomas Frazier coming before the City Council in September 1996, on the heels of councilman O’Malley’s return from New York to study its policing strategies. “You don’t have to tell me about zero tolerance. I know what they do in New York,” Frazier was quoted as saying. “They’re doing the same thing I started doing here with Greenmount Avenue–close down the open-air drug markets, drive them indoors, and you reduce the violence. . . . I have to be a team player. When we start closing down the open-air drug markets, the judges complain that we’re crowding their courts and the Mayor makes me back off. . . . Tell the judges. I’m only one piece of this criminal justice system.”

And so is Mayor O’Malley only one piece of the city’s public-safety complex, though you’d never know that from reading the Green Book. To get elected, he made it seem like he was a one-man crime-fighting machine, that all he had to do was hire a police commissioner to deploy known policing strategies proven successful in other cities, and it would all fall in place–an instant urban revival. It’s doubtful any mayor could have met the expectations O’Malley set for himself, much less one who hasn’t gone through four police commissioners and three interim commissioners the way O’Malley has. Still, he scored points for seeming to try and for being in power when interest rates dropped. This Nov. 7, the state’s voters will decide whether he tried hard enough. Either way, he still owes.

Late Discovery: A New Twist in the Redwood Trust Double-Murder Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 2006

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“I don’t know why they’re digging into my past,” remarks 56-year old Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, a local developer and owner of the now-defunct downtown nightclub Redwood Trust. He’s on the phone with a reporter, commenting about the double-murder case involving the club’s former manager, Jason Convertino (pictured, above left), who was shot to death in April 2003 in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment, along with Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right), who worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company that held events at Redwood Trust. Suspect Anthony Jerome Miller‘s trial in the case, which turns largely on the presence of DNA consistent with Miller’s found in latex gloves discovered at the crime scene, is scheduled to start in January. But Piscatelli is concerned about recent indications that the case is delving into the possibility that he had something to do with the crime.

“I see what they’re going to do, which is a shame,” Piscatelli continues, referring to Miller’s defense, mounted by attorney Paul Polansky. “Which is to cast doubt and get this guy off.” Neither Polansky nor prosecutor Sharon Holback will discuss the case, and there is no indication that information about Piscatelli will be used by either side at Miller’s trial.

Casting doubt to get people off is what criminal-defense attorneys do for a living, and part of that effort involves understanding the evidence that police and prosecutors gather to bring charges against their clients. In Miller’s case, the nature of that evidence had been limited for the most part to the DNA analysis–until recently, when a new prosecutor took over the case and, as the law requires, submitted to Polansky voluminous documentation about the lengthy investigative process that led to Miller’s indictment in January. Delays in “discovery,” as this process is called, in large part have been responsible for rescheduling the trial date, which was reset four times and is now scheduled to start Jan. 24, 2007.

In October, Polansky argued in court that the state’s discovery failures had been so severe that the charges should be dismissed. A judge disagreed, so the case is proceeding, and on Dec. 5 Miller’s request for a change in his no-bail status was denied. Meanwhile, the late-arriving discovery has fattened the case file with information stating, among other things, that Convertino’s mother was told shortly after the murders that Piscatelli ordered them.

On Oct. 27, Holback disclosed in a memorandum to the defense that “Pam Morgan [Convertino’s mother] has stated that an unknown man approached her at a benefit in Binghamton, New York, held for her son’s child shortly after his murder. The man advised her that Nick Piscatelli was behind her son’s murder, he covered his tracks and hired someone to kill him.” The memo does not indicate when Morgan shared this information with investigators, but she told City Paper during a Nov. 30 phone interview that the event was held in May 2003, just weeks after the murders.

“At the benefit, this guy comes up to me and he says he knows who was behind my son’s murder” Morgan recalls. “I didn’t know Nick [Piscatelli] at that point.” Since then, though, Morgan says she has kept in regular, friendly phone contact with Piscatelli.

“Oh boy! She said that?” Piscatelli says when informed of Morgan’s statement about the man’s visit to the Binghamton gathering. “That’s unfortunate. I’ve spoken to her several times, and she’s never mentioned anything like that to me. That’s certainly sad to hear. There has been no animosity between us.”

Over the phone from her home outside of Binghamton, Morgan describes the man who dropped Piscatelli’s name at the benefit as white, in his 30s, several inches shy of six feet tall, with “lightish hair,” of “medium build,” and “wearing a long coat, like a trench coat.”

“He came in, talked, and left,” she continues. “I was like, `Whoa!’ And that’s when I first started questioning the club, and had these theories [that Piscatelli might be involved]. And I also thought, did [the man] do it purposefully, to throw it off someone else by naming Nick? Because there is no evidence against Nick.”

Still, she says she’s fearful of Piscatelli, and now that her suspicions have been made public in Miller’s case file she says she will stop calling him. “That was my last call to him, probably in September,” Morgan recalls, when she says she discussed with Piscatelli items still in his possession that belonged to her son. (The Oct. 27 memo also discloses that Morgan told investigators that this reporter shared with her information about Piscatelli obtained through unnamed sources.)

Morgan’s statements are not the only ones mentioning Piscatelli in the discovery documents. A Nov. 9 discovery memo states that “a record of firearms owned and registered to Nicholas Piscatelli” was shared with the defense. Piscatelli reacts to this news by saying that “it was years ago–during the 1990s, or the 1980s–that I bought a couple of guns for hunting or target practice,” and asserts again that Polansky and Miller are “trying to use whatever they can to cast a shadow of a doubt.”

On Oct. 24, court documents also show prosecutor Holback shared with the defense “notes of detective’s interview of Carl Weaver (who is believed to be also known as Carl Curry)” that provide information about Weaver’s relationship with Piscatelli and “several other men,” including one that “obtained drugs for Nick Piscatelli.” Neither Weaver nor the two men whose names are mentioned could be located by City Paper in time for this article, and Piscatelli asserts he doesn’t know them. As for Weaver’s allegation about drugs, Piscatelli, who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Howard County, doesn’t directly respond but says that “there were no drugs in that club and no evidence of that going on.”

In fact, as City Paper has previously reported (“Club Trouble,” Mobtown Beat, June 11, 2003), evidence of drugs at the Redwood Trust does exist in the public record. In 2002, police executed a search-and-seizure warrant there and seized small amounts of cocaine and other drugs from the club. However, despite the evidence, the Baltimore City Liquor Board acquitted Redwood Trust of the resulting violations. “The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” then-liquor board Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the 2002 hearing.

In a November 2003 police report, Piscatelli stated that, while at the club, he was forced to sign a fraudulent promissory note for the sale of the nightclub business to another party, who, along with three armed men wearing masks, threatened Piscatelli and his business partner, Paul Chrzanowski, and asked them to sample “cocaine in a paper towel” (“Deadwood Bust,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2004). No criminal charges resulted from the incident, though competing lawsuits over the promissory note ended in October 2005, with Piscatelli winning a $1 million judgment against the buyer, Omar Haughton of Ellicott City.

Miller, meanwhile, worked for Redwood Trust, according to Piscatelli, who said prosecutors have asked him to produce Miller’s employment records. In court cases against him in the 1990s, Miller used an alias and three different dates of birth that today would place him in his mid-30s. One case, for murder in 1993, resulted in an assault conviction and two months of incarceration. Miller’s other conviction was for forgery in the mid-1990s, though he has dodged drug-conspiracy and other charges.

The state has accused Miller not only of murder in the Redwood Trust case but also armed robbery. This is apparently due to the fate of Convertino’s laptop computer, which court documents show Miller pawned the day after the bodies were found on April 16, 2003. Court records also indicate that Miller used Convertino’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico. Miller was first interviewed by detectives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on May 14, 2003, when he and his wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, returned from their honeymoon. During that interview, according to a detective’s notes contained in the court file, Miller described Convertino as a friend.

“Jay was a good guy,” the detective wrote of Miller’s statements at the airport. “Jay was willing to help anyone out at any time.”

Miller has consistently maintained his innocence and asserted his right to a speedy trial since his arraignment this past March. Until the trial, it’s anyone’s guess how Miller’s DNA was found in the gloves left at the murder scene, what Miller was doing with Convertino’s laptop, and how Miller came to use the victim’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon.

Piscatelli says Miller also asked him for honeymoon money, though he declined to lend it. “I didn’t really know [Miller],” Piscatelli says, “and didn’t really hire him” to work at Redwood Trust. That, he maintains, was Convertino’s decision.

Piscatelli is bewildered by indications that the case against Miller is developing to include information that suggests Piscatelli is being investigated in connection with the crime. “It’s a shame this thing is going in this direction,” he states ruefully. “I wouldn’t ever dream of doing anything like that. . . . I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Trying Time: Double-Murder Suspect Pleads Not Guilty

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 22, 2006

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Pam Morgan drove to Baltimore from near Binghamton, N.Y., to attend the March 15 arraignment of the man she and city prosecutors believe murdered her son. Since April 16, 2003—the day the gunned-down bodies of her son, 31-year-old Jason Convertino, and Sean Wisniewski, 22, were found in a Fells Point apartment, about five days after the murders allegedly occurred—she has anticipated the day when a suspect would face reckoning for the crime.

That day is coming soon. Randallstown resident Anthony Jerome Miller, whose court records indicate he’s either 30, 33, or 35 years old, pleaded not guilty to the double-murder and related charges, after the indictments were read aloud to him as he stood before Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Shirley Watts. The case was then put on the court docket for trial starting June 19. The evidence against Miller includes DNA collected from latex gloves left at the crime scene. Miller and the victims were affiliated with the Redwood Trust nightclub downtown, which Convertino managed for owner Nicholas Piscatelli.

Outside the courtroom after the arraignment, Morgan, who had kept stoically dry-eyed during the proceeding, commented on how her son had tried to fight off his attacker. “Jason was a fighter, but look at Miller,” she said. Broad-shouldered and buff, Miller, according to court records, stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 225 pounds.

“I am so glad I came to see Miller,” Morgan wrote in an e-mail to City Paper the next day. “I said I didn’t know how I would react, and I really surprised myself. I felt a God-given strength all of a sudden, and felt like my son was standing right beside me. Strange, huh? I hope I’m that strong through the trial.”

Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, declined to comment on the case after the arraignment, other than to say his client is not guilty.

Polansky, standing with four of Miller’s friends and family members in the foyer outside the courtroom, also declined to discuss previous charges for which he represented Miller: a 1993 double-murder case in which Miller was found guilty of assault; the state declined to prosecute him on the murder charges. A request was made to the Baltimore City State’s Attorneys’ press office to speak with the prosecutor of that case, David Chiu. Chiu, however, was not available as of press time.

The court file for that 1993 case, retrieved from archives, paints a confusing picture. The police report describes not two victims but one: 28-year-old Joseph Earl Carter. Carter was found June 13, 1993, dead from a gunshot wound to the head, his body reposed in the middle of the 1800 block of Westwood Avenue in Sandtown-Winchester. A shot also was fired into Carter’s car, which struck another victim, Ramona Jones. According to the report, she “later pulled the deformed projectile from her hair (it did not penetrate the skin) and handed it to investigators.” Miller was identified by witnesses as being part of a group that had attacked Carter’s friend. Ultimately, though, it appears from the case file that the gunman was never arrested.

Miller’s wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, was interviewed over the phone by City Paper on Feb. 19, and stated that “I will definitely sue if my name is mentioned” in an article about the Redwood Trust murders. She said that Miller, who turned himself in on a warrant in January, never expected to be detained on the charges, and that he’s a religious man “in second-year discipleship at church.” In May 2003, shortly after the killings, “police kicked the door in” at her previous Randallstown residence, Fitzgerald claimed, and “took Anthony’s clothes and boots,” but that the “paperwork disappeared” regarding the incident. After the police raid, she said, she sold the house, and she and Miller moved to another house she purchased in Randallstown. She sold that home, which is Miller’s address in the charging documents, shortly before Miller surrendered.

Redwood Bust: Suspect Indicted in 2003 Double Murder of Nightclubbers

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2006

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On Feb. 17, a Baltimore City grand jury indicted Anthony Jerome Miller (pictured) for the April 11, 2003, murder of Jason Michael Convertino and Sean Michael Mietus Wisniewski in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment at 1917 Gough St. Convertino, 31, was the manager of Redwood Trust, a downtown nightclub, and Wisniewski, 22, worked for Buzzlife, a Washington, D.C.-based entertainment company that held events at Redwood Trust on Saturday nights. Miller, who is being held without bail, turned himself in Jan. 23, four days after a warrant was issued for his arrest. His arraignment is scheduled for March 15.

Miller’s arrest was the first break in the case, which has remained shrouded in mystery since three of Wisniewski’s friends discovered the bodies on April 16, 2003. Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan of Binghamton, N.Y., says that one of the initial homicide investigators “told me there was not any evidence at all. They [the perpetrators] covered all their tracks—that’s what he said about this. And I thought, Oh my god, no one’s going to be caught for this.” Since then, the case ended up in the hands of cold-case investigator William Ritz. “Thank God for Ritz,” Morgan says, “or we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Attempts to reach Wisniewski’s father to comment for this article were unsuccessful. Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli and Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, did not return messages. Ritz, reached by phone at the cold-case squad’s office Feb. 20, would not comment, since the case, he said, is still “in the early stages” of being investigated.

According to court records, the murder weapon was “a .38/.357 caliber handgun.” Wisniewski was killed by a single gunshot wound, court records show, and sources familiar with the case, who asked to remain unnamed, say it was delivered to his head. Convertino, court records reflect, died of multiple gunshot wounds. Sources close to the investigation say that two rounds were fired into Convertino’s head, and another was shot into his arm. Miller, according to some of these sources, worked at Redwood Trust during the time of the murders.

Court documents written by Ritz explain the case against Miller. On the day the bodies were discovered, a latex glove and a second partial latex glove were recovered from the apartment by crime-scene investigators. Shortly afterward, Ritz’s report continues, it was learned that Convertino’s laptop computer was missing. On May 12, 2003, investigators discovered that the computer had been pawned by Miller on April 17, 2003—the day after the bodies were found—at a pawnshop in Randallstown. Miller’s driver’s license was presented to the pawnshop during the transaction, and lists an address a few miles away, in the Rolling Ridge subdivision.

In March 2005—nearly two years after the murders—the police finished processing the physical evidence in the case, including the latex gloves, according to Ritz’s report. The gloves were found to contain skin cells inside of them. On Aug. 16, 2005, police collected blood from Miller to compare his DNA to the skin cells. The comparison was completed on Nov. 29, and the skin cells were found to be consistent with Miller’s DNA.

“[T]his investigator believes,” Ritz wrote in his report, “that the latex gloves found at the crime scene . . . [were] worn by the defendant as a precautionary measure so as not to leave any physical evidence . . . that would link him to the crimes of assault, armed robbery and premeditated murder of [the] victims.”

“With the gloves, it just amazes me that they didn’t do what they had to do earlier,” Morgan says. “They had them since the day the bodies were found.”

Morgan chalks it up to Miller’s “stupidity” that he left behind evidence, such as the gloves and driver’s license information, that could trace the crime back to him, as police allege.

Miller has had some run-ins with Baltimore police in the past. In a 1993 case, court records show, he faced two murder charges and an assault charge. Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko says the state declined to prosecute him on the murder charges, but he was found guilty of assault in that case and received a one-year sentence, with 10 months suspended. In 1997, he was found guilty of forging a public document and received a $250 fine, a two-year suspended sentence, and 18 months of probation. Also in 1997, a drug-conspiracy case against him was shelved by prosecutors. In 1994, the state’s attorney declined to prosecute him on an assault charge and on a charge of playing dice. (In the 1994 dice case, Miller used an alias: Samuel Lester Miller. Sviatko says records show that Miller also used three different dates of birth: one in 1975, one in 1972, and one in 1970.)

Most recently, on Dec. 1, 2005, Miller was charged in Baltimore with providing unauthorized taxicab services. Court records show that the state’s attorney declined to prosecute the charge on Jan. 24, the day after he turned himself in on the murder charges.

Morgan says she believes that Miller, if he’s found guilty of the murders, did not act alone. She bases that on a conversation she had with the second set of detectives who handled the case, before Ritz took it over.

“They said that they felt from the scene that there were two people in the apartment,” Morgan recalls, stressing that the case is still under investigation, even though Miller is in custody and facing trial. The Baltimore City State’s Attorneys Office, Morgan says, told her Miller’s trial could start as soon as June, unless circumstances cause a delay.

The Great American Meatout 2006 Vegetarian Feast

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Mar. 15, 2006

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Fatback. Braised short ribs. Broiled lamb chops with papaya chutney. Pickled whale fat. Aitch bones. Pork tenderloin with raspberry mint sauce. Oxtails. Shad roe. Wild turkey with ginger chestnut stuffing. Headcheese. Rabbits stuffed with blood sausage. Cheek meats. Pecan-encrusted venison. Singed sheep heads. Cranberry-port pot roast. Brains. Liver. Oven-roasted rockfish with peppers and baby potatoes. Baby-seal flippers. You can forget about all of that today. It’s March 20, the day of the Great American Meatout. Tomorrow, though, get as greasy as you like: haggis, beef tongue, sturgeon filets in aspic, cracklings, chicken livers wrapped in bacon–you name it. Tomorrow, and whenever else you want it.

“Mr. Boh’s Brewery”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 8, 2006

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Mr. Boh’s co-option is complete. His one-eyed face, which has long graced the labels of the no-longer-local brew, National Bohemian, seemingly inspired the Shawn Belschwender cartoon character Refrigerator Johnny. Rocker Mary Prankster’s logo is a more direct rip, clearly “Mrs. Boh.” When drummer Rob Oswald snipped and pasted Boh cans all over his kit, Mr. Boh must’ve felt 12 full ounces of honor every time Oswald wailed on ’em. Now there’s a film about Mr. Boh’s mother, the National Brewery, screened courtesy of the erstwhile brewery’s redevelopers, who’ve perched a giant neon Mr. Boh atop the Canton skyline. He’s arrived, so go fete him.

Luck of the Draw: Police Bust Gunmen Robbing Greektown Poker Game

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 7, 2006

IN A 15-MINUTE PERIOD AROUND 11 P.M. on Thursday, May 25, Baltimore City racked up 21 victims of violent crime in Greektown: 18 armed robberies and three attempted armed robberies. The incident is a blow to the victims and to Mayor Martin O’Malley’s attempts to reduce violent crime in the city—a central theme of his campaign for governor. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the two suspects were caught while robbing $23,827 from a high-stakes poker game, an illegal activity that O’Malley made light of last fall, after police raided two poker games that netted charges against nearly 100 players.

Last Nov. 17, O’Malley discussed the poker raids on WBAL Radio, relating cheekily how he had asked police commanders, “‘How many people do we have assigned to the poker task force? Do you think we could reassign them to the violent-crime and drug task force?’” He continued, “It seems like we’ve become obsessed with poker games. I think there are more deadly challenges facing our city and our citizens.”

As of press time, the police department had not responded to City Paper’s request for information and comment about the Greektown poker robbery. When mayoral spokeswoman Raquel Guillory was asked if the mayor’s thoughts about poker enforcement had changed after the robbery, she had only this to say: “We have a vice squad who, along with other crimes, track these as well. These particular types of games pose a risk to the players because there is usually a large amount of money and the police don’t know about them. But these are illegal.”

One of the victims, criminal defense attorney Stephen L. Prevas (a brother of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas), rues that the poker-game heist chalked up a host of offenses on the city’s violent-crime tables. “One event that takes 10, 15 minutes,” he points out in a telephone interview after the robbery, “and it skews the statistics.”

Another victim, Jason Thomas Lantz, was pistol-whipped during the incident, according to a police report contained in the court records. “It opened up a nice gash on the guy’s head,” Prevas recalls. “It was ugly, but everybody remained rather calm.”

The timing of the robbery, Prevas adds, was perfect. “Of any time to strike,” he says, “that particular time on a Thursday night was good, to maximize the benefits” of a robbery, because more than the usual amounts of cash were on hand.

Prevas, who represented two dealers charged with gambling in one of last November’s poker raids, would like to see poker legalized and regulated in Maryland. However, “when it is done in this fashion”—illegally, with lots of money on the table—he opines, “the biggest negative is that someone will get robbed. Any time you put a bunch of people with a lot of money in their pockets in one place, it is going to put a gleam in someone’s eye. I may start going to Atlantic City again—it keeps you honest.” Or, he adds, “I may just stay in games that are in someone’s home where I’m familiar with people.” At any rate, Prevas says, “as I understand it, the game will not reopen at that particular place.”

Prevas, who has been a member of the Maryland Bar since 1973, had $1,700 taken from him during the robbery and says that money is now in police hands. He contends that, while a poker game was in progress at the time, he wasn’t playing. “You can infer what you want,” he asserts when asked why he had so much money while watching a poker game. “But in the scheme of things, it’s not that big of a bankroll. I am used to having cash on my person.”

Another victim, real-estate investor Jeremiah B. Landsman, says he had $900 in his wallet when it was taken from him by the robbers. “I got most of it back,” he says, after the police busted the perpetrators. He, too, contends that he wasn’t playing poker. “Everybody knows gambling is illegal,” he states in a phone interview. “And I don’t want to do anything illegal.” As for the amount of money he possessed at the time, he explains that “I’m in real estate, so I always carry a lot of cash.”

While police found $23,827 in the robbers’ bag once they were detained, court records indicate that only $15,429 was attributed to the 18 individuals who were robbed. The court records don’t explain the discrepancy, but the remainder may have belonged to the game’s organizers. “I have nothing to say about the house money,” Landsman says when asked about the differing sums.

The arrested suspects are 31-year-old Todd Mikal of Glen Burnie and 27-year-old Ronnie Lee Jones of Parkville. Mikal is charged with 131 counts, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, although a search of court records shows that this is the first time he’s been charged with a crime in Maryland. Jones was charged with 127 counts in connection with the poker robbery. Court records reveal that, since 1997, Jones has faced 17 charges for crimes including auto theft, illegal firearms, assault, robbery, theft, and juror intimidation. He was never convicted, though in 1999 he received two years of supervised probation before judgment for assault.

According to the police report, the crime was interrupted after one of the victims, Wayne Byers Long Jr., flagged down a passing patrol car and stated that a robbery was in progress at 4600 Eastern Ave. Long’s Parkville address is an apartment a few blocks away from Ronnie Jones’ home. Attempts to reach Long, in order to ask him if he knows the suspect, were unsuccessful.

The robbers, Prevas recalls, entered the back room of the premises through a side door.

“They came in behind a guy who’d been playing in the game fairly regularly,” he says. “[Someone] saw him through the peephole [in the door] and let him in.” One of the robbers “was doing all the talking, and was very loud and intimidating, and the other was the bag man,” who put the cash and wallets into a sack.

Once Long had hailed the police, “in seconds there were bunches of police there,” Prevas continues. “The friendly perps were just finishing up their business, saying ‘Good night and thank you, gentlemen,’ or something to that effect, when three cops appeared at the landing with their guns drawn. One guy gave it up immediately, and the other guy took off out the door,” Prevas recalls. The police quickly chased him down.

“It was a sense of vindication that they actually got caught,” Prevas says.

State records show the owner of 4600 Eastern Ave. to be Pete Koroneos, whose other interests over the years include a strip club and a restaurant on the Block, a Fells Point bar, and the Broadway Diner, located just east of Greektown on Eastern Avenue. A sign for the diner graces the side of the nondescript building that hosted the ill-fated poker game, and is the only identifying mark on the newly painted building other than the street number affixed to the mailbox on the front door. Attempts to reach Koroneos at his Otterbein condominium, in order to ask him about the poker game held in his Greektown property, were unsuccessful.

Landsman and Prevas indicate that the property has long been a home for poker—though Landsman insists that it was “only for fun, only for chips, not money.”

“It’s a men’s club,” he continues, “where we would eat, drink, watch games. It was a really nice group of people and a really good time. I would go once a week. It was a great place to network with other professionals from Baltimore.”

Another victim, Gilbert Roden, is more direct. “It was a bunch of guys that get together and play poker,” he says over the phone.

The list of 21 robbery victims includes 11 people whose names also appear on the membership lists of two other poker clubs: the Owls Nest, which was raided by police last fall, and a related entity called the Orioles Nest (“Fouled Nests,” Nov. 23, 2005). Two of the Greektown victims had been arrested for gambling at the Owls Nest raid, and their charges were later dropped.

None of the poker-playing victims of the Greektown robbery has been charged with a crime—in contrast to the gambling charges that resulted from last November’s raids of the Owls Nest and another game at the Aces High Club on Harford Road. Without police comment, City Paper has not been able to determine whether the decision not to charge the gamblers resulted from O’Malley’s public statements that enforcing the law against poker games squanders police resources.

Landsman, however, says he believes “the police handled [the Greektown poker robbery] perfectly. It was a bad situation with the best possible outcome.” Nonetheless, he states, “obviously, these games draw crime. It’s unfortunate.”

D. Day: The Bengies Drive-In Theatre Turns 50

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 31, 2006

The original 1956 marquee at the Bengies Drive-In Theatre, which is named after its Middle River neighborhood, had a misplaced apostrophe in the name—“Bengie’s.” Proprietor D. Edward Vogel says there is a “very controversial” story behind the stray punctuation mark. He lights a cigarette in the bright May sun, stands on the asphalt before a newly repainted replica of the bygone sign affixed to the drive-in’s concessions building, and starts to tell it: “My natural father was A. Fred Serrao. You need to know this. He Americanized his Italian name. His father never forgave him.”

Hours pass. The apostrophe story still isn’t finished. By the time the punch line is delivered, the sun is sinking below the top of the Bengies’ 6,240-square-foot movie screen, the biggest on the East Coast, and Vogel (who goes by D.) has nearly emptied his pack of smokes. As it turns out, the apostrophe and the size of the screen are related—an epic story that takes an epoch for fast-talking D. to tell.

“You asked me about the Bengies,” Vogel explains. “The Bengies is my favorite subject, and I answered your question.” (While many patrons refer to the theater as “Bengies,” as if it belonged to a guy named Bengie, à la the original marquee, Vogel always includes the definite article—“the Bengies.”)

It’s easy to forgive Vogel’s multi-stranded yarn. First off, on June 6 the Bengies will turn 50 years old, a proper occasion for a full oral history of the place given by the guy who owns the business, books the slate of current-release movies that screen each weekend night, runs the projector, and handles the PA announcements. Secondly, after years of uncertainty over the theater’s fate, Vogel is about to own the land his business sits on, so—for the first time in decades—he believes the end of the Bengies is not near. Finally, Vogel was raised to talk endlessly, so he can hardly help it if his stories get away from him.

D. Vogel was born in Pennsylvania, the son of Serrao, a movie-theater developer who died when Vogel was 3. His mother, Aileen, then married an acquaintance of Serrao’s, Jack Vogel of Ohio, an architect-engineer who designed and helped build movie theaters, including more than 300 drive-ins. Thus, Jack Vogel (known in the business as the Frank Lloyd Wright of drive-ins, but known to D. as Dad) was often on the road checking in on his far-flung projects. Young D.—the youngest of the six Serrao children Jack Vogel adopted—was his father’s co-pilot on many such trips, assigned by his mother an important task: to talk nonstop in order to keep his dad alert at the wheel.

By the time Vogel was honing his storytelling skills in his dad’s car, the Bengies was already up and running. Jack Vogel was in business with his brothers, Hank and Paul, and they came to Maryland to build theaters for Durkee Enterprises—the company that gave Baltimore many theaters, of which only the Senator survives. Then, in 1954, they designed and built the erstwhile Edmondson Drive-In on Route 40 West in Catonsville for developer George Brehm. Two years later, after Hank Vogel found the Bengies property, the brothers bought it and built their own drive-in.

“Hank is the one that I really got close to,” D. Vogel says. Paul Vogel was an Army colonel, and the military was his life’s focus, though he had a stake in the business. Hank Vogel’s role was to build the drive-ins that Jack Vogel designed. “Once the Bengies was built, Uncle Hank chose to stay here,” Vogel continues. “And I started to work for him in the summers,” in the mid-1970s, staying in a rented apartment in a house right behind the Bengies’ screen. When Hank died in 1978, “we were all devastated,” Vogel remembers, but the Bengies never skipped a beat.

Vogel took a break from college after Hank died, to run the Bengies and two indoor Vogel-owned theaters nearby. But he soon grew resentful about his lack of a say in how the family business was run by Jack Vogel, who was in Ohio. So D. Vogel quit and resumed college while his older brother Fred took over the Bengies, which after a few years was leased to R/C Theatres. “The Bengies had left the Vogels’ hands,” Vogel says sadly. “And I refused to set foot in there.” The bitterness ran deep, and Vogel virtually stopped talking with his brother and father. In the meantime, he worked at the city’s old movie theaters—the Towne, Mayfair, New, and Hippodrome—and sold cars for Smith Motors.

Eventually, Vogel ran into the Bengies’ concessions manager around town, and she asked him to visit the eastern Baltimore County drive-in. “I did not like what I saw,” he says. “The place looked like a dump—sound poles were missing, the grass was knee-high.” The concessions manager asked Vogel to lease it. After much family debate and in-fighting, Vogel fulfilled her request in 1988 with a year-to-year lease.

He immediately set about trying to buy the land from his family. The heartache and haggling over this issue almost buried the Bengies in the late 1990s. But just before Vogel’s dad died in the fall of 2004, the last issue holding up the property sale—changing the zoning from residential to commercial—was approved, with a covenant restricting the land’s use to entertainment purposes. Today, D. awaits the final settlement papers to sign.

So why the apostrophe on the original marquee? That, after all, is how Vogel started this story. “Because Dad thought it was cute!” he exclaims.

Jack Vogel ordered it built that way—with his brothers’ blessings, though they hadn’t noticed the apostrophe in the marquee drawings. The sign arrived for installation just as the brothers were in the middle of a dispute over the size of the screen, causing the argument to escalate. Jack had designed the screen large; Hank wanted it that big, but Paul thought it was too expensive. “Everything’s big around here,” Hank argued. Just then, as D. Vogel recounts, a very large horse fly landed on Paul’s arm, so big that Paul didn’t know what it was. After Hank whacked it with a spade, smashing it into a gooey mess on Paul’s arm, he sealed the deal: “See,” he repeated, “everything’s big around here.”

“At that moment, it was all settled,” Vogel says. “There was an apostrophe on the marquee, and there would be a big screen. And that screen is one of the reasons I’m just hellbent the Bengies is going to stay here. No, the Bengies wasn’t the nicest theater the Vogels ever built, most certainly. But the screen is exactly right.” And today the marquee, which was replaced in 1973 without the apostrophe, is too.