Stones in my Pathway: For a Backroads Enthusiast, Hunting for Mason-Dixon Markers on the Eastern Shore is a Joyride

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, May 21, 2003


It’s one of my fondest childhood memories: my mom, myself, my sisters, and our pets (a dog, a hamster, a guinea pig, and a mouse) packed into a station wagon, doing the long haul up the East Coast during summer vacation. We called it “getting lost”–purposefully taking random exits off of Interstate 95, armed with a good map, in search of obscure, out-of-the-way places.

A riverside picnic spot off the beaten path, an ancient barn crowned with an interesting weather vane, a crafts co-op run by back-to-nature hippies–where we were headed (and we often didn’t know exactly where) was less important than the route taken. The main idea was to have the weighted-down wagon’s tires meet asphalt or dirt they had never before touched, taking us through landscapes we’d never before seen. Sometimes it seemed like a treasure hunt, with the arrival at one destination bringing clues to the next.

The Eastern Shore, with its vast, flat expanses of storied territory, offers excellent possibilities for getting lost. The hinterlands between and beyond Route 50 and Route 404 are often bypassed by the fun-seeking hordes en route to the ocean. Leaving the shore traffic behind to hit sleepy towns and dusty roads makes for prime back-roading. It helps to have guideposts to seek, and Delmarva’s Maryland-Delaware border is lined with just the thing: stone markers, first laid down in the 1760s by British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

According to Roger Nathan, a New Jersey resident whose book East of the Mason-Dixon Line (Delaware Heritage Press, 2000) describes the making of Delaware’s borders, the 3 1/2-foot-high English limestone monuments were placed at every mile point along the line during two weeks around the Christmas of 1765. Many have disappeared, either sunk into marshland or removed, and many that remain are damaged. There are still plenty to find, however, and looking for them makes for a DIY tour of a slice of Delmarva that few tourists ever see.

The Mason-Dixon Line, the world-famous boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, defined the geography of this country’s mid-19th-century political conflict over slavery, culminating in the Civil War. Mason and Dixon undertook their celebrated survey between 1763 and ’68, in order to settle a nearly century-long property dispute between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland. What today we call the Mason-Dixon Line, though, was but one part of Mason’s and Dixon’s task. Back then, this latitudinal boundary was called the “West Line” and was started only after the English surveyors completed the “Tangent Line”–the north-south line that now marks the Maryland-Delaware border.

The Tangent Line starts at the “Middle Point,” which falls between Mardela Springs, Md., and Delmar–a town that straddles the Maryland-Delaware border–and is the center of the “Transpeninsular Line,” the east-west line that marks the southern Maryland-Delaware border, which runs from the Atlantic coast near Fenwick Island, Del., to the Chesapeake Bay. From the Middle Point, Mason and Dixon in the summer of 1764 chained 82 miles northward, through farms, marshland, and forests, to touch the 12-mile arc they had drawn around New Castle, Del.

Before starting out on this stone-seeking tour, some reading and references are in order. Nathan’s book is concise with the particulars, giving photos and rough descriptions of the markers and their locations, along with accounts of the surveyors’ charge and challenges. But it also a good idea to chase down a copy of The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (American Philosophical Society, 1969; out of print) to let the men tell their own story, although as men of science, their entries are frustratingly stark. To round out the picture, Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt, 1997), intimidatingly thick at nearly 800 pages, provides a fantastical glimpse of the surveyors’ characters and the Age of Reason’s hellbent pursuit of all things knowable.

Lastly, but most importantly, get some good maps. Delorme’s Maryland-Delaware Atlas and Gazetteer is invaluable for modern-day explorers, but even better detail is available from Maryland Geological Survey topographic maps of Wicomico, Dorchester, Caroline, Queen Anne’s, Kent, and Cecil counties.

Nearly all of the existing, accessible Mason-Dixon markers can by found by land travel, but somewhere under the marshy north bank of the Nanticoke River is the long-submerged seven-mile marker, regained only via water. To get there, intrepid stone searchers can put their watercraft in at the public boat ramp at Sharptown, Md., on the south side of Route 313’s Nanticoke River bridge.

The river here is wide and tidal, and the two-mile trip to the boundary is likely to be attended by ospreys, herons, perhaps a bald eagle, and plenty of fish a-jumpin’. The spot itself is somewhat anticlimactic, as no stone can be found, but the boundary is marked by a signpost and metal National Geodetic Survey markers alerting passersby to the nearby presence of the submerged marker. Just upriver from the signpost is tiny Wright Creek, a relaxing side trip for canoeists or kayakers, taking paddlers through a meandering, marshy waterway that is home to an abundance of turtles and alive with trout.

A car tour of the markers is best started at the Middle Point, a short distance off Route 50 on Route 54. Protected in a gated pavilion are three stones. The Middle Point monument is a crownstone, so-called because it bears the coats of arms of the Penns on the Delaware side and of the Calverts on the Maryland side, as do other existing crownstones at five-mile intervals along the Tangent Line. (The crownstone pictured above is near Greensboro, Md.) The other two stones at the Middle Point pavilion, Nathan told me before our trip, are the 25-mile marker of the Transpeninsular Line and a stone of no historical significance, set by a local resident.

Gazing north from the Middle Point pavilion, you’re all set to look for more Mason-Dixon stones, with one important catch: Many of the stones are on private property, and thus not available for viewing without permission from the property owners.

On the outskirts of Sharptown is the former site of marker No. 5–a crownstone that Nathan reports has been missing since 1999. Locals pointed us to the location, along a dirt road that follows the border, with fields on the Maryland side and woods on the Delaware side. The National Geodetic Survey markers there–small metal signs on posts–have been nearly destroyed by short-range shotgun blasts, perhaps a sign of local hostility to government totems.

As we scuffed around the area where marker No. 5 used to be, a man travelling in the local fashion–that is, wearing a timeworn baseball cap advertising agricultural products and driving an old pickup truck–pulled over next to us. “You fellers studying the Mason-Dixon Line?” he asked, friendly as can be. When we confirmed we were, he added, “You know, they resurveyed the line using laser beams a few years back, and those fellers had it right on the money.” And then he headed off down the road, leaving us in a cloud of dust. We were unable to confirm the use of laser beams in conducting the resurvey, but he was right: In 1978, a coalition of government agencies checked Mason and Dixon’s work and found it utterly accurate.

The next stop is the nine-mile marker, just north of Galestown, Md., en route to Reliance, Md.–where the house of Patty Cannon, infamous for kidnapping freed slaves in Delaware and reselling them to Maryland slave owners in the early 1800s, is commemorated with an historic plaque. Transgressing in our own small way, we skirted around a private home along a field to take a look at the stone, which has an m carved on the Maryland side and a p on the Delaware side, referring to that state’s colonial origins as part of the Penns’ land grant.

The 15-mile marker is a well-preserved and easily accessible crownstone on the east side of Route 549 near Oak Grove, Del. Here we began to detect a land-use pattern where the state border also delineated different zoning–in this case, farming on the Delaware side, woods and homes on the Maryland side. Then, on to the 17-mile marker, located just north of Route 318 in the middle of a hay field near tiny Atlanta, Del. The stone carver goofed on this one, Nathan speculates, as the Delaware side has a “p” carved over an “m”–making it the Mason-Dixon stone hunter’s equivalent of a philatelist’s Three Skilling Yellow Banco, the world’s most valuable stamp due to a printing error.

As we moved northward, we grew more adept at finding stones–and also noted that the towns and villages north of Route 404, a major highway, grew increasingly lost in time. No Wal-Marts, no McDonald’s, no malls to undermine the old village general-store-and-a-post-office economy that probably hasn’t changed much since the advent of railroading. Naming towns–Schultie Crossroads, Melvin Crossroads, Ringgold’s Green–was a simple matter of connecting family names with a description of the locale.

A daring close to our tour is a climb up a high and frail tower at the state border on Route 404, about 25 miles north of the Middle Point. The tower was built to commemorate the 1978 resurveying of the Mason-Dixon Line. Apparently unmaintained since it was constructed, the tower features rotted pine steps and rickety Tinkertoy engineering. The fence gate at its base, meant to keep the public out, is off its hinges, so temptation got the best of us–despite a dire warning from a kid who lives next door, whose brother, he said, almost fell through the tower’s weather-beaten steps the last time he climbed it. Gripping the metal rails and stepping carefully to avoid weak spots, though, we managed to gain a high vantage point.

The risk was worth it, if only to see Delmarva’s Mason-Dixon Line as Mason and Dixon never could: from above, with miles and miles of Eastern Shore vista spread out all around us. Traveling through this new-to-us territory, and then seeing it from above, serves to drive home the marvel of their surveying feat–and the value of getting lost.

Believe It … Or Not: Measuring O’Malley’s March on Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Aug. 27, 2003


Good news is never hard to find when mayors seek re-election. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s last political campaign in 1995 published a whole book of good news about his administration’s then-ongoing efforts in Baltimore. As is now widely recognized, though, the bad news far outweighed the good during the Schmoke years, which were marked by a cerebral approach to governance that produced paltry results and left the city’s psyche stigmatized by failure.

Schmoke’s charismatic successor, Martin O’Malley, was elected in 1999 on an ambitious anti-crime platform and a promising slogan, “For Reform and Change.” He won with a strong mandate that created high expectations and a refreshing sense of hope for the city. As he now runs for re-election as the distinct favorite in the six-way Democratic primary, O’Malley croons earnestly about the upturn Baltimore has seen during his four years in office. While his new campaign slogan–“Because Better Isn’t Good Enough”–suggests that his record has shortcomings he is willing to acknowledge, he’s still found plenty to boast about. Here’s a taste of some of the O’Malley campaign’s bragging points, lifted from its promotional materials:

  • “Baltimore has, in just a few years, achieved the largest [violent-crime] reduction of any major city in America.
  • “Baltimore’s per pupil spending increased by 15 percent [since 1999] . . . improving from 6th to 2nd highest in the state.
  • “In 2002 alone, the Baltimore Development Corporation’s efforts brought 6,000 jobs to Baltimore.”

Also available to help boost civic optimism during this election season is the Believe campaign, a multimillion-dollar advertising effort underwritten largely by the nonprofit Baltimore Police Foundation. The campaign aims to empower Baltimoreans to overcome the ravages of illegal drugs, and its most visible impact has been the thousands of images of the word “believe” that have placarded the city since last year. Believe’s latest media blitz, which started this summer and is ongoing, charts and celebrates the city’s progress since 1999. That’s the year before O’Malley took the reins of City Hall. Thus, Believe’s current feel-good message is not only about Baltimore’s efforts to tamp down its violent drug culture but also about O’Malley’s record as mayor.

Amid this propaganda, it’s hard to know what to trust. Critical thinking, after all, demands an innate skepticism of messages in advertising, because campaigns, whether political or commercial, are designed to make use of advantageous information rather than present a balanced picture.


For instance, one could reason that Baltimore’s chart-topping reduction in violent crime is less remarkable than it sounds because, as the most violent city in the United States in 1999 (now the second most violent, behind Detroit), positive trends here have a greater statistical impact than in other, less violent cities. And while per-pupil spending increased 15 percent overall between 1999 and 2002, school enrollment during that period declined by almost 9 percent. With fewer students entering the system each year, per-student spending would increase naturally with a flat budget–and dramatically so with the modest budget increases that have been secured during O’Malley’s tenure in City Hall.

As for the 6,000 new jobs in 2002, attributed to the work of the city’s quasi-public economic development agency, that’s a lot of slots in a city where the number of unemployed people hovers around 25,000. The fact remains, though, that there were nearly 2,000 more unemployed people in the city’s labor force this June than there were in the beginning of 2002. And the unemployment rate has risen slightly rather than dropped during the same period. These facts strongly suggest that those 6,000 jobs were not filled predominantly by city residents but by commuters from surrounding areas.

Thus, the O’Malley camp’s upbeat take on the last four years begs other relevant ways to plumb Baltimore’s progress–different gauges than O’Malley’s people are emphasizing, ones that instead look at facets of city life not necessarily found in the campaign leaflets. The following results are mixed, and thus will please O’Malley supporters and detractors alike. And they show that O’Malley’s assertion that “better isn’t good enough” is dead-on in summing up his first term. The city’s stock has risen, but there’s room for improvement.


On election day 1999, Martin O’Malley was the beneficiary of a very important statistic when he chalked up 53 percent of the votes in what had shaken down to be a three-way, racially charged Democratic Primary pitting him, a white guy, against former City Councilman Carl Stokes and then-City Council President Lawrence Bell, both of whom are black. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” O’Malley often said that summer–a sentiment that, along with his bold promises to reduce crime using New York City’s successful approach as a model, resonated with an electorate that seemed exhausted from years of decline, violence, and divisiveness.

After the votes were counted, even some of those who worked against him were ebullient. “Martin O’Malley has a clear mandate from the entire city,” said former City Council president, 1995 mayoral candidate, and current 14th District City Council candidate Mary Pat Clarke, who supported Bell in the 1999 race. “This city, black and white, voted for Martin O’Malley. And it was not marginal. It was resounding. He has a mandate to lead the whole city. It’s a wondrous thing to behold.”


O’Malley’s votes in that race, nonetheless, reflected the realities of the city’s stark divide between poor African-Americans and everyone else. The precincts that supported O’Malley–including many predominantly black precincts–were spread thickly across the city, with the exception of two, hard-to-ignore areas: the blighted, poverty-stricken swaths on the east and west sides, which form a butterfly-wing pattern with midtown at the center. These neighborhoods–Upton, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Rosemont, Poppleton, Edmondson Village, and others on the west side, and Middle East, Berea, Clifton Park, Jonestown, Greenmount West, and others on the east side–did not buy into the O’Malley agenda as it was spelled out during the ’99 campaign. Stokes or Bell won most of the votes in these butterfly wings, which are overwhelmingly black and are home to about a third of the city’s population.

These neighborhoods, more than any others in the city, have the most to gain from City Hall’s policies since they suffer most from Baltimore’s famous ills. Here, according to data published by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (www. bnia. org), a Charles Village-based nonprofit that has taken on the Herculean task of collecting and analyzing myriad measures of Baltimore’s communities, a fifth of all serious crime is violent, vs. a 10th in the rest of the city. Here, more than a third of family households are headed by single mothers, vs. a fifth in the rest of the city. Here, about 60 percent of mothers receive first-trimester pre-natal care, vs. three-quarters of the mothers in the rest of the city. Here, nearly 40 percent of working people don’t use cars to get to their jobs, vs. less than 25 percent in the rest of the city. And here, out of every 1,000 juveniles, an average of 124 were arrested in 2001, vs. 95 in the rest of the city; the rate of juvenile arrests in these neighborhoods jumped to 142 per 1,000 juveniles in 2002. The list of disparities is long and poignant.

If, as his 1999 campaign materials noted, New York City was O’Malley’s model for success, then Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods would benefit most from his policies, as happened during New York’s renaissance in the 1990s. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approach–while widely vilified, largely because of the man’s brusque personality and a few horrific incidents involving his police force–was to commit resources where they were most needed, and thus he helped spur revival in Gotham’s most hard-pressed areas as well as its most prosperous. And, despite opinions to the contrary, Giuliani achieved these gains while reducing the number of police-involved shootings compared to his predecessor. So, has the approach worked in Baltimore under O’Malley’s guiding hand? Yes and no.


There’s just no arguing the gains made in the critical early grades of the Baltimore City public schools during the last five years. Scores in the nationwide TerraNova standardized tests rose dramatically across the board between the 1998-’99 and 2002-’03 school years in the city’s elementary-school grades. And those gains, reflected in a recently released school system report, have been greatest in schools serving the city’s poorest neighborhoods–though the situation is reversed in scores for sixth-graders. The greatest climb in average percentile rankings was in poor areas’ second-grade reading scores, which jumped an average of 23.2 points in the five-year period, while the scores rose 17.1 points for second-graders in the rest of the city’s schools. Sixth-graders scores in the poor schools, though, climbed an average of 9.6 points, compared to 19.6 at all the other city schools.


O’Malley attributes this overall success in part to expanding programs that target kids before they enter first grade. “We have gone from 109 full-day kindergarten classes to 297, reaching that mandate five years ahead of when the state wanted us to,” he cited during a recent interview with City Paper in his City Hall office. “And we’ve gone from one full-day pre-K program to 91.” He also pointed out that the school system’s efforts to standardize course content have helped, too, given that “a lot of kids are in three or four or five different schools in the course of a year, [and are faced] with a different curriculum every time.”

Kids living in poverty, O’Malley observes, have to prevail over more severe obstacles in order to learn well, so the greater improvements in test scores at schools serving poor children are that much more impressive. “The neighborhood environment from which our poor children are drawn have a lot bigger societal problems . . . [such as] violent crime, drug addiction, and the sort of societal abandonment, familial abandonment, that those things fuel, than in other areas of our city,” he said. “Unfortunately, [these students] have to overcome a lot more of the baggage that we as a society still allow to be heaped upon them through no fault of their own.

“So I don’t think it’s accidental that our kids are doing better in school as the city’s becoming safer and as more parents are getting into drug treatment,” he continued. “I think all of this works together. And the expectations for their success I think are greater than maybe they’ve been in years past.”

Of any single area under city government’s bailiwick, though, the school system is the one over which the mayor has the least direct influence. This is the result of a partial state takeover of city schools during Schmoke’s last term–a negotiated outcome to settle a long-litigated lawsuit. Thus, while O’Malley has some say over schools policy by virtue of his control over nine appointments to the 18-member school board and the city’s 23.5 percent contribution to the system’s 2002 budget, he can’t take full credit for its success or failure. Nonetheless, his limited clout in the schools arena means he can tout–with a measure of modesty–the remarkable rise in test scores as part of his record as mayor.


By and large, the city’s poorest neighborhoods fall in two of the city’s nine police districts, the Eastern and the Western. Examining the crime numbers in these two districts in 1999 and 2002, vs. the other seven districts, turns up mixed results. According to police department data, overall violent crime in the Eastern and Western districts combined has dropped 31 percent from 1999 to 2002, while nonfatal shootings have dropped almost 38 percent. But murders rose nearly 15 percent in 2002 compared to 1999–and the two districts’ share of the city’s total number of homicides has increased from nearly 30 percent in 1999 to more than 41 percent in 2002.

Running the same analysis on 2003’s year-to-date figures in the Eastern and Western districts as of Aug. 9, vs. 1999’s numbers on the same date, show that the disparity is even greater this year. Murders are up 50 percent from 1999, while violent crime has dropped more than 42 percent and shootings more than 18 percent. According to the police department’s own statistics, the Eastern and Western districts have become less violent but far more deadly.


“I had never seen these murder numbers broken down like this before,” O’Malley commented while reviewing these statistics. “It’s an interesting way to break them down.” But his response was to repeat Giuliani’s mantra: “We apply our resources to where the problems are.” And then he opened his crime-numbers notebook and recited figures showing that violent crime is down dramatically in every district, including the Eastern and Western.

“You know,” he added, “all of this is a work in progress. I’m not happy with 253.” That’s the number of murders committed citywide in 2002–a far cry from the 175 he had promised by that date during the 1999 campaign and during the first two years of his administration. “We’re going to continue to go down from there.”


And the mayor got exercised over projections of this year’s final murder tally, which as of press time is on track to reach about 285 by the end of December. “Everybody always wants to project that year-end number,” he said with palpable disgust. “I mean, they want to do it in July. And a half a year’s left. And it is awful and it’s morbid and it’s cold to talk statistics. One homicide is one homicide too many.

“But we deploy our resources to where the problems are,” O’Malley continued, getting back to the disproportionate violence in the Eastern and Western districts. “And all of this, it is still young. The open-air drug trade in this city was allowed to grow and flourish and develop and become as acute as it did over a 25-year slide. And so we are going to continue to hammer it.”

Another area that O’Malley has targeted is police corruption. It’s a ticklish subject, and one on which he mounted his bully pulpit starting in 1993, when he was a young councilman. “The few bad apples are just that–the few,” he said in an impassioned speech on the council floor 10 years ago. “But there is not a single knowledgeable person in federal, state, or local law enforcement today who will deny that we have a growing problem with street-level corruption.”

During the 1999 campaign, O’Malley repeatedly stressed the importance of “policing the police,” and continued to fuel the perception that the corruption problem in the department was acute. And he asserted that the problem had been swept under the rug for years. After he was elected, he hired a consulting firm, the Maple/Linder Group of New York City, to do a full assessment of the police department, including an internal survey of sworn officers. The findings on corruption were eye-popping. “While 48.7 percent of respondents believe that five percent or less of . . . officers are stealing money or drugs from drug dealers,” the report reads, “23.2 percent believe the number is greater than a quarter of the department.” Based on the buzz O’Malley sounded, many in Baltimore expected to see heads starting to roll.

It never really happened. There was one infamous case–Agent Brian Sewell, who was accused of planting drugs on an innocent suspect as a result of a sting operation. But the case tanked when the alleged evidence against him was pilfered by the lead investigator in the case from a secret internal-investigations office in Essex around Christmas 2000. (The department used its administrative procedures to fire Sewell. He appealed successfully, winning the right to a new trial-board hearing, but agreed to leave the force rather than go through another proceeding. Sewell recently died in an accident at Andrews Air force Base, where he had been assigned for duty with the Maryland National Guard.)

Other than Sewell, police department spokesman Matt Jablow says only three other officers–Jacqueline Folio, Scott Fullwood, and an unnamed member of the force–failed the 217 drug-related integrity stings staged by the department’s Internal Affairs Division since the beginning of 2000. The unnamed officer, Jablow explained, “struck a deal” and retired, so the department is unwilling to reveal his name.

“We’ve been doing 100 integrity stings a year for the last few years,” O’Malley explained, somewhat apologetically. “Some of them are targeted, a lot of them are random. Like everything else we do in this department, there is plenty of room for improvement as far as how we police our police. We’re doing more of it than we ever have. We have not come across that sort of beehive’s nest of every officer on a shift in a particular precinct [involved in corruption], like they had in New York, where they had a couple of celebrated cases. But [police Commissioner Kevin] Clark believes that we can do those targeted stings even more effectively than we have done them in the past.

“You don’t start a new effort like that and have it perfect overnight,” he continued. “And obviously from some of the problems that we had in some of those prosecutions [e.g., the Sewell case], it was pretty apparent that this was something new for us. But I had been somewhat surprised not to find more of that, given the way the drug trade took over big swaths of the city. But we’ll continue to be on the lookout for it and to improve the effectiveness of the investigations.”


In 1999, as O’Malley was running for mayor on an anti-crime platform, critics sometimes complained that he was a one-trick pony. Even his economic development ideas were built on crime-fighting. When asked during an interview that summer what the government’s role is in creating jobs and improving the business climate, for instance, he responded that “you do both of those things by first accomplishing job one of any organized government, which is public safety. I think there is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets.”

But there was more to his plan than boosting law-enforcement. It also involved “having a mayor more actively involved with our lending institutions and letting them know where opportunities exist in this city,” he continued, “where they can make a dollar and where they can help build this city again. Businesses, their knock on city government isn’t a whole helluva lot different than citizens. Nobody returns their phone calls and nobody listens. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Today, O’Malley likes to talk about the $1.6 billion in new construction that he says is underway in Baltimore. Apparently, by that measure, his one-two punch of crime-fighting and massaging the investing class has worked pretty well. While unemployment remains high–the June figure for the city was 8.8 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for the metro region and 4.3 percent for Maryland overall–that’s largely out of his control, given the national economic recession that took hold in 2000, just as he was getting traction as the new mayor.

“We haven’t taken as severe a hit to our overall job base [during this recession] as other cities,” says Anirban Basu, an economist who heads the Fells Point-based consulting firm Optimal Solutions. “And that’s a radical departure from the recession of the early 1990s, when Baltimore was a laggard in recovering compared to other cities, which tended to come out strong during the rest of the decade. A lot of people expected a repeat performance this time, and that never materialized.” Basu attributes that in part to the wealth in the region, which means more businesses and individuals qualify to take advantage of the historically low interest rates on bank loans: “That’s why we have had such a terrific housing market in Baltimore City, which has the cheapest housing stock in the region, so it is likely people are going to look there first for deals. And many would-be renters have been empowered to buy homes.”

Baltimore’s relative prosperity amid a recession is hard to attribute directly to O’Malley’s efforts. But his efforts have certainly helped. While several formal economic-development strategies have been conceived during O’Malley’s four years in office, two were much ballyhooed early on. First, and the one that was promised often during his 1999 campaign, was to leverage the power of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the federal law requiring banks to make loans in poorer neighborhoods from which they draw depositors. And the second, adopted after he gained office, was to grow the local technology industry in a drive that was dubbed “The Digital Harbor.”

It’s hard to quantify how effectively O’Malley has wielded the CRA to bring new investment to Baltimore. But the extent to which he’s succeeded at all is an achievement, because the CRA has become an increasingly impotent tool in recent years. The main trend that has weakened the CRA is the fact that national mortgage-lending companies have increasingly become the lender of choice for many homebuyers and for those refinancing their mortgages. Such companies generally do not have local branches where consumers make deposits, and thus are not subject to the CRA’s provisions.

So, while O’Malley talked a big CRA game during the 1999 campaign–saying, for instance, that he would use “that hammer of monitoring the banks and the threat that you’ll mess up their business and their ability to merge and do what banks like to do in this era”–his tone has been much more conciliatory toward the banks since he took office. “A lot more of our banks were more savvy [on the CRA front] than we had anticipated,” he explained recently.

Despite the CRA’s increasingly limited reach, several local banks that do take deposits from Baltimore have outstanding CRA ratings, and they’ve stepped up to the plate with sizable CRA-eligible loans for local development efforts. Most impressive has been the Bank of America, which, by O’Malley’s tally, has financed or invested in ongoing local projects to the tune of approximately $170 million.

And O’Malley can take credit for getting banks to help underwrite the efforts of the Community Development Finance Corp., a quasi-public lending institution that makes risky loans for redevelopment in low-income areas and that was riddled with scandal under Schmoke. “Quite frankly,” he explained, “many of [the banks] were very reluctant to do it unless we put better checks and balances in place to safeguard the value of their loans. But I had several one-on-one meetings with them and lots of phone calls, lots of lobbying, begging, arm-twisting. We changed the rules at CDFC in terms of giving the banks some greater voice in the loans that we make and some greater oversight. But we got the banks to re-up, and that was to the tune of $26 million that they put into the CDFC.”

In the heady early days of his administration, Digital Harbor quickly became the most heralded piece of O’Malley’s economic-development package. “Our working waterfront,” O’Malley proclaimed in an early-2000 speech before a large gathering of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that promotes results-oriented governance, “once again has become our port to a new economy with dozens of Digital Harbor companies filling revitalized space formerly occupied by manufacturing and warehouse equipment. We have made recruiting, supporting, and growing tech companies our highest economic-development priority because the Digital Harbor is Baltimore’s future.”

Digital Harbor was just getting up and running in 2000 when the tech-industry bubble burst. While little positive news has been heard about it since the tech collapse, local tech-industry leaders remain upbeat. “Baltimore City has done extraordinarily well” given the industry’s downturn, says Penny Lewandowski, who directs the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, a trade group based in the American Can Company complex in Canton. “I can name only three companies that did not survive–Cycle Shark, Gr8, and Tide Point LLC.” Her rosy take has required a slight shift in perspective. “Digital Harbor,” she explains, “is not just about companies that are exclusively technology, but how technology affects traditional businesses as well. So, did the mayor make the right bet? Absolutely.”

Basu gives a less optimistic appraisal of the tech industry’s status in the city today, but he backs Lewandowski’s basic conclusions. “The collapse hasn’t been quite the bloodbath it’s been nationally,” he says, pointing out that the large infusion of federal research dollars into the local economy and regional tech industry’s reliance on those federal contracts have helped. “Federal-government contracts account for about 40 percent of the state’s tech-industry revenues, versus about 10 percent in Silicon Valley.”

The main reason for tech’s resilience in Baltimore in the face of a national downturn, Basu says, is that Baltimore had less to lose than other cities. “Baltimore has not been a hotbed of private-sector technology in much of its history,” he explains. “It was late in coming to the table–and then, just as the momentum was building, the tech industry goes bust.”

O’Malley’s focus in the tech arena also has shifted since the tech collapse–from information technology and telecommunications, which were the hardest hit areas, to biotechnology, which is a less mercurial beast. “What we are trying to do,” he explained, “is to create the expectation that in our already fairly diverse economy, that we are ready and have the natural resources–the colleges and universities and research institutions–to be able to grow that sector of the economy which could be called the new economy. And I think our area, where we have greater strengths than others, is going to be in biotech.” To that end, the city is soon to become home to two biotechnology parks–one on the east side and affiliated with Johns Hopkins University; the other on the west side, being developed by the University of Maryland.

City government’s role in all of this is not so much “the bricks-and-mortar visibility,” O’Malley said, but work-force development–investing in programs that will prepare city residents to participate in the new economy. And he’s more than happy, along with his technology coordinator, Mario Armstrong, to recite a list of new initiatives. First and foremost, O’Malley and Armstrong explain, is the radical gain in the ratio of students to computers in the classroom. “We used to be at 10 to 1, now we’re at three-and-a-half to one,” Armstrong said enthusiastically. “That was us making it a priority,” O’Malley continues, “Carmen [Russo, the outgoing city schools chief] not fighting us on being involved in it, a million dollars of general funds, and 6,000 computers from the Social Security Administration, which we paid to have retrofitted.”

Armstrong’s list of other programs and accomplishments is long and sounds impressive. The Hewlett-Packard Digital Village program aims to train teachers to use computers and incorporate them into class curriculum so students learn in a tech-savvy environment. Digital Village Hubs, which are after-school centers that provide public access to computers, have been established at three locations on the east side. Many of the city’s public-housing projects now have computer centers, and about 1,200 people a month are using them. Five computer-oriented Youth Opportunity Centers have been opened around the city, giving children more occasions to use computers after school. And three Digital Learning Labs have opened, which provide computer-training courses that, in June, taught almost 500 people how to use the technology.

Whether all of this activity actually results in a more job-ready work force for the city’s still-fledgling new economy is the question. As Basu says of the city’s work force-development initiatives, “it will be interesting to see how well it works, but it’s good to see they’re trying.”

It’s less clear that the O’malley administration has been trying on another front where he promised progress when he first ran for mayor: maximizing budget efficiency by reducing the amount of money granted to contractors for “extra work” on city contracts. “I think there are areas where we spend too much [city] money,” he said during a campaign interview four years ago. “One of those is in the letting of public-works contracts through the Board of Estimates. I think that the additional work orders and the inflation on those contracts really needs to be checked.”

Just to be clear, we’ll call what O’Malley was talking about “contract add-ons.” They are routinely passed by the city’s five-member Board of Estimates, which approves much of the city’s spending on a weekly basis and which is controlled by O’Malley by virtue of his seat on the board, plus two mayoral appointees. When the board approves a contract add-on, they are granting city contractors payments in addition to the amount of the original contract. The payments were the subject of occasional controversy during Schmoke’s tenure at City Hall, based on suspicions that some such payments were unnecessary and wasteful. After O’Malley came into office, City Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr. in 2000 announced that, based on numbers he had obtained, the city had spent $99 million on such additional work in the previous five years–though he never completed his promised report on the problem.

Board of Estimates records of two three-year periods of city spending–1994-’96 under Schmoke, and 2000-’02 under O’Malley–reveal a mixed bag of progress on this front. While the board has granted fewer add-ons under O’Malley than they did under Schmoke and has reduced the number of contracts receiving additional work, the amounts granted have grown–especially when measured as a share of the total value of city contracts receiving additional payments. While the city spent $24.2 million on add-ons during the three-year period under Schmoke, it spent $27.4 million on such additional payments under O’Malley–and the add-ons’ share of the total value of contracts rose from 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent.


The mayor’s office provided alternative figures to City Paper, but they don’t square with the records of the Board of Estimates, which were the basis for City Paper‘s analysis and which are the only source available for the public to independently research city spending patterns. Raquel Guillory, the mayor’s chief spokeswoman, told City Paper the total value of contracts from 1994 through ’96 was $323,649,981, with add-ons comprising 8.4 percent of that total, while the figures for 2000 through ’02 were $379,340,369 and 7.2 percent, respectively. Thus, the O’Malley administration’s numbers show efficiency–add-ons as a percentage of total contract amounts–has increased under O’Malley, while City Paper shows greatly increased inefficiency under O’Malley.

City Paper asked Guillory to explain how city government arrived at their figures. She said that the city’s numbers were derived from the sum total of construction contracts that came before the Board of Estimates for contract add-ons. City Paper based its figures on the sum total of all city contracts–including everything from waste-water treatment improvements to consulting work to digital mapping of the city.

Guillory also explains that two projects worked on under the O’Malley administration–extensive and glitch-riddled contracts on the police headquarters building and Hopkins Plaza downtown–were held over from the Schmoke administration and made up for a large amount of the extra work passed by the Board of Estimates during O’Malley’s term. Also, O’Malley adds, city managers have “been trying to do a better job in terms of the degree of detail that’s in the contracts to begin with, when they go out for bid,” explaining that “if we put out better contracts, we might get the job done for less, without these expensive overages.” So far, the Board of Estimate records don’t reflect the improvements O’Malley suggested have had a money-saving effect, because both the amount and the share of additional work have risen markedly compared to the Schmoke administration in the mid-1990s.


In the heady days after winning the 1999 primary, O’Malley sat down with a reporter to discuss his victory. One of the many interesting facets of the story was the demise of the once-famous friendship between O’Malley and his longtime partner in politics, Lawrence Bell, whom he trounced at the ballot boxes. Bell, O’Malley believed, had messed up his electoral fortunes with a variety of missteps, but primarily by ditching his long-established political persona as an independent rebel and choosing instead to align himself with the established political forces behind Schmoke.

“I said,” O’Malley recalled in 1999, “‘Even if you are lucky enough to stumble into this thing backwards, you are not going to be able to usher in the sort of change the city needs by relying on the old warhorses. It won’t be possible.’ I said, ‘How you win also dictates how you are able to govern.’ I said, ‘If you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.'”

O’Malley’s 1999 mayoral campaign, in contrast to Bell’s, was marked by efficient fund-raising and spending, a hard-working and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from a panoply of state leaders, and support from an energized public. Like Bell, though, he relied on old warhorses–even older than Bell’s. Not Schmoke’s people (though many of them have since come into the O’Malley fold), but those of his father-in-law, state Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr., and those of State Comptroller (and former mayor and governor) William Donald Schaefer, whose long-loyal cronies turned up in thick numbers in O’Malley’s 1999 campaign and have been well represented in O’Malley’s brain trust. Among them are lawyer-advisor Richard Berndt and former deputy mayor Laurie Schwartz, who left O’Malley’s cabinet last winter after serving since he was elected.

If O’Malley’s advice to Bell was accurate–that “how you win also dictates how you are able to govern”–then O’Malley’s admirably well-run 1999 campaign would lead to overall good governance with fundamental reform limited by his reliance on “old warhorses.” Either way, O’Malley now sums up his first four years in office with the half-apologetic campaign slogan “Because Better Isn’t Good Enough.” And now it’s up to the voters to decide whether–given his record of improved school-test scores, more deadly violence in poor neighborhoods, limited success fighting police corruption, greater private investment and work-force development efforts, and inefficient city contracts–better was in fact good enough. We’ll find out when the votes are tallied.

Club Trouble: Redwood Trust for Sale After DWI Conviction of Owner, Murder of Manager

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 11, 2003


Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, owner of the posh downtown nightclub Redwood Trust, plans to sell the business to one of the club’s DJS for $350,000, according to a transfer-of-ownership application filed at the Baltimore City Liquor Board on June 3. The transfer proposal comes a month after Piscatelli was convicted of drunk driving in Baltimore City District Court, and six weeks after Redwood Trust manager Jason Convertino was murdered in an execution-style double homicide at his rented Fells Point home. Piscatelli appealed his drunk-driving conviction, and the murders remain unsolved.

On May 2, Piscatelli pleaded not guilty to driving while impaired by alcohol before Baltimore District Court Judge Askew Gatewood. The judge found him guilty and handed him a 60-day suspended sentence, supervised probation for one year, a $200 fine, and a 24-year alcohol restriction on his driver’s license. According to court documents, the lengthy alcohol restriction means Piscatelli is “to not drive a motor vehicle after having consumed any amount of alcohol.” Piscatelli appealed the conviction to Baltimore Circuit Court on May 29. While a drunk-driving conviction on a liquor-license owner’s record doesn’t look good, it is not sufficient cause for losing one’s liquor license, according to Liquor Board deputy executive secretary Jane Schroeder. “The only thing that is an absolute bar [to holding a license] is a felony conviction,” she says.

The 55-year-old Piscatelli also has a prior criminal record. In Howard County in 1996, he pleaded guilty to the possession of cocaine and driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and received probation. In the summer of 2001, Piscatelli sought twice to have his Howard County criminal record expunged and was denied both times.

As of press time, Piscatelli had not returned calls for comment. Attorney Peter Prevas is representing him on the drunk-driving appeal, and when asked if the conviction and the proposed Redwood Trust liquor-license transfer are related developments, he said, “I’m not aware of the transfer application, so I don’t know how to answer the question.” Melvin Kodenski, Redwood Trust’s Liquor Board attorney, declined to comment, saying, “Nick hasn’t authorized me to talk to anybody” about the pending application.

Other than Redwood Trust, Piscatelli has significant interests in Baltimore real estate. As he explained in a letter to the Liquor Board in 2000, he is a developer with a yen for investing in historic commercial properties–including the Jackson Towers in Bolton Hill and the Standard Oil building on St. Paul Place. One of his companies, American Dream Homes, won a contract in 2001 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to handle listings of HUD-owned properties in Baltimore.

The murder of 31-year-old Redwood Trust manager Convertino (pictured, above left) was discovered on April 16, when three friends kicked in the door to his residence at 1917 Gough St. and found two dead bodies: Convertino’s and that of 22-year-old Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right). A single bullet to the head had killed each. The crime has sent shock waves of concern through Baltimore’s nightlife community, and speculation as to the reason for the murders has been rife.

Convertino moved to Baltimore from Rockville last fall and, in addition to managing Redwood Trust, had recently started a nightlife promotions company called J. Michaels Entertainment. Previously, he had been owner or co-owner of several clubs in Binghamton, N.Y., according to press accounts there. Wisniewski, a Virginia resident, worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company based in Washington, D.C., that holds Saturday-night events at Redwood Trust.

Redwood Trust, housed in the historic Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust building on East Redwood Street downtown, has periodically been the subject of controversy since shortly after it opened in the fall of 2001. In December of that year, liquor inspectors raided the establishment for operating after 2 a.m., despite the fact that the city zoning board had given its approval for the club to remain open, alcohol-free, until 4 a.m. The early-morning raid, during which Redwood staff threatened and intimidated liquor inspectors, sparked a legal battle that still endures. The Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments in March, but has yet to issue an opinion on whether Redwood has the right to host after-hours dancing.

In February 2002, Redwood Trust made headlines again, when Baltimore Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary told police he was assaulted by patrons at the club and suffered a cut to his nose that required stitches. Within days, the Baltimore homicide unit, which investigated the case because of McCrary’s high-profile status, executed a search-and-seizure warrant at Redwood. Backing the homicide unit were members of the police vice squad, which seized small quantities of cocaine and other drugs at various locations inside the club. As a result of the drug find, the Liquor Board charged the club with a narcotics violation, but found it not guilty.

“The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” Liquor Board Commission Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the June 6, 2002, hearing on the narcotics violation, according to a hearing transcript. “There’s no question. Even though, whatever you call it–it’s not guilty. There’s no way that we can hold the licensee responsible for some drugs that were on the floor. Obviously, you got to be careful, your people are careful, you got to make sure they understand people can’t use drugs in your establishment. That’s it.”

In addition to the controversies surrounding the club and its owner, there is also some question about who, exactly, owns the club. From Redwood Trust’s earliest beginnings in 2000, Piscatelli has represented himself to the Liquor Board as the sole owner of the club and the real estate where it operates. The reality, as reflected in press accounts, Liquor Board documents, and interviews, is that Piscatelli appears to have partners in both the nightclub and the property.

The company that owns the building, 200 East Redwood St. LLC, purchased it for $500,000 in May 2000 and reportedly sunk at least another $1 million in improvements–work that last year garnered a historic-preservation award from Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation-advocacy group. Press reports and records in the Liquor Board files, however, reflect at least one other partner in the real estate: Paul Chrzanowski. In several Liquor Board reports on the club, inspectors reported that Chrzanowski represented himself to them as the property owner.

Chrzanowski also holds the liquor license for Club 2314 on Boston Street in Canton (formerly Fusion and, before that, the Spot) and owns 1722 N. Charles St., which houses after-hours club 1722. In the fall of 2001, 29 patrons were arrested at 1722 and police seized 41 bags of cocaine, 183 doses of Ecstasy, and 82 small plastic bags of the club drug ketamine. Michael Kohl, who has worked as a manager of Redwood Trust, runs 1722.

Redwood Trust LLC is the company that owns the nightclub. Piscatelli has repeatedly claimed 100 percent ownership of the company in Liquor Board documents. A brief conversation with the proposed new owner, Redwood DJ Leonard Kern–who formerly worked as manager for Chrzanowski at 2314 Boston St.–reflects otherwise.

“I’m presently one of the owners there,” Kern told City Paper on June 3, even though the transfer of ownership has yet to be approved by the Liquor Board. “I filed to be added to the license,” and Piscatelli is to be “taken off the license,” he explained before cutting short the interview and saying he’d call back after conferring with his attorney.

In a June 5 follow-up interview, Kern said, “It’s really nobody’s business” who owns the club. The transfer application reflects that Kern has put $5,000 down on the $350,000 purchase price, and that he will lease the building for five years at $12,000 a month–twice the $6,000 monthly rent the business was paying previously. Kern’s attorney, Melvin Kodenski, told City Paper that “it’s probably better to talk to the principals” about the proposed sale of the club.

The Liquor Board’s Schroeder says applications for transfers are made “under penalty of perjury,” so ownership information provided in the application is presumed to be true.

“It was always my understanding that Piscatelli was the 100 percent shareholder,” she says. Information to the contrary “suggests that the person has lied” in the application, she says, and “we would follow up” to ascertain whether that in fact happened.

If it were determined that ownership of the club was misrepresented, the Liquor Board could charge the club with a violation and bring it before the board’s commission for a hearing. When asked about Kern, Schroeder says, “I don’t think he’s shown up as an owner prior” to the pending application.

New York Boys: A Queens Gangster and His Attorney Visit Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2003


Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, notorious for his ruthless endeavors in the 1980s as leader of a $10-million-a-year drug organization that fueled a crack epidemic in public-housing high rises in Jamaica, Queens, came to Baltimore federal court June 2 for sentencing on firearms charges. McGriff, an ex-con, was arrested in Miami on Dec. 28 for possessing firearms, in violation of federal law, during repeated visits to a Glen Burnie shooting range.

McGriff (pictured, from Wikipedia) is a movie producer now, with a new straight-to-DVD gangster movie out, Crime Partners, based on a Donald Goines novel and featuring Hollywood stars Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. And he was recently revealed as the behind-the-scenes money and muscle of Grammy Award-winning hip-hop record label Murder Inc.

U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Motz, who is presiding over McGriff’s Baltimore gun case, has seen his share of high-profile defendants over the decades, but a Big Apple movie-and-music mogul in a Baltimore courtroom is a very rare bird.

Watching McGriff’s back in court was Manhattan lawyer Robert Simels, a veteran of nearly a quarter-century of famed defendants–from Italian mobsters and drug lords from the ‘hood, to international bankers and Russian gasoline bootleggers. Among his clients have been a few well-known Baltimoreans with New York connections. Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected former lieutenant of Melvin “Little Melvin” Williams‘ heroin hierarchy of the 1980s, has used Simels to fight everything from tax-evasion charges to city liquor-board infractions. Simels represented William “Little Will” Franklin–a drug trafficker who in 1987 was indicted with Phillip A. “Phil Boy” Murray, owner of O’Dell’s nightclub on North Avenue, on drug charges–when he faced new drug-dealing charges in the late ’90s. Antonio “Big Black” Howell, former head of the East Baltimore gang the Nickel Boys, also turned to Simels when the feds closed in on his outfit.

McGriff, on the other hand, is a New Yorker with Baltimore connections–and the little that is publicly known about those connections suggests that Simels is going to have his hands full defending McGriff.

McGriff–who is known to use two other names, “Ricky Coleman” and “Lee Tuten”–pleaded guilty in April to gun charges stemming from his repeated use of firearms at Select-Fire shooting range next to the Glen Burnie Mall off of Ritchie Highway between January 1999 and June 2001.

Federal convicts like McGriff, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term after his exploits in the Queens, N.Y., high rises, aren’t legally allowed to possess firearms or ammunition, yet a certificate from Select-Fire contained in court files reflects that, in August 2000, McGriff completed a “tactical handgun training course” with a “L.E. [law enforcement] Firearms Instructor” whose signature is illegible. The New York federal prosecutor, Tracy Lee Dalton, who was deputized in Baltimore to handle the case after McGriff’s December arrest in Miami, also asserts in a May 28 sentencing memorandum that “on a number of occasions the defendant utilized machine guns” at Select-Fire.

A recent City Paper visit to Select-Fire elicited a shocked reaction from owner Wayne Nowicki. “Where did you get this?” he asked when presented with a copy of McGriff’s training certificate from his establishment. When told it was from the federal courthouse, he exclaimed, “Got my balls up my asshole,” and asked the reporter to leave his shop.

Select-Fire is one of two Baltimore-area locations where prosecutor Dayton places McGriff. The other is a residence in the Red Run Apartments complex in Owings Mills, where two men from New York were gunned down in the parking lot on Aug. 20, 2001. Inside the apartment investigators found McGriff’s fingerprints as well as the Select-Fire certificate, “numerous items related to [Crime Partners],” a stolen handgun, about $30,000 in cash, and “a large quantity” of cocaine and heroin.

The official line on the Red Run double murder, which remains unsolved, is simply that it appears to be drug-related. Four months earlier, one of the Red Run victims, Karon Russell Clarrett, had been nabbed on Interstate 95 in Robeson County, N.C., with 2.3 kilograms of cocaine.

Federal authorities in New York have linked McGriff to violence in recent years, though he hasn’t been charged with any related crimes. “In one instance, McGriff directed co-conspirators to kill a drug associate who, agents believe, McGriff suspected of cooperating with the government,” according to an Internal Revenue Service affidavit, quoted in the May 17 Sun, filed May 12 in a New York federal forfeiture suit filed against McGriff’s assets. “In another instance, McGriff was involved with the shooting of another rap artist named 50 Cent.” The performer in question, 50 Cent, has been at the vortex of hip-hop-world violence: He’s been shot on two occasions and has made a name in part on his resulting street credibility.

At McGriff’s June 2 hearing, Judge Motz handed him a 37-month sentence, to be served consecutively with whatever term he receives for another gun charge pending in New York.

“There is absolutely no excuse for you to be anywhere near a firearm,” Motz admonished McGriff, concluding that the only reason for the defendant’s gunplay at Select-Fire was “to keep your skills up, and that says it all. Felons have no reason to keep their [gun] skills up.”

Before the hearing, Simels bantered with the press.

“It shouldn’t even be in violation of federal laws [for a felon] to be at a firing range,” he insisted. When he went before Motz, however, Simels changed his tune, pleading with the judge for a lighter sentence, acknowledging, “It was wrong for [McGriff] to go.”

“This is a lot of attention for a little case,” Simels remarked to the courthouse press corps. But the widespread attention to McGriff’s misdeeds in Baltimore is due to his newly publicized stature as a player in the rap world.

Since last December, when the New York Daily News first reported that a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn was zeroing in on McGriff and Crime Partners, McGriff’s role in Murder, Inc. has taken shape in the press in drips and drabs. The probe, begun in 2000, is prying into alleged financial ties between the drug world and the rap industry.

The federal forfeiture suit filed on May 12 in New York against McGriff’s movie company, Picture Perfect, alleges that since 1999 McGriff has been laundering drug money, including profits from his Baltimore operations, through the Crime Partners project. Murder Inc. promoted the movie while Def Jam Records produced the film’s soundtrack, according to the suit.

Other entertainment-industry players crop up in the complaint, including Raven Knite Productions of Los Angeles, which is said in the suit to be Crime Partners’ agent. The company’s roots are in producing 1990s music videos, including ones for Marion “Suge” Knight’s Death Row Records. It currently gets decent work on the Hollywood periphery. In 2001, for instance, Raven Knite snagged a production credit for Queens-based Transcontinental Records’ jump into the movie world, Long Shot, a movie that describes as “a teen comedy with cameos from Britney Spears, Lance from *NSync, KC [of the Sunshine Band], and Kenny Rogers.”

“In or about 2001,” the IRS forfeiture suit alleges, a package to Raven Knite was intercepted by authorities after it had caught the attention of drug-sniffing dogs. The package was from one of Crime Partners’ co-producers, Jon Ragin of New York, a man with a criminal history in the drug business who currently is facing credit-card fraud charges in connection with the Murder Inc. investigation. Inside was $5,000 in cash, wrapped in scented baby wipes–a tactic, the complaint alleges, that is frequently used by narcotics traffickers “to disguise the tell-tale scent of their narcotics proceeds.”

Attempts to reach Raven Knite for comment were unsuccessful. The company’s listed Los Angeles telephone number has been disconnected.

With the federal investigation of McGriff and Murder Inc. heading into courtrooms, Simels is handling spin control as the feds’ version of events seeps out of the court files and into press coverage. Simels has said repeatedly that while McGriff has an ugly past in the drug business, his present moneymaking endeavors in the entertainment industry are entirely legitimate.

And profitable, by all appearances. After McGriff’s Dec. 28 arrest in Miami on the Baltimore gun charges, a magistrate judge concluded that McGriff should be kept in detention because he presented a flight risk, in part because his billfold is fat. In addition to the small amounts of ecstasy and heroin found in McGriff’s wallet when he was arrested in a Miami hotel, the judge proclaimed that McGriff “has extensive financial resources.” Presumably, then, he can afford Simels’ pricey legal services–unlike some of Simels’ past clients, like Good Fellas mobster Henry Hill and New York Jets football player Ken O’Brien, both of whom Simels sued for failure to pay their bills.

Archie Bunker’s Taverns: Down in Curtis Bay, The Bars Say it All

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 12, 2003


The main drag of Curtis Bay enjoys what may be the city’s highest concentration of liquor establishments outside of Fells Point. Eleven bars, two social clubs, two packaged-good stores, and a strip club line a sliver of this historic neighborhood in the city’s industrial far-southern reaches. Its two north-south boulevards–Pennington and Curtis avenues, both one-way streets since the 1960s, after the nearby Harbor Tunnel was built–form an important portal for the city, one well-traveled by truckers and commuters. They also frame the neighborhood’s bar culture, where Curtis Bay’s long legacy is told over beer, cigarettes, and pool amid the sights and sounds of video poker, jukeboxes, and televisions.

An outpost among city neighborhoods, Curtis Bay feels the part. It’s been so since it first was developed by industrial interests at the end of the 19th century, when the B&O Railroad’s coal pier and car shops were built there–at that point the only major industrial investment along the city’s waterfront south of Fort McHenry. Before then, the area had been a quaint way station for farmers bringing produce and supplies to and from Baltimore. With a stroke of a pen in 1918, Curtis Bay was annexed to the growing city from Anne Arundel County, and has remained a hive of industry ever since–less job-heavy and less polluting now than during the peak spasms of 20th-century production, perhaps, but still humming at a steady clip.

Yet Curtis Bay in many ways is at odds with the rest of the city, and at times seems to rue its Baltimore citizenship. When lit up at night, the elevated conveyances that serve the piers form a gradually sloping “V” that is visible from downtown–a beacon marking the distance between Curtis Bay and the city at large.

The isolation, though, is far from complete. State Sen. George Della, who has represented Curtis Bay for two decades in Annapolis, says that back in its post-World War II heyday the area was a “very active, very vibrant community–even up into the ’70s. There were a ton of big employers there, and that’s why the bars prospered, because of all the workers.” In the decades since, Curtis Bay has been tossed about by the same problems that beset the city at large–violence, poor school performance, high poverty, high teen-birth rates, and child abuse and neglect, to name a few. Della notes that in recent years “a lot of effort has gone into chasing the hookers away and chasing the druggies away,” as well as “landlords who don’t maintain the homes.”

Despite the sometimes heart-wrenching reminders of these ills, Curtis Bay remains at home with itself. A tenuously comfortable order rules day-to-day life. Kids, white and black, can be seen playing in the neighborhood streets, careful to avoid the truck traffic. Relative calm and safety and an adequate measure of prosperity seem to prevail.

Originally created with downtown capital, Curtis Bay has always been bright on the radar screen of powerful interests. The plants, tank farms, and piers that give residents jobs also supply prodigious amounts of revenue both to industrialists and the government till, so the pull of politics is ever at Curtis Bay’s sleeve. The bar district, too, has its far-flung webs of influence.

Curtis Bay’s bars serve as a cluster of community gathering places, homes away from nearby homes. The timeworn tavern district makes perfect sense: to the east is an unbroken wall of industry, which still dips into the local labor pool, and to the west homes nestle on a quickly rising hill. Between work and bed, then, there’s always a corner pub. And there always has been since 1934, after Prohibition was lifted.

At Taylor’s 5000 Tavern, where a red-headed matriarch named Ann Taylor has been running the show since 1945, knowing patrons openly muse on the neighborhood. Many words are spoken, but the essential point is clear: In nearby Brooklyn it’s all about the churches, but here in Curtis Bay it’s all about the bars. And the smoky prism of the neighborhood’s saloons casts a colorful light on the neighborhood’s proud past and downtrodden but hopeful present.


The small Friday-night crowd in Pennington Station is split over whether it would be a good idea to warm up to a couple visiting members of the press. A bar mirror is hand-painted colorfully with the homely slogan there are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met, but it’s corollary–we’ll stay strangers if we never meet–seems the rule tonight. Credentials are checked, and a hushed debate ensues. A jolly, mustachioed fellow finally breaks the embargo and saunters up to introduce himself as Ray Reed, former oil-company service manager. “Born and raised” here, he says proudly as he sticks out his hand. “Sixty years in the neighborhood. What do you want to know? Ask me some questions.”

Reed hooks his thumbs in his belt loops and proceeds to explain the lay of the land. A rapid recitation of neighborhood trivia is followed by a call for yet more grilling: “What else do you want to know?” he implores, like an ace student who knows all the answers. This prompts an open-ender: “Well, what would you like to have a newspaper say about your neighborhood?” “It’s a nice area,” he says without hesitation. “This neighborhood’s good. Strictly Polish. The problem is when they tore the old buildings down and moved the blacks in. I’m not against blacks, but they move blacks in here. What are you going to do?”

Up Pennington Avenue at the Rave Inn, a younger, mixed-race crowd enjoys the jukebox, chatting and laughing in small groups as a few loners sip and smoke alone between trips to the video-poker machines. “Tainted Love” comes on, singing breaks out. Then a hip-hop song, and a few couples stand and dance around the pool table. A middle-aged white woman, alone at the bar, gets solitarily angry at the urban beat: “Songs for niggers to jig to, that all it is,” she says in a quiet, venomous monotone. When the pregnant pause between songs ends, the opening strains of “Stairway to Heaven” change the room’s mood entirely. The couples sit down again. The angry woman, suddenly happy, proclaims it a “good song” and proceeds to sing every word.

The issue of race is unavoidable in Curtis Bay. Racial diversity has been slow to come to the area–and in the heavily populated bar district, it’s only just begun to arrive. For the greater Brooklyn-Curtis Bay area, the demographic shift has been pronounced: The minority population comprised nearly a third of the population in 2000, compared to a 10th in 1990. In the 16 populated census blocks that make up the Curtis Bay bar district, however, the proportion of minorities–primarily African-Americans–increased from less than one percent to a mere 11 percent over the same period. (African-American residents of Curtis Bay approached for this article declined to comment; messages left with 6th District City Councilperson Melvin Stukes’ office were not returned by press time.)

Some of the more vocal white locals presume a cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of minorities and neighborhood decline (census data indicates that homeownership has dropped, while housing vacancies have soared). “I used to try to run them out, but I’ve given up–but I got friends who still do,” says one tavern habitué who asked not to be named. (“If you put my name in there, I’ll be shot tomorrow,” he explains with mock-seriousness.) The attitude seems akin to a generations-old blood feud: The fighting is long over, but it’s still a matter of pride and duty to express your traditional disdain. On a personal level, though, the bar scene seems to resemble the neighborhood as a whole: Reserved open-mindedness quickly turns to full-on affability once newcomers have proven themselves innocuous.

Down at the Eagle’s Nest on Curtis Avenue, a black man and a white man play game after amiable game of pool as they pull from their beers, and the round-robin at the shuffleboard-bowling table is integrated, too. The only sign of discord comes not from culture clash but from a broken car window up Curtis Avenue at Cheyenne’s, another neighborhood joint. “Somebody busted out my passenger window,” an irate guy with a beard roars as he bursts through the door. “Three hundred dollars. If it was a Grand Am or something, it would be $50. But it’s an El Camino. They don’t make that shit anymore. I just want to find somebody to hurt. But I can’t do that anymore. I ain’t going back to jail anymore.”


At Cheyenne’s Smokehouse Pub, a few police officers grab some grub near the kitchen door as a DJ plays country and rock tunes for a paltry Thursday-night crowd. The long menu lists standard pub fare, but the kitchen’s all out of most everything–steamed shrimp will have to do tonight. The pool table is jealously held by two one-on-one players who won’t accept a challenge, but the bartender is sweet and the DJ is friendly as can be: “Whatch’ya like? Country or rock ‘n’ roll? Both? How about some George Jones?”

A visitor would never guess that a friendly place like this would have once been a lair for a cocaine ring, but in 1995, when it was called Marty’s and under previous ownership, police seized 15 weapons and $10,000 in cash here as they arrested the owner and an employee for possession and distribution of drugs. The bust stands as a testament to how things have changed in Curtis Bay’s bar district. With notable exceptions, the storied walls of many local taverns have given way to fast-grab entrepreneurship–sometimes of the shady sort–after a long legacy of stable family ownership.

Before Cheyenne’s was Cheyenne’s or Marty’s or any of its other incarnations, it was Garpstas Tavern. From 1934 to 1980, sons and siblings of the Garpstas family held the liquor license. Anne Taylor, of Taylor’s 5000 Tavern, remembers it as a “stag bar” with no chairs to sit on–except in the dining area, where women were allowed. After 46 years of calm and stability under the Garpstases’ steady hands, the place became Archie Bunker’s Tavern in 1980. At the time, the CBS sitcom All in the Family had just become Archie Bunker’s Place, transplanting the show’s titular working-class angry white male out of the Bunker household and into the bar business; the new owners of the old Garpstas presumably were trying to capitalize on Hollywood. It stayed open as long as the sitcom’s brief run, collapsing in debt in 1984. City Liquor Board files reflect nearly 20 years of turmoil and confusion ever since.

The former Garpstas Tavern then became the Spiral Staircase, Joe’s Pub, Marty’s, and Chubby’s Pub before the Cheyenne’s sign went up a couple years ago. When Joseph Laumann owned it in the mid-’80s, Joe’s Pub was raided for illegal video-poker payoffs and suffered the indignity of a patron’s wallet being stolen by a prostitute. As Marty’s, when Michael Chiles and Betty Ellis were on the license, there was another gambling raid–plus busts for sales to minors, assaults, and a drug-dealing patron–before Chiles was arrested on dope charges in 1995. Since then, one man was picked up for assaulting the new licensee, another came in and threatened the bartender and two patrons, there was another bust for video-poker payoffs, and a disorderly patron broke the establishment’s glass door.

When the Garpstases ruled the roost, it was clear who the owners were. Since then, actual ownership of the bar has sometimes been hard to ascertain. Taylor says the three gentlemen on the liquor license when it was Archie Bunker’s Tavern were surrogates for a ghost owner. In 1986, in the aftermath of a gambling raid, according to Liquor Board files, “one Wilbur Martindale alleged he was the actual owner of the business although licensees and Board’s files do not reflect same.”

Martindale actually did own the property where Cheyenne’s operates–until last December, when it transferred to a company named after the pub’s address, 4314 Curtis LLC, which is headed by former Cheyenne’s licensee Paul Rothenberg. The new licensee, meanwhile, is listed in the Liquor Board files as “Gail P. Leslie,” whose listed residence in Brooklyn is co-owned, according to property records, by Gale Patrick Leslie and Carol Mosack–a former co-licensee with Rothenberg.

When Mosack and Rothenberg held the old Garpstas license in 2000 and 2001, the corporate owner was P. Roth Inc., a dissolved company whose affairs were wound down by attorney Frank Shaulis. Shaulis, of West Friendship in Howard County, is one of three licensees for Fantasies, the spacious strip club 10 blocks south on Pennington. Shaulis’ name also appears on the incorporation papers of Leslie’s newly formed company, Cheyenne’s Inc.–the current owner listed with the Liquor Board. Shaulis did not return calls for comment.


The twisted fate of the old Garpstas Tavern is a microcosm of the neighborhood at large: Many years of familiar faces and trusted connections have given way to a shaky era of rapid and complex change that challenges the old ways. Some places have stayed in clear, consistent hands for decades at a time, and thus exude a certain permanence and a strong sense of locality–much like segments of the local populace. Still others have been in a state of entropy from the start, switching hands and changing names at a steady clip for most all the decades since Prohibition. The stories of such bars weave Curtis Bay into a broad cloth of connections and characters.

The Fantasies liquor license has been tossed around like a hot potato. Taylor recalls that, until it became a strip club, the location had been “a colored place.” In 1934, it was called Brownie’s Café. Then, in succession, it became Chester’s Lunch, Lil’s Café, Andersons Inn, Bayard Lunch Room, Cleve’s Lounge, and Mingo’s. As Bay East in 1982, it first won approval for go-go dancers, and adult entertainment has been the staple ever since. Shaulis, listing a South Baltimore address as his residence, took over the license in 1991, calling it the House of Class. Two others–Marc Rosenberg of Owings Mills and Lorraine Cummings of Pikesville–joined him as it switched ownership in 1995 to Kimmico Inc., under which it was first called the Platinum Club, and now Fantasies.

Kimmico Inc. is a player in political circles, showing up in the campaign-finance reports of key state senators–George Della, in whose district the club is located, and Nathaniel McFadden, the chairman of the city’s Senate delegation. It also hires topnotch lobbyists from Semmes, Bowen, and Semmes to forward its interests in Annapolis.

Fantasies has high connections but has also seen its fair share of trouble under Shaulis. In 1995 the establishment was found guilty by the Liquor Board of prostitution, nudity, gambling, and selling to a minor. Most of the problems arose from a bull roast featuring naked dancers–although one was reported to be wearing Baltimore City police uniform shirt with an official baltimore police patch on the upper sleeves. Since then, the establishment has had a few reports to the Liquor Board–two assaults and a robbery in 2000–but only one guilty ruling in 2001 for illegal nudity.

But Shaulis is not the only figure behind Kimmico according to the paper trail. The company contact for Kimmico in the State Ethics Commission lobbyist list for 2002 is “Cal Brockdorff,” who also is resident agent for the company that owns high-dollar property where Fantasies sits–Jaguar Asset Management Inc. of Laurel. Jaguar purchased this prime piece of real estate for $750,000 in 1994.

Calvin T. Brockdorff is an intriguing character. In 1983, when he was 26 years old, he was arrested in D.C. with $1 million’s worth of cocaine, according to Washington Postcoverage of the bust. During the 1990s, he built a company called the National Fitness Network, which often does business as the Mid-Atlantic Fitness Network, signing up corporations and health insurers to offer discounted health-club memberships to their employees and customers. And in 2001, he briefly made waves in South Florida, where he opened Orbit, a 2,000-capacity nightclub, over the protests of the club’s posh Boynton Beach neighbors. The club is now called Ovation and is under new management, according to its Web site. Attempts to reach Brockdorff, including a faxed letter, were unsuccessful.

On the Fantasies liquor license, Shaulis lists his home residence as 1649 S. Hanover St., a property he and his wife own in South Baltimore. At that address is a pub, Covahey’s Tavern. A few blocks east, on Bend Street, is the Friendship Inn. Shaulis owned this, too, until he sold it in 1998 to Raymond Makarovich, who transferred it Monica Makarovich last year.

The Makarovich name is a familiar one in the Curtis Bay bar district. The patriarch, Raymond Makarovich, is said by locals to have passed away, but his offspring and in-laws continue the family tradition of owning bars, vending-machine companies, and racehorses–concerns that put them all over the map, not just in Curtis Bay.

Ann Taylor doesn’t charge a penny to play songs on the jukebox at Taylor’s Tavern. “Don’t need a license for it because I don’t charge,” she explains. She says she got it years ago from Makarovich: “He owed me $500, so I just kept the jukebox.” Where the license would normally be displayed is a business card, browning with age: Cadillac Amusements, 3729 S. Hanover St. The address is for Norma Jeans, a bar in the heart of Brooklyn’s business district that is still in the Makarovich family. Cadillac Amusements is gone, but a new Makarovich vending-machine company, DRM Inc., is alive and well at that address, and dutifully paying its political dues by contributing to Sen. Della’s campaign coffers.

The Backstretch, the Rave Inn, and the now-defunct Sports Inn (whose license now belongs to a packaged-goods store on Pennington, the Soda Pop Shop) are all Curtis Bay establishments to which the Makarovich family has been tied through Liquor Board records. Outside of Curtis Bay, the Makarovich name is on the properties where the venerated Scallio’s (now called the Hollins Street Pub) sits in Sowebo. And over near the Westside Shopping Center on South Bentalou Street, a Makarovich is on the liquor license for Rosie’s Pub, whose property is owned by Joseph Laumann, the former licensee of the old Garpstas Tavern when it was Joe’s Pub.

The picture that emerges is one of a fiefdom–a city enclave where power courses through the hands of a few local burghers who have surprising and far-flung ties to the larger world. Shaulis and the Makaroviches are obviously well-connected people. Theodore Sanford, the owner of another Curtis Bay establishment, is, too. The Sanford name appears on a number of liquor licenses over the years, and local community activists say they are going to keep a close eye on the newly added second floor of his bar, Thumpers. He maintains the addition will contain office space, but more than a few locals murmur suspicions about what the red light out front suggests about the true nature of the expansion.

Between them, Shaulis, Makarovich, and Sanford appear to have a lot of pull. Their supporters say that’s good. “If you need something taken care of, they can take care of it,” one barfly who’s friends with Sanford says. But others in the neighborhood question the wisdom of having a strip-club lawyer, a poker-machine man, and a bar owner broker so much of the local power.

It would be nice to know what the old owners of Garpstas Tavern would have to say about the changes in Curtis Bay bar scene since their bygone era of seatless stag bars, when pubs tended to stay the same for decades and you always knew who was in charge. But the last of Garpstas Tavern’s owners, Anthony Edward “Cookie” Garpstas, a World War II veteran and Curtis Bay native, died at 85 last year, having spent his final years in Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County.


At Annie’s Pub–a glistening, newly renovated place on Curtis, rebuilt after an extensive fire–owner Anna George has called the shots since 1964, and other members of her family did so before her. On a Friday afternoon, the bartender, Diane Smith, keeps up a good-natured banter with two regular patrons, Jack Allman and Mike Kitchner. George is napping, but those on hand are more than happy to share their thoughts about the neighborhood.

“Years ago you could leave your doors open down here,” says Allman. Those days are long gone, he explains, and goes on to tell a story about almost running over a prostitute on a recent, freezing cold night. “Must’ve been some kind of pimp to have her working in that cold,” he remarks, adding that “all those streets used to be cobblestone” in Curtis Bay. “Wouldn’t that be nice if they still were,” Smith chimes in with a chuckle. “The hookers would have a hell of a time walking the streets.”

Crime, while bad, is not as threatening now as it was only two years ago, explain two patrons of Taylor’s who asked that their names not be used. “A guy was shot dead, right in the head, across from my house two years ago,” says one. “He was a druggie anyhow. Deserved it,” the other retorts, adding that “things have gotten better since. There have been a lot more patrols–thanks to our mayor. You gotta give credit where credit is due. And these undercover narcs have been working hard. Let me put it this way–they’re good at their jobs.”

At the Gas Light, a stack of community newsletters sits on the bar. The “Eyes on Crime” section lists Curtis Bay police data for November 2002. Here’s the bar district’s tally: four aggravated assaults, a burglary, two thefts, and a stolen auto. With a new Communities on Patrol block-watch program getting started, hopes are high that a heightened sense of community-driven safety will prevail.

Either way, there’s still Taylor’s Tavern, where the same ornamental paper bell that was hung for the grand opening in 1945 hangs from the ceiling today, dusty and fragile but unmoved and unchanged except by age for almost 60 years. The old-timers, who gather here to talk about the news and the neighborhood and the glory days, play video poker before putting in early. They seem much the same as that paper bell–unmoved, unchanged for years, and quite content.

Ann Taylor, remembers putting up injured veterans on cots on the pub’s floor after WWII. She remembers visits from late mayor and governor Theodore McKeldin and late state Sen. Harry McGuirk–baseball great Micky Mantle even paid a call once. And she remembers Sen. Della as a youngster. “He used to run with my son, Lindy,” she explains, chuckling as she tells a few anecdotes. The only trouble the bar has ever been in, according to Liquor Board records, was connected to politics; under previous ownership in 1936, alcoholic beverages were served on Election Day–an illegal act then, drawing a $25 fine plus administrative costs. That’s a long time to keep a bar’s nose clean.

Taylor’s “workshop”–the kitchen–is open for lunch and dinner and is known for serving the fattest fried-oyster sandwiches around. And the beef-and-noodle soup is homemade, right down to the noodles.

“I’m chief cook and bottle washer,” Taylor says. “It’s all family here–the same old place, the same old people.”