The Doctor Is In: Schmoke Inches Toward His “Medicalization” Approach to Drug Reform

IMG_8119

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 13, 1994

With two recent political and legislative breakthroughs for Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore is becoming a model city for drug reform. In March, a $2.3 million federally funded Substance Abuse Treatment and Education Program (STEP), or “drug court,” began diverting nonviolent drug criminals from prisons to treatment programs. And on April 5, the Maryland State legislature passed a bill exempting Baltimore City from certain drug-paraphernalia laws and approving funding for a needle-exchange program called the AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. In a reversal of his earlier stance, Governor William Donald Schaefer supported the bill and is expected to sign it. The success of these two initiatives is a major priority for Schmoke, who is out to prove that what he calls a “medicalization” approach is the best solution for our multiple woes of drugs, crime, and AIDS.

The drug court and the rest of Schmoke’s immediate drug-reform measures appear to enjoy wide support here in Baltimore City. The City Council is almost unanimously behind the mayor’s initiatives. Baltimore’s public-health and drug-treatment providers, who stand to gain funding and stature from the initiatives, also generally approve of them. The new police commissioner, Tom Frazier, says needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment will make his job easier. And of course Baltimore’s heroin and cocaine addicts – who make up about six percent of the population, according to Bureau of the Census figures – are all for it.

In fact, one gets the impression that the mayor’s local drug-reform agenda has been falling into place with relative ease. People tend to see needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment as almost clinical prescriptions for treating the symptoms of the drug crisis.

It is Schmoke’s national long-term drug policy, with its overtones of decriminalization, that has attracted strong and vocal opposition.

By now, everybody knows that Schmoke advocates some form of drug decriminalization. To a lot of people, that strategy sounds so radical on the surface that they aren’t very interested in the details. For example, Lieutenant Leander Nevin, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, says the bottom line is that Schmoke “wants to legalize drugs and give away free needles,” and asks sarcastically, “It’s socialism, right?”

To Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, the details of decriminalization are insignificant compared to the impact of even talking about it. He sees a direct correlation between rising drug use in high schools and the whole debate over decriminalization, which Schmoke has persistently publicized for six years now.

“I think this whole discussion is more hurtful than helpful,” Gimbel says. “I have to deal with the kids today who believe in legalization only because the mayor or the rap group Cypress Hill said so. For the last ten years we have seen major decreases [in drug use] and changes of attitude. Now all of the sudden these kids are changing the way they looking at [legalization]. I have to deal with that, and I blame it on the legalization debate.”

Barring some undetected tectonic shift in public opinion over the last six years, Nevin and Gimbel are right in line with most Marylanders’ opinions of legalization. In 1988, The Evening Sun contracted a public-opinion research firm to survey a random sample of Marylanders over 18 years old to ask them whether they support drug legalization. The results were basically the same for Baltimore as for the whole state: less than 20 percent were for legalization, and more than 70 percent were opposed to it.

In spite of this opposition, Schmoke has high hopes for his long-term, national strategy, which he clearly does not want associated with the term legalization.

“My approach is not legalization, that is, the sale of drugs in the private market,” he told an audience of doctors and nurses at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in March. Rather, he proposes lifting a corner of the current blanket prohibition on illegal drugs by drawing addicts into the public-health system, where they could be maintained, if necessary, using drugs made available through a government market.

“The government, not private traffickers, would control the price, distribution, purity, and access to particular substances, which we already do with prescription drugs,” Schmoke told the audience. “This, mind you, would take most of the profit out of street-level drug trafficking, and it is the profits that drive crime. Addicts would be treated and, if necessary, maintained under medical auspices. In my view, street crime would go down, children would find it harder, not easier, to get their hands on drugs, and law-enforcement officials would concentrate on the highest echelons of drug-trafficking enterprises.”

Schmoke’s zeal for reform is coupled with a hardened distaste for drug prohibition.

“Drug prohibition is a policy that has now turned millions of addicts into criminals, spawned a huge international drug-trafficking enterprise, and brought unrelenting violence to many of our urban neighborhoods,” Schmoke said. “It was a flawed strategy when it began, and it is still a flawed strategy now.”

Legalization or not, the mayor’s approach is roundly dismissed by people who think any fiddling with drug prohibition would, as a sociobiologist might say, damage the antidrug “chromosomes” that have been grafted into society’s DNA sequence over the last few generations. One such person is Dr. Lee P. Brown, the director of President Clinton’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. In a statement on drug legalization last December, after U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that legalization would reduce crime, Brown commented that “[a]ny change in the current policy of prohibiting drug use would seriously impair antidrug education efforts, drug-free community programs, drug-free workplace programs, and the overall national effort to reduce the level of drug use and its consequences.”

Local opposition to Schmoke’s call to change national drug laws is every bit as pointed as the Washington establishment’s. Gimbel protests that decriminalization “is a real intellectual pipe dream, and it scares me because the mayor is very articulate in selling this program.” City Councilman Martin O’Malley, of the Third District, thinks it “just amounts to so much more intellectual bullshit.” Joyce Malepka, founder of the Silver Spring antidrug lobbying group called Maryland Voters for a Responsible Drug Policy, says, “There is no intellectual argument about legalizing drugs because anyone who is that short-sighted isn’t really experienced, and if that is the case, then there is certainly no business talking about it.”

One objection that Schmoke’s medicalization opponents make is that a prescription-based drug-treatment system for addicts would be ripe for abuse. Steve Dnitrian, vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, in New York City, argues that legal drugs are already abused and a wider array of them would lead to greater use and abuse.

“Take a look at the drugs that are already regulated medically, such as Valium,” Dnitrian says, by way of illustration. “Are they abused? Heavily. Medicalization would be the same thing. You would just be adding a couple of more flavors to the vast array of products we have right now to alter reality. If you make available a product that is not readily available, it is going to get used. Even people who favor decriminalization acknowledge that drug use would go up dramatically.”

Still, Schmoke has so far managed to buck the antidecriminalization establishment and remain in office. How has he done it?

One explanation is that his drug-reform strategy is multi-faceted and comprehensive, so many who oppose him on decriminalization or needle exchange agree with many of his other drug-reform ideas. For instance, his crusade for drug treatment on demand and the creation of drug courts is lauded from all corners, including by Malepka and Gimbel, President Clinton, and the antidrug advertising venture Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Schmoke hasn’t got this far by smart policymaking alone, however. Part of it was political drive: he is on the line with this medicalization talk, so he has been campaigning hard to prove his is right; if he can’t, he risks losing legitimacy with the public. Frank DeFillipo, a political columnist for The Evening Sun, says, “Schmoke has a lot to defend. He is going to have to go out and defend that issue in the mayoral race, and there are compelling arguments against what he is advocating.”

On the mayor’s side are a significant number of individual legislators, doctors, lawyers, judges, and religious leaders – powerful people with connections to organizations that can effect change. Schmoke feels that the average voter may also be coming around to agree that we need a new strategy against drugs, crime, and AIDS, and that medicalization should be given a sporting chance. Depending on how he plays this issue during the upcoming mayoral campaign, Schmoke may bet his future in political office on that perceived trend. He has been making every effort to swing the Zeitgeist around. Given the poll-pending strength of his supporters, he just might be able to do it.

“My sense is that the majority of Baltimoreans may disagree with my conclusion about the need for medicalization and decriminalization,” Schmoke acknowledges, “but that they agree that I should raise this issue and am glad that I didn’t change my mind. And the overwhelming majority of people believe that the current approach is not working, but they are not sure which way we should go.”

Schmoke hopes to make medicalization an asset at the polls by plugging the effectiveness of the needle-exchange program and the drug court, although he is not sure the results will be in by election time. To bolster his position, he says he will stump medicalization as effective in its own right but even better when combined with community development and community policing initiatives.

“All those things add up to positive impacts,” Schmoke says, “and that is what I’m hoping will happen in the communities.”

Schmoke is confident that all of his attention to detail will pay off politically, because he is well prepared to discuss and defend his proposals. In short, he has a plan, so the burden of proof is on the opposition to propose a better one.

“I think that if somebody is going to raise it as an issue in the election and be critical of my positions,” Schmoke challenges, “then they are going to have to have an alternative, a substantive alternative that will be attractive to the citizenry.”

Mary Pat Clarke, Schmoke’s challenger in next year’s mayoral race, does not plan on making medicalization an issue in the election.

“It is not a local issue,” Clarke points out. “It can’t be solved locally. The real issue is the here and the now and the livability of Baltimore City. If it is an issue in the mayoral race, it will be so only because [Schmoke] makes it one.” The bottom line to Clarke is that medicalization “is not something that we can do [on a local level], it is only something that we can talk about,” and too much talk means too little action. “You can’t use these discussions as an excuse to abandon the treatment programs that exist today,” Clarke argues.

She has particular misgivings about Schmoke’s new STEP, or drug court, program, which has already enrolled more than a dozen addicts and plans to divert 600 nonviolent drug criminals to treatment in its first year. Although she supports the initiative, Clarke fears that the city’s troubled drug-treatment system is ill equipped to handle the new program.

“To talk about a drug court without a rehabilitated and refunded treatment system,” Clarke asserts, “is just to create another level of logjam, frustrations, and problems. Expanded and improved treatment is an imperative before we create a drug court and an entire new system that would fall to pieces without the backup required.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Stuart O. Simms, however, points out that funding for the STEP program will cover drug treatment for participants. Also, by freeing up prison space and court dockets, Simms estimates that “in one year, the cost savings of such a program will be $1.8 million.” This money can help fund an expanded treatment system.

IMG_8123

The STEP program is modeled after the drug court in Miami, where only about one in 10 participants have been rearrested during the year following their treatment. To better the chances of the defendants’ success in beating the monkeys off their backs, the STEP program, in addition to drug treatment, provides job training, academic services, life-skills programs, job placement, and other support. It is a one-stop shop for getting your act together. All you have to do is get arrested.

Richard Farr, a cocaine addict, says people might do just that in order to get the treatment they need.

“There are a lot of people out there now who want to get into a drug program, but they can’t,” observes Farr, “so I guess you got to get caught to get into a program. It doesn’t seem right, but it sounds like that’s what you got to do.”

State’s Attorney Simms urges addicts tempted to take this route to “contact the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems [the city’s treatment referral system] and try to see if they can get involved through the city health department. That is painstaking, that is slow, and I agree that the answer is insufficient.”

Mary Pat Clarke is more optimistic about the mayor’s AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. The $160,000 program is designed for 750 to 1,000 intravenous-drug-using participants, who will be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones on a one-for-one basis. Another $250,000 has been dedicated for approximately 100 drug-treatment slots reserved for needle-exchange participants. Schmoke expects a needle-exchange program in Baltimore to have results similar to one in New Haven, Connecticut, where needle exchange is credited with a one-third decline in the rate of new HIV infections.

“From a public-health perspective, it is rational,” says Clarke. “Like most of us, I obviously have my concerns about the message it sends, but I think that the public-health issues are imperative. I hope that it will be successful in Baltimore City.”

Baltimore City police commissioner Tom Frazier agrees that “needle exchange is a good thing both in terms of human suffering and public-health costs.”

Clarke and Frazier are joined in support of needle exchange by many experts in the medical community. The Baltimore City Medical Society and the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the city and state medical societies, respectively, are both behind the measure as a way to control the spread of AIDS without increasing drug abuse. And Dr. Michael Fingerhood, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and medical director of the Detox Inpatient Unit at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, says, “Most of the people in primary care who take care of people with HIV without a doubt are in favor of needle exchange.”

Dr. David Vlahov, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, who has been studying the natural history HIV infection among about 600 HIV-infected IV-drug users in Baltimore since 1988, is a fervent supporter of needle exchange. Vlahov points out that there are 39 needle-exchange programs operating in the United States, that there have been numerous studies of needle exchange, including studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. General Accounting Office, and that the results are favorable.

“Looking across the date from a variety of different studies,” Vlahov said as he shared the Hopkins stage with Schmoke in March, “the results have been that needle-exchange programs do not encourage people to start drug use, they do not encourage current drug users to inject more frequently, they do not encourage former users to restart drug use, and they do not encourage needle sharing. So a lot of these concerns that people have had are thwarted by the data that have come forth from these studies.”

IMG_8124

The Governor’s Executive Advisory Council, which advises and reports to Governor Schaefer on public-policy issues, just plain disagrees. Last spring it submitted a “Presentation in Opposition to Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs” to the Governor’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, the body responsible for helping to form and implement the governor’s drug-and-alcohol-abuse policies. The report concludes that the evidence on needle exchange is shaky, and “the real risk of doing real harm is too great.”

The council argues, based on what its chairman, Marshall Meyer, calls “a lot of data, research, study, and common sense,” that need-exchange programs are not safe. The list of risks include sending the wrong message about drug use, causing increased drug use and conversion to injection drugs, assisting criminal behavior, subverting drug-treatment efforts, and increasing the likelihood of “needle stick accidents.”

The council also questions whether needle exchange will work. Focusing just on needles, the report points out, overlooks the roles that other injection paraphernalia and that unsafe sex play in transmitting HIV.

“Facilitating drug use, through the provision of needles, is not likely to result in safe sexual behavior,” the report states, so it concludes that needle exchange may exacerbate the spread of sexually transmitted HIV. Finally, the council noted “that needle exchange programs are having very limited success in reaching, and even less success in keeping, the highest risk users.”

Some representatives in Baltimore’s City Council are concerned not only about mixed messages regarding condoning drug use, but also that the needle-exchange program won’t work. Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, of the Second District, feels that “the concept is okay, if addicts would turn the needles in and use clean needles, but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think addicts are responsible enough to do that.”

Councilman Nick D’Adamo, of the First District, agrees: “Needle exchange is iffy to me, because if a drug user on the corner is going to shoot up, I don’t think he’ll be looking for a clean needle. I think he is going to use whatever is there at the time.”

Tony Whiting, an IV-drug addict living in a homeless shelter run by Street Voice, an advocacy group for addicts, thinks the council members are wrong on this score.

“People will use brand-new needles if they have them,” Whiting insists. “Even the ones who don’t care want to use brand-new needles because they are easy to use, they don’t clog, and it makes the whole process a whole lot easier. Any addict would rather have a brand-new set than something used any day.”

Fellow Street Smart denizen and drug addict Richard Farr basically agrees with Whiting.

“Not everybody will go to get a clean needle every time, but the majority of them would,” he predicts. “Maybe if there was a place where they could go to get clean needles, then a lot of [needle sharing] would be eliminated. Not all of it, but a lot of it would.”

Whether addicts will use the program is not the issue for some people; the issue is the extent to which the needle exchange amounts to legalization.

“It’s a bizarre thing to do,” Joyce Malepka says. She argues that “it’s Draconian to give someone who injects heroin needles to continue that process. We see it as a giant step toward legalization.”

IMG_8125

Mary Pat Clarke feels that for now, Schmoke’s visions may be delusions.

“If he can help to improve and enlarge the treatment system in Baltimore City, I would support that,” Clarke says, “but the council has been looking at the current programs and is beginning to meet with [drug treatment] providers and explore the gaps. The providers are out there, underfunded and struggling to survive and handle their caseload, and it is a system in crisis. They are overloaded, they are underfunded, and the city has failed to supply an adequate system of coordination to really assist.”

At least part of the problem is the miniscule amount of funding that comes from the city itself for drug treatment: the figure hovers around $150,000 per year, or about one percent of the total drug-treatment budget for Baltimore City. Because of this meager contribution, some people believe that Schmoke is merely canting when he calls for more treatment.

“He’s been talking like this for so many years,” Michael Gimbel says, “but how much money has he put in his budget to back up his word that he really believes in treatment? Baltimore City gets millions right now from the state for drug treatment, and the city puts virtually nothing in. Yet he wants to go to Annapolis and say, ‘My top priority is needle exchange.’ Why isn’t his top priority treatment for everybody? That is hypocrisy. That is politics, so I can’t respect that.”

Politics or not, if Schmoke manages to get 10,000 new federally funded treatment slots, it will be a coup for the beleaguered Baltimore treatment community.

According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” published by the Abell Foundation, which has funded or carried out many studies about local issues for the city government, “drug treatment experts in Baltimore City suggest that the number of treatment slots needs to be increased, conservatively, by three-fold.” Since there are currently 5,300 treatment slots, Schmoke’s proposal would almost meet the target.

The mayor is seeking a meeting with Clinton Administration officials to discuss his drug-treatment proposal. In the meantime, alternative funding may be found from two other federal sources: Clinton’s crime bill, if passed by Congress, will provide more money for drug treatment, and U.S. Attorney Janet Reno has created a new block-grant program that can be used for either policing or drug treatment.

“Both of those together don’t make up ten thousand [treatment slots],” Schmoke says, “but they would allow us to almost double the number of slot that we have now.”

Despite Schmoke’s optimism, the operable word when it comes to expanded federal funding for drug treatment in Baltimore City is if. And if Schmoke doesn’t produce the proposed treatment slots, then Baltimore’s addicts will continue queuing up on the treatment waiting list and continue to rob, steal, smoke, and shoot up until they can get effective treatment for their disease. According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” on any given day there are about 730 addicts on the treatment waiting list, and only one out of 10 Baltimore substances abusers who want help can get it.

Since 1988, when Schmoke opened a national debate over drug decriminalization, he has done his fair share of talking about providing the help addicts need. Now he has started to take steps to do something about it. He is determined to prove that his medicine works, and if he stays in office another term, Baltimore is destined to be the testing ground.

Schmoke, casting himself as the good doctor, has donned the white lab coat and drawn up the syringe, and Baltimore, gravely ill from the combined effects of drugs, crime, and AIDS, is rolling up its sleeve to take the dose. But will the good doctor find a vein?

 

Homicide, Revisited: Two Men Want Detectives Made Famous by David Simon to Pay After Flawed Murder Convictions Put Them in Prison for Decades

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

James Owens is angry.

“I get pissed off every time I think about this,” the 53-year-old from Southeast Baltimore declares, sitting at a conference table in his lawyer’s office. “I don’t trust the cops,” he says, his glasses only slightly shielding the fury in his eyes, a thin mustache punctuating his vehemence. “Never have, after this happened, and I never will. I hate them.”

Looking at Owens, hearing his Baltimore accent stridently utter those words, it’s clear he’s simply telling it like it is. Twenty years in prison before being cleared of a murder conviction will make a man mad.

But Wendell Griffin, a 62-year-old also at the lawyer’s office meeting, is not the least bit angry. His bald pate rests smoothly above his kind face and soft eyes, a wispy gray beard on his chin. Griffin appears to be a gentle soul, and it seems perfectly natural for him to wax calmly and philosophically about his experience: “If the good Lord does things in such a way that I don’t even understand it,” he says, “then I just keep my faith and I move forward.”

 

Clarification: Neither of the murders for which James Owens and Wendell Griffin were wrongfully convicted occurred in 1988, and thus neither were mentioned, much less covered, in Homicide.

Around the Block: The Colorful Past, Controversial Present, and Uncertain Future of Baltimore’s Red-Light District

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 2, 2000

Our values have changed,” Joanne Attman proclaims.

Attman and her husband, Ely Attman, own the building at 425 E. Baltimore St., and are thus the landlords of Club Harem, a strip club in Baltimore’s red-light district, the Block. “There’s nothing wrong with sex,” she says in a telephone interview. “There just isn’t. It’s an adult thing, and as long as it stays an adult thing, that’s all that’s important.

“You know,” she continues, “we’ve come a long way, and people do not view sex as a bad thing if they can do all that’s on the Internet, do what they do on TV, and on the phone. So, as far as the Block, the Block is benign.”

The Attmans, like most of the owners of Block property and businesses, do not live in Baltimore City. Their abode, most recently assessed at more than $225,000, is in a new development in Pikesville. Being a nice, suburban couple, the Attmans probably don’t often come down to the Block and look around; as Joanne Attman says, “We don’t really pay any attention to it.” Like most landlords, they just get a check from their tenants and make the necessary improvements to their property. End of story.

But if the Attmans were paying more attention to what’s happening on the Block, they’d know that its problems have little to do with the morality of sex among adults. The area is besieged by negative publicity over drug dealing, prostitution, employment of underage dancers, and the threatening atmosphere some civic and business leaders contend the Block creates in the middle of the downtown business district.

If they were paying attention, the Attmans would know that last May four pipe bombs were found and defused in the Diamond Lounge, a few doors down from their Block property. They’d know that a club next door to their building, the Circus Bar, was ordered to sell its liquor license last October after a former doorman, convicted of dealing drugs from the club, told the Baltimore City Board of License Commissioners (aka the liquor board) that he thought it was “part of my duties” to sell cocaine from the bar. They’d know that in July 1998, the 408 Club was cited by the liquor board for employing two 16-year-old Baltimore County high-school students as dancers and using three rooms above the bar for prostitution. And they’d know that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. (For a fuller accounting of Block property owners and the records of businesses there, see “What’s Around the Block”.)

But Joanne Attman doesn’t want to hear about it. “That’s ludicrous,” she says of the idea that a Block employee considered drug dealing part of his job. “You can go anywhere and buy drugs anywhere in the city. You can buy them at school. They’re being sold everywhere. So to focus in on the Block is absolutely ludicrous.” She is adamant that the action on the Block is essentially harmless: “You know, most of the people down there are there to make a living and that’s what they’re doing–a clean living.” With that, the interview ends abruptly.
The way people make their living on the Block isn’t causing ripples just in City Hall and law-enforcement circles; it is fast becoming a divisive issue within the red-light district’s business community itself. Today, two separate entities–Baltimore Entertainment Center Inc. (BEC) and Downtown Entertainment Inc.–claim to represent the interests of Block businesses. Both groups, at least on the face of it, share the same goal: to clean up the Block’s act so that its businesses can work with city leaders to promote the district as a destination for tourists and conventioneers. But their respective members don’t see eye to eye on how to achieve that aim, according to Block sources.

Today, Baltimore Entertainment Center is effectively defunct, although it is still recognized by many on the Block as an ongoing concern. BEC was formed in February 1997 and until a few months ago was represented by Baltimore attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, a confidant of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. At the time the group was launched, Hitchcock said it represented a “new breed of owner and operator on the Block” that is “trying to become better citizens and better neighbors.” Hitchcock resigned as BEC’s attorney in September; the following month, the group forfeited its right to operate in Maryland due to its failure to file property-tax returns–a rectifiable situation, should the taxes be brought up to date. (Attempts to speak with Frank Boston III, reportedly BEC’s new attorney, were unsuccessful.)

Days after Hitchcock left BEC, Downtown Entertainment was formed, with Hitchcock as its lawyer and Jacob “Jack” Gresser–the owner of the Gayety Building, a Block landmark, and another former BEC guiding force–as president. Gresser says Downtown Entertainment wants “to go in the direction of a partnership with the city, in respect of getting involved in the conventions that are coming to town, where the city will advertise these particular businesses in their convention brochures and throw the business our way, if possible.” Ultimately, Gresser says, he wants the Block to become like Bourbon Street, New Orleans’ famous playground of vice. So far, eight to 10 of the Block’s two dozen adult-entertainment establishments have joined the new group, he says.

Gresser says the splintering of BEC occurred over the course of last year, culminating about six months ago–“That’s when we decided to go our different ways.” While he’s loath to speak for those who haven’t joined Downtown Entertainment, he says there are “two distinct, different views of how people want to run their business down on the Block. Everybody runs their business differently. Everyone has a responsibility to run their business properly. I would just like to see everyone get together and go in one direction. We really don’t need this diversification.”

That “diversification” has created to some bad blood. “This has not been a walk in the park,” Hitchcock says. “I mean, I’ve gotten calls here in the office on my voice mail, you know, the use of the ‘N’ word, and ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ and all. One guy who was a part of [Downtown Entertainment] got his windows bashed in–both in his business and his car–and his family got threatening phone calls over the telephone at home. I’ve gotten it all. I mean, this has not been easy.”

Neither Gresser nor Hitchcock will go into detail about the causes of the split. Other sources familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are less cagey–they claim the split is between clubs that host prostitution and clubs that don’t.

“Apparently the difference is private rooms, no private rooms,” says one source. “If there are no private rooms, then you obviously can’t have prostitution on the site.” The clubs without private rooms are the ones moving into Downtown Entertainment, he says.

Sources say the new group also wants police officers currently on the Block beat rotated out. “The policemen around there have been around there for years and have a bunch of friendships,” one source says. “If you are there too long, familiarity can breed bad things.”

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment has “scheduled an appointment to talk with the new police commissioner [Ronald Daniel] to basically introduce this new organization to him, to give him a feel for what we intend to do, how we intend to run the businesses, [and] to affirm or reaffirm with him our willingness to be cooperative with the Baltimore City Police Department. In fact, we encourage the police department to be active–fair, but active–on the Block.”

Police spokesperson Robert Weinhold says Daniel “has had conversations with representatives from the Block” and recognizes that they want to make the red-light district as crime-free as possible. “We would expect the efforts of the Block representatives to continue, and that all of the establishments and the citizens who work there will be law-abiding in their business efforts.”

Eventually, Hitchcock says, Downtown Entertainment will seek a meeting with Mayor Martin O’Malley, but it has yet to broach the subject with him. For the time being, the new mayor’s approach to managing the situation on the Block remains a mystery. Despite assurances that he would grant an interview for this article, repeated attempts to set up such a meeting were unsuccessful. O’Malley’s press secretary, Tony White, eventually explained that the mayor has yet to formulate his opinions about the Block district and therefore would rather not discuss it at this time.

“Being the entertainment mogul that he is, he’s thinking about” the Block, White says, but this thinking “hasn’t come to fruition yet.”

It would be a stretch to suggest that contributions to O’Malley’s mayoral campaign last year will have a direct impact on his eventual stance. But several Block interests did pledge support for his candidacy, in all likelihood out of a desire to foster access to and good relations with their potent neighbor in City Hall.

Between July and October of 1999, Block interests donated $6,400 to O’Malley’s cause, according to campaign-finance reports. One of Gresser’s businesses, Custom House News, gave $1,000, as did PP&G, which co-owns the strip club Norma Jean’s and is headed by Pete Koroneos, secretary and treasurer of Downtown Entertainment. The law firm O’Malley worked for before he became mayor gave $2,000 to his campaign, and one of its partners, Joseph Omansky, has long represented Block interests. The remaining $2,400 came from other Block lawyers, owners, liquor licensees, and an accountant.
The Block’s generosity toward politicians is a long-established tradition–probably as old as the Block itself. The district sprang up almost immediately after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, with the Gayety Theater (opened in 1906 at its present site at 403 E. Baltimore St.) becoming its first landmark. Initially, penny arcades and vaudeville venues dominated, but after the repeal of Prohibition the area took off as a dense concentration of bars and burlesque houses.

During the World War II years and into the 1950s, the Block’s reputation spread nationally as striptease acts became the main attraction at many of the nightclubs and, as two out-of-town reporters wrote in 1951, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything, and it’s not much.”

With all of the fun and money being generated on the Block, heat from law enforcement was turned up. Various congressional inquiries and grand-jury investigations fingered the Block as an organized-crime stronghold in the 1950s and ’60s, a place where the rackets, gambling and prostitution in particular, thrived and fueled corruption and violence. Even during its heyday–so romanticized by a legion of old-time Baltimoreans and local scribes–the Block was a dangerous place that spawned crime sprees and fear and trepidation among hand-wringing city residents.

If the 1960s were bad on the Block from a criminal-justice standpoint, the ’70s were much worse. Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, the acknowledged king of Block rackets, was finally convicted on federal charges in 1969, only to flee the country the following year. (Never brought to justice, he remains a legendary fugitive.) But with the end of Salsbury’s reign–and perhaps because of the destabilizing effect of his absence–came an era of unprecedented violence in the district. When crime fighters did try to put the screws to the Block, they often ended up embarrassing themselves: A 1971 raid by federal agents produced little in the way of convictions and made law-enforcement appear groundlessly zealous in pursuit of justice for Block racketeers.

With downtown’s renewal into a modern entertainment district, however, the Block gained a sense of legitimacy, due largely to rose-colored memories of its former glory and its faded Damon Runyonesque character. Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer spared the Block from his wide-swinging wrecking ball as he rebuilt downtown, and in 1977 it received a special designation as an entertainment district. But the Block’s salad days were long gone; drugs and sleaziness continued to define its identity into the 1980s and ’90s.

As Schaefer moved from City Hall to the State House, his tolerance for the Block wore down. Late in his second term as governor, he ordered a four-month investigation of crime on the Block that culminated in a January 1994 Maryland State Police raid in which some 500 state troopers descended on the district and shut it down. Initially, the governor and his troopers made great claims–one drug kingpin and three distributors had been nabbed, an arsenal of guns had been confiscated, the back of criminal interests on the Block had been irreparably broken. But attempts to prosecute those arrested fell apart amid allegations of improprieties and faulty techniques among the investigators. Once again, law enforcement was left red-faced by its flawed attack on the tenderloin.

Schaefer’s raid occurred as his mayoral successor, Kurt Schmoke, was in the midst of his own attempt to put the Block out of his misery, by buying it out and relocating businesses. This economic attack failed, however–community leaders around the city feared porn shops and strip clubs would spring up in their backyards. Ultimately, after a flood of contributions to Schmoke’s campaign committee from Block interests in late 1996, a détente was reached. Fronted by the Schmoke-friendly Hitchcock–who had previously represented other downtown business interests that hoped to end the Block once and for all–Block operators received a respite as City Hall promised to await improvements promised by the newly formed Baltimore Entertainment Center.

The city held up its commitment, providing physical improvements such as new brick sidewalks in 1997, but so far the businesses haven’t held up their end of the bargain by substantially cleaning up their acts. If and how O’Malley reacts remains to be seen.

The mayor may still be forming his ideas on the future of the Block, but a new regulatory era is already underway. In November, the city liquor board started enforcing new rules that hold the threat of revocation of adult-entertainment licenses should club employees commit too many violations.

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment welcomes the restrictions. “We frankly saw it as tightening of the regulations in a fashion that we all agreed needed to happen,” he says. “We’ve had some very damaging rulings by the liquor board against some of those clubs down there. People are getting the message–you know, you do this stuff and you will lose your livelihood, period, end of story. You may be able to appeal it until it gets to some point of finality, but the liquor board’s not playing about this because they have taken on a responsibility and their credibility is on the line.”

Perhaps even more significant than the new regulations, from a business standpoint, is a January 1999 court ruling that full nudity is legal at adult-entertainment establishments that opened before 1993. The ruling arose when the Spectrum Gentlemen’s Club in East Baltimore appealed a nude-dancing violation and found a loophole in the law, which had been interpreted to require that dancers be partially clothed while performing. The decision was handed down by Circuit Court Judge Richard Rombro, in his last judicial act before retiring from the bench. (Unnoticed at the time was the fact that the judge’s nephew, Stuart Rombro, is an attorney who represents Gresser’s Custom House News.) Regardless, it’s been good for business on the Block.

Hitchcock downplays the ruling’s practical significance. “There’s no real difference,” he says. “I mean, yeah, rather than you put a little star on the nipple, you can take the star off now.” But he acknowledges that Baltimore strip clubs have become a “more marketable and a bigger revenue-generating business because you can basically say it’s nude dancing.”

And a more marketable Block is a boon for Baltimore, says City Council member Nicholas D’Adamo, a Democrat whose 1st District includes the Block and many other adult-entertainment venues.

“Let’s be honest,” asserts D’Adamo, who acknowledges that he patronizes Block establishments now and again. “Is it a plus for the city of Baltimore? I think it is. I think for out-of-towners to come to the city, it could be a stop on their agenda if they’re staying downtown.” He further maintains that Block businesses employ some 1,000 workers and should be recognized as job-providers.

Of the allegations of vice associated with Block clubs, the council member says, “I think the press has blown it out of proportion. Sure, there are problems down there. But I think there are problems in every bar. It’s just a matter of what you consider a problem. So why pick on the Block?

“You show me a person a week’s being killed on the Block, or a person a week’s being stabbed and almost died–you show me numbers like that, we got a problem,” D’Adamo continues. “But goddammit, there’s a lot of streets in this city that have these problems that are a lot worse than the Block. We need to address that first.” And, for the time being, it appears that’s exactly what the city’s going to do.

Point Break: Riding Fells Point’s Wave Of Prosperity

DSC_2159

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.

DSC_3754

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.”

IMG_8089

“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.”

IMG_8088

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.”

DSC_0209

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.”

DSC_3821 (1)

“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.”

IMG_0977

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.”

Jewelry Dealer Boasted of Drug-Dealer Ties

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2014

Today, Eugene Petasky is a humbled man, serving a 41-month prison sentence at West Virginia’s Morgantown Federal Correctional Institution after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last fall to laundering drug money through his jewelry business, Metro Brokers, for nearly a quarter of a century. But on Nov. 8, 2006, when still a free man, Petasky spoke with apparent pride of his drug-world connections, sharing the details with an undercover cooperator in a sting operation that resulted in his indictment weeks later.

The account of Petasky’s litany of drug-world ties is contained in documents included in a civil forfeiture case, entered into the federal court record on April 7, in which the government is seeking to keep two firearms and ammunition seized from Metro Brokers during a November 2006 raid. To back up its forfeiture pleading, the government included a search-warrant affidavit written by Sharnell N. Thomas, a special agent with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. The affidavit includes a paragraph describing Petasky’s conversation with the cooperator.

“Petasky discussed being associated with several drug traffickers,” Thomas wrote, including “Darryl Henderson, also known as ‘Bam,’ [who] would kill anyone that hurt Petasky.”

Thomas wrote that Petasky stated that he “paid Bam’s legal fees” and that “Bam was an associate of Greg Parker, a well known drug trafficker” in Baltimore. According to the affadavit, he also discussed another “well known” Baltimore drug dealer named “Ya Ya Brockington” and recalled selling “a large chain with a pool table encrusted with diamonds and rubies” to “an individual named ‘Wimpy,'” and “discussed the possibility that Wimpy was killed by another well known drug trafficker . . . Rudy Williams.”

While Thomas’ affidavit describes several of the drug-world figures cited by Petasky as “well known,” only one—Rudy Williams —may qualify as truly famous. The savage criminal career of Linwood “Rudy” Williams was the subject of a lengthy 1992 article in the Baltimore Sun by David Simon, who compared Williams to William Shakespeare’s dramatic and bloody portrayal of King Richard III. Simon’s piece includes an account of “Curtis ‘Wimpy’ Manns, who took Williams into his own drug organization, then ended his career as a corpse in Baltimore County, with partner and friend Williams as the prime suspect.”

In all likelihood, the “Wimpy” Petaski referred to was Manns. Williams, meanwhile, is serving his life sentence at the high-security United State Penitentiary—Canaan, near Scranton, Pa. Details of the other drug dealers Petasky mentioned—Darryl Henderson, Greg Parker, and Ya Ya Brockington—remain inscrutable as of press time.

Given the number of years that have passed since Williams and Manns were on the scene, Petasky’s 2006 boasts may have been more reminiscent of times past than of his contemporary stature on Baltimore’s mean streets. But that a man with Petasky’s trappings—records show he was a donor to Maryland politicians, drove luxury vehicles, had a diversified investment portfolio, and owned a nice home on Woodvalley Drive near Stevenson in Baltimore County—would claim such ties, even in vaunted rhetoric, speaks volumes of the drug culture’s reach into respectable circles.

Petasky’s past—he was previously convicted by a jury in 1990 in connection with a similar money-laundering scheme involving Metro Brokers and an attorney, Neil Steinhorn, who was also convicted—meant that he was prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition. As part of Petasky’s plea deal, though, prosecutors dismissed the firearms charges, along with numerous other counts of financial crimes. He pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count of money laundering, and agreed to forfeit $336,000 to the government as ill-gotten gains. Petasky is scheduled to be released from prison on Jan. 1, 2013.

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

961478_orig

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

IMG_7645

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.

IMG_7656

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.

IMG_7646

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.”

IMG_7647

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.

IMG_7648

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.

IMG_7655

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.

IMG_7649

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.

IMG_7653

“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.”

IMG_7654

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.”

IMG_7650

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.

IMG_7652

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.

IMG_7651

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.

Mainstream Extremism

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 30, 2014

IMG_7593

Anne Arundel County’s Fifth Councilmanic District is the whitest, most educated, and richest of the county’s seven districts, and its voters lean heavily in favor of Republicans. If that pattern holds true in November’s general election for the council seat, the district’s 75,000 residents — 87 percent white, 97 percent with a high-school diploma, and about half with a college degree or higher, and with a median household income of $111,000, higher than any Maryland county — will be turning for constituent services and leadership on local issues to the GOP candidate, Michael Peroutka.

Peroutka, a highly successful debt-collection attorney whose brother and law partner Stephen Peroutka is a board member of the Babe Ruth Museum, also is white, smart, and rich, but it’s doubtful that many of his potential constituents have used their advantages in the way he long has: to advance a militant theocratic agenda.

A decade ago, Peroutka already had a record of supporting the formation of local militias when he ran for U.S. president under the Constitution Party banner, with a campaign slogan — “God-Family-Republic” — that dressed up his extremism with rhetoric that run-of-the-mill patriotic Christians might find innocuously attractive. Similarly, the name of Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution (IOTC) fails to communicate its actual mission: creating theocratic governance based on both testaments of the Bible, similar to how extremist Muslims would like to establish states based on sharia law derived from the Quran.

Peroutka has now hit on a more pragmatic approach: run for something winnable, like a local race where the outcome is relatively malleable for someone like Peroutka, whose fundraising capabilities are virtually limitless within the usual legal constraints. He has more than a quarter-million dollars in his campaign chest as of late June, and surely much more has come in since. Top supporters include Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court who believes the separation of church and state is an attack on Christianity and to whom Peroutka has dedicated a field and monument at his 40-acre Prince George’s County property called Gladway Farm; prominent Christian evangelical lawyers William Olson and Herbert Titus, a former Constitution Party vice-presidential candidate; and ex-con Franklin Sanders, a Tennessee metals-trader with secessionist sympathies.

Peroutka’s campaign treasurer is Tom Pavlinic, a sex-crimes defense attorney who specializes in defending clients accused by very young victims. Pavlinic was Peroutka’s attorney when he unsuccessfully sued a social worker who had helped Peroutka’s step-daughters when Peroutka and his then-wife, Diane Peroutka, despite his strongly voiced belief that the state should not be in the parenting business, had placed them in the care of the government’s foster-care system after one of them had accused Peroutka of sexual abuse and then recanted.

Though the Fifth District is a pretty solid GOP stronghold, most of its voters recently came out in support of something that Peroutka is stridently against: same-sex marriage. When the Maryland General Assembly in 2012 passed the law extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, Peroutka reacted by stating that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that therefore “there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.” Yet when the law went up for referendum that fall, nearly 55 percent of the Fifth District’s voters supported it. Only in four of the district’s 34 precincts, clustered in its far northern reaches near where Peroutka lives in Millersville, did majorities oppose same-sex marriage.

Even if he loses the council race to Democratic contender Patrick Armstrong, Peroutka still won an elected position in the June 24 primary election: he’s now a member of the Republican State Central Committee in his district, making him a leader of the local GOP faithful — whether they like it or not.

And clearly, some of the drivers of mainstream GOP thinking find Peroutka to be a philosophical pariah. In February, when Peroutka’s name was being bandied about as a possible GOP candidate for Maryland attorney general, Mark Newgent penned a blog at Red Maryland pointing out that Peroutka is an avowed Christian Reconstructionist. This God’s-law-reigns-supreme approach was birthed by Rousas Rushdoony, and Newgent summed up its goal: “a civil government whose first duty is to carry out a religious mandate to do what God requires as written in the Old Testament, including executions for adulterers and homosexuals.”

Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson has called Peroutka a “wackypants anti-gay crusader,” and on his Free State Notes blog in June he wrote that Peroutka’s IOTC “promotes a deeply erroneous view of the U.S. Constitution as an essentially religious document.” And in pointing out that the man is stridently anti-Republican, Olson quoted a Peroutka screed from last fall imploring “anyone, including those who identify with the ‘Tea Party,’ who loves America and desires real reform” to “disengage themselves from the Republican Party and their brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism.”

In 2012, Peroutka, a prodigious donor to deeply conservative causes, gave $10,000 to the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which was working to defeat marriage-equality referendum question that ultimately passed muster with the voters. The donation drew the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-marriage-equality group, which promptly broadcast Peroutka’s strong ties to the League of the South, a Southern secessionist outfit that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a racist hate group. Today, Peroutka’s ties to the League have become a serious concern for Maryland GOP leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who disavowed Peroutka after the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, played up Peroutka’s extremism.

On July 30, Peroutka held a press conference at a Glen Burnie hotel to try to manage the fallout. He was flanked by two African-American men who support him and his candidacy: Republican state-senate candidate Eric Knowles (who lost in the primary, and has previously run as the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor) and Robert Broadus, who ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2012. Peroutka refused to back down from his support for the League, which he called a “Christian, free-market group,” and, in response to a question, said he’d made no mistake when he sang “I Wish I Was In Dixie” and called it “the national anthem” at a League event in 2012, a YouTube video of which has drawn attention since his primary win. Peroutka sought to cast doubt on the SPLC, referring to “the dangers” of its endeavors, in which he said it engages in “smearing together obvious hatred, such as Neo Nazis or the Klan, with groups,” like the League, “where the SPLC simply doesn’t like their politics.”

Peroutka’s effort to separate the League from neo-Nazis is a blurry endeavor itself, though. As the Huffington Post’s coverage of Peroutka’s press conference pointed out, the YouTube video of Peroutka singing “Dixie” in 2012 “was shot by Michael Cushman, a former member of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, who now leads the League’s South Carolina chapter.”

Newgent, meanwhile, saw all this coming when Peroutka was being discussed as a candidate for attorney general. “Imagine the field day the media, not to mention Democrats, would have” with a Peroutka GOP candidacy, he wrote, adding that it would be an “embarrassment and drag on other candidates.”

Some of the most intelligent analysis of Peroutka, though, is coming from the left.

On Huffington Post, Jonathan Hutson has chronicled Peroutka’s ongoing alliance with the League of the South, and quotes its president, Michael Hill, promoting guerrilla warfare and the deployment of “death squads” to obtain the League’s goals. “The primary targets will not be enemy soldiers,” Hill wrote on July 15. “Instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”

Political Research Associates‘ Frederick Clarkson, meanwhile, writes that Peroutka’s run, as well as that of the GOP candidate for Anne Arundel County Sheriff, Peroutka and League of the South ally Joseph “Joe” Delimater III, “may signal a small, but significant, national trend in applied theocratic theory.”

Peroutka and his followers and allies “believe that holding local office empowers them to defy state and federal law under the rubric of an ancient concept called The Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate,” Clarkson continues. He explains that this doctrine “has been adopted by conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state, as well as such matters as abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes, public education and gun control laws,” saying it empowers them “to overthrow ‘tyrannical government.'”

In an earlier post in June, Clarkson recalls an interview he had with Peroutka donor Titus in 1996, when Titus was running for vice president. Titus “told me at a press conference that lower-level government officials (called ‘lesser magistrates’ in the archaic language of the ideas on which his views are based), may refuse to enforce ungodly laws and policies of the government, and rise up against a government that has become corrupt or tyrannical.”

Given Peroutka’s attraction to militias and overthrowing the government, the highly educated voters of Anne Arundel County’s Fifth District could be forgiven if they worry that his candidacy presents a potential threat to civil society. If they happen to fall into debt that Peroutka’s firm tries to collect, though, they might also worry about his tactics.

Consider the case of Antonietta Serruto, who, after gaining bankruptcy protection in 2012, was still illegally targeted for collection by Peroutka’s firm, which took court action against her in 2013, despite her alerting the firm that the debt they sought to collect had been discharged. She ended up suing the firm (and quickly winning a $20,000 settlement, plus costs, expenses, and attorneys fees), after a processor server showed up at her home, where she lives alone, on Thanksgiving night last fall to pound on her door and demand she “open up,” according to her lawsuit. Serruto “was terrified by the pounding and the demands of the unknown male at her door,” the lawsuit states.

As Peroutka’s county-council campaign continues, gaining the attention it deserves, at least the district’s voters won’t be casting votes for or against an unknown male anymore. He is what he is: an extremist dressed up for mainstream appeal.

The High Seas: Baltimore’s narcotic history dates back to the 19th-century shipping-driven boom, quietly aided by bringing Turkish opium to China

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 21, 2014

Image-1-10

With its longstanding reputation as a high-volume heroin town, Baltimore’s modern black-market economy is openly opiated, driving sizeable budgets for maintaining the criminal-justice apparatus to combat it. Far less appreciated, and only opaquely understood, is the role another poppy-derived narcotic—opium—had in forming Baltimore’s 19th-century fortunes, when trade with China helped fuel the city’s shipping boom.  In fact, merchant John O’Donnell was the first to bring goods from the Chinese city Canton to Baltimore and it was such a boon that he named his waterfront plantation Canton, and the name for the area persists today (along with its O’Donnell Square).

Despite Baltimore ships being central to several historic events in America’s opium trade to China, Baltimore merchants’ overall piece of the trade seems to have paled in comparison to the quick fortunes made by famous merchant families from Philadelphia to New England. So, when historians eventually pieced together what such towering American capitalist families as the Astors, Forbes, Perkins, Delanos, Peabodys, and Girards had actually been up to in China—selling Turkish opium, competing with the enormous British supplies brought there from India—Baltimore’s role got little attention.

At the time, “all of this was able to occur really under the radar,” says Towson University history professor Elizabeth Kelly Gray, “because there were no reporters, and if someone came back with a huge fortune and said, ‘Oh, I was in the China trade,’ people wouldn’t necessarily assume that opium was involved. People seem to have kind of kept their mouths shut about what they did, and even though I found a couple of published comments where someone would say, ‘Don’t you know that Americans are involved?’ it didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention. We can dig back and find it now, but it wasn’t known then.

“There was a recognition that this was disreputable, this was smuggling,” Gray continues, since China outlawed opium in 1799. So merchants tended to justify it by saying “‘we couldn’t make a profit if they wouldn’t buy it,’ or ‘if we don’t do it someone else would,’” while arguing that “we’re not actually breaking the law because the opium we’re bringing is 12 miles” away from the Chinese port of Canton, in ships anchored in Whampoa Reach or Macoa Roads, “and then it’s brought in by others.” Given the controversial nature of the trade, she adds, “some of the merchants were able to cover their tracks,” since “they’re thousands of miles from home, everyone that they’re hanging out with is fine with this, and they’re making lots of money. So we don’t have the smoking gun with some of them that we have with others.”

The secrecy surrounding America’s China opium trade came out when the first Opium War between Britain and China broke out in 1839, after China, dismayed at the damage addiction was causing among its people, started to seriously enforce its opium ban and seized sizeable British cargoes. The war prompted Congress to get interested in the American involvement, and “then you have this sort of sheepish admission to Congress that, well, we are involved in the opium trade,” Gray says, “which some of the congressmen already knew, but it wasn’t public.

“We definitely know that Baltimore was involved,” Gray adds, but details are elusive, and more northern American cities appear to have been more deeply entrenched. While “the British were earning tens of millions of dollars” from opium in China, historian Eric Jay Dolin told China Business Review last year, “the Americans were earning millions of dollars,” and the late historian Kenneth LaTourrette concluded that, “although she began early,” Baltimore “was never as actively engaged in the trade as were the more northern ports.” Historian Dael Norwood of Yale University, sums it up in an email to City Paper: While “the New Englanders and New Yorkers were (for the most part) running the show alongside the Brits, “you might say that the Baltimore money was keeping its hand in.”

One smoking gun linking Baltimore to the China opium trade is the Eutaw, a Baltimore ship owned by John Worthington and captained by Christopher Gantt. The history books credit the Eutaw with bringing the very first delivery of Turkish opium by an American ship to China. It left Smyrna, Turkey (pictured above), in November 1805 with several tons of opium, and arrived in Canton in 1806. Sussing out Worthington’s significance in Maryland society has proven elusive, but Gantt later became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and served as a customs clerk in Baltimore for the U.S. Department of Treasury.

A second smoking gun is the Wabash, another Baltimore ship captained by Gantt, which in 1817 suffered an attack that became known as “the Wabash incident.” While anchored in the Macao Roads near Canton, Chinese pirates boarded the ship, murdered some of its crew, and took its cargo, including opium. The American consul at Canton—Benjamin Wilcocks, himself an opium smuggler—wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams about the incident, explaining that he’d reported it to the Chinese authorities, but “was careful not to mention the opium.” The Chinese, after they later found the pirates with a large quantity of opium, expressed “not a little disgust” over the contraband, Wilcocks explained, and shortly thereafter announced a crackdown on Americans trying to bring opium into China.

In 1821, the Terranova incident involved a Baltimore opium ship at Canton, and produced “lingering bad memories” which, the late Sino-American historian Jacques Downs wrote, “would help shape the first U.S. treaty with China” in the 1840s. It involved an Italian sailor, Francis Terranova, on the Baltimore ship Emily, owned by John Donnell and captained by William Cowpland. The Emily was “anchored peacefully in Whampoa Reach,” Downs recounted, “gradually selling off its cargo of opium,” when Terranova somehow caused a woman who’d approached the Emily to fall into the water and drown—and for this, China convicted and sentenced the sailor to execution, which shocked the community of Western traders there.

 

Downs described Donnell as “the great Baltimore China merchant” who was “among the largest shippers of the drug” in the period after the War of 1812. After the Bostonians led by the Perkins family, Donnell was “probably the most important of all” the “very substantial merchants who sent opium cargoes to Canton.” After Donnell’s death in 1827, his nephew Griffin Stith—who had served as agent for the Emily—formed another American firm in the China opium trade, Issaverdes, Stith & Co., a partnership  of Stith and John B. and George Issaverdes. Stith’s papers, describing his experiences in the opium trade in China and Jakarta, are held in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society.

Donnell in 1800 purchased Willow Brook, an estate where West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood now stands that was built by his wife’s uncle, Thorowgood Smith, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1804 to 1808. Today, a complete replica of Brook’s Oval Room is on permanent display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Another famous Baltimore-China trade merchant, Isaac McKim, served in the Maryland Senate and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and also was a director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. His part in the American opium trade is described in “Tidewater Triumphs,” a book by naval historian Geoffrey Footner. “McKim developed an ingenuous plan which began with the purchase of Turkish opium for resale to other traders, mostly Baltimore merchants,” Footner wrote, “then used the proceeds to buy copper and other products.” In 1816, McKim’s ship the Plattsburgh left Fells Point with cargo bound for Smyrna, where the captain was instructed to “sell the cargo and use the proceeds to buy opium,” but the crew mutinied, and the resulting legal wrangling “revealed Isaac McKim’s plan for broadening his narrow export base.” While there is “no record of any McKim ships sailing in the China trade,” Footner explained, “there is circumstantial evidence that McKim resold opium acquired in Turkey to other Baltimore and Philadelphia merchants doing business in China.”

Evidence of Baltimore ships being involved with shipments of Turkish opium also come from the U.S. Senate, which in 1838, on the eve of the First Opium War, made records of American ships entering and leaving Smyrna over the years, including McKim’s schooner, the Yellat, picking up 45 cases of opium and Donnell’s brig, Midas, taking on 111 cases of opium in 1824, part of their proceedings. Another entry mentions the brig Torpedo, owned by William Patterson (one of the founders of the B&O Railroad) and his son George Patterson.  Finally, an English translation of the geneology of a prominent Dutch family says that Jacob van Lennep & Co., based in Smyrna, made “large shipments of opium” to “a company in Baltimore for onward shipment” to China. And, last year at the Smithsonian Institutions, an intern uncovered historical documents of a shipment of 10 tons of opium arriving in Canton in 1821 on the Baltimore brig Ea.

While Baltimore’s role in Smyrna-to-Canton opium smuggling may have been less robust than those of more northern American cities, it made a mark because its opium-laden ships, explains Norwood, “attracted the harsh attention of Chinese authorities” thanks to the sacking of the Wabash and the Terranova affair. Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the drug trade quietly drove significant creation of wealth in Mobtown’s early economy—as it still does today.

Meltdown: What Happens to Dead Animals at Baltimore’s Only Rendering Plant

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 25, 1995

Consider these items: Bozman, the Baltimore City Police Department quarter horse who died last summer in the line of duty. The grill grease and used frying oil from Camden Yards, the city’s summer ethnic festivals, and nearly all Baltimore-area and Ocean City restaurants and hotels. A baby circus elephant who died while in Baltimore this summer. Millions of tons of waste meat and inedible animal parts from the region’s supermarkets and slaughterhouses. Carcasses from the Baltimore Zoo. The thousands of dead dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, snakes, and the rest that local animal shelters and road-kill patrols must dispose of each month.

These are the raw materials of Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, which are processed into remarketable products for high profit at the region’s only rendering plant, in Curtis Bay. In a gruesomely ironic twist, most inedible dead-animal parts, including dead pets, end up in feed used to fatten up future generations of their kind. Others are transmogrified into paint, car wax, rubber, and industrial lubricants. Until the mid-1980s, some of the plant’s products were used in soap and cosmetics as well.

Like the use of human placenta in cosmetics and eating Rocky Mountain oysters, rendering is a phenomenon that many have heard of but few are tempted to ponder. Unlike those odd human practices, though, rendering answers a vital societal question: What to do with the prodigious amounts of carrion, offal, and fat that our society leaves in its dietary wake? Rather than classifying it as foul waste and incinerating it or burying it in a landfill, why not cook it into its constituent parts – fat and protein – and make a pretty penny doing it?

Valley Proteins does. The Winchester, Virginia-based company owns and runs Baltimore’s only rendering plant, tucked along the grassy shores of Cabin Branch, a tributary of Curtis Bay in the extreme southern tip of the city. Although a few out-of-state rendering plants attempt to compete in Baltimore, Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant has a regional lock on the profitable recycling of dead animal matter and kitchen grease into ingredients for feed and industrial products.

Based on estimates from Neil Gagnon, general manager of the Curtis Bay plant, about 150 million pounds of rotting flesh and used kitchen grease from around Baltimore are fed into the plant’s grinders and cookers each year, resulting in about 80 million pounds of the plant’s three products:  meat and bone meal, tallow, and yellow grease. Most is reconstituted as chicken feed for North Carolina and Eastern Shore poultry farmers. Some goes for dry pet food. And some of the tallow is used by chemical “splitters,” who turn the fat into fatty acids, which in turn are used in thousands of products.

 

During a midsummer day’s visit to the plant, I gag upon first contact with the hot, putrescent air. My throat immediately becomes coated with the suety taste of decayed, frying flesh.

“You picked a bad day to visit a rendering plant,” Gagnon says, emphasizing the effect of the summer heat by describing the typical state of the “deadstock” picked up from Pimlico Race Course, which is delivered to Valley Proteins’ pet-food operations in Pennsylvania. “By the time we get them, they’re soup,” he says. “Summertime is bad around here.”

Gagnon himself is far from offended by the overwhelming miasma, though. “It smells like money to me,” he likes to say. Later in the visit, back in his office, he estimates Valley Proteins’ profit margin at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

A load of guts, heads, and legs, recently retrieved from a local slaughterhouse, sits stewing in one of the raw-materials bins at the plant’s receiving bay. “That’s very fresh offal,” Gagnon says. He explains how it will be fed into “the hogger,” a shredder that grinds up the tissues and filters out trash, before it is deep-fried in cookers charged with spent restaurant grease and blood.

After being thoroughly fried, the solid protein is centrifuged, pressed, run through a magnet to remove metals, ground up, sifted, cooled, and stored in a silo. Today mid-way through the process, cooker operator Bud Kellner smiles, grabs a warm, brown, fibrous thatch of cooked tissues out of the production line in the cook room and shouts out above the mechanical din: “That’s all protein material! I could eat that right now!”

The liquid fat is cleaned, filtered, cooled, and stored in five tanks – two for tallow, a higher-grade fat product, and three for yellow grease. Kellner doesn’t mention whether he considers the fat potable.

The rendering processes at Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant create three byproducts:  waste water, which goes into the city’ Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant at nearby Wagners Point; the stray fat and protein molecules in the air that generate the plant’s horrid stench; and reclaimed dirt, metal, plastics, and other trash, which go to the nearby Quarantine Road Landfill. Two boilers, which jointly generate 2,000 horsepower, run the whole operation.

While waiting at the receiving bay to watch another truckload of offal (this one from Baltimore County slaughterer J.W. Treuth & Sons, Inc.) tumble into a raw-materials bin, Kellner sums up why rendering is important. “If it don’t go here, it’d be laying on the side of the street somewhere.”

Blood and body fluids leak out from under the trailer gate. “Cranberry juice,” Gagnon remarks as we gaze at the repulsive pale-red effluvium. Suddenly a hot gust of wind blows droplets of it on our bare legs. As the bloated stomachs and broken body parts slide en masse from the trailer bed to the bin, Bud shouts out, “Watch out for the splatter!” After the load is delivered, a single jawbone rest on the pavement amid the bloody-liquid. Bud adds a final piece of sage advice, “Make sure you take a shower.”

 

Valley Proteins didn’t always have a virtual monopoly over the rendering business in Baltimore. In 1927, The National Provisioner, a meat-industry newsletter, published a map and list showing the geographical distribution of the nation’s renderers and slaughterhouses. At that time, Baltimore had 15 of Maryland’s 21 rendering plants, and there were 913 plants in the nation.

Today, according to Gagnon, Baltimore has one of the state’s six to 10 plants, which are concentrated on the Eastern Shore to serve the poultry industry. The nationwide figure has dropped to 286, according to Gary G. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation. (Affiliated with the National Renderers Association, the foundation supports “increased utilization and new uses for products that are produced with the 50 percent of the animal that is not acceptable for human consumption,” Pearl says.)

Valley Proteins’ eight plants draw raw materials from the entire mid-Atlantic region, according to J.J. Smith, president of the company.  Smith describes the company’s territory as “from Newark [New Jersey] to Savannah [Georgia], and 300 miles inland.”  Its three-generation mini empire began in 1949 with company patriarch Clyde Smith’s buyout of an existing plant in Winchester, Virginia.

According to Baltimore City land records, Valley Proteins purchased the Curtis Bay plant in 1984 for $2 million from Benedict K. Hudson, president of another rendering company, Kavanaugh Products, which had purchased the property in the 1960s. Five of Valley Proteins’ eight plants were originally owned by other renderers, Gagnon says.

J.J. Smith says the industry’s trend toward concentration of ownership picked up momentum about 20 or 30 years ago with the creation of a market for “boxed beef.”

“Whereas cattle used to be sent to market in halves or quarters, and every community had its own slaughter facilities,” the company president explains, “now the slaughtering is consolidated in the Midwest, and they ship [the meat] out in boxes of 20- or 25-pound chunks.”

Boxed beef reduced the need for the neighborhood slaughterhouse, or abattoir.  According to Smith, “a new movement toward close-trim meat and tray-ready beef” similarly is eliminating the need for butchers and meat cutters in supermarkets because even more of the meat preparation occurs in Midwest slaughter plants.

“Baltimore used to have abattoirs all over the place,” Smith says.  Now Baltimore City has only one, a kosher slaughterhouse in the Penn-North area.  The 1927 Biennial Census of Manufactures, cited in the 1929 industry classic Inedible Animal Fats in the United Statesby Food Research Institute economist L.B. Zapoleon, indicates there were 40 slaughterers and meat packers in Baltimore at that time.

The decline of Baltimore’s slaughterers and butchers has meant less raw material for rendering.

“In 1965, at any given supermarket, we used to pick up [waste meat] three to five times a week at 1,000 pounds each.  Now we do it once a week at 600 pounds,” Smith says.  That’s an 80 to 90 percent drop in volume, and, as Smith often points out, “volume is what we thrive on in this business.”

Thirty years ago, according to Smith, 85 to 90 percent of renderers’ materials came from supermarkets and slaughterhouses.  Today, he estimates that a little more than half of the raw material for the Curtis Bay plant is from those sources.  The other half is kitchen grease and frying oils from restaurants, the proliferation of which he believes has made up for about a third of the loss resulting from the boxed-beef phenomenon.

“People used to eat at home more often,” Smith says.  “But now there are many, many restaurants, and people eat out all the time, so there has been an explosive growth at that level over the last 30 or 40 years.”

During this same period, the industry also underwent a technology shift.  In 1965, Dupps, a Germantown, Ohio, equipment manufacturer, started to make “continuous cookers,” which quickly replaced “batch cookers’” as the industry standard.

Batch cookers restricted the rate of processing because after each batch was cooked the cookers had to be emptied and prepared for the next load.  Continuous cookers made nonstop rendering possible, and the quantities the plants could handle grew greater over the ensuing years.  Today Dupps makes a continuous cooker that can handle the equivalent of 22 batch cookers, according to Smith.

“The change in technology was not a matter of new ways to cook,” Smith explains.  “It was a matter of bigger and bigger scales.  It was more efficient, but it was also more competitive for raw material.”

In Baltimore’s rendering industry, lower volumes of meat-packing and supermarket waste and higher production capacities combined with another factor – the dramatic rise of the poultry industry – to spell an end to all but one plant in the region.  Baltimore was a red-meat-packing town caught completely off guard by the continuing surge in chicken consumption, which began about 20 years ago.

“There were very few poultry-eviscerating plants in the 1960s,” Smith says.  But as the poultry industry expanded in the South and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, those regions’ need for rendering increased. Baltimore City, meanwhile, was left with closed-down meat-packing plants, slaughterhouses, and rendering plants.  Only one of each remains.

Finally, the proliferation of environmental regulations has further encouraged ownership concentration in the rendering business. “Environmental requirements got expensive, so it became a trend to sell out to competitors who can handle the changes,” Smith explains. For the remaining firms, he says, increased regulation “was a two-edged sword.  It was expensive because it required high capital investments, but it was also a barrier for a startup company to compete with you.”

The changes amount to a classic case of “the bigger fish swallows the smaller fish,” Smith says. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation agrees: “The general rule has been fewer and larger, with individual plants covering larger geographic areas and the investment per plant becoming much greater in order to meet environmental and water-quality standards.”

 

The use of dead pets, work animals, and wildlife as raw material is an aspect of the rendering business that neither Gagnon, Smith, nor Pearl likes to discuss. When they do address it, they emphasize its limited role and contend it is more a public service than a profitable practice.

“This is a very small part of the business that we don’t like to advertise,” Smith says. His main worry is bad publicity from animal-rights activists, who complain about the use of animal corpses for profit.

“We provide that as a service, not for profit, he says, pointing out that “there is not a lot of protein and fat” in dead pets and wildlife, “just a lot of hair you have to deal with somehow.” Smith believes that “shaming the American public into taking care of their pets is the way to combat the problem the animal-rights people talk about, not hassling the companies that manage the waste the pet industry produces in terms of dead animals.”

Smith says that while Valley Proteins sells inedible animal parts and rendered material to Alpo, Heinz, and Ralston-Purina, among other pet-food makers, dead-pet products are not among the products sold to these companies. “They are all very sensitive to the recycled-pet potential,” he explains. “They want no pets in the food they sell.  We guarantee them that the product we sell to them does not come from the pets we collect.  We handle them separately.”

A tiny amount of pet byproducts does get into the material sold to pet-food makers, however, according to plant general manager, Gagnon. Valley Proteins does have two production lines: one that uses only clean, fresh fat and bones from supermarkets and butcher shops and another that includes the use of dead pets and wildlife. However, the protein material is a mix from both production lines. Thus the meat and bone meal made at the plant includes materials from pets and wildlife, and about five percent of that product goes to dry-pet-food manufacturers, Gagnon says.

The higher end production line – the one without pets – makes tallow, fats whose “light colors give good consumer appeal,” Smith says. The low-end line makes yellow grease, which goes mostly for poultry and swine feed; as Smith notes, “the chicken doesn’t give a shit what it’s eating.”  Local feed makers that buy Valley Proteins’ products include Southern States in Locust Point. Gagnon says there are no longer any local purchasers of the plant’s tallow products.

 

Most of the dead pets that end up in Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant originate from the city animal shelter in Southwest Baltimore. Earl Watson, administrator of the city Health Department’s Animal Control Division, is very aware of the use of dead pets and wildlife in Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, and he knows Valley Proteins’ overarching role in it. “Anywhere there are dead animals, they pick them up,” he says.  “They have a monopoly on that because no one else does it.  That means they can charge what they want for the service.”

An average of 1,824 dead animals per month pass through the freezer at the city animal shelter and onto trucks bound for Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant, according to shelter statistics for April, May, and June of this year. Most of them were euthanized (three-month average: 1,339), though many were DOAs (three month average:  485). (DOA’s went up significantly in July and August, with 655 and 815 respectively, because of the hot weather and the city’s Clean Sweep program that targeted specific areas for cleanup.)

Here at the animal shelter, a staff of 10 wardens works every day but Sunday, picking up animals and bringing them to the shelter, while the shelter’s two veterinary technicians euthanize animals to make room for the newcomers.

“Having to euthanize animals all day is not pleasant,” Watson says, “especially if you like animals.”  He and shelter attendant Edward Rigney lead the way to Room 162 – Euthanasia – and Watson bows out after Rigney pulls open the door to the freezer, in which a dead fox lies stretched out on a table surrounded by barrels filled mostly with dead dogs and cats.  Fleas leap among the carcasses.

“Ten or 12 were euthanized this morning,” Rigney says. “Sometimes it’s thirtysome that get it. “Things get backed up over the holidays.”

Outside the freezer, atop another table, lie a bottle of the poison product Fatal-Plus, several syringes, a medical-waste container, and a hacksaw resting on a towel.  The hacksaw is for rabies testing:  “When people get bit, we have to cut the dogs’ heads off and test their brains,” Rigney explains, adding that the veterinary technician “never uses that – she just twists them off.”  Fatal-Plus is sodium pentobarbital; the warning label reads:  “Do not use in animals intended for food.”  This warning apparently does not apply for animals intended for pet food which is where the protein from these euthanized animals ends up.

 

Following Valley Proteins route driver Milton McCroy on his rounds is a colorful tour of Baltimore’s fat and protein sources.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, McCroy enters the STAFF & DELIVERIES entrance of the city animal shelter and loads dead animals into his truck. He then continues his rounds to Parks Sausage, the city’s lone remaining meat-packing plant, where he picks up waste meat, and to the slaughterhouse in Penn-North, where he loads up with offal, before taking the shipment back to the Curtis Bay plant and dumping it in the raw materials bin.

“It’s a dirty, smelly job, yeah – but that’s all it is, dirty and smelly,” he say philosophically, leaving someone wondering what could be worse.

At the animal shelter, McCroy hefts two dogs stiffened by rigor mortis into the trailer of his truck, which is rigged for the rendering business with a lift, a catwalk, and a barrel cleaner. He then empties and cleans 11 barrels of assorted animals.  As he works, he describes where his load is bound. “Chicken feed, cosmetics, fertilizer, dog food, whatever – the way they cook that bad boy [the Curtis Bay plant] up, it don’t make no difference what’s in there,” he says, then pauses and adds: “When they start putting human bodies in there, that’s when I quit.”

After a brief stop at Parks Sausage, where McCroy empties 10 or so barrels of rancid meat and grease, he heads off to the slaughterhouse, next to a long-defunct animal-hospital building. He backs the truck up to a storage shed, hauls a bloated sheep carcass onto the lift, and dumps it in the trailer, then starts preparing to empty many barrels full of heads, legs, hides, and guts. Joking, he starts to make the jaws of a cow’s head clack, then gives up on the puppet how. He hoists two sheep’s heads in the air, one in each hand, and asks, “Which one do you want?” He punctures a stomach with a pocket knife and squeezes out the brown ooze inside.

The jocularity ends when the plant’s owner catches wind that the press has entered the property. As we explain that we are following McCroy on his run for a story on rendering, he ushers us off to the adjacent sidewalk. “With all our problems with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], MOSHA [Maryland OSHA], EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and the rest, there just is no good publicity for us right now,” he explains.

A plant employee explained later that tightening environmental regulations and concerns about the bacteria E. coli are coming down hard on slaughterhouses; any attention would just mean more problems. (A subsequent check with state and local regulators did not reveal any outstanding cases or suspected violations at the city slaughterhouse.) Disappointed in being shunted from the property, we leave without a proper good-bye to the good-natured McCroy.

 

Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy has changed dramatically over the decades, but it remains essentially a profitable form of recycling.  The National Renderers Association sums up the industry nicely in its 12-minute video, Food for Life:

The rendering industry provides many needed services to the community at large; it safely recycles materials that otherwise would be a nightmare to dispose of; it creates products that are essential to modern life; it provides the needed to nutrition for our livestock and fisheries, so that a hungry world can be efficiently fed; and it supplies our pets with a healthy diet for longer, better lives.

So the next time you munch on fast-food fries (often cooked in grease the restaurants subsequently sell to Valley Proteins) or let your unfettered pet roam the city streets and backyards, or apply a little makeup to your face, or wax your car, or barbecue some chicken breasts, pause a second to think: Is this somehow connected to the Valley Proteins rendering plant in Curtis Bay, either on the donating or receiving end? Chances are it is.