Is Baltimore on the Brink of a Breakthrough or a Breakdown?

A candlelight vigil in Baltimore last month for Kirk Butler, who was shot and killed on the city's east side.
A candlelight vigil in Baltimore last month for Kirk Butler, who was shot and killed on the city’s east side.

The Rev. Donté L. Hickman Sr., pastor of one of this city’s largest African-American churches, wrapped up a fiery, foot-stomping sermon one recent Sunday with a somber request. “Pray for the city and the mayor,” he urged his congregation, reminding them that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had decided not to run again.

Instead, the chapel erupted in cheers.

Across the street from the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, which Mr. Hickman has led for 13 years, a $16 million church-owned apartment complex and community center — half-built and set ablaze during riots in April — is again rising from the ground, an upbeat sign in a neighborhood of dilapidated and abandoned rowhouses. But Mr. Hickman says it will take more than “brick and mortar” rebuilding for the city to heal.

“Baltimore,” he warned, “is on the brink of a breakthrough — or a breakdown.”

Six months after a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody, setting off the worst riots here since the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this waterfront city is fragile and on edge. Baltimore is in search of new leadership and unsure of its future, as it braces for the trials of six police officers implicated in Mr. Gray’s death.

The homicide rate is soaring. Baltimore, with roughly 623,000 people, has had 270 homicides this year, almost as many as in New York, with 281 in a city of about 8.4 million. Nearly 100 people have been murdered in Baltimore in the last three months alone, eight in the last week. Residents, angry and frightened, accuse the police of standing down and ignoring crime.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake fired her last police commissioner in July. With the first trial now set to begin right after Thanksgiving, and five more on the calendar for early next year, the new police commissioner, Kevin Davis, whose appointment was approved by the City Council on Monday night, is girding for more unrest. In an interview, he summed up the state of the city and his nearly 3,000-member force in two words: “lingering anxiety.”

Baltimore has long been a city of extremes. There is the glittering Baltimore of the Inner Harbor, of tourist treks to the aquarium and twilight Orioles games at Camden Yards. And there is the Baltimore of boarded-up rowhouses, furtive alleyway heroin deals and cut-rate corner stores where cheap booze is sold from behind bulletproof glass, the jagged Baltimore of HBO’s “The Wire.”

The unrest thrust those two Baltimores together, forcing painful conversations about the city’s racial divide. But in a city where blacks outnumber whites two to one, it has also been a reminder that black leadership, exemplified by Ms. Rawlings-Blake, is not a guarantee that government can manage toxic collisions of race and policing any better than white leadership has in places like Ferguson, Mo.

At 45, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has been around civil rights and politics all her life; her father, Howard Rawlings, known as Pete, was a civil rights activist, state legislator and one of Maryland’s most powerful politicians. National Democrats once viewed her as a rising star; this summer she became the first black woman to head the United States Conference of Mayors. But at home, she is viewed by many as distant and ineffectual.

So on a Friday morning in early September — a few days after she infuriated many here by announcing a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Mr. Gray — the mayor effectively became a casualty of the unrest herself. With a crowded field of challengers looking to unseat her, she said she would abandon her re-election bid to focus on “the city’s future, and not my own.”

Across Baltimore, there is relief that she is stepping aside, but little agreement over what lessons to draw from a calamitous year. At a recent protest outside the downtown courthouse, Tawanda Jones, whose brother was killed in 2013 after a struggle with the police, scoffed at the settlement with the Gray family. “Money,” she said, “can’t bring your loved one back.”

Inside, as he waited for a seat in the courtroom where pretrial motions for the officers would be heard, Hal Riedl, a retired state prison employee who is white, could barely contain his rage over a settlement he called an “Al Capone-style shakedown.” Of the mayor, he said acidly, “She just bought riot insurance.”

Everyone is hoping for a way forward, but no one seems to agree on just what that is.

“The city is crying out,” said Ebony Harvin, a hotel manager and assistant pastor of the New Solid Rock Pentecostal Church in Pigtown, once the city’s meatpacking district. “We are hoping for a better Baltimore, but it starts with leadership. If you’re trying to move forward and one of your legs doesn’t function well, eventually you’re going to fall down, and I think that’s what’s happened in our city.”

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Source: The New York Times | SHERYL GAY STOLBERG