BALTIMORE — 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.”
The bouquet of metallic balloons, with messages like “God Bless You” and “You’ll Be Missed,” tied to a tree in the 2400 block of Barclay Street in East Baltimore was a familiar, grim sign. Another killing had taken place. Another candlelight vigil was about to get underway.
The victim, Kirk Butler, 45, was shot shortly before 10 p.m. on a Friday, while sitting on the stoop of the rowhouse that his mother, Derotha Spinner, 60, a secretary with the city health department, has lived in for more than 50 years.
In a city where most homicides merit brief newspaper articles, Mr. Butler’s attracted more attention than most, because the bullets aimed at him also injured his cousin, a 9-year-old girl. He was one of 13 people shot, and four killed, in a single September weekend.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” his sister, Brenda Baskerville, said. “Even in times of struggle and recession, it has never been this out of control.”
Marquel Averette, who grew up playing football and riding skateboards with Mr. Butler and now owns a barbershop nearby, said his friend’s killing reflected decades of neglect. “When we were young, we had rec centers, we had a community,” he said. Of the police: “Their answer is to arrest everybody.” Of politicians: “We need to clean house.”
The police were just a few blocks away when Mr. Butler was killed, wrapping up an outdoor Movie Night program that Maj. Steven Ward, the commander of the department’s eastern division, began after the riots, he said, to “refocus on community relations.”
Like most homicides in Baltimore, Mr. Butler’s is unsolved; as more people are being killed here, fewer killers are being caught. The homicide “clearance rate,” the percentage of killings solved by the police, was 45.5 percent last year; today it is 32.8 percent, the police said. Nationally, the rate was 64 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which the Justice Department has statistics.
In response, the Rawlings-Blake administration has created a “war room” — a controversial term here, given tensions between the police and residents — where detectives, prosecutors and federal agents trace weapons and track down criminals. Mr. Davis, the police commissioner, says the team has identified 238 “gun toters,” all suspected of homicides or nonfatal shootings. None are behind bars.
The Rev. Westley West, 27, who has been organizing demonstrations against the police (and was recently arrested and charged with attempting to incite a riot), led the vigil for Mr. Butler. “I’m tired of mothers crying,’’ he said, as a crowd gathered around. “I’m tired of families broken by senseless gun violence.”
The sidewalk ceremony was brief, just 10 minutes, enough time for mourners to light candles, observe a moment of silence to remember the slain man, and shout his name to the heavens. Mr. West could not stay; he was busy planning a “We Can’t Stand Another Homicide” rally. Nor would he attend Mr. Butler’s funeral.
He was already booked with two others that day.
The Aftermath of Unrest
With its cobblestone streets, oyster bars, lively pubs and trendy cafes, Fell’s Point, home to Baltimore’s oldest deepwater port, is slightly more than three miles south, yet a vast metaphysical distance, from the block where Mr. Butler lived. Yet here, Beth Hawks, the owner of Zelda Zen, a jewelry and gift boutique, is despondent over the future of the city she has lived in and loved for 35 years.
“Baltimore,” Ms. Hawks said, “is breaking my heart.”
On a rainy summer night, Ms. Hawks could be found in a cavernous auditorium, filled with mostly white residents who had come to unload their grievances on Ms. Rawlings-Blake, at a community forum on crime, one of a series that the mayor has convened.
One woman complained about “blatantly open drug deals and prostitution” in her neighborhood, saying she no longer felt safe, “even during the day.” A man said that when he walks outside “at 10:30 at night, and I don’t see a single police person, it freaks me out.”
Then Ms. Hawks stood up, and burst into tears.
Black bureaucrats have proven to be every bit as corrupt and often more so than white government officials. Baltimore is a case in point....
“The lawless are becoming a protected class, and hard-working people are losing everything,” she went on, pleading with Ms. Rawlings-Blake to “get on the national media” and turn Baltimore’s “decimated’’ reputation around.
While investment is booming in some parts of Baltimore, tourism, critical to the local economy — and especially to Fell’s Point — declined during the unrest, and has yet to recover. Hotel occupancy is down roughly 9 percent since April; ticket sales at city museums and attractions have dropped. Anirban Basu, the chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission, warned that the “reputational impact” could last for years.
The Fell’s Point sidewalks were nearly empty on a recent Friday afternoon, save for some homeless people wandering the brick-paved town square. Claudia Towles, who owns a high-end toy store, Amuse, looked out her front window, past a display of brightly colored scooters, and frowned at the sight of parking spots on the street.
“We’re normally packed on Fridays,” she said. “People used to double-park.”
Across the street, at “The Horse You Came in On Saloon,” which claims to have stayed open through Prohibition, and to have served Edgar Allan Poe his last drink, the owner, Eric Mathias, estimated that he lost $50,000 in sales during the five-day curfew imposed during the unrest, and said weekend “day-trippers” he depends on have not returned. He longed for a mayor like Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, someone who would get tough on crime.
Others remembered former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who revitalized a decaying Baltimore in the 1970s and 1980s, after the last riots when residents and businesses fled. But most voters said they knew Baltimore’s most intractable problems would not be solved by a single charismatic figure.
More than a half-dozen candidates — including Sheila Dixon, a former mayor forced out by scandal; Carl Stokes, a member of the City Council; State Senator Catherine E. Pugh; and Mike Maraziti, a Fell’s Point tavern owner — say they will run in the Democratic primary, which in this heavily Democratic city essentially decides who will be mayor. With a primary scheduled for April, no clear favorite has emerged.
Ms. Towles, the toy store owner, said the city cannot wait for elections. “Change,” she said, “needs to happen now.”
On the lush, wooded campus of Johns Hopkins University, which sprawls over 128 acres north of downtown, Ronald J. Daniels, the university’s president, is also struggling with what comes next. On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 150 Baltimore residents gathered for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at his expansive brick Georgian home.
The occasion was the unveiling of “HopkinsLocal,” a sweeping initiative by Johns Hopkins and its health system — the largest private employer in the city and the state — to hire more people from impoverished neighborhoods, direct more contracts to minority-owned businesses, and patronize Baltimore vendors.
Standing in a corner, in his customary dark pinstriped suit and tie, nodding approvingly, was Pastor Hickman.
He and Mr. Daniels had met just a month earlier after the pastor published an opinion article in The Baltimore Sun arguing that the riots were not a disaster to be put in the rearview mirror, but a lesson in the economic disparities Baltimore must confront and erase. Soon afterward, Mr. Daniels sent an email: “He said: ‘I read your piece. It was spot on. Would you like to have coffee?’ ”
All around Baltimore, people are grasping for similar connections.
A new public-private partnership called One Baltimore, created by the mayor in May, is working on long-term plans to address joblessness. The University of Baltimore is running a class, “Divided Baltimore,” exploring the root causes of the unrest; a few hundred people, black and white, turned out recently to hear Elizabeth M. Nix, a university historian, talk about the city’s history of housing segregation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a major philanthropy, donated $2 million to enable the city to offer more young people summer jobs.
“A lot of people in white and wealthy corporate America said, ‘What did we not do, to make these neighborhoods better?’ ” said Tessa Hill-Aston, the president of the Baltimore chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who also attended the Johns Hopkins reception. “There’s not a corporate board meeting where Freddie Gray’s name doesn’t come out of everyone’s mouth.”
To Mr. Hickman, these are hopeful signs. But as he looked around Mr. Daniels’s elegantly appointed living room that evening — just hours after a judge had set Nov. 30 as the date for the first of the six trials in Mr. Gray’s death — he also felt a sense of unease as he contemplated the murky path forward.
“The city is definitely on hold,” the pastor said. “We’re on ‘pause,’ waiting to press ‘play.’ ”