Fourteen-year-old Troy Neal grew up in Baltimore. It’s where his friends are, where he scraped his knees learning to skateboard in Carroll Park, and where he had planned to attend Mount St. Joseph’s High School this fall.
It’s also where the precocious teen’s stepfather was murdered in July in the second attempt on his life in a year. After that, Troy’s mother moved the family to the New York area, but the distance didn’t insulate Troy from the tragedies that continued to unfold back home as summer dragged on.
This time, the news came as he scrolled through Facebook while sitting in the living room of his new home: A friend, 15-year-old aspiring rapper Deshaun Jones, had been killed in Troy’s old neighborhood.
“It doesn’t seem real ...” he said quietly as he viewed the “R.I.P.” messages and candlelight vigil photos. When Troy first read that Jones was “gone,” he thought his friend had signed a contract for his rapping and was leaving Baltimore behind. “I didn’t know he died.”
This summer’s violence stretched across the city, coming in such regularity that many — like Troy — felt its toll more than once.
Though still far lower than totals Baltimore has seen in its recent history, shootings and homicides are up 17 percent in 2013, compared with last year. Particularly alarming to police: The number of shootings with multiple victims — indicating more indiscriminate gunfire — is twice as high as it was last year. Much of the spike was fueled by two violent spurts in late June and mid-August.
Seconds of gunfire have made an impact that some Baltimoreans will deal with for decades. The summer violence has turned husbands into single parents, transformed rookie cops into veterans, left missing verses in half-finished rap songs, forced politicians to personally confront the city’s crime problems, and sent longtime residents to new places and new lives.
”Did you eat?” William Irvin asked his son.
“No,” Shaquille responded.
“Do you want to eat?”
“Not really,” the 17-year-old said, as he slumped on the couch, eyes and fingers consumed with his smartphone.
The two are alone now in their Northeastern Baltimore rowhouse. Joyce Irvin, William’s wife and Shaquille’s mother, was one of two people gunned down on June 22 in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a crime that remains unsolved. The home remains neat, but there are subtle signs of disorder — like the bottle of Tide on the dining room floor.
“I have to raise him by myself,” said Irvin, 48, a contractor. “Might sound corny, might sound however people might think, but she was the best mother to him.”
She could relate better to the boy, and was able to discuss Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross songs. But they worked together to raise him and keep the house.
“I cooked, she cleaned,” Irvin said.
Now, “dust accumulates every day,” he said as he continued to pace, checking the front-door lock, glancing out the screen door, pulling a dead leaf from a plant on the coffee table.
He feels equipped to handle the load that street violence has left him.
He knows Ajax and water can rub the grime out of kitchen counters and rowhouse steps. He knows how to sew, something his aunt taught him after his mother died when he was 6. “I can make a shirt, I can make a woman’s dress, I can cut out the patterns, take pants up,” he said.
He can cook chicken, steak — and a ham glazed with a family recipe that his wife loved. But his son prefers fast food, Irvin said, so that’s often what they eat.
Leaning against the living room archway, next to a framed painting of “The Thinker,” Irvin said he tries not to worry about Shaquille. Worry makes you sick and he can’t afford to miss work.
“I don’t worry about anything. ... “ he said. “I think about making sure he grows up to be the man he wants to be, not the man I want him to be. I think about him getting a job and taking care of himself and being responsible overall.”
Until then, he vows that he will not lose his son to violence.
“I’m going to protect mine,” Irvin said. “If it takes me, I’m gonna protect mine.”
His home is his “castle,” Irvin said. Outside, he acknowledged, he can’t always keep an eye on Shaquille.
“The hardest thing about being a father is making sure your kids are safe all the time,” he said. “But you can’t be everywhere. So you pray a lot.”
The streets are a lot different from the days when Irvin grew up in West Baltimore. Kids fought with their fists, not guns. When they returned home, they got “whooped again” by their parents, he said.
“You like it that way?” Shaquille asked.
“Yeah,” Irvin replied. “Discipline. Teenagers don’t have a clue what’s going on. They take a life in a minute.”
Young people don’t think about the aftermath: A victim’s family must decide which flowers to display at a funeral and what casket to order. When Irvin buried Joyce, he put her in the pink Adidas sweatsuit she loved and had “Loving wife and mother” engraved on the headstone.
Having worked in building trades for the past 30 years, Irvin chose the materials: Granite because that’s how tough Joyce was. Bronze because it doesn’t tarnish.
Does Irvin think about revenge?
“All the time,” he said. Then he looked toward Shaquille.
“But if I were to get even it’d be senseless,” Irvin said. “Another life gone. It ain’t going to bring her back. But it’d let them know what they done to my son.”
The patrol officer
Just after 1 a.m. the busy intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues was lit up like Oriole Park. The Western district, which has recorded the highest number of shootings and homicides in the city this year, had recently been besieged by robberies and police were stopping people at three different corners.
Officer William Quigley, 24 years old and just a year out of field training, came up on a group of young men walking briskly through the block and singled one of them out. “Hey my man. You got ID?”
“For what?” the man responded. His friends pushed past without breaking stride as Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” blared in the distance.
The man had short twists in his hair, just like a carjacking suspect who was terrorizing the area, according to police. Quigley jotted down information in a notebook in case it proved useful later, and sent him on his way.
“We’re not trying to pick on people,” Quigley explained. “We want citizens to be able to enjoy themselves without worrying about getting robbed or assaulted.”
Like Quigley, many officers in the Western District — which had to pay overtime to fill the cars on this night — are young, an increasing trend as the police department struggles to retain personnel. He’s a Dundalk native who attended Archbishop Curley and played soccer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before suffering an injury.
Now he’s tasked with breaking up gangs and finding illegal guns in the 735 post of the district’s third sector, better known as the Coppin Heights area.
“A lot of what goes on around here stems from gangs and drugs,” he said of the residential neighborhood, which is vibrant and not plagued by vacants. “We try to keep them as broken up as possible, to take them down one-by-one. … We’ll get there eventually. Hopefully.”
Earlier this year, the area was exploding with shootings and the department brass flooded the streets with foot patrols. The shootings have largely subsided here, but the potential for violence always looms large.
Quigley’s calls to begin the night consisted of domestic violence reports: a man who became combative while picking up his things from an ex, a woman hiding in her car from a boyfriend, and a woman who had a lemon-sized welt next to her eye — she had been arguing with her boyfriend about who she was texting.
“She probably hit herself,” the boyfriend asserted to Quigley.
A short time later, a call came for 15 shots fired a half-mile away. Another caller reported what sounded like two guns exchanging fire.
Quigley’s cruiser screamed through the streets, slowing only at intersections, and when he pulled into the 1200 block of Whitelock St., a 31-year-old man was lying on the front steps of a row house.
“I heard gunshots, and ducked,” he told the officers, wincing. “I felt something in my back, so I just stayed there.”
Police would later determine the man was not shot, but was injured when he fell on an object. Still, the incident rattled the street. The man was taken away on a stretcher as women consoled each other on the sidewalk. A half-dozen officers searched an alley with flashlights. Employees of a corner bar, who said they heard the shots, scanned their vehicles for bullet holes.
Quigley cordoned off the block with crime tape, and waited. His shift still had four hours to go.
“It’s been quiet out here,” he lamented.
But the lull in violence did not last. Three days later, someone would be shot in the 2200 block of N. Fulton St., where three people were murdered inside a home earlier in the year. And on Thursday night, a 20-year-old was fatally shot in the heart of Quigley’s post.
Cornelius Owens stood alone on a West Baltimore corner, his usual hangout. In front of him mostly vacant row houses reflected the bleak opportunities provided by a life on the street. A block away, a makeshift memorial for his slain teenage friend represented a common, and fatal, dead end.
Owens, 21, lives nearby on West Lexington Street but violence isn’t going to make him move from the neighborhood. He pulled out a battered smartphone, and found a music track: So stuck in my ways, get the [expletive] out of my way …
The tinny speakers blasted the rap song he recorded, a street-hustling anthem as well as a personal statement. He vowed not to be taken from his corner, his way of life, his goals or the 1-year-old son who bears his name.
It’s brash talk considering gunfire has taken three friends in three years.“Only certain ones survive,” he said. “The good ones, they get took.”
Deshaun “Lor D’Shaun” Jones was one of them, a teen who helped make up a group of amateur rappers. They included Owens — who goes by “C” — “Icon” and “Lor David” — Jones’ brother, all plying their trade on YouTube and at area clubs with some success.
Jones, just 15, was one of the best, Owens said. He was killed Aug. 24 when, police say, someone shot up a dice game, wounding six others, near North Gilmor and West Fayette Streets.
“He was a ‘hood legend,” Owens said. His videos have amassed more than 16,000 online views. Rumors have surfaced since his death that a nationally known rapper was starting to take an interest in his music.
It’s something the entire group dreams of.
“I’m trying to put it all in my music, so I won’t have to be in the streets,” said Kevin “Icon” Ben. “I love my city but it’s quicksand.”
Owens loves Franklin Square, too — his “hood,” his community. But he wants to rise out of it, as well. He is proud that he graduated from high school last year at 20. He had almost given up when a two-month stint in jail for assault put him too far behind to stay with his class.
He’s reluctant to abandon his home even after losing two other friends: David Mitchell, 16, in 2010 and Davon Dorsey, 18, “shot in the head” in 2011.
“The last couple of years, you have seen the violence rise,” he said. “East Baltimore, West Baltimore, Cherry Hill. ... For all the little kids around here and my son, of course I’m scared.”
Had Owens not been working a day-labor job, hauling junk and abandoned mattresses out of an East Baltimore yard, he said, he would’ve been with Jones that fatal summer night.
“Probably would be a victim myself. Probably wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.
Owens said he knows what’s causing the violence. It’s not drugs or money, though they are fuel. Triggers are pulled over “respect” — and it doesn’t take much.
“It can be words,” he said. “It can be eyes. Eyes can be disrespectful. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true.”