Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Mount Vernon's Safety Net


“The door to safety swings on the hinges of common sense.”—Author Unknown 

In the aftermath of a car slamming into a pickup truck containing white paint and then immediately the exterior of Grand Central on September 16, passions bubbled to the surface concerning safety in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.  Folks on both sides of the issue did not hesitate to register their opinions on blogs, Facebook and other social media.
Some allege the neighborhood with its sizable LGBT population that includes five gay bars (earning the moniker “Gayborhood”), several cultural venues, and a host of shops and restaurants, is becoming more and more unsafe while others don’t see a problem.  It’s an emotional tug-of-war with perceptions, rather than facts, driving the debate.

Let’s start with the episode that triggered the latest round of hand-wringing over safety.  This unfortunate, rather freakish incident, which inflicted extensive damage to the bar’s entrance and patio, could have occurred anywhere.  Grand Central was clearly not targeted; it just happened to be located at the point where the accident took place.  

On that Monday night at around 9:30, there weren’t many customers inside and luckily no one at the time was sipping drinks on the outside patio, which is otherwise very popular on weekends. Accordingly, the only injuries sustained (and they were minor) were to the drivers of the vehicles involved.  Everyone else was safe and the building’s repair work is well underway. The odds of a repeat occurrence are probably equal to or less than being hit by lightning.

Of course, Mount Vernon had been the scene of several high profile crimes over the past year or so.  The most significant that comes to mind is the double shooting on August 10 of last year in front of the Empire House Bed and Breakfast on East Chase Street whereby a gay man, Joseph Alexander “Alex” Ulrich Jr., died and another, Leon Peterson, was critically wounded.  The shooting took place just before 4 a.m., and police determined the motive to be robbery.
That incident plus the garden variety of lesser crimes don’t make the neighborhood generally unsafe.  Indeed, indications are that Mount Vernon has a lower crime rate than most other areas in the city.  That doesn’t call for complacency, however, as crime does and will continue to occur.

Acknowledging that probability, a safety net has been put in place.  The Mount Vernon Belvedere Association (MVBA), a neighborhood community organization, maintains a vigil with its Citizens on Patrol program or COP. 
“MVBA with our partner, Midtown Community Benefits District, continues to provide safety patrols throughout our neighborhoods by hiring off-duty police officers to ride with citizens on segways,” explains Jason Curtis, president of the MVBA.  “This COP program is very beneficial, and there are statistics which show this program has reduced crime in our neighborhoods by some 80 per cent over the past few years.”

Curtis adds, “Anyone interested in participating in the COP program should contact me at safety@mvba.org to arrange segway training then sign up for actual rides.”
The Baltimore City Police Department is also keeping a watchful eye on the Mount Vernon district.  Lieutenant Eric Kowalczyk, who is the liaison between the LGBT community and the city’s police, noted there have been an increase in foot patrols and surveillance in the neighborhood.  “It’s not because there is more crime,” he points out. “Mount Vernon is considered very important to the city.”

Both Lieutenant Kowalczyk and Jason Curtis agree that Mount Vernon, despite incidences of crime, continues to be a safe, pedestrian friendly place for residents, students, visitors and tourists.  “Mount Vernon, and more broadly Baltimore City, is no different than any other larger city in the U.S.A.,” says Curtis.  “One must always be aware of their surroundings and one must report any suspicious activity to 9-1-1.”
While there have been a few specifically targeted cases of violent crime, a majority of the crime in Mount Vernon continues to be cell phone robberies and auto larcenies.  “Pedestrians not paying attention to their surroundings or individuals sitting at bus stops texting have become easy targets by having their phones snatched,” says Curtis.  “Everyone is vulnerable, and the best way to prevent such an event is to be alert and know who is around you.”

MVBA will continue to work with the Baltimore Police Department to be as proactive as possible in communicating events that happen within the neighborhood.  Police representatives attend all of the MVBA meetings, which are held the third Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at The Belvedere.
Indeed, this safety net in Mount Vernon provided by the COP program and the police can only work if the citizens exercise common sense.  The best suggestion is not to be incapacitated by being intoxicated or high.  You lose reaction time, become oblivious of the surroundings and could be seen as vulnerable to a would-be mugger.

You should travel in pairs or in a group, if possible, and venture down well-lit sidewalks, continually being observant.  Curtis advises residents to close and lock their windows when they are not home.  “It is that time of year when we open our windows to get fresh cool air and often forget to close our windows before leaving for work or school,” he says.
Marty Hoegg, a 25 year-old resident of Pasadena, Md. visits the area regularly. “I haven’t ever felt not-safe in Mount Vernon but I’m also smart about traveling in groups and staying away from isolated areas,” he says.  “Don't look like your lost and keep your guard up.  Pay attention to your surroundings.”

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