On Sundays, on a strip of Baltimore City street that spans about two and a half blocks, a crowd gathers. Girls arrayed in carefully-assembled outfits and cascading foreign hair stand along the sidewalk, looking at once giddy and bored. Men on ten-speed and motocross bicycles slowly propel themselves along the other side of the street, taking surreptitious glances over their shoulders, waiting for something unusual to happen. Fathers on foot hoist their sons onto their shoulders in anticipation of spectacular sights. And other children, mostly unaccompanied, dart in and out of the slowly growing crowd for a better view.
It’s Reisterstown Road, where it meets Auchentoroly Terrace: on one side rests sprawling Druid Hill Park, with its pavilions where just a month earlier, before the fall chill settled in, festive balloons and coils of charcoal smoke abounded each weekend. Souped-up Cadillacs and Lincolns with gleaming rims inched along the loop for unauthorized classic car shows.
Deeper into the park sits a sparsely populated “disc golf course”: eighteen near empty holes with rusting chain-link baskets. Today, three men can be seen tossing Frisbees, two white and one lone brother.
It isn’t really a disc golf kind of neighborhood.
Though the chill and drizzle of the day have driven people away from the park’s inside, parked cop cars remain. They are present here whenever people are.
On the other side of the street is a church, Mt. Lebanon Baptist. I went there once, over a decade ago, with a dear high school friend whose grandmother was a member. When we walked through the double-wooden doors after the service, two brothers strolled by, their jeans slung low, their Timbs without spot or blemish.
“Beautiful,” my friend quipped appreciatively, and for a nanosecond, the young men’s stony faces crumpled into vulnerable smiles.
This Sunday, the men along the sidewalk, waiting, remind me of them: guarded, but not immovable.
An engine revs loudly in the distance and the crowd perks up at once. This is what they’ve anticipated. Excessive engine-gunning echoes in the fraught air and, like a bullet, a motorbike shoots down the strip on one wheel. The man on its back is standing. It is, quite possibly, the longest wheelie I’ve ever seen. And it’s being performed on an unblocked street, where regular motorists are carefully making their way by. Soon, an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) follows, also at rapid speed; its driver rises and places one knee on the seat, then the other.
This is the second time I’ve been returning home from a Sunday outing with my two-year-old and my mother and found myself in the thick of an illegal community bike show.
We veer off toward the park itself and ride the loop inside it. A cluster of men on ATVs and motorcycles are sitting at the foot of a hill, looking up toward the action. Their stunts are next. One smokes and looks off in the distance.
No one’s wearing a helmet.
Mom wants to return to Auchentoroly. The mood there is electric. Fathers’ faces are alight; you can practically see them wishing it were them out there at upwards of ninety miles an hour, standing on the backs of bikes and being egged on by an increasingly impressed crowd. But perhaps the prudence of parenthood holds them back–or their fear of a glancing blow from the long-arm of the law.
As Mom circles back, I tell her the cops will break things up before we get back to the street. I can see the lights of a squad car twirling red and blue through our rear window. She says we may have time. We still hear the engines. The men on their bikes are still in their holding pattern at the bottom of a Druid Hill.
Around 1723, Auchentoroly Terrace was owned by a wealthy man named George Buchanan, who wistfully named it after his hometown, Auchentorolie, in Scotland. It consists of nine rows of housing, two mansions, and two duplexes, all facing the south side of Druid Hill Park.
The rowhomes along this strip belie its former splendor. Some residents seem to have worked hard to add varnish and colorful paint to the porches and stoops, but the area at large stands in contrast: in the early 2000s, Druid Hill had one of the highest crime rates of any park in the city.
It’s a ninety percent black community known, in its current state, for little more than a minor ’90s R&B group and a long history of disturbing, often drug-related crime. The highest percentage of its residents max out at high school or less than high school education levels. The median annual salary is a little over $25,500.
It’s a high-stress area. Many neighborhoods in West Baltimore are. But none of that matters this late afternoon, as people congregate on the sidewalks, the engines luring them like the lute of a piper. Their faces show none of the worry or strain they may face back at home tonight or on Monday. The adrenaline courses from the riders into the crowd, and it’s infectious.
As we round a corner, back in plain view of Auchentoroly, we feel the contact high of the thrill-seekers, hoping to catch one more high-stakes stunt, weaving its way through the street’s traffic pattern.
But what we witness instead are six police vehicles, six squad cars and a van, windows down to call out to anyone moving too slowly, lights flashing in sober silence. They are generous enough not to initiate sirens, but it’s hard appreciate that small magnanimity.
Though the racing itself is highly dangerous and obviously illegal, it’s the crowd being herded off the streets by the glacial-paced police cars who appear, to the outside observer, to be the wronged party. The demarcation between Us and Them is never clearer than in moments like these. Even when They are right, We distrust them.
Hood heroes, the men and women who combat poverty, infuse neighborhoods with levity, and who, whenever necessary, mete out swift retribution, do not resemble the ones in our storybooks. They can rarely be found in the personal interest segments of our local news broadcasts. The code that binds them isn’t always in accordance with state law. But without them, daily life can seem infinitely bleaker.
As we rode back up Reisterstown Road, toward the County, we saw countless men walking down toward the show, blissfully unaware that it had already been broken up (or perhaps in anticipation of a second, covert wave of stunts). One father walked slowly next to his son, who sat on a motorized lime-and-white mini-bike, a matching helmet shielding his face, the straps of a backpack slung over his shoulders. He was all of six.
In that moment, “right” was relative. Is it better to contain the mercenary and to drive the demoralized people back into their homes–in the name of safety and orderly conduct–or should we adapt our approach? Can the talents of the risk-bearing riders be groomed rather than criminalized? Can we make what is hazardous less so with community grants and nonprofit savvy rather than handcuffs and wrap sheets?
Is there any middle ground between Us and Them?
I have seen the result of a man’s life whose talents go unacknowledged or devalued, whose passions are unchecked or ignored, whose hopes are contested and unexplored.
He ambles through the world with sliding feet and curved shoulders, as though, at every turn, the silent lights of an invisible cruiser are trailing.