Driving across West Baltimore recently, I got stuck at an intersection behind a slow-moving truck. After sitting through two cycles at the traffic signal, I inched my car forward to see what was blocking the way. Normally, trucks are delivering beer to liquor stores in this neighborhood. But on that unseasonably warm late fall day, the truck was bringing something that is always in demand in Charm City - caskets.
There is not much commerce in West Baltimore. The place has actually been declared a "food desert" - after the last supermarket at Monroe and Presstman closed last year. The building was razed. It's a vacant lot now. The little convenience store across the street, curiously called Jolly, was looted and burned like so many others during the widespread rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray last spring. It remains boarded up. Since the riots, the worst in nearly half a century, which resulted in some $30 million in damages, there is even less commerce.
But the funeral homes do a brisk business. I pass several on my daily route through a neighbourhood visited in December by usually taciturn Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator's whistle stop in the "Land of Pleasant Living," - another of our nicknames - consisted of a 20-minute Freddie Gray tour/photo op.
"Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighbourhood," Sanders told reporters, "would not think you are in a wealthy nation. You would think you are in a Third World country."
West Baltimore is indeed a Third World country, a place of extremes, poverty and constant violence. On a busy weekend, there can be several murders. A murder a day is not uncommon. As of this writing, 341 people were killed last year, a staggering increase over the preceding year, when a mere 211 died. The city has only once recorded an annual homicide rate this high, and that was more than 20 years ago. Back then 100,000 more people lived in the city, which now only has 622,000 residents.
But the year of Freddie Gray has been a different year in so many ways. When 2015 began, you could have put all the folks in Baltimore who had ever heard of Gray on the No. 35 bus that lumbers across the blighted west side. Now his ghost haunts us.
The particular death that has much preoccupied Baltimore since last spring involved a 25-year-old small-time criminal who died a week after a violent encounter with the police on a Sunday morning in West Baltimore. His death, apparently resulting from massive spinal injuries, has riveted the city. Like most Baltimoreans - and I have lived here for 36 years - I want to know how this could have happened.
Gray was an almost classic West Baltimore corner boy. He was a petty criminal. He'd been arrested before. He had lead-paint poisoning in his background. But he was not a bad guy, and he was not violent; how he wound up in the back of a police wagon with massive spinal injuries is deeply troubling.
The city has already preemptively settled with Gray's family for $6.4 million, a whopping payout when one considers that the six police officers charged in connection with his death had not been tried yet. Baltimore is hemorrhaging money as a result of Gray's death. The trial of Officer William Porter, who did not actually arrest Gray but was one of the police involved in his detention, ended last week with a hung jury.
The Porter trial was supposed to be the easy one, one reason it was the first. But that proved not to be the case. The problem is that Gray's death is not Ferguson, Missouri. There is nothing simple or obvious about it. It's not clean.
Of the six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with Gray's death, three are black and three are white. Unlike most of the other incidents that have gripped the nation in the last couple of years, however, this one is more complicated. There is video showing Gray being arrested, but it is not clear if this is when he was injured. The case hinges on who did or failed to do what. Much of it involves what may or may not have happened after Gray was put into the police wagon.
There seems to be general agreement that he was subjected to a "rough ride" - a longstanding but inappropriate police practice of driving a suspect around, with his hands and feet bound, at a high rate of speed. The occupant bounces around like a tennis ball. The case also involves negligence and whether officers failed to perform proper procedures. Did they fail to offer Gray assistance? The officers all had different levels of contact with him at different times the morning he was detained.
Despite a lot of speculation, largely by the national television media, the city has remained calm since the spring riots. But it is still anxious and bewildered. Baltimore wants answers and there are none - yet.
The west side is plastered with signs exhorting passersby. "Thou Shall Not Kill" and "We Must Stop Killing Each Other" are two of the most prevalent, professionally printed signs tacked or stapled to the fronts of an uncountable number of abandoned buildings that dot the city. There are said to be 16,000 such buildings. Who can say? I drive past dozens of these signs every day. A grim urban collage that reminds us how cheap life is here.
A crude, hand-painted effort at Monroe and Lafayette reads, "NO SHOOT ZONE." It looks like a child could have done it. It's next to a snowball stand (which during Baltimore's brutally hot summers sells flavored crushed ice) and across the street from a hardware store with ample signage advising on how to deal with cockroaches and bed bugs. The only gas station for miles is on the other side of the street. Most of the surrounding houses are abandoned.
The signs remind us that black lives matter. Yet the homicide rate consists overwhelmingly of black victims, and the accused assailants are virtually all black. All but 30 of the 336 dead last year are black. This is an awkward fact.
The year of Freddie Gray has been an especially weary time. There has been a grim feel to it. The Baltimore Orioles tanked. The Baltimore Ravens, the city's beloved National Football League franchise touted as a Super Bowl contender at the start of the season but now plagued by injuries, including the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco, are limping to the finish line with a 5-10 record, with one game to play. The city is crushed by corruption, the most recent, which could have been scissored out of the fabled cable series The Wire, involved maintenance workers who demanded sex from poor women in exchange for repairs in public housing.
The year of Freddie Gray can't be over soon enough, but the New Year promises little more than more of the same. There is a terrible sense here that nothing is going to change. There are still the six police officers charged in connection with Gray's death. Porter is due to be retried in June. The police trials will parallel the run-up to the city's crucial Democratic mayoral primary in late April.
The current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of a former prominent local politician, who might have had a bright future, has decided not to run for re-election. Gray was on her watch.
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1 (or higher), and where there are sections of the city in which there are literally no Republicans, this election is simply the most important in modern history. The victor is essentially assured of a win in November. But the next mayor must lead a beleaguered Baltimore.
The mayoral primary field is an odd one: 10 candidates at last count, though there were 12 at one point. It ranges from a former mayor who left office in connection with the theft of gift cards for children (she's the overwhelming favorite), several seasoned political hacks, a few genuine zanies and two high-profile white candidates. (Baltimore is overwhelmingly black, about 70 per cent if those who traditionally are not counted in the census are factored into the equation.) One of the white candidates is a rich guy who made money in hedge funds, the other the daughter of a prominent white power broker. Neither has any political experience. But white candidates can be spoilers in an election with a crowded ballot.
Baltimore has also become a city with a fabled low voter turnout in many quarters. Even during a presidential election year, even with Barack Obama running for president, there were sections of the city where only a handful voted. So it does not take Nate Silver to figure that with so many candidates on the ballot, the Democratic primary is up for grabs - like so much else is here.
Baltimore is surrounded by suburban counties that tend to view their interests as at odds with the city, regarding it as a sort of deadbeat relative. Maryland's current chief executive, Governor Larry Hogan, a popular Republican who just survived cancer, making him especially sympathetic, drives this point home most bluntly. Hogan is plainly no fan of Baltimore, but he stopped by as the deadlocked jury considered Porter's fate. Pointing to the city's extraordinary homicide rate, which Hogan called "disgraceful," the governor asked the embarrassingly awkward question.
"Crime is out of control in Baltimore City," Hogan said during a radio interview. "I've expressed my concern that we have a lot of people out there, expressing their concern, their frustration over the tragic death of Freddie Gray. But where is the uproar from the community? Where are the people protesting the 330 people murdered?"
Within a few days the death toll jumped to 341.
Christopher Corbett, the author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express" and "The Poker Bride:
The First Chinese in the Wild West," is a former Associated Press news editor in Baltimore.
Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.