Baltimore. Gritty, often angry and never with any pretense.
It’s a city that is more blue collar than blue blood, and it’s the city I grew up in.
But riding undercover with DEA special agent Todd Edwards, and seeing my beloved hometown through his eyes, was sobering for me.
Block after block, there were open-air drug markets among the rows of abandoned buildings. Edwards said a corner drug dealer can “sell between $10,000 and $30,000 a day.”
“Make no mistake about it, it’s very lucrative,” he said. “It’s a lot of money.”
According to the DEA and Baltimore Police, the rioting that convulsed after Freddie Grey's death led to wide-spread looting of neighborhood drug stores, putting new drugs on the street and sparking new turf battles and renewed bloodshed. There were 45 homicides in July, the most in 40 years, all the while arrests were down more than 30 percent from that same month last year, according to the City of Baltimore.
“You would be hard pressed to find someone who did not lose a loved one in Baltimore city this year,” said Sean Price, a 28-year-old native Baltimorean. “And I’m not talking about to cancer or something like that. I’m talking specifically to murder.”
Federal agents have been asked to step in and help Baltimore Police, embedding with the police department's homicide unit to help solve cases, but even for them, the city is daunting. Agent Todd Edwards said when he first got to Baltimore, he looked around and thought, “This is like Gotham City without Batman.”
And truly, it’s a city that needs heroes.
In the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up, those heroes are not immediately apparent. On the same streets were I walked to school, my bag was stolen out of our car within two minutes of our arrival for this story.
I found it dumped in an alley.
And there are still too many self-medicating against old pains. I spoke to one man on the street holding a bottle of Paul Masson brandy. I asked him, “Aren’t you getting started a little early?”
“No,” he said. “Sometimes you need something to wind down, you know?”
“Wind down” in a city where nearly one in four live in poverty with the unemployment rate in some neighborhoods four times the national average, according to the U.S. Census.
But it’s on these same streets where there was a resilience that felt familiar to what I remembered.
Local resident Greg Marshburn was an addict, a drug dealer and had served time on attempted murder charges. When I met him, he lifted his shirt and pointed out his various scars from where he had been shot.
“They’re war wounds,” he said. “It’s like a Baltimore thing. Everybody got them.”
Now Marshburn works for a state and federally funded program called Safe Streets, mediating disputes between gang members.
Preachers also have been filling a void for these communities that police can’t, or won’t, leading heartfelt “prayer walks.” Families were alarmed by increasing drug activity on the corner near the New Bethlehem Baptist Church.
“Since Freddie Grey’s death, we have seen a scarcity of law enforcement whose presence was really keeping that corner under control,” said Lisa Weah, the senior pastor of the church.
Sean Price, 28, was educated in one of the city’s elite private high schools. He went off to college and played college football, then returned home to Baltimore. Though many of his peers left, never to return, he sees Baltimore as in need, not of superheroes, but home grown talent that will stick around.
“I think Baltimore needs a bunch of everyday people just rising to the occasion,” he said.
Price mentors boys from the same neighborhood that produced Freddie Grey. He’s been a coach and mentor to 17-year-old Quan Oakley for five years. “If I need anything I can call Sean, he going to answer,” Quan said. “We talk about the stuff that black kids need to talk about to help you get past the obstacles here in Baltimore.”
Four days prior to meeting us, Quan said he was nearly caught in a shootout on the same block where FGrey was arrested.
“We hit the corner, and hear the gunshots and we keep going…I felt like I was in it,” Quan said.” With your skin like this, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
When Sean asked Quan what he’d do if the police arrived, Quan said he hadn’t thought about that scenario. And it’s in this crazy and complicated space that mentors like Sean provide a “game plan” for kids like Quan to stay alive, a path to navigate criminal and cops. And it’s in this crazy and complicated space that mentors like Sean provide a “game plan” for kids like Quan to stay alive, a path to navigate criminal and cops.
“You shouldn’t have to game plan on how to act innocent when the reality is that you actually are innocent,” Sean told Quan. “You got to have some kind of reference point if these things happen … just be as compliant as possible, and I hate to have to tell you that."
Price lives in the same neighborhood as Quan, with his fiance Ashley Riviera and their 1-year-old son, Sean Jr. Price’s block is an oasis in a barren land. Folks there are homeowners, part of the city’s sporadic redevelopment campaign.
But when Riviera walks to the bus stop, the rules change, and the risk rises.
“There’s a lot of activity and stuff like that as far as addicts and um people just not in their right state of mind,” she said. “We just basically stay on-point and just have faith.”
Riviera wants to move out of the city. Price wants to stay.
I know that urge. For most, to be born in Baltimore is to always want to be a part of Baltimore. But many like me left for opportunity elsewhere.
The same is true for Shawn Ellerman, the acting head of the DEA District in Baltimore, a city native son who escaped just like me, and is now back to make a difference. We even attended the same high school, Archbishop Curley, 10 years apart.
Now that he’s back in Baltimore, he said he sees “the sense of hopelessness.”
“Personally, not DEA, but personally Shawn Ellerman, as just a Baltimore guy, we failed somewhere. Really, I believe that as a person,” he said.
Despite the national narrative of a city out of control, Baltimore is a collection of neighborhoods and one size won’t fill all, but all are in need of heroes.
Sean Price says he’s not looking for “Batman” to save his city. Instead he is looking in the mirror and is now considering a major career change.
“I’m actually in the process of becoming a police officer,” he told me. “With everything going on now like why not me? Why not me?”
ABC News' Meagan Redman contributed to this report