Italian by blood and gregarious by nature, June Amundson says “I felt like I came home when I moved” to Little Italy. The 50-year-old embraced the social aspects of the close-knit East Baltimore community, spending nights and holidays with her neighbors.
Increasingly, though, her fondness for the more than century-old neighborhood has turned to concern for her safety. She worries about walking from her car to her house on S. High Street after dark.
Last Sunday, Amundson’s friend Chesley Patterson, the general manager at La Scala restaurant and a beloved figure in the community, was shot dead while driving home from work. He was blocks away from the restaurant where he spent much of the past 17 years. Baltimore police say they do not yet have a suspect in the killing, one of 32 homicides so far this year alone.
“This kind of is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Amundson said through tears Wednesday evening at a vigil honoring Patterson.
Amundson was one of around 300 mourners who gathered outside the Eastern Avenue restaurant where Patterson worked, braving the frigid temperatures to remember a man they say embodied hospitality. Always impeccably dressed in a suit, he would stop to chat with neighbors on his way to buy bread every afternoon for the evening’s dinner service.
Patterson, 44, was one of those people who made everyone feel like his best friend, recalled longtime customer and friend Suzanne Costa through tears. The 72-year-old nurse came with her husband from Ellicott City for the vigil.
“It’s just such a tragedy,” she said. “It makes you almost not want to come downtown anymore.”
Many present said the death was prompting them to consider moving out of the neighborhood despite long ties to the area.
Mark Orendorff’s family has been in Little Italy for 100 years. Now, the 41-year-old who works for the city and his wife, Jesel, say they are contemplating leaving Baltimore because of the violence, particularly as they look to start a family.
“The city’s not safe at all,” said Jesel, 26, who moved from the Philippines three years ago. The crime in the area “makes me think crazy,” she said. “I think we should move.”
While homicides have long made headlines in Baltimore, recent killings in the city have personalized the violence.
Among the victims are James Blue III, 43, who was married to a Baltimore police lieutenant and the brother of Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. Hours after Patterson’s death, a 51-year-old grandmother was killed in Northeast Baltimore while delivering food for DoorDash.
In the wake of Patterson’s killing, his former co-worker Julio Cervantes said he and his wife were planning to move from their home in Ridgley’s Delight to Baltimore County with their young children.
“I have no belief that this is going to get better,” he said.
It was hard for him to wrap his mind around the killing of someone as generous as Patterson, whom he’d worked with at La Scala a few years ago before changing careers.
The lack of information about Patterson’s death makes it all the more disturbing for residents, said Seema D. Iyer, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore who has researched Baltimore communities and the reasons residents move away. In the majority of fatal shootings, the perpetrator and victim are connected in some way. Death’s like Patterson’s, she said, “are the types of things that do drive people from the city, when it seems so random.”
While researchers have much to learn about how communities have shifted during the pandemic, Iyer said an overall drop in foot traffic in urban areas has made many areas feel less safe.
“We’ve had two years where the density of our activity is so much lower than it normally would be,” she said. “You can imagine in a normal situation there would be other people on the street.”
Pam Needleman, who owns the Little Italy hair salon Sweet Louie’s, recalled how just over the weekend she had been remarking on the beauty of newly-installed cafe lights illuminating the area’s old Formstone facades. She remembered thinking: “It looks good to see the neighborhood coming back.”
Just more than 24 hours later, Patterson was killed.
“We take one step forward and then the city drags you three steps back,” she said. His death was a “gut punch, gut punch, gut punch.”
Needleman, who lives in the neighborhood, said she’s become jumpy and suspicious of strangers. She too, is considering a move.
“Baltimore is a bad boyfriend I can’t defend anymore,” she said.
In addition to Patterson’s killing, other violence has put the area on edge, too. Last November, Father Bernie Carman, the pastor of St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church on S. Exeter Street, was mugged and pistol-whipped at four in the afternoon. The crime shocked and outraged residents.
Still, until Patterson’s killing last weekend, Paula Pizza, 59, said she had been looking at apartments near Little Italy, where she grew up. She had recently moved to Sparrows Point, partly to escape the crime of the city.
But for all the peace and quiet, she said, “it’s lonely out in the county.”
Her social life remained in her old neighborhood, particularly at La Scala, where she and Patterson were very close. He greeted her with a loving “Paulaaaaaa!”
Despite Baltimore’s notorious crime, Pizza said, village-like Little Italy felt insulated from whatever violence surrounded it. But Patterson’s death has shattered her view of the neighborhood. Days later, a grief-stricken Pizza has been unable to return to work and can’t imagine moving back.
Supporters of the city and of Little Italy hope the neighborhood will press onward.
“I’m hoping that we all galvanize and strengthen Little Italy and address some of these issues in his memory and make Baltimore an even stronger place,” Iyer said in the aftermath of Patterson’s death. “Leaving won’t do that.”
La Scala, for now, will remain open.