Women who work at the hair salon in the 100 block of South Conkling Street in Baltimore take a smoke break and talk about how the neighborhood has become
Women who work at the hair salon in the 100 block of South Conkling Street in Baltimore take a smoke break and talk about how the neighborhood has become pretty tough lately. The street is where police allege Michael L. Johnson Jr., posing as a police officer, kidnapped a woman and later raped her. (Daily Record/Sunday News -- Jason Plotkin)

BALTIMORE -- From behind the presumably bullet-proof Plexiglas encasing the counter at the Corona Corner Store, clerk Jose Torres said, "This is a tough neighborhood."

Just look outside, he said.

Outside, the place didn't look all that tough. It looked like any urban neighborhood, rowhouses lining a block anchored by a couple of neighborhood bars, a laundromat and a mattress store. It could have easily been a block on South Duke Street, or West Princess Street, or any street, in York.

Up the street, a few tough-looking kids manned the stoop of a rowhouse, giving hard looks to strangers. In the next block was a woman with hair dyed fire-engine red, copious amounts of makeup fighting the ravages of time and, perhaps, life on the street.

"See what I mean," Torres said, pointing to a young blond woman who entered the store.

The woman, accompanied by two men, didn't look out all that unusual. She was wearing jeans, a parka and a hard look.

Torres presumed the woman was plying her trade, the oldest profession. There's a lot of that on this block in East Baltimore, residents said, in the neighborhood called Highlandtown.

South Conkling Street is notorious as a marketplace for flesh and drugs -- not unlike a lot of streets in the sections of Baltimore far from the touristy safety of the Inner Harbor or Camden Yards. The neighborhood is maybe a mile from downtown, but its atmosphere is another world.

It looks like the kind of working-class neighborhood it really is. Some rowhouses are very well-kept. The street is cleaner than some you see. The residents are racially and ethnically diverse.

But it's still notorious in Baltimore, residents said.

It is the neighborhood in which Baltimore police allege Michael L. Johnson Jr., a former York City cop and current Penn Township president commissioner, kidnapped a woman, posing as a police officer, and after handcuffing her, raped her in an industrial area about a five-minute drive away.

The Nov. 2 rape, police charged in an affidavit based on the victim's account of the crime, occurred in a dead-end alley off Monument Street, a street lined with factories and warehouses. The alleged site of the crime is wedged between a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a lumber warehouse -- a place that once the sun goes down, is as dark and secluded as any in the city.

The 100 block of South Conkling Street was also a crime scene. It was there that, police said, Johnson stalked his victim, presuming she was a prostitute and therefore, easy prey, the kind of person not likely to report the crime to the cops. (The woman reportedly told Johnson she wasn't a prostitute and later told police she was on the block looking to score heroin.)

According to residents, it was a fair presumption.

"I'm not surprised by it," said Paul Zappardino, owner of Zappardino's Automotive on the corner of Conkling and Lombard streets. "It's all along the street around here."

Zappardino has been in business on the corner for more than 20 years. The neighborhood used to be pretty stable, he said, a lot like Canton, just south of it. But in the 1990s, when the city started tearing down the worst of its public housing high-rises, the drug dealers and prostitutes who plied their trades in the projects migrated to the neighborhoods, including Highlandtown.

"We have assaults, shootings, robberies here all the time," Zappardino said. "We had three murders in the area last year."

The police do what they can, residents said. But it's tough, like trying to hold back the tide. The neighborhood has police surveillance cameras -- locally known as "blue light specials" because of their flashing blue lights -- but it doesn't seem to stop the illicit trade on the street, which can be brazen.

"You can see drug deals going on all the time," Zappardino said. "I've been propositioned while I was working on a car here."

He pointed to a house around the corner.

"That's a whorehouse," he said.

Everybody in the neighborhood knows it, he said. Now and then, the police run a sting and round up the prostitutes in a raid, but it only serves as a speed bump for the business.

Zappardino himself doesn't see the attraction for men who seek out assignations with professionals in the block.

"I don't know what possesses guys to do that," he said. "You look at these women. You can get an STD just looking at them."

Cecelia Hopkins, a 72-year-old retired bartender and food service worker at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, has lived in the neighborhood all her life and she's not going anywhere. She shops at the local stores and goes to mass at Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church on the corner.

"It's my neighborhood and I love it," she said.

Things get bad, she said, and residents have meetings with the police to get the neighborhood cleaned up. And for a while, life improves. Then, it gets bad again, she said.

She knows it's a lot like any neighborhood in the city -- worse than some and not as bad as others.

"What can I say? It's everywhere," she said.

For the most part, the prostitutes and drug dealers leave the law-abiding residents alone, reaching a kind of equilibrium that allows them to conduct business while not prompting citizens to call for meetings with the cops to clean things up.

"You get to know who they are," Hopkins said. "You don't know them by name, but you know who they are. They leave me alone."

Outside the beauty shop, a couple of the hairdressers were taking a smoke break.

"East Baltimore is tough," said one of them. "But people pretty much mind their own business. We do our business and they do theirs. It's not like they're throwing their bodies at you. You just look at them as someone that the street got."

And that's the way it is.

As Torres said, "It's Highlandtown. What're you gonna do?"