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July 13, 2009

Gangs in Pen Lucy -- how it all began

With talk of a revival of the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys and the McCabe Avenue Boys in the North Baltimore area, I got this e-mail this morning from a many who says he was there when it all started. At left, in a photo from the Baltimore Sun's Chiaki Kawajiri, is a scene from Pen Lucy in 2000.

And of course it started with a fight over a girl.

The gangs fought it out on city streets for years, culminating in the 1990s with a spate of shootings. Now, police and neighborhood leaders say the groups are all but gone, and talks of them returning are nothing more than young wannabees using the names of the storied groups.

Here is a bit of history from one reader:

It was with great interest that I read your Crime scenes article in the Baltimore Sun on Friday July 10th 2009 about the resurgent gangs in Pen Lucy. That story was very near and dear to my heart as I was one of the original Old York and Cator Avenue Road boys and was involved in the first physical altercation that started the rivalry between the Old York Road and Cater Boys and the McCabe Avenue boys. I used to live at the corner of Old York and Willow Ave. Even before the Old York and Cator gang the original gang was the Willow Ave Boys. I am now a 56 year old professional black business man long removed from the mean streets of the Old York Road area. I feel that you may find the recounting of that rivalry interesting reading.

The rivalry started back in 1966 as back then and even now that area around Old York Road among the blacks was called “Wilson Park” and not Pen Lucy. What made that area so unique was back then it was a black enclave in an island surrounded by white neighbors. Waverly was to the south, Woodbourne avenue to the north, and Northwood to the West and Homeland to the East.

The black neighborhood was comprised of about 10 streets such as Cold Spring Lane, Willow Ave, Richwood, Radnor, Midwood, Wrenwood and 43th street. All of us black guys that lived in Wilson Park used to ban together to fight the white gangs mainly from Waverly to the south and Woodbourne avenue to the north.

I could remember some very fierce battles that we had with the white gangs from those neighborhoods especially the Waverly boys. In fact back then Cator Avenue one of the border streets from the black Wilson Park area and the White Waverly area which started at 39th street.  Once in particular we had a large running street fight with the Waverly white boys that involved about 40 guys. It started with a big street fight around Old York and Cator and the Waverly Boys pushed us all the way down to Old York Road and Willow which was about 6 blocks north and we held ground at Willow because that was our main street and we were not going to give that street up and we also got reinforcements from some of our other guys that were hanging out on willow ave and were not involved in the original fight, when they pushed us that far.

Shortly after that big fight we worked out a truce with the Waverly Boys and things calmed down on the south side. We then turned our attention to fighting with the white guys to the north and west in Woodbourne and Northwood. This was in the 1964 to 1965 period. Then in 1966 more blacks started to move in the area around Cator Avenue and Woodbourne Avenue and even into Northwood. That was during the days of the racial steering where the white flight started to the Baltimore county suburbs.

After we had dealt with the white gangs we then turned towards fighting each other and initially we had the black Willow Ave Boys that were south of Cold Spring Lane and the Richwood Boys that were North of Cold Spring Lane and Cold Spring was the border and we would take turns crossing into each others territory for battles.

In 1966 the original altercation that started the rivalry between the Old York and Cator Boys and the McCabe Boys occurred. Originally there were 3 founding members of the McCabe boys. The leader of that group was a very well know tough guy in the area that any black youth that grew up in the Wilson Park  area in the mid to late 60’s would remember his name as he terrorized many a young man in his day.

Those 3 founding members originally lived in 43th street which was a few blocks south of Willow Ave. On one particular Saturday night two very attractive sisters that lived on 43th gave a party and invited some of the willow boys of which I was one and she also invited the three 43th street boys that were the original McCabe boys.

At the party I asked one of the sisters to dance at the same time one of the 43rd street boys asked her to dance. Words exchanged between us and before you know it he threw a punch at me and I threw a punch at him and a fight started in the house. The parents then told us to leave and take the fight outside. Which we did. At that point there was bad blood between the willow boys and the 43th street boys.

Shortly after that the three 43th street boys families moved to McCabe Avenue where blacks were now starting to move in. Those 3 guys started the McCabe boys. From then on we had a running battle of street fights that mainly occurred when we were at the same parties or when we ventured in each others neighbors hoods.

The fights started out mainly as fist fights and knives and bats but no guns initially. BUT on one night in 1967 there was a big street fight that occurred between the Old York Road Boys and the McCabe Boys on Willow ave. There was a party in the Willow Avenue area and the McCabe boys and McCabe girls came to the party and the fight originally was between the willow girls and the McCabe girls and then the boys got involved.

There was a street fight and then one of the willow boys said that he was going to get his rifle and he went home and got it. I will never forget seeing him walking right down the middle of Willow Ave with the rifle in his hand and he walked up to the McCabe boys and aimed the rifle and they started running and they ran into a alley and her ran behind him and then stood and took aim and fired the rifle in rapid shots and he shot 3 of them as they were running, none fatally to my remembrance but he did shot them.

From then on things got more heated between the groups. As time went on more blacks moved into the Cator avenue area and the center of the Willow Ave gang moved to the Cator area and that gang became known as the Old York Road and Cator boys. Since I lived on Willow ave it was easier for me to walk down to Cator Avenue and hang out on their corners out of eye sight of my parents on Willow ave. and the rest of the Willow boys used to go down to that area.

In the 70’s , 80’s, and 90’s it kept up as the younger kids kept the rivalry going when us old heads moved on. After I graduated from high school I went into the military and did not keep track of what was going on as I never came back to the neighborhood to life. But my sister still lives in the family house on Old York Road and Willow ave. after my parents passed so I go back on holidays from time to time. I am not proud of the fight that I got in but as a young man coming up on the street of Baltimore you had to defend yourself if you wanted to survive. I just had no idea that the initial altercation that I had would lead to a decade’s long rivalry that became fatal and is still going on to this day.

To me one of the main factors that keeps the Baltimore homicide rate high and will continue to do so is the concept of retaliation in the streets of Baltimore that is supported by street gang rivalry such as the old York road and McCabe boys. I am sure that you will find dozens of similar street rivalries in every neighborhood in Baltimore with similar origins like ours that started out as a simple fist fight and then sides and boundaries were drawn and the violence and mayhem escalated especially when the street gangs turned to drug gangs and money and business was at stake as well as the rivarlies.

I bet most of the young men have no clue as to why there are those rivalries. In the80’s and 90’s the crack epidemic and the introduction of drugs turned the up to then street gangs into business enterprises and drug turf equated to corners and corners equated to money so the level of violence increased. 

I am a big fan of the David Simon former sun reporter “Wire” HBO series and I read the book “The Corner” and saw that HBO mini series. I even remember hearing of Charles Dutton back in those days as he was one of the green mount ave boys around North Ave and we used to have our runs in with those guys as well from time to time. I feel that a mini series about the “Old York Road and Cator Boys and McCabe boys” detailing the decades long fighting that continues to this day would be a interesting story.

Once again great job on your piece and I hope that the police are correct and that the fatal rivalry is not going to another vicious cycle of retaliation and death.

Posted by Peter Hermann at 8:46 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Gangs, Neighborhoods


I can assure you your story is not unique to Baltimore. I can share similar stories from Boston ending in me getting shot and the next summer my cousin getting killed. It all started over a girl. Today some of the kids in our old neighborhood are still warring against the same factions that we fought. I bet they don't even know how or why it all started. I am now a professional engineer in the Washington, DC metro area.

Dear Mr. Hermann,

After reading your article, "Gangs in Pen Lucy - how it all began" reminded me of my life growing up and the friends I grew up with and lost to the gangster life.

Although, I live in Australia gangs is a problem we face here as well. Your article is something that I can also relate to. I have lost too many friends to that kind of life and I was headed right where they were. Unfortunately, it took the death of a dear friend of mine to wake me and start again..

Due to that experience, I started over and finished high school. I am currently a nurse and a published author.

A book I have recently written may help in this direction and I want to draw it to your attention, as you may be interested in it. The title is "Purged by Darkness" and I have used this book to give talks here in Australia to various high school, libraries and youth groups about the reality of gangs and the issues of choice and consequence. I've always believed that the best cure is prevention. If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.

Michael Estepa, Published Author

I grew up on Cator and Old York during the late 70`s and early 80`s and most of those names on the memorial were good friends of mine.It`s funny until now I never knew what started this beef until reading this article.I also didn`t know they had a memorial even set which I plan to visit soon.

I'm sad to say that things have not changed and it's now 2011. The McCabe Boys are alive and kicking, selling drugs, and assaulting other males that won't join them. The police have done nothing to break this gang up and teenage boys are being hurt and losing their lives.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

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