A woman paid for a street sign to remember her brother who was killed. It set off a dispute in a changing neighborhood

BALTIMORE — Empty liquor bottles rest like grave markers on a Baltimore street corner. Here, men show their love for the departed with expensive bottles.

Crown Royal whisky. Limited edition Hennessy cognac. Imported tequila. Top shelf for Anthony Covington.

In the mornings, however, city crews clear out the bottles left to mark the spot where Covington was gunned down at age 27. Worse yet to his friends, crews removed a ceremonial street sign that declared this corner of Pigtown their own: “Anthony Mo$ Covington Way.”

That street sign brought attention recently: complaints from families who’ve sought to take back these corners from drug dealers, questions from news reporters, then swift action from City Hall. Opinions swirl around that little red sign: from a grieving woman who wants her brother’s name remembered to the families frustrated that the street could be dedicated to a young man with a rap sheet.

The sign revealed divisions of class and race in this changing Southwest Baltimore neighborhood.

From the crowd on the sidewalk, Covington’s friends let loose their frustrations.

“If it was a white boy killed,” one said, “they’d name a highway after him.”

No one volunteers a name here. It’s night, and the young men hang around on Washington Boulevard — not up by the brewery and farm-to-table cafe, but a block west at Bob’s Bar and the corner mart where the Pigtown resurgence peters out. It happened right here, a Saturday night in March 2020, when gunmen shot up the block.

The bullets caught Covington in his back. Rod Knight, who’s been around these streets for decades, bent down and gently rolled him. Knight remains shaken by the memory; Covington threw up blood.

“That boy got killed for nothing,” Knight says. “If people who love him can’t honor him, that’s crazy. A dignitary dies and you pull down your flags at half-staff.”

Surveillance cameras captured the attack that left three other men wounded. One alleged gunman, Jeremiah Tehohney, of West Baltimore, is to stand trial next year for the murder. Whatever provoked Covington’s killing remains unknown.

On the first anniversary of his death, Aniesa Covington wanted to mark the corner of Washington Boulevard and Ostend Street where her younger brother was killed. She wanted the streets to see that his name was not forgotten.

An employee of Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, she knew of the city’s ceremonial street sign program. Families submit an application and pay $150 to see a loved one’s name hung on a city signpost for one year. Another year costs another $150. Hundreds of the red commemorative signs dot the city, such as “Tiffany Brown Way” in Pigtown, where a van hit the 13-year-old girl while she walked to an after-school program. One West Baltimore man sought a sign to commemorate a 1970s president of Bangladesh.

Aniesa Covington submitted her application and money in March.

“My baby brother was murdered,” she wrote. “I would like to do this in honor of his memory. … This was a hard loss for us.”

The Covingtons grew up in Edmondson Village, but Anthony — the youngest of four children — graduated from the old Southside Academy in Cherry Hill. His pals from high school started hanging around Pigtown; his girlfriend lives there, too. In his obituary, his family wrote that he worked at The Gap, McDonald’s, Amazon and for a local contractor.

Aniesa Covington was 14 years older than Anthony, and she speaks of her brother as a helping hand with her six children, cheering them on during football games and track meets at Edmondson-Westside High School, and sitting in for parent-teacher conferences.

When he got locked up for drug distribution, he was blunt with her son about prison: how it felt to live for a family visit or phone call. Mind your choices in life, he told the boy.

“I know it’s just words, just a sign. But his name is all we have left,” his sister says. “It was like still having a part of him.”

The sign was a comfort.

But for others, the sign was an affront.

Pigtown families have complained for years about the heroin in their streets. They wrote their council members and sought help from police. They got involved and tracked cases through the courts. For example, the “C&C” crew ran the Cross and Carroll corners. In a music video filmed there, young men flash cash and guns outside the Reynolds Food Market, props according to a disclaimer. Neighbors say these men seemed to live outside the neighborhood, yet they staked turf in Pigtown. Every few months brought more bloodshed. The residents felt ignored.

For them, it was a stressful way to live, knowing gunfire could erupt at any moment. Charlie Fanning has few regrets about leaving the neighborhood after four years. His wife’s job took them to Florida.

“From our window, we could see what was going on. First it was, ‘Hey, get off my steps,” he said. “I got in a few verbal arguments. It got a little tense, calling the cops every day for a while, but none of that really seemed to do anything.

“It was threatening, although nothing ever came to violence. I was threatened several times. I go out to walk my dog or go for runs or errands, and there is just always somebody there.”

Neighbors knew of Covington’s criminal record, too. Police arrested him one evening in November 2013 as a suspect in armed robberies around Pigtown. He was wearing a mask and carrying an illegal knife with a spring-assisted blade one block off Washington Boulevard, officers wrote in charging documents. The case wasn’t prosecuted. Four months later, they arrested him one block away with 15 Ziploc baggies of crack cocaine — a distribution quantity, officers wrote. He got probation before judgment.

Then he took a plea deal for a drug distribution charge near a school. Officers raided a stash house just west in Carrollton Ridge and found heroin, cocaine and guns. They arrested nine men, including Covington. In August 2017, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Meanwhile, neighbors in Pigtown saw progress. The drug corner of Cross and Carroll quieted. Redevelopment was transforming the west end of Washington Boulevard with pubs and boutique shops. New families moved in.

Covington’s sign set off complaints to news reporters and City Hall.

“It’s bad enough that the entire street is filled with liquor bottle memorials, now they are renaming the streets,” wrote a neighbor to Councilwoman Phylicia Porter. “Who does one contact to get an illegal street sign removed by a drug gang?”

City Hall acted quickly. By last Thursday, Covington’s sign was gone. Aniesa Covington said she wasn’t told until it was too late.

Baltimore Department of Transportation spokesman German Vigil called Covington’s sign an “oversight.” The department has suspended its ceremonial sign program, he said. Officials are meeting to discuss new standards for the signs.

“Our idea is to make sure that whoever has a ceremonial street sign is celebrated by everyone in Baltimore,” Vigil says. “When you have an incident like this, when some members feel like this person didn’t contribute but instead harmed the community, for us, we have to take it down.”

Porter said she heard the neighbors’ complaints and agreed the sign should come down.

“Given this individual’s background, I can understand the community’s response to the installation of the street sign, and I support their request to have the sign removed,” she wrote in an email. “A ceremonial street sign is a great way to honor those lost, but it’s important that community input is considered. It’s with that in mind that I’m working with Mayor Scott’s administration to include community input in future street name proposals.”

For Aniesa Covington, however, the controversy reopens the wound of her brother’s murder. She said officials threw his sign away, then tried to appease her family by delivering them two replacements.

“My brother was the baby of my family, and I was just trying to give my family a little piece of something to hold on to,” she said. “This right now is like killing him all over again. They’re dragging his name through the mud.”

His defense attorney, Latoya Francis-Williams, blamed the city. She said Covington took a plea deal because he didn’t want to leave his fate to a jury and chance a longer prison sentence. The facts of his case never were adjudicated at trial.

Regardless, she said, a man is more than his rap sheet.

“I do not believe such a hasty decision is a reflection of Mr. Covington,” Francis-Williams said. “The hasty decision is a reflection of how fungible young Black men are, that they can be replaced, taken down and done away with.”

Back on Washington Boulevard, the young men hang around on the corner into the night. They sit on stoops and camp chairs, smoking joints, clowning for cellphone videos, speaking of fame. In the seat of a van, one man counts a wad of cash. Police are parked around the corner.

Questions about Covington are answered with a litany of grievances.

Where’s the dirt bike park the mayor promised? … We could be dirt bike stars. You want to invest? … You got money? I know you got money.

There’s frustration here, and a feeling that the city pays them no mind. They can’t even honor their dead.

One young man wants to show the dark stain on the sidewalk where Covington lay. Now, with the liquor bottles, it’s all that’s left to mark the place he fell.

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