For a few minutes shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday evening, it looked like the American tinderbox of tension and anxiety — stoked just the day before by a California synagogue shooter with a manifesto brimming with hate — was about to get another lighted match, and this time the spark was in Baltimore.

The first fragmentary reports, mostly on social media, suggested that a mass shooting that had wounded at least seven people in the West Baltimore neighborhood took place in a church (it didn’t) and that the shooter was a white man (he wasn’t) — two factors which, if true (they weren’t), would have poured fuel on the debate about hate crime in America.

But Baltimore police were quick to come forward with an accurate account of what had happened at Edmondson and Whitmore avenues, where about 30 residents were outdoors enjoying a cookout when a black man abruptly began firing on the crowd. One of the eight people struck by the gunman — a 28-year-old man — died in the incident.

It was another mass shooting in America, but it lacked any of the specific political, religious, or social triggers of the Poway synagogue incident, which had also taken one life. Cable TV dropped the story like the proverbial hot potato. It seemed that, to them, this was just another sad case of Baltimore being Baltimore.

“It’s incredibly disheartening,” Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University-MD, told me by phone on Monday, talking about the way the story was covered and then not-covered by the media. “It’s a kind of sweeping-under-the-rug — violence is normalized in this city.”

As terrible as it sounds to say, the problems facing Maryland’s largest city these days go a lot deeper than one mass shooting. Unless we — mainly the people who live there, of course, but anyone else who truly cares — do something and do it quickly, the place that gave the world Babe Ruth, H.L. Mencken, spicy crabs, andThe Wire could become America’s first truly failed city.

Sound melodramatic? Consider this: A still-ongoing murder epidemic spiked in 2017 to 342 killings -- roughly the same as Philadelphia, except that Philly has about 1.5 million residents and Baltimore has just 615,000. That population has fallen sharply since several nights of 2015 unrest after a black man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

At the same time, opiod abuse is out-of-control, with Baltimoreans — most of them black — dying from overdoses at double the rate of West Virginia, often considered Ground Zero of the nationwide drug-abuse crisis. Poverty is deeply entrenched and so is racial segregation, with an ever-widening gap between what locals call the “White 'L'” that includes the universities and a professional class, and the “Black Butterfly” plagued by urban misery.

“There’s a shooting almost every other week,” Terrell Fuller, a nurse in a community clinic who only a year ago moved onto the block where Sunday night’s shooting occurred right in front of Buster’s Place Barber Shop, told the Baltimore Sun on Monday. Vacant homes on the block are multiplying, the paper reported, and Fuller told it “the church around the corner here does more funerals than you would believe.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh offers background on her "Healthy Holly" book business and the healthy lifestyle baby products she promoted during a City Hall press conference on March 28, 2019. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
Amy Davis / MCT
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh offers background on her "Healthy Holly" book business and the healthy lifestyle baby products she promoted during a City Hall press conference on March 28, 2019. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

It’s an avalanche of problems that screams out for a strong mayor. Well...funny thing about that. The incumbent, Catherine Pugh, is on an indefinite “leave of absence.” Baltimore’s elites had largely backed the then-state senator — a Philadelphia native and Overbrook High grad — in 2016 as someone who could restore order and thwart the comeback of a corruption-tainted predecessor, Sheila Dixon. But Pugh now has a scandal of her own: A scheme to sell a slap-dash series of kids’ book called “Healthy Holly” at inflated prices to hospitals that needed political support. No one knows if Pugh — whose home was raided by the FBI — will step down, or when.

The Tragedy of Baltimore” was the headline of a recent lengthy expose by the ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis in the New York Times Magazine, a deep dive into what went wrong mainly with policing in a city that thought it was bringing crime under control during the 2000s — only to see everything collapse after the chaos and recriminations of Gray’s death and its aftermath in 2015.

“This is a reckoning,” Whitehead, who also hosts a radio show and tours neighborhoods for a column in The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, told me — but a reckoning of what depends on whom you ask. Black residents say an uprising after Gray’s death in the back of police van was a reaction to years of over-policing that also sparked a Justice Department consent decree. But rank-and-file cops responded to that decree, the 2015 violence, and all the complaints with what locals call “the pull back” of virtually disappearing in many neighborhoods, even as murders soared.

Whitehead said that despite the Pugh scandal (which some locals say privately could end up being a good, cleansing thing) and the never-ending shooting spree, there is a rare surge of optimism around this spring’s hiring of an outsider — the former New Orleans chief Michael Harrison — to run the embattled police. Harrison’s talk of “community police, constitutional policing” and ethics reforms suggest he’s seeking the just-right solution of Baltimore’s Goldilocks-style dilemma of law enforcement that has been either too hot or too cold.

But can Baltimore save itself without a little help from the rest of us? That applies to Maryland’s GOP governor Larry Hogan who responded to the 2015 unrest by scuttling a mass transit project that would have helped the affected neighborhoods — and it certainly applies to the 47 or whatever people running for president of the United States.

I’ve been thinking especially about one of them, former vice president Joe Biden, who pondered launching his campaign in Charlottesville, Va. — the site of 2017′s white supremacist march and mayhem — but instead opted to make what happened there the focus of his 3-plus-minute announcement video. I doubt there was even a split-second thought to launching Biden 2020 from Baltimore.

That’s a shame. Charlottesville and the specter of racial and religious hatred are very important, but the moral contrast is presented there in crystal-clear black and white. Baltimore is murky with shades of Freddie-inspired Gray, screaming out for leadership precisely because the answers are so elusive. Can any of the 2020 candidates claim to have solutions for America when they don’t have a solution for Baltimore? That would mean digging farther back, past what happened on Nov. 8, 2016.

The current president “is not the reason we are in poverty, not the reason our babies don’t have heat," Whiteside told me. And she and most other experts agree that no one will save Baltimore if the city doesn’t try to save itself. But it could still use a little help, from Annapolis and from Washington. From us.

Imagine a federal government that encouraged community policing instead of pandering to cop unions, that wasn’t dismantling programs to end housing segregation, and that looked at the opioid crisis with the same urgency that the Current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue gives to the southern border. There’s plenty of time in the 2020 race for a candidate to ask what we can do for Baltimore. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy in this year of moonshot nostalgia, we should do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.