Weinberg's life gave few clues to final kind act

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 06, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

What a shame Harry Weinberg waited to die before becoming a wonderful man.

Dead, the sixth-grade dropout who became a billionaire has left his money to the poor -- as much as $45 million a year from the fortune he amassed in real estate and municipal transit companies and various financial cross-fertilizations during his 82 years.

Alive, he hid behind his money and his gruffness, and he played fast and loose with values, and he frustrated the people who were trying to lift this city out of oblivion.

Dead, he is described by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as "one of the most unique individuals in my experience."

Alive, the same Schaefer had different words. A decade ago, with Howard Street having fallen apart and Weinberg sitting passively on 60 downtown buildings, Schaefer begged him to fix the properties and put them to work. Weinberg said no.

"Look at Stewart's," Schaefer implored. "Look at Hochschild-Kohn. They're empty. This used to be the heart of downtown. You gotta do something."

Weinberg still said no. A fuming Schaefer emerged from the meeting with his rage barely controlled and words sputtering out of his mouth.

"He'd rather let the damned buildings stand there and rot," he said, "instead of fix them up and put people inside of 'em."

For Weinberg, some said, it was a $50 million tax write-off.

"You want to know what's wrong with downtown?" a City Hall veteran asked the day Weinberg stonewalled Schaefer. "Harry Weinberg's what's wrong with downtown."

That was overstatement. But Weinberg, who died over the weekend in his adopted city of Honolulu, invited it and never seemed to care if anybody mentioned it. Who knew how he felt? Reporters who'd call his seedy, rundown office -- he was listed in the phone book and answered his own phone -- would identify themselves and hear a growling, "No comment," and then the receiver would be slammed down.

Bernard Berkowitz, then the city's physical development coordinator, remembers walking through downtown Baltimore with Weinberg several times more than a decade ago. Weinberg was already living in Honolulu most of the time, but he still seemed a kind of self-appointed tour director as he and Berkowitz strolled about.

"I enjoyed him," Berkowitz, now at the University of Baltimore as a distinguished fellow, said yesterday, "because I have a weakness for Damon Runyon characters. He'd talk in a kind of stream of consciousness, with sentences that didn't always have verbs. It was kind of amusing.

"But this was a very difficult man to deal with, very fixed in his opinions and attitudes. He was very clear about what was the city's role and what was the private sector's role" in restoring the city.

As they walked about, Weinberg would tell Berkowitz what the city should be doing to rejuvenate downtown. When Berkowitz could sneak a word in, he would mention the possibilities of private money: Harry Weinberg's money, for example. Harry Weinberg became deaf when Bernie Berkowitz said such words.

He was the billionaire nobody knew very well -- even, apparently, Forbes magazine, which listed him in its annual 400 richest Americans, but ran virtually the same short biographical sketch year after year, calling him "combative, aggressive, litigious," and wrapping up his whole life in a single paragraph.

But those who did deal with Weinberg found him breathtakingly frustrating.

"He stood in the way," one City Hall veteran said yesterday. "He was an unreconstructed . . . well, to be complimentary, call him a rugged individualist. He wasn't a terribly nice person. Why? Maybe because that's how he got rich, by not being nice."

When Weinberg bought New York's Fifth Avenue Coach Line -- the world's biggest bus company -- in 1964, he immediately went for a 10-cent fare hike. New York Mayor Robert Wagner nixed it. Weinberg said, OK, then I'm laying off workers. Some said he knew the layoff would provoke a strike, and it did.

As the Transportation Workers Union threatened to walk out, Wagner got the New York legislature to OK a public takeover of the bus line -- and paid Weinberg $32 a share for stock he'd bought at $12 a share.

Around here, he'd buy properties and simply sit on them.

"Look at Edmondson Village," a City Hall insider said yesterday. "He bought it, and it went downhill right after that. Merchants were trying hard, they had a community center. He fired the guy running the community center, and he let the properties run down."

Business dropped off, stores shut down and were boarded over, and Weinberg, off on the other side of the country, did nothing.

In death, he brings life to people struggling to survive. Who can figure such a move? Berkowitz remembers Weinberg talking sympathetically of the plight of poor people years ago, but why would he wait until death to help them?

It's nice that Harry Weinberg is spreading his money around when he no longer has need of it. In his life, he discovered the game of playing with money. In death, he discovered a conscience.

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