Curry chicken finds a place on Corned Beef Row Halal Foods fuses capitalism and faith

January 17, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

The menu at Halal Foods features goat, imported rose water, bean pies, curry chicken, omelets, and fish.

But so far, it's been the nickel candy and bubble gum that have allowed Alibaba Lumumba to make ends meet at 1023 E. Lombard St.

"When we first opened up, we were just sitting here looking at each other. Nobody was coming in," said Mr. Lumumba. "The candy keeps a cash flow going."

And it brings the future -- the children of the Flag House public housing projects -- in front of Mr. Lumumba and his ambitions.

"I'm on a mission that's bigger than just running a store," said Mr. Lumumba, 44, who opened for business almost four months ago. "The people who live down here are lost. They don't know themselves. They don't love themselves.

"Their god is cocaine and reefer and booze. And all of their little children that come in here are morally and spiritually lost, but I see the good in them when they come in the store. I see the light inside them and try to appeal to that."

Mr. Lumumba appeals to the good he sees amid the despair while selling cheeseburger subs for $1.75.

If it's freezing outside and a child comes in to buy candy, he makes the youngster go home and put on a coat before selling anything.

He butchers fresh cuts of meat at the same time he allows a local grade-school kid to come behind the counter and do his homework.

He depends on children to buy the candy that keeps his business alive, but he demands that they read the name of the goodie they want before he gives it to them.

He is a Muslim trying to make it in the remnants of a neighborhood famed for Jewish food -- staying open until midnight seven days a week, doing business face to face without the protection of plexiglass, and believing that his faith in Allah will see him through.

"This area was always Jewish -- my family used to come down here when I was a kid to get a fresh-killed chicken. There hasn't been any Muslims doing business down here that I know of," said Mr. Lumumba, a Baltimorean who traded Methodism for Islam at age 19 while serving in Vietnam.

"You can go into Attman's, Weiss' and Lenny's at any time and see long lines of African-Americans waiting for corned beef," he said. "We haven't made an inroad into that yet. They walk by here, peep in, and keep walking."

Says his partner and fiancee, 51-year-old Olivia Samuel of Trinidad: "This is Alibaba's dream, but I have decided to hang with him. Business is in-between, a little shaky, but others are coming in slowly and I think it's going to build up."

The man who leases the old grocery to Mr. Lumumba for $325 a month hopes so.

"Alibaba has a unique approach to people, but whether that's going to help him through troubled times in a high crime area . . . that's a difficulthurdle," said Frank C. Bonaventure Jr., an attorney who bought the building 10 years ago in the vain hope that the Inner Harbor renaissance would ripple into Corned Beef Row.

"He keeps a clean store and treats people as people, with respect. But he's going to have to make some hard decisions, like whether to extend credit."

As for a Lombard Street comeback, a challenge planned time and again by the city since the riots of 1968, Mr. Bonaventure says: "Nothing has happened at all."

Nothing but continued decline and deterioration.

Attman's Delicatessen, the aged anchor and engine of Lombard Street, is next door to Halal Foods on the west.

On the other side is a dusty, vacant lot used by the public housing residents as a short cut from Pratt Street to Lombard, a lot Mr. Lumumba envisions as a Middle Eastern bazaar if he can wrangle permission from its owner, deli king Seymour Attman.

Across the street from Halal Foods is a big hole in the block where five rowhouses -- 1010 through 1018 E. Lombard St. -- stood until June of last year; buildings where chickens were once slaughtered the kosher way, fish was sold and meat was butchered. The derelict rowhouses were razed after they became shooting galleries for drug addicts and flophouses for alcoholics.

In this environment -- where Mr. Lumumba is convinced that a black man has it harder doing business with fellow African-Americans than Jews or Koreans because too many blacks have no faith in their own people -- Halal Foods has yet to make enough money to erect a sign.

Halal is Arabic for food slaughtered according to Muslim law, and the store bearing the name is modest and clean.

Apples and tomatoes sell for 30 cents each; live plants share a shelf with Islamic canned goods; oil paintings by his mother are on exhibit and for sale; and a classic Baltimore ceiling of tin looks down on an effort to fuse capitalism and faith.

HTC Mr. Lumumba asks only that the people who live in the neighborhood do for him what he did for Reddick Ricks, the last man who tried to make a living selling groceries at 1023 E. Lombard St., a guy who still hangs out there to talk to his friends.

"I used to come down to Attman's for a corned beef . . . and when I found out the place next door was a black business I'd come in to buy my chips or my soda here," said Mr. Lumumba. "I made sure to buy something from a black business, and I got to know Ricks that way."

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