Shopkeeper struggles to cope with city crime 7 burglaries mar year's 1st quarter

April 04, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Shopkeeper Sung Chul Park knew this much about city life: If you run a corner store in Baltimore, you should budget for burglaries.

But Mr. Park never expected the seven break-ins that he has endured in the first quarter of 1993 alone at the East Baltimore carryout he rents at East Oliver and North Rose streets.

It is a plague that has left the Korean immigrant shaken. Mr. Park puts his losses in the thousands of dollars, all of it uninsured. His wife, Chung Sook Park, 53, says the family lives in a "climate of fear."

"All Korean store owners expect to be robbed. That's just a given when you start a business," Mr. Park, 57, said through an interpreter. "But it's too much when it starts to be as often as once a week. They have come in four different ways -- breaking the door, through the roof in two places and through the wall."

After one break-in, Mr. Park was particularly offended when two men offered to sell back to him for $7 a black telephone that had been ripped from the wall in the burglary.

Mr. Park emigrated from South Korea in 1987 with his family. A college graduate, he was a credit union officer in Korea. But he speaks English poorly and few jobs are open to him here. He had worked on an electronics assembly line and repaired shoes before taking over the one-story Oliver Street carryout three years ago from another Korean merchant. He hoped to run the carryout for several years to build a financial base, then begin another business.

Working 74 hours a week

The Parks run the mom-and-pop store a total of 74 hours a week, closing only on Sundays. They say the carryout yields them a middle-class income. After work, late at night, they head home to Anne Arundel County.

The Parks sell sandwiches, chicken, egg rolls, sodas, candy and Alka-Seltzer through the bulletproof partition that separates them from their customers. The most expensive item on the menu, shrimp in the basket, costs $3.95.

The couple feel they are on good terms with the neighborhood. They're mystified about why their store has been repeatedly targeted.

"What we don't really understand is we've been very kind to the neighbors, and there's no conflict when the store is open," Mrs. ++ Park says. "Everybody in the neighborhood probably knows who has been doing this, but they won't tell."

The seven break-ins -- three of which occurred in the first week of February alone -- ranged from quick strikes in which mainly cigarettes were taken to laborious affairs in which thieves carted off almost all the carryout's stock, including 20 cases of Pepsi, freezer shelves full of food, a television set and even the cash register itself.

In only one of the burglaries has there been an arrest. Neil Matthews, 26, address unknown, was charged with burglary, malicious destruction and theft in a March 15 break-in, the most recent of the seven. He is due in court April 12.

'Infested with addicts'

Officer L. W. Wilson says the break-ins probably aren't the result of any vendetta against the Parks. He began walking the Broadway East area, including Oliver Street, last month as part of the Eastern District's pilot "community policing" program.

"My sense of the whole thing is that it's a low-lying building, they know he's got stock in there, the area is infested with drug addicts," Officer Wilson says, "and all they're looking for is something they can sell quick to make their fix.

"With Mr. Park being behind bulletproof glass and not speaking English, there's no rapport with neighbors, where they would feel some allegiance to him," he says.

Rosa Mitchell, who lives across the street from the Parks' carryout, tells a story that is typical of the situation. She said she "heard all the ruckus" during the most recent break-in but didn't look out the window until a couple of hours later when police were on the scene.

Though tensions between Korean-American shopkeepers and African-American customers sometimes run high, area residents say the Parks' carryout is not a flash point.

"They're nice people. It's just a bad neighborhood. Period. There are certain times I won't come out the house. You hear gunshots all the time," said a man who identified himself only as Thomas. "If I gave my name, they might break in my house and want to shoot me."

Yong's Grocery, a Korean-owned corner store a block east of the carryout, has had no recent break-ins, but "we expect it any time," said Dee Strosnider, 19, who works there. "People are friendly, but [the corner of] Oliver and Luzerne is full of drug dealers."

Melvin Davis, president of the Friendly Neighborhood Improvement Association, lives around the corner from the carryout. He says drug trafficking is the bane of the area.

"When me and my wife first moved up here 37 years ago, I said, 'Honey, we're in heaven.' But, oh Lord, now it's reversed," he says.

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