Erwin Rubin looks up an alley that runs alongside his West Pratt Street furniture store. He doesn't like what he sees.
"In the broad daylight. Drug deals. Buyers and sellers. All in the open," he said one day last week.
The owner of a neighborhood furniture store has become one of Southwest Baltimore's most outspoken defenders in a community-based war on drugs, a battle he says shows few signs of being won in the area roughly bounded by Edmondson and Wilkens avenues and Gilmor and Pulaski streets.
In fact, the dealers seem to be getting more brazen. Elderly residents worry and hang on; younger working families are leaving the neighborhood.
Mr. Rubin, 48, who is the president of Pratt Discount Home Furnishings, is a vice president of COIL -- Communities Organized to Improve Life, a neighborhood group that represents 52 community associations, institutions and churches in Southwest Baltimore.
His store is less than a block from the corner of Pratt and Monroe streets, the so-called Crab Corner, home of three large and busy seafood take-out restaurants. It is also in an old neighborhood commercial district characterized by small, family-owned businesses.
He was born in Romania and left the city of Cluj, in the Transylvania district, in 1966. When he first arrived in Baltimore he went to work at a toy factory in Essex.
"My English was so bad, people laughed at me. But then I got a job collecting installment payments. I enjoyed meeting and being with people, talking," he said. For the past 10 years he has owned his own business in the 1900 block of W. Pratt St.
"I don't know where we go from here. But I know it doesn't have to be as bad as it is here. I visited the 1200 block of Light Street and then I visited Hampden. I felt like I was in another city, in another hemisphere. Those neighborhoods are so much better off," Mr. Rubin said.
"I want something to be done for this neighborhood. About five years ago it started deteriorating real fast. We saw it coming. It's so bad now that when the police fly over in helicopters, the drug dealers don't even look up. It used to be safe here. Now it's dangerous and violent," he said.
His involvement with the Police Department has been uneven.
"We do have a good foot patrolman. But the little groups, the drug gangs, know when the police shifts change. Just look at Lemmon Street at four o'clock," Mr. Rubin said of a street that runs parallel to Pratt and is just behind his store.
You don't have to be a police undercover agent to observe the drug sales.
On Thursday afternoon, during a driving rain, the dealers remained on the streets as customers approached and small packages changed hands. Customers used Goldsmith Alley to walk or drive to the sellers, who congregated at one corner.
He cited another time when he got annoyed at the brazen drug traffic on Goldsmith Alley, called 911 and made a complaint.
"The dealers must have figured something out and they sent a spotter into my store. Then an officer showed up, walked in the store and called out, 'Anyone here call in about drugs?' The police have to be more sensitive," he said.
,.5L "I've seen the area where I work engulfed in an ever-increasing tidal wave of drug dealers and the addicts and users we call zombies. . . . Give us a glimmer of hope. Rid this one small area of the drug dealers and their clients," said Ted Moss, who is Mr. Rubin's manager of the furniture operation.
There is a desk in the back of the store, a building that originally was the Monroe movie theater. At that desk, past the kitchen tables and bed frames and chests of drawers, law-abiding residents vent their frustrations.
"The older people come in and talk to me. They are scared to go to the police. The ladies have been terrorized all summer. Are we living in a free country or not?" Mr. Rubin asks.
One woman, who has lived on Lemmon Street for decades, said she was afraid to come to her front door. "I don't know what to do," she said. She also asked that her name not be used.
In a few minutes, Erwin Rubin is out walking. He is particularly annoyed at some vacant commercial Pratt Street property owned by the city.
"Look around here. It could be Beirut," he said of the boarded-up buildings and some roofless garages in the back.
Said Mike Keeney, a truck driver who is president of COIL, the neighborhood group, "It's like a nightmare with no awakening.
Mr. Rubin's years of community service have not gone unnoticed. He was honored Saturday at a community ceremony attended by city officials.
OC "He's always giving and never asking for anything," Mr. Keeney.