Entrepreneur honored for efforts to improve city

Q&A

September 27, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Erwin Rubin celebrated his 10th anniversary over the weekend as the proud owner of a Baltimore furniture business.

They were perhaps the most challenging 10 years since he came to this country as a Romanian refugee in 1966, because drug trafficking, crime and violence now plague the Southwest Baltimore community surrounding his store in the 1900 block of W. Pratt St.

Mr. Rubin, 48, owner of Pratt Discount Home Furnishings and organizer of the Pratt Street Merchants Association six years ago, was honored for his community service on Saturday by a band of community leaders with a handful of proclamations from city officials.

"He's one of the finest examples of a human being I've ever seen. He'll help anyone who wants to help themselves," said Michael Keeney, president of Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), an umbrella group of 52 community and business organizations and churches in Southwest Baltimore.

As vice president of COIL, Mr. Rubin has a hand in an adult literacy program, the local senior center, seminars for new homeowners, a "children's hour" reading group, and more. He's also on a drug task force formed by the mayor's office.

Q: What was it like growing up in Communist Romania in the 1950s?

A: I remember that many days I had nothing at all to eat. There was no bread in the house. The stores just had no merchandise. Bread, flour, cooking oil and sugar were rationed for quite a few years. People would stand in line, beginning at 3 a.m., and when the store opened, only a few would get meat and dairy food.

Q: How were you able to come to America?

A: I got a tourist passport to visit a sick aunt in Israel. I flew to Italy and was to take a ship from there. But when I got to Italy I went to the American Embassy to seek asylum. I had to work in Italy two years before I got a visa to the United States.

Q: What did you encounter when you finally arrived?

A: I was almost 20, and I was on my own. I rented a room from an older couple in Pimlico. They were like my guardians, really, because they were very good to me and I was at that age where I could go two ways.

Q: How did you come to be selling furniture?

A: I met a man, Justin Weinberg, through the couple I was living with. He had a clothing business, and he asked me to come work for him. I tried it three days and liked it. I stayed 16 years, selling and collecting door-to-door.

When the company closed in 1982, I formed my own to sell door-to-door. Then in 1984, I bought a business on Pratt Street and opened my own furniture store. Seven years later we opened a second store three doors down.

Q: You make it sound easy.

A: It was a challenge. I couldn't speak more than 10 words of English when I got my first job, but people were very nice to me, and I like dealing with the public. I worked very hard. In 28 years, I don't think I took a total of even two months for vacation. Even my honeymoon was only a weekend.

Q: Has it paid off, all that work?

A: I still think this is the greatest country in the world. But some people are ruining what we have. In this neighborhood where I have my stores, crime and drugs are taking over. Some of my old customers say they are scared to come back.

Q: Do you think the city is losing its fight against drugs?

A: I don't know. I do know that this neighborhood has changed tremendously in the last four years, and I'm afraid the city has given up on us.

Q: It's a complex problem. What do you think can be done?

A: First, we need the attention of city officials. This area is not a dumping ground. There should be a task force with cooperation from the mayor and City Council and judges and state's attorney and police.

Police are doing a great job; they put their lives on the line. But judges have to use punishment. Rehabilitation doesn't work for someone who breaks the law over and over.

Q: Do you think your tough stance on crime comes from the deprivation you saw in Romania?

A: I know that in Romania, I respected the police. Maybe the only good thing about communism was that we had law and order.

Q: What do you think of the recent events in your homeland, the toppling of Communist regimes in Romania and elsewhere?

A: It is good that finally people woke up and saw there was another type of government. But it will be a long time before things get better, because freedom brings troubles, too.

[For one thing,] freedom favors the criminal element. There are now killings and robberies. Crime is a big problem in all the former Communist countries.

Q: Are you saying that a person can have too much freedom?

A: Freedom is nice, but when a person cannot come out and sit on her steps because some young punks chase her back inside, where is her freedom?

Q: You're talking about Baltimore again, aren't you?

A: Yes, in this neighborhood, there is no freedom now. We try to get the community involved. And we try to get the politicians involved. But we can only do so much.

Q: Yet, you are still fighting?

A: I've thought about giving up, but why should I be changed by the bad element? The city cannot afford for merchants like me and others to give up. You have to work positively.

Q: How can you be so hopeful when increasing crime and the drug trade are taking the streets away from your neighborhood?

A: I love this country. This country gave me things I never dreamed I'd have when I was growing up. I still believe that with hard work, anyone can have something good here.

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