A battle lost at Dundalk and O'Donnell

This Just In...

February 21, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

The first shot was fired on the afternoon of Monday, June 19, 1995 -- right into Jerry Cooper's head. There was a second and a third shot, perhaps a fourth. Cooper, who had been using the pay phone next to Eddie's Super Market, died instantly.

Inside the store, at Dundalk Avenue and O'Donnell Street, Lewis Greenberg heard the shots and the scream of a customer. He arose from the chair in his office and ran to the front door but stopped himself from going outside. Instead, he hit the store's holdup alarm and waited for police. Then he comforted a sobbing cashier. Soon sirens wailed, and a crowd formed to look at the body of a 22-year-old man who had crossed someone armed with an automatic weapon.

For Mr. Greenberg, his employees and his customers, the Cooper murder represented the beginning of the end of Eddie's of Dundalk. In more than 30 years of operating the store, Greenberg had never seen so much as a holdup in his place, one of the last of 26 independently owned Eddie's Super Markets that date back several decades. Shoplifting, sure; that happened a couple times a week. Someone distracting a cashier and rifling a register -- that happened now and then, too.

But not murder.

"I had a good customer, a woman who shopped here more than 30 years," Greenberg says. "You know that yellow 'crime scene' tape the police put up? Well, that day [the day of the Cooper murder] they tied the tape to her car. She was so upset, she said, 'Lew, I can't come in here anymore.' What could I say to her?"

Last week, Greenberg closed the store and sold the business. It wasn't working anymore. It wasn't fun anymore. Competition from the bigger chains had something to do with it. The loss of customers had something to do with it. But 90 percent of it, Greenberg says, had to do with crime and a "bad element" from the nearby public housing complex called O'Donnell Heights.

It wasn't always this way.

For five decades, Eddie's served the Heights and adjoining neighborhoods across Dundalk Avenue. "A lot of our customers had food stamps," Greenberg says. "We lived with it and got along fine. We sold a personal touch. We had grateful customers bring us cake and cookies [for the holidays]. I had a wall full of plaques of appreciation."

But in the last two years, something changed.

"It's hard for me to put a finger on it, to describe it," Greenberg says. "But there was a change in the attitude of the customers we dealt with on a daily basis. They were rougher in their behavior, rougher and nastier. I want to be careful what I say."

He wants to be careful because he knows how his words could be interpreted -- that he's not talking about the influx of crime as much as the influx of minorities. But that's not it, Greenberg insists. A few years ago, the Housing Authority started moving tenants out of inner-city projects and into renovated O'Donnell Heights, on the city's southeastern fringe. And soon conditions throughout the area worsened.

In 1994, there were at least 14 shootings in the Heights, 10 of them drug-related. "I had customers tell me they would sit on the floor of their living rooms to watch TV because they were afraid of bullets flying through their windows," Greenberg says.

In February 1995, the police targeted what they called a "cell of violence" in the Heights. They raided 21 houses, made 21 arrests and confiscated crack cocaine, weapons and cash. They claimed to have arrested leaders of three major drug rings.

But that didn't help things down at Dundalk and O'Donnell. The corner pharmacy closed. Business at Eddie's fell off by 600 to 700 transactions per week. Eddie's longtime customers stopped coming. Others went to suburban supermarkets.

Greenberg complained to the Housing Authority, even got on the phone a couple of times with the hard-as-nails housing commissioner, Dan Henson. He complained to elected officials. He complained to the police.

Nothing changed. Greenberg was losing the battle for O'Donnell and Dundalk.

"I had a couple who came two or three times a week," he says. "She would shop while her husband waited in the car outside. One day some dude jumped in the car and tried to get [the husband] to drive away. It was an attempted carjacking." That couple hasn't been back since.

Finally, Greenberg had had enough. He put the market up for sale. And while he waited for a buyer, things got even worse.

On a Saturday night about three months ago, a man pressed a gun against the head of one of Greenberg's cashiers while his two accomplices emptied the cash registers.

Then, on a Wednesday morning last month, two men wearing ski masks and carrying shotguns ordered employes and customers to the floor before emptying the store safe.

Then there was the mob -- 12 teen-age boys beating and kicking another as he slithered along the outside of the store.

"It was unbelievable," Lewis Greenberg says. "Two of my employes grabbed the [victim] of this incredible beating and dragged him into the store. The boy said he couldn't breathe and he started to throw up. I guess he was a teen-ager. Hard to say because his face was so distorted. But then, this gang starts pushing on my doors! They want to get into the store to continue the beating! And I'm standing there pushing on the door, while this gang is raging and screaming, trying to get to their prey; some of them are banging their heads against the door! Meanwhile, I have customers standing there watching this. I'm standing there, pushing with all my weight against this door, and I'm 57 years old and I'm holding on for dear life. "

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