Walbrook's owner sees 'no hope for change' Closing: Brazen drug dealers force a neighborhood institution to call it quits.

December 19, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

After more than 50 years, Paul Weinberg is closing Walbrook Hardware and Supply Co. next week, blaming a teeming open-air drug market for declining business.

"I stayed here this long because I thought things would change. But it turns out we just got a lot of lip service from the mayor, the City Council The drug situation is so deeply rooted now there's no hope for change," said Weinberg, 73.

Customers learning of Weinberg's plans lament the loss, especially neighbors who don't have cars. His store, a neighborhood institution, provides services the large chain stores don't, like made-to-order washers for old faucets.

"He's going out of business? I'm going to miss him. I've been coming here for years," said Carroll Griffin, a retired city worker and West Baltimore resident.

Several nearby merchants agree with Weinberg's complaints about brazen drug dealers and the accompanying degradation driving customers from the venerable shopping strip at Walbrook Junction in the 3100 block of W. North Ave.. It stretches from Ellamont Street east to Rosedale Street -- and is part of a designated drug-free zone.

The owner of the nearby Professional Cleaners, who asked not to be named, said her 26-year-old dry cleaning establishment will close Dec. 28 -- the same day as Walbrook and for the same reason. "My business has plunged 70 percent this year," she said.

The merchants' claims were borne out Tuesday afternoon when at times as many as 30 apparently rival drug dealers barked street names of drugs outside the hardware store, soliciting passers-by.

"I've got red tops down in the hole," one person screamed. Weinberg translated: "That means his drugs are hidden down in the alley." Police say "red tops," or some other color, is a way drug dealers distinguish brands.

Walbrook, in the western edge of the city adjacent to Leakin-Gwynns Falls Park, is the city's oldest suburb. It was established in the 1870s, even before Roland Park, for people wanting larger homes in a leafy setting. It had one of the first suburban streetcar lines, and where the streetcars turned around became known as Walbrook Junction.

Today, many of those century-old homes are vacant and dilapidated, providing hiding places for illicit activities. A complex network of alleys helps drug dealers and other thieves quickly escape, residents say.

Baltimore City police Col. John Gavrilis said the Southwestern District "has made some significant efforts" to reduce drug trafficking and other crime in the area. Merchants counter that police periodically move drug dealers along, but they quickly return once a squad car is gone.

"Ten years ago, we had the answer: Two cops walking the beat," said Weinberg. "But they say they can't afford that now."

Yesterday, the dry cleaning store owner wore a down-insulated coat in her store, which had no heat because thieves ripped out copper water pipes Friday night, flooding the business and resulting in a ruptured gas line to the boiler.

A few doors west on the avenue, barber Phillip Brown said he's saddened to see the decline of his beloved Walbrook Junction, but noted that the lack of jobs makes drug dealing attractive to many youngsters.

His 41-year-old business has a steady clientele of older men who avoid the corner of West North Avenue and Rosedale Street. "That's the druggies' corner now. They're going to hang there so people like you and me won't go there," he said.

There's been a hardware store at that location for 70 years. Weinberg joined the business in 1941, after a stint in the Navy Air Corps. Ten years later, he bought it.

He says plans to sell it fell through after the lone prospective buyer he was able to attract recently changed his mind after observing the drug traffic. He hopes to sell much of his inventory and then possibly sell the building at auction.

For years, Weinberg and the owner of the dry cleaner had dreamed of turning over their respective businesses to relatives. But not now.

Weinberg's 44-year-old son, Mark, left the business in June, after working there full time for six years, and became a wholesale plumbing supply salesman, Weinberg said .

"I said, 'Mark, if you go out there and tell them to get off that corner they're likely to pull out a gun and blow you away.' See, I've known most of them since they were little kids. They respect me. They say, 'OK, Mr. Paul, we'll go away,' but then they always come back."

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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