Neighborhood business can't compete with drugs

December 22, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SO THE CITY loses another good neighbor. Paul Weinberg, working out of his hardware store at Walbrook Junction merely since the end of World War II, locks his doors in a week, bequeaths the 3100 block of West North Avenue to the junkies, and that's that.

Maybe you saw Marilyn McCraven's article in this newspaper last week. About Weinberg pulling out of his hardware store after 51 years, and the lady at the dry cleaners nearby doing the same after 26 years because thieves ripped out her copper water piping a week ago and left her without heat, and the barber a few doors away talking about his customers' fears of all those junkies hanging out on the corner all day long.

None of this is news to the police, of course. Weinberg says there isn't a day when he doesn't dial 911 "three to six times." He's not blaming the cops. He says they respond in minutes, and they'll park a car on the block and sit there for two or three hours, and the street becomes livable again.

But, the minute they pull away, the dealers are back, and if you walk along the sidewalk, you hear them hustling the stuff right away: "Down in the hole," meaning down in the alley; "new ones," meaning clean needles. And if you walk one block east, you see the 3000 block of North Avenue in the terminal stages of cancer: all these three-story houses, once stately and proud, now empty and haunted, stripped bare, 15 or 20 in a single block, many of them used as crack houses.

All this, in a spot the city laughably calls a drug-free zone.

Inside his Walbrook Hardware and Supply Co., over the din of a machine carving out somebody's house keys, there's Weinberg, chatting with a woman from the neighborhood he's known since she was a child.

"I knew you before either of us had any money," he laughs.

"Yes, indeed," she says.

"Wasn't this a great neighborhood," he says, "when we were both still poor?"

The laughter fades quickly. Behind Weinberg, there's a printed sign saying, "Spot A Gun? Tell Someone. Call 685-GUNS. It's Self-Defense."

It's also, in many ways, too late. There's drug traffic on the street, and people too intimidated to walk along this stretch of shops, and sometimes there's gunplay in the air.

Week before last, Weinberg arrived at his store to find a bullet hole in his rear window. Last week, he found another bullet hole in another window. Both times, he called the police and heard the same story, intended to give comfort: "They're not shooting at you, they're shooting at each other."

Small consolation. Weinberg is 73, old enough to retire, but he'd hoped to leave the business to his son, Mark, who's worked with him the past six years. But the drug traffic has gotten too rough now; the time has come to depart.

"I came to work in this store in 1946 when I got out of the Navy," Weinberg was saying last week. "I worked in the store for 10 years, and then I took it over. In the early days, the neighborhood was blue-collar German families mostly. I guess about 1953, the first blacks started moving in.

"The German families had spent the war working at Bendix, at Westinghouse, at the shipyards and Bethlehem Steel and Black and Decker. The blacks arrived, and they worked there, too. This was the first shot they had at home ownership.

"Those years, I felt so much personal accomplishment working with people. You know, how to fix this, how to fix that, the right product for the right job. The neighborhood was very good for a very long time."

In this one block, there were three movie theaters: the Hilton, the Windsor, the Walbrook. There was a bowling alley. Plus an Arundel ice cream store, clothing stores, grocery stores.

"We didn't have to go anywhere," Weinberg says. "Everything was here, including parades. And then drugs changed everything. It was uncontrollable. And you ask for help, and you get lip service from the mayor, and 18 houses are deserted on one block and the city lets them sit there for shooting galleries."

Inside the store, there's a steady run of customers for several minutes. This one needs a window screen fixed; no problem. Another needs parts for a machine, but the parts aren't made any more; no problem, Weinberg will grind something to make it fit. The next needs a washer for a faucet; all in a day's work.

But sometimes it's junkies walking through the front door. They want to get rid of stolen merchandise to finance a fix, so they're selling a bar of soap, a pack of cigarettes, an electric drill.

"Come on," one will say, "it's worth $80. I'll let you have it for $5."

Weinberg turns them away. And, for the past three years now, his business has lost money, and the risks keep getting higher. So he's leaving. If he sells the place, terrific. If not, he's still leaving.

Twice, he says, he had buyers for the store. Twice, they looked too closely at the drug traffic and changed their minds. He understands. A half-century after his arrival, time has changed everything.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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