Living Harford Road's slide

Ironworks owner is a street survivor

April 14, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

The execution-style slaying of a Baltimore police officer happened close enough to the storefront windowfor a stray bullet to shatter it.

For a month, Craig Van Cutsem has kept the shell casing below the cracked glass, awaiting an insurance agent's appraisal. To Van Cutsem, owner of Weaco Inc., an ornamental ironwork factory that has been in business at Harford Road and Darley Avenue in Northeast Baltimore since 1952, the shooting was a too-familiar reminder that the neighborhood is half a century and a world apart from the one where it began.

"We anchor this block," said Van Cutsem, whose company designs and produces iron window bars and security doors, two blocks south of where Agent Michael J. Cowdery Jr. was ambushed and fatally shot March 12. "That block where the shooting took place, all you see are boarded-up houses, and people are moving out of the area. All your basic services have left; the [retail] cash businesses, they're gone."

The business, started by Albert Van Cutsem and passed down to son Craig, 43, endures despite a tide of street violence and economic upheaval that has helped transform the five-block stretch of Harford Road between East North Avenue and 25th Street.

It was once a lively lower middle class neighborhood of carefully tended porch-front rowhouses and mom-and-pop shops. Now, it's a strip of pocked blacktop where boarded up buildings outnumber viable businesses 2-1, and fast food wrappers and plastic shopping bags billow down the sidewalks like tumbleweeds.

The changes, significant over the past 20 years, have wiped out other local businesses of Weaco's era. Of 54 businesses operating five years after Van Cutsem's father opened, only the factory is still there.

Riding with change

Survival has hinged on adapting to the change.

"It's always been somewhat rough, but we used to have a lot of over-the-counter business," said Van Cutsem, who reckons the stream of foot traffic that made up much of his father's business dried up long before this week, when a city grand jury indicted Howard T. Whitworth for allegedly killing Cowdery. The grand jury also indicted Whitworth on a charge of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Officer Ronald Beverly, who was struck in the leg and ankle.

"We've lost between 70 and 80 percent over the years. We do have a trade a lot of people look for, but people don't want to come down here because of the area," Van Cutsem said.

The irony is that Weaco iron fabricators produces merchandise designed to make Baltimoreans feel safe: That black metal window guard on the factory's front window, the one that kept prowlers out despite the broken glass - was welded right downstairs. Weaco is one of a handful of local welding companies that make the wrought ironwork door you pass through into your city rowhouse, the railing you grasp on your steps and the gate you depend on when seeking a safe cross breeze through the house. Any of them might have come from this modest, two-story factory on Harford Road.

The factory, in turn, is built with security in mind: alarms, high-powered spotlights, a 10-foot gate, and only a single public access door, which employees unlock by remote control when a visitor arrives.

"It's a fortress," Van Cutsem said, adding that he'd run the business the same way anywhere.

Most of Weaco's business is word of mouth and conducted by telephone or fax. Still, Van Cutsem worries that another story about the blight of Harford Road will hurt business. It is a familiar concern in a neighborhood where there was little interest a decade ago when Van Cutsem's father tried to organize a Harford Road business association among the area's dozen odd storefronts.

So today, a barber shop, a hair braiding salon, two clothing stores, a Jamaican eatery, a liquor store, a convenience store, and two Chinese carryouts operate as islands along this stretch of Harford Road that has garnered so much attention in the wake of the shooting. Standing outside the ironwork shop, Van Cutsem recalls the business-rich neighborhood where his father began nearly a half century ago. Two blocks to the south was Sears Roebuck at Harford Road and North Avenue.

There was a bowling alley, a savings and loan, and the sales offices and warehouses of the Delvale dairy and, later, the Embassy Ice Cream plant. There was a piano dealer, a linoleum dealer, tool dealer, a hardware store, several roofers, a dance studio and the A. W. Schmidt and Sons slaughterhouse next door.

Weaco's front windows looked out on a cafe and the art deco facade of Athens Florist. Yeasty aromas from the General Baking Co. wafted by. There also were a handful of vacant buildings, three in the 2100 block. The residents were mostly working class blacks, with a mix of Greeks and eastern Europeans immigrants. Crimes took place, but street violence was not an overriding issue, Van Cutsem recalled.

Played here as child

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