After 6 1/2 years of struggle, city businessman is down to his last hope

Urban Chronicles

Maryland

September 22, 2005|By Eric Siegel

THE TWO-PAGE letter was handwritten - and seemingly heartfelt.

It came last week from Toho Lee, the owner of Roland Billiards, a pool parlor on 25th Street near Greenmount Avenue at the edge of the Harwood community in North Baltimore.

"Business is tough in this ghetto area with all kinds of crime and hassel [sic]," it reads in part. "Last year, I almost folded up my business. ... Please help me."

Six and a half years ago, I had written a story when Lee opened his 20-table poolroom in an abandoned print shop in this troubled patch of the city.

It was a bleak time for the city. Baltimore was on its way to its 10th straight year of 300 or more homicides - and a decade-long drop in population that would be the largest of any municipality in the country. Neighborhoods like Harwood, marked by vacant houses and storefronts, bore the brunt of both trends. Two months before the poolroom opened, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek a fourth term.

The business was embraced by community leaders who recognized that a poolroom represented an improving image and welcomed a sign - any sign - of new investment in the area.

A lot has changed since then. Homicides have stayed below 300 a year, though not far enough. The population decline has slowed, though not reversed. There's major new residential and retail construction in Charles Village to the west and a plan for the redevelopment of Barclay to the south. Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to announce next week that he is running for governor.

One thing that hasn't changed much, though, is the Greenmount Avenue corridor south of, say, 30th Street.

In January, the home of community activist Edna McAbier - on Lorraine Avenue off Greenmount - was firebombed in apparent retaliation for her complaints about neighborhood drug dealers.

At his confirmation hearing before the City Council in March, police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said the street was one of the most problematic for drugs and crime.

Today, police cameras are perched on light poles along Greenmount at 23rd and 20th streets; two mobile banks of floodlights are at the corners.

Sitting in Roland Billiards one morning this week, Lee, 65, a small, soft-spoken man, elaborated on his struggle to - borrowing from pool parlance - keep his business from scratching.

Lee, who sold two dry cleaning stores to open a business like the one his brother ran in his native Korea, said the area's run-down look and bad reputation kept players away.

Early on, he hired an off-duty uniformed police officer, thinking that would reassure people. "But people didn't think that way," he said. "People think, `This must be a real bad place.'"

The troubles of the community became his troubles. Last year, a 16-year-old was arrested in the poolroom in a fatal shooting on a nearby street, according to Sun archives; two years before that, a man was found fatally stabbed early one morning in the business' rear parking lot.

Drifters and dropouts became regulars, driving away what Lee called "good people."

"I didn't make good decisions," he acknowledged. "I allowed everybody to come in here."

He tried to find a buyer for his business, for half the $200,000 he put into it.

"I couldn't sell it," he said.

He did accept an offer from his landlord for a 40 percent reduction in rent.

Lee acknowledged some troubles of his own. Four years ago, he was charged with running a disorderly house and allowing gambling, but those charges were dropped, according to court records.

As we talked, a city inspector came in and handed Lee a violation notice for failing to produce licenses for his pool tables and video games.

Lee said he hadn't renewed his licenses this year because he wasn't sure that he was going to stay in business until recently.

Taking out a loan on his Ellicott City home, he said he put $90,000 worth of improvements into the business, including a kitchen to serve hot food.

He also applied for and received a beer and wine license, part of his strategy to expand his offerings - not because of success but to try to survive.

The neighborhood group backed his application.

"He's been supportive of the community," said Myron Seay, who succeeded McAbier as head of the Harwood Community Association. "I haven't seen anything that I would become alarmed about."

Northern District police say they have no problem with the place.

In an effort to boost his business, Lee took out some of his pool tables and put in food tables and a large-screen TV. He bought a neon sign that said "Sports Bar & Grill," installed a double-door security system and initiated a $2 cover charge to better control who came in.

He closed the poolroom earlier this week so that he and his wife could address and stamp 20,000 postcards announcing the changes.

Will that be enough to draw more people? Lee hopes so.

"This is my last hope," he said.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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