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Mobtown Beat

Mean Business

West Pratt Street Merchants Say City's Left Them Out of Renewal Efforts

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/15/2001

Erwin Rubin is a fighter and a survivor. In 1994, the Romania-born entrepreneur and community activist was also hailed as a hero. His efforts to improve conditions in Southwest Baltimore's drug-infested Pratt-Monroe neighborhood, where he's owned a furniture store since 1984, were honored by city and community leaders. At the time, Rubin likened his business' crumbling, trash-strewn neighborhood to Beirut. Undaunted by the environs, he helped organize the West Pratt Street Merchants Association, served on a drug task force, and was involved in organizing neighborhood adult-literacy programs and homebuying workshops.

Seven years later, Rubin is still fighting and surviving. But perhaps for not much longer. Despite his and other community members' best efforts, the neighborhood he likened to a war-ravaged city "is even worse now," he says. And his business, Pratt Discount Home Furnishings, is suffering. Brazen drug dealers and trash-lined streets, he says, deter customers from visiting his furniture showroom, which was carved out of a former movie theater at 1924 W. Pratt. He once had 15 employees; now he has one.

"My days are numbered," Rubin says. "I should have gotten out years ago, but I was loyal to Baltimore. I kept thinking, Things have to get better. Now I'm ready to face bankruptcy. I didn't want to be a quitter, and now it caught up with me."

Rubin would hardly be the first merchant to close up shop in the west-side commercial district centered on the 1900 to 2200 blocks of West Pratt. One of the most recent victims was a supermarket across from Rubin's store, which closed last winter.

The experiences of merchants along the beleaguered strip run counter to rosier reports coming in from other parts of the city, where crime rates are down and home sales up. Some blame city negligence for the area's woes. But the merchants here hardly represent a unified front. There is a lot of finger-pointing from within the commercial community and, judging by appearances, some businesses along Pratt seem little concerned with the decayed conditions.

Once the commercial hub of the surrounding Pratt-Monroe, Carrollton Ridge, Union Square, and Boyd-Booth neighborhoods, the West Pratt strip's been on the decline since the mid-'80s--roughly when crack arrived and dealers started to proliferate, merchants say.

"There has been a general disinvestment in this area," says Judith Bennick, executive director of Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), a coalition of Southwest Baltimore community and business groups. "Our banks have left. We have just one bank in the whole area. The city has disinvested in the community. We have lost our fire station, our library is closing, they are threatening to close our schools, and we had our neighborhood service center pulled from us."

Despite the area's slide, business is still pretty good at family-owned Zeskind's Hardware at 222 S. Payson St., one block from Rubin's store. Owner Rick Zeskind is the third generation of his family to run the narrow, cluttered store with vintage tin ceilings. Unfortunately, business is also pretty good on the surrounding street corners where drug dealers openly conduct their trade.

"The conditions around here are enough to make my grandfather roll over in his grave," Zeskind says. "The police are doing the best they can, but the dealers just come right back."

Zeskind says he calls 911 to report drug activity "all the time" and has had dealers shout deaths threats through his doorway. "My wife wants me to leave here," Zeskind says. "But I do a decent business, and people who pay taxes shouldn't be pushed out by people who don't."

Rubin says he contacted a reporter at The Sun about the area's woes but was told the newspaper wasn't interested "unless there was something positive to report."

"We have multiple problems up here: grime, crime, and zoning [enforcement] issues," says Audrey Morée, owner of Bay Island Seafood (on the community's famed "Crab Corner") and president of the West Pratt Street Merchants Association. "Business is not good on Pratt Street. I do well because of my reputation, but parts of Pratt Street make me sick to my stomach. We need a bank and a couple of good anchor stores. We have too many empty houses."

Last year the merchants' group applied to participate in Baltimore Main Streets, a city-run program developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to revitalize neighborhood business districts. But West Pratt Street was not among the seven neighborhoods tapped for the program. (Belair-Edison, East Monument Street, Federal Hill/South Baltimore, Hampden, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington Boulevard/Pigtown, and Waverly got the nods.) Bennick says COIL also has applied for a grant from the Mayor's Healthy Neighborhood initiative and requested extra funds and resources to address the proliferation of vacant houses.

"We were told it was a good grant but that we just don't live in a healthy neighborhood," Bennick says. "When the city and state pull out of a community, what is that telling the people who live there?"

Kevin Malachi, director of the city Department of Housing and Community Development's commercial-revitalization division, toured the West Pratt commercial district last spring and says he is aware of the challenges merchants face. But he disputes assertions that City Hall has abandoned them.

"I'm not sure why they feel disenfranchised," Malachi says, citing the city sanitation crews and housing and code-enforcement personnel that have been dispatched to the area to deal with pressing problems. "I think the city has responded to some of the needs of the community. We are looking at ways to find other [commercial] anchors for the area, and there are discussions going on. Over time I think things will get better. Right now we need the merchants to continue to empower themselves. I would like to see more done from within the community."

Morée acknowledges that not all the area's merchants are behind efforts to improve the area. Some, she says, don't maintain their storefronts or clean up around their business. Others, she asserts, are only out for a "quick buck."

"I clean more than a city block every day, sometimes twice a day, because that's what it takes," she says.

Her association hasn't met recently (partly because the summer crab season keeps her pretty busy), but she hopes to regroup in the fall. She also hopes to solicit a leader from the city's Korean community to help her broach the language barrier that discourages the neighborhood's Korean merchants from getting involved in community improvement efforts.

"Things didn't fall apart overnight, and it's not going to change overnight," Morée says. "Some things are getting better. Crime, at least on my block, is nowhere near what it once was."

But Rubin wonders whether he'll be able to hold on long enough to see that change, should it come. Walking along Lemmon Street--the alley behind his business, lined with abandoned houses and garbage-filled vacant lots--he stares northward at the downtown skyline.

"It's like a whole different city down there," he says. "Anyone who can moves away from here."

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