Some merchants wary about crime, others optimistic along Greenmount Avenue
Five killings in recent years trouble Waverly business district
Casey Jenkins, owner of Darker Than Blue Cafe, stands in front of his establishment. He is leading a group of disgruntled restaurant and business owners who feel that after four shootings and three deaths at single carryout, in the area, the city is abandoning the area. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / November 23, 2011)
A young clerk who just started behind the counter of a doughnut shop is happy to have found work amid the sour economy, but says, "It's scary in here." The proprietor of the avenue's most expensive restaurant is threatening to leave.
These divergent views along Waverly's de facto main street are common, reflecting both unease and optimism in the wake of a fatal shooting Halloween night — the most recent in a series of violent episodes that have claimed five lives in less than three years.
The owner of Darker Than Blue, Casey Jenkins, is threatening to pack up his restaurant and leave. He has disbanded a merchants association that he started and complains that the city has surrendered to gunfire.
"Crime was a major issue, and no matter how much we screamed, nobody listened," said Jenkins, whose restaurant is a neighborhood anchor, catering to diners who can enjoy live jazz with their citrus-glazed salmon. "The city has really let certain neighborhoods go, and this is one of those neighborhoods."
Other business owners say they are not ready to give up, and they give the city credit for trying to turn the area around. But after the latest fatal shooting at Yau Brothers carryout at 29th and Greenmount — where three others have been killed since March 2009 — even the most stalwart say their resolve is being tested.
"I think [police are] overwhelmed," said David Stahl, owner of Pete's Grille. He noted that after two killings last year, officers saturated Greenmount Avenue, and the mayor and the police commissioner led a solidarity march down the street.
"We actually had foot patrols," said Stahl, whose restaurant fed Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps his famously large breakfasts on the way to Olympic gold. "I felt the city was on top of it and we were safer. But after a number of months, those additional resources vanished and we were left fending for ourselves. I worry about the perception that this area is crime-ridden.
"We draw from the counties, from Hopkins, from out of state. They're not going to come here at some point."
The first in this spate of killings along Greenmount occurred in March 2009. Two men were shot inside Yau Brothers, nearly across the street from Darker Than Blue, in what police described as a drug dispute.
But it was the fatal shooting of a 72-year-old customer during a holdup at Yau Brothers in April 2010, followed two days later by another deadly shooting at a gas station parking lot four blocks up Greenmount, that prompted increased patrols and promises of help from the mayor and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
This Halloween there was another killing at Yau Brothers. The victim, a 52-year-old retired city bus driver who drove an airport shuttle, was a bystander caught in a robbery while waiting for dinner.
"This place has attracted homicides," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said of Yau Brothers. "We have to either help them shape up or close them down. In the meantime, we can't have this crime. It's destroying lives, and it's destroying businesses and the area's ability to attract customers." Greenmount Avenue runs through the center of her district.
Ricky Herman, the manager of Herman's Discount, where everything from tube socks to holiday ornaments is available, blamed merchant discontent on newcomers who set up shop two or three years ago. He's never been robbed, and he said businesses all over are being hurt more by the stagnant economy than by crime.
Workers in Herman's shop were busy last week putting up Christmas displays. A variety of pre-decorated, fake trees adorned the window overlooking Greenmount, and boxes of wrapping paper filled the center of the store. He said customers are few, but he had a good fall making and selling school uniforms.
"We're an up-and-coming neighborhood looking to flourish and get away from the negative press and the negative attention," Herman said. "Those of us who are really part of the community, who are really committed, are staying. I'm staying no matter what."
He has three sons, ages 4, 8 and 9, and frequently takes them to work and for walks up and down Greenmount.
"I wouldn't do that if it wasn't safe," Herman said. "We're all financially challenged. People just don't have money. But I don't think people are saying they're leaving because someone got shot."
But two blocks south, closer to Darker Than Blue and Yau Brothers, the owner of Ann's Clothing was sitting behind locked doors, reading a romance novel, on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Not a single customer walked in all morning.