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Conflict seethes at Old Town Mall


The news that retail developers were primed to ride into East Baltimore's Old Town Mall and rescue it from years of decay spread among the weary store owners last year and gave them hope.

Standing in old creaky, paint-chipped doorways of a pedestrian mall that once was a nationwide model for commercial revitalization in the 1970s, the owners trumpeted the proposed supermarket, pharmacy and bank because it could lure customers and stop the trend of newly closed shops.

The trumpeting faded into grumbles this week. A small pocket of mall owners who operate fresh meat, vegetable, fast-food and grocery stores inside the Belair Market stopped the proposed development. If the supermarket came, their businesses would fail, they said.

And so came the latest swipe in a combative struggle between merchants that has engulfed the surrounding community and City Hall. The conflict involves cultural clashes and pleas from small-business owners to save their livelihoods.

Today, the City Council Urban Affairs Committee is expected to put off action until October, when the council's summer recess ends.

The shop owners are furious.

"The [food merchants] are holding the entire community hostage," said Lew Goldstein, owner of Goldstein's Style Shop, a fixture at the mall since 1918. "If we don't get changes rapidly, I don't see myself here in five years. A lot of other stores won't be here, either."

Opponents of the mall expansion are not yet declaring victory.

"It's too early to be glad," said Jae Ki Ryu, owner of Kim's Meat Store in the Belair Market. "I still have to fight."

Other problems

The only thing that both sides agree on is that something drastic has to be done for Old Town Mall. The purse-snatching, the loitering methadone addicts from the clinic up the street and the open-air drug peddling have sent customers running to other malls.

New development will bring customers back to the area, some say.

But the food vendors say the new supermarket would price them out of business.

The issue has left the food vendors, mostly Koreans who have been in this country for less than a dozen years, trying to stare down the other store owners and the poor residents who see the proposed development as vital to their survival.

The relationship among mall owners, residents and vendors has never been ideal and often times have been nasty.

The cultural differences, the language barrier and the fact that the market occupies a confined space at the edge of the mall magnify the difficulties.

"They don't stretch out to us," said the Rev. Claveron E. Burston, owner of The Upward Way Church Supply on the mall. "They have separated themselves from us."

Some store owners say that the food merchants rarely attend mall-wide meetings and give the impression that they do not care. But the food vendors counter that they are shy, feeling uncomfortable discussing business in a foreign tongue.

Choon Kee Park, a grocery store owner inside the Belair Market, doesn't always understand his customers. He began studying English in 1987, his first year in America.

He said he left South Korea, even though he had a biology degree, "to live the American dream. Make money. Be happy." Six months after arriving, he bought his first grocery store when the Korean community members pooled their money and gave it to him to start a business.

"That's how we get businesses very quickly," Mr. Park said.

He fears he may loose his grocery store just as quickly.

"I am very worried. That's why we fight," Mr. Park said. "We can't match the price of a supermarket."

The mall owners say that Mr. Park and others are afraid of capitalism.

"I can understand it from their point of view, but we live in a free and open society where a competitive marketplace is at the very heart of our system," Mr. Goldstein said.

Poor hurt the most

Gerald Jeffein, owner of Kaufmans, a 73-year-old department store on the mall, said the poor people in the neighborhood will feel the pressure most.

"Who needs the best price the most? The poor people. They shouldn't be denied that right," Mr. Jeffein said.

The conflict exasperates an already touchy race relationship between blacks who comprise the neighborhood and the Korean merchants.

Black residents claim that the Korean merchants charge too much money for goods.

The Koreans say they don't feel safe.

"The only reason I come here is because I can't go nowhere else," said Alisha Williams, a resident of nearby Lafayette homes. "Everyone who has a car goes out from here where things are much cheaper."

Mr. Ryu sternly defends his butcher store's prices.

"I buy from a wholesaler, and I have to cover my cost. Doesn't everyone?" Mr. Ryu said.

Butcher Yong Doo Park, no relation to Choon Kee Park, said that it is not fair that some store owners and residents blame the food vendors for the problems at Old Town Mall.

"This market is run by the city. It is not the merchants' fault that there are drug addicts and alcoholics and thieves hanging around," Mr. Park said.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said that before the City Council hears this issue, a panel of mall owners and merchants will be meeting to sort through their differences.

But for now it seems both sides are unwilling to give up.

"This is our life. If we go out of business, who is going to support our families? Whatever I can do in this fight I will," Mr. Ryu said.

"This is a golden opportunity," Mr. Jeffein said. "Delaying it is the same as killing this mall."

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