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Some merchants wary about crime, others optimistic along Greenmount Avenue

The owner of a dress shop is so fearful of crime along Greenmount Avenue in Waverly that she keeps the door locked even when her shop is open. The man who runs a discount store a block away feels it is safe enough to stroll the avenue with his three young children.

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.

Ann Cornish started locking her door in July, after she was robbed by a man who said he had a gun and had her purse stolen by another man who came into her shop.

"This is not a good area to be in," Cornish said. "Had I known that three years ago, I never would have come." She recalls the police making a stand last year, but said, "It only lasted a couple of days and then it was over."

In February, Gregg's Bakery and Grocery Store opened at East 31st Street, offering everything from doughnuts to wedding cakes and fueling optimism about the area. For neighborhood resident Dinesha Sparrow, it was an opportunity for a job when few were hiring. But she, too, was a bit worried when she started work.

"It's a bit scary in here," the 28-year-old clerk said. "I'm just praying nothing happens."

After last year's killing, police said the owner of Yau Brothers — a Chinese immigrant who speaks no English — agreed to install surveillance cameras. He also agreed to stop selling rolling papers for cigarettes, dice and blunt cigars, which authorities felt drew unsavory clientele.

Police and neighborhood leaders, along with interpreters, met with the owner after the Halloween killing and said he will put surveillance cameras outside and add lights. Police have promised additional officers through the holiday season, and an officer has been ordered to stop at Yau Brothers at least once an hour every shift.

Police Maj. Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, commander of the Northern District, said the owner of Yau Brothers has been cooperative and noted that the camera "was crucial to apprehending the suspect" in the shooting. "The business owner has been working with us. I'm optimistic about that."

Police are evaluating the pattern of violence at Yau Brothers and could recommend that the commissioner issue a padlock order, a tactic he's used to close other troublesome bars and liquor stores in the past several years.

But department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police would prefer to craft a security plan with the owner.

"We're not in the business of shutting down restaurants and clubs," Guglielmi said. "We're in the business of keeping businesses safe. We want businesses to be good partners. That's all we ask."

Tapp-Harper said she's ordered at least one officer to walk Greenmount on foot, which taxes an already-stretched police force but is a measure many residents and business owners have demanded.

"We're doing our best," said the major, who frequents Darker Than Blue with her husband. But of the extra resources, she said, "I don't know how long I'll be able to make it last."

Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, noted that Darker Than Blue's owner had openly supported challenger Otis Rolley in this year's mayoral primary. He said Jenkins' criticism might be "a little more political," and stressed that the mayor is committed to Waverly.

Brennan noted the stronger police presence and community meetings sponsored by City Hall, but said the mayor recognizes that "more needs to be done" and that the task ahead "is challenging."

Jenkins denied that his anger is politically motivated. He said he gave city leaders a chance after the 2010 killings but is convinced that their promises were hollow, short-term gestures that did little to maintain safety in the long run.

"My discontent is with the city," he said. "There is no focus on growth in this area. … We thought we had progressive growth here, but the city isn't buying into it."

But both Jenkins and Stahl said their restaurants are packed.

Stahl called 2011 his "best year ever," and Jenkins said he is having "a better holiday than we did last year." But Jenkins noted that reservations are coming in for earlier times, around 5 p.m., which he believes is related to patrons' concerns about crime.

Jenkins started the Waverly Merchants Association after last year's killings but has disbanded the group, saying it accomplished little. It has been folded into another organization, Waverly Main Street, which had been dormant but is now taking on a leadership role.

The group's president, Michael Haynie, who runs a hospitality management company, said it is up to residents and merchants, in addition to police, to help make improvements.

"We want the perception out there that we do care and that we do work together," he said. "I do not feel that the city has abandoned us at all. But I do think we have to work with the city. The community has to be as much a part of the process as our city leaders are."

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