Riot-Damaged Stores in Baltimore Vital to Their Communities

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Baltimore riotsThe day after rioting damaged scores of Baltimore businesses, Dwayne Weaver found his small pharmacy in shambles, the doors smashed and the glass shattered. Looters had emptied bins of prescriptions drugs, stolen the fax machine along with soda and chips, upended boxes and files, and left trash everywhere.

“My heart sunk to the floor,” said the pharmacist, who had sent employees home early and locked up April 27 as demonstrations erupted into violence on the day of the funeral for Freddie Gray, whose death after a spinal injury while in police custody sparked protests in Baltimore.

Weaver had hoped trouble would bypass Keystone Pharmacy, a fixture in its neighborhood for more than three decades. He briefly weighed closing for good before changing his mind.

“We saw how much we’d invested in the neighborhood and how much the patients had invested in us,” Weaver said. “We’re very entrenched in the neighborhood. It’s been a loyal, appreciative clientele. It has a reputation as a rough neighborhood, but for me as a business owner, I came back for the good patients. Those weren’t the ones vandalizing the store.”

Among 350 businesses identified by city officials as damaged in two nights of rioting were drugstores and grocers considered the lifeblood of some of Baltimore’s poorest areas. Many customers are elderly or have chronic health problems and live in “food deserts” with limited access to transportation and healthy food.

As of Friday, five drugstore/pharmacies remained closed, including two CVS Pharmacy locations, two independent pharmacies and a Rite Aid, according to the city Health Department. Another nine stores with pharmacies had reopened after sustaining damage, including seven Rite Aids and a Target that was the site of a standoff between protesters and police that escalated into violence April 27. Last week, CVS said it will rebuild its two stores burned by rioters.

Small businesses in particular serve as the “backbone” of today’s inner-city neighborhoods, said Robert Blum, director of the Urban Health Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“They’re the corner drugstores, the corner food markets, and these really are the core service structures of the neighborhoods,” Blum said. “One of the things we continue to see in the poorest communities in Baltimore … there is a continual eroding of that small-business infrastructure.”

Shuttered or burned businesses have an immediate impact — leaving residents without access to food or critical medications for hypertension, kidney disease and other disorders, Blum said. But the effects can linger in the longer term as well, he said.

“It creates a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” Blum said. “It creates a disincentive for people to invest in local and particularly low-income communities. The questions that entrepreneurs and small-business owners have are, ‘Is it viable? Is it secure?’ If we’re going to help support the neighborhood, we also have to support small business.”

After Weaver and 10 employees spent a week of long hours putting the pieces of Keystone back together, the store reopened last week. The next day, the front door was open and employees doled out free cans of soda along with medications to a steady flow of customers. Weaver and his staff bustled around the small space. They filled bottles, sorted bags into bins, answered phone calls and announced when orders were ready to a waiting area outside a glass partition, where customers filled a half-dozen chairs.

Danielle Davis picked up medication for her brother, who she said is disabled and lives with her. Her late mother had always come to Keystone, and Davis said she continues the 15-year family tradition.

“They’re friendly, it’s in the neighborhood, and it’s real convenient,” said Davis, who lives nearby and works at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center downtown.

Edna Miller, 77, leaned on a cane as she sat next to her daughter, Deborah Jackson, who’d accompanied her on the bus to pick up pain medication she would run out of that day. Miller had not been able to get her usual delivery from Keystone because of the closure.

“To me, it’s important, the ability to have it delivered,” she said, adding that she had been praying about the turmoil in the city. “I’ve talked to God day and night. God didn’t want this to happen.”

Weaver, who comes from a family of steelworkers in Pennsylvania, had worked for a drugstore chain in the city before being approached in 1985 by partners who helped him open his first store. He had little competition, either from independents or national chains.

When his business burned down in a 1997 fire caused by faulty wiring, Weaver and his wife and co-owner, Jane, decided to stay in the neighborhood. They found the current space and the customers followed, including many he knows by name. The pharmacy makes deliveries and often finds itself acting as a go-between for patients with their doctors and insurers.

Even the temporary loss of businesses such as Keystone has proved a hardship for many over the past couple of weeks, said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner.

“It may sound easy to get people’s prescriptions and transfer them from one pharmacy to another, but it’s surprisingly complicated,” Wen said. “It may not be easy for people to get information about the nearest pharmacy. If you transfer to a different chain, it’s not as straightforward. There are people with limited mobility, so even going three blocks away could be impossible.”

The Health Department has been assisting residents via the city’s 311 hotline with transferring or getting deliveries of prescriptions. The department is working on arranging shuttles for senior citizens to get groceries and health-related supplies.

“People who may not otherwise have support through their families and their friends tend to be affected,” she said.

At a strip mall, where vandals had smashed windows and looted, the Save-A-Lot grocery store reopened last week. A hardware store and laundromat also were boarded up but open. Workers spent the week cleaning up the Rite Aid, which reopened.

Shirley Williams wheeled a small cart down the aisles of the supermarket where she shops several times a month. A resident of a nearby senior housing complex, Williams, 77, has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years and was relieved to find the supermarket had reopened. While the Rite Aid was closed, she’d relied on her daughter to drive her to get prescriptions.

“It’s very important to me,” Williams said of the center. “I can walk here and the Rite Aid to get my medicine.”

At ShopRite in the city’s Howard Park neighborhood, members of the Klein family that owns the grocer stayed in the store and parking lot, along with managers and store security guards, as clashes and looting erupted elsewhere in the city.

Members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, and some community members also stood in the parking lot, “just saying, ‘We’re here,’” said Michael Klein, a vice president for the nine-store chain.

Management never considered closing, Klein said. He saw police patrolling the neighborhood, and customers shopped as usual inside.

The supermarket had opened in one of the city’s food deserts to great fanfare last summer after community and city officials had worked for years to attract a grocer.

After the riots, the store maintained close to regular hours the rest of the week, closing early enough to allow employees to get home to meet a citywide curfew, Klein said.

“Howard Park is very, very solid, with great community leaders,” Klein said. “They waited 12 years to have this store open up. We made a commitment to stay open, regardless of what was happening anywhere else during that troublesome week.”

(Source: TNS)