The history of Oldtown Mall is depressing. Riots, looting, fires and a long-stalled development plan. One of the big property owners, Stanley Zarden, told me back in 1999, "Everybody that is here should get a medal."
I returned to Oldtown Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare off East Monument Street in East Baltimore, yesterday after the owner of a Chinese carryout, Tien Zin Wang, was shot Saturday night while delivering $20 of food to what turned out to be a fake address on nearby Webb Court.
The 51-year-old, who immigrated here in 1991, died earlier this week. He was shot four times, twice in the back, according to his son, Sam Wang, who sped to the shooting scene shortly after bullets flew and his wounded father managed to call the store from his cell phone.
Sam Wang told me his aunt once ran the carryout but gave it up because the neighborhood had turned bad. His father took it over five years ago because he wanted his family to work together. All told, he, his father, mother and three sisters ran the place despite aggravation from neighborhood youths who threw rocks and trash at the store, and even a firebomb.
The night he was shot, Sam Wang said the family was sitting down to eat and preparing to close. It was about 11:30 p.m. when an order came in for food at 810 Webb Court. The father told his family to stay and eat, that he would take care of the last order. He drove off in his SUV with the food, a cell phone and pocket change. He was shot about 11:50 p.m. near his parked SUV. Wang said whoever shot him didn't take the food or the phone.
I remember Oldtown Mall from a fire in 1999. Two stores burned in a blaze that took firefighters hours to extinguish. Even then, a plan to revitalize the outdoor mall -- one of the city's earliest farmer's markets before the turn of the century -- had been in the works for five years. A new shopping center was planned, along with new stores.
Last year, Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella reported an update, which sounded much like the story years earlier. Developers needed more time and more space. Yesterday, I talked with M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
He told me that plans are still about a year away. The developers discovered that the narrow street layout didn't work for a large supermarket, so the the city started to acquire an additional 18 homes outside the mall area that carries an history designation. They have got all but seven, and the remainder should be in hand by fall, Brodie told me.
"The developer can't go forward until it has the property in hand," he said.
City officials are working with the transportation department to reopen Gay Street to traffic through the mall, and everyone is waiting for the city's housing department to finish demolishing Somerset Homes across the street. Brodie said work at the now empty public housing complex has been slowed because of environmental concerns, and workers have to take it apart virtually brick by brick. That could take another year, he said.
Brodie said officials also are working on a master plan that would include Oldtown Mall in a larger area being studied from Monument south to Fayette Streets. That would include some areas now being developed as part of the Johns Hopkins redevelopment plan so that Oldtown could tie into gains being made there.
Still, Brodie agreed that it's tough for the few tenants sticking it out. And the killing of one of them doesn't help matters any. Brodie also said his staff members, while attending community meetings to discuss the mall, have noticed more and more drug dealing in the neighborhood. He said he planned to contact the Eastern District major and police commissioner to discuss the problems. Eastern District, which had relative few homicides last year in what is normally the most dangerous area of the city, started this year out with the first four. Wang's was the fifth on that side of the city.
Wang's story is sad. He was a businessman trying to made a buck and keep his family together. He came to America for a better life and got killed trying. His son told me had had delivered to Webb Court many times in the past and had no trouble, so he didn't think of the address as particularly dangerous. He said his father also warned him not to fight with anybody who tries to rob him.
Police aren't saying what if anything the gunmen took from Wang. His son told me he carried only pocket change and that nobody took his phone or food.
We're only seven days into a new year and we've already lost an immigrant who wanted a better life, three teens who should have more lives to live, and who knows who else. Barely a week into 2009, there are already too many killings to keep track of.