Ronnie Polaneczky: A place of death still a good place to live

A makeshift memorial sits outside the Lawndale store (above) of slain jeweler Bill Glatz (below).
A makeshift memorial sits outside the Lawndale store (above) of slain jeweler Bill Glatz (below).
Posted: October 28, 2010

WHEN JEWELER Bill Glatz was murdered last Thursday in his Lawndale store, longtime resident Tom Glennon called the tragedy "the death knell" of the neighborhood.

"This is it," said Glennon, 65, a retired fire captain who has lived near the Rising Sun Avenue jewelry store since 1976 with his wife, Kate, 61. "I'm afraid of what this means. The neighborhood has changed so much."

Last weekend, when I visited the sidewalk memorial at Glatz's store, passers-by expressed similar sentiments: A "bad element" had changed the character of their neighborhood.

Anguished and heartfelt as the comments were, they begged for clarification.

After all, Glatz's murderer, escaped prisoner Kevin Turner, wasn't even from the area.

But had something about Lawndale attracted Turner and his brazen accomplices to the neighborhood? Did they sense a vulnerability that didn't use to be there?

In some ways, the area in and around Lawndale no longer resembles the area in which the Glennons and other retirees raised their kids. That neighborhood was populated by mostly white, working-class residents who patronized the mom-and-pop shops on Rising Sun Avenue - Lawndale's Main Street.

Bakeries and barbershops sat among apparel and shoe shops, appliance and furniture stores.

But long before Glatz's murder, the avenue, like so many Main Streets, ceased to resemble its heyday. And it wasn't because bad chased out good.

The area took a hit when malls and big-box retail stores pulled customers away.

Unable to compete, some stores went under. Owners of other emporiums, without children to take over the businesses, closed shop when they retired.

New enterprises have replaced the former standbys. But many of their services - there are nail salons, check-cashing sites, fast-food joints and used-clothing stores - disappoint old-timers.

They don't like the change.

"People say, 'Why are there so many nail salons now?' " says Bill Dolbow, head of the Lawncrest Civic Association, whose monthly meeting pulls in 75 to 100 attendees and represents the communities of Lawndale and Crescentville. "I say, 'Would you rather see a vacant storefront?' At least they're occupied."

Indeed, so few empty spots dot this stretch of Rising Sun Avenue that, in 2008, when state Rep. Brendan Boyle wanted to open a legislative office there, he had to wait for a site to open up.

"That's a good sign, actually," says Boyle, who is working with city and state leaders on a revitalization plan for the corridor. "I know the avenue has changed, but there's still potential here."

Still, Lawndale's commercial district lacks something crucial to the well-being of the community: a business association.

Such associations bird-dog city services that support the neighborhood as a whole, sponsor church and school events, organize themselves around holiday activities, help a neighborhood believe in itself.

Lawndale's association died years ago - another change.

"We've been trying to establish one for almost two years," says Dolbow. His group has been working with state Rep. Dwight Evans, Councilwoman Marian Tasco, representatives from the 2nd Police District and others to galvanize businesses in the community. "But [these are] new owners. Some are immigrants.

They're not used to organizing," Dolbow said.

They need to, says city Commerce Director Alan Greenberger, whose department is also trying to convince businesses of the benefits of uniting.

"We have great programs to help businesses improve building facades, streetscapes, security and lighting," says Greenberger.

These can enhance an area's appearance, attract shoppers and signal to potential new businesses that the neighborhood is on top of its game.

Which can dissuade criminals.

"But we need to funnel the state and local dollars through an association or [community development corporation]," Greenberger said. "We can't just give them away."

Some residents said they feel unsafe in their neighborhood. But police statistics don't support the belief that a crime wave, Glatz's horrible murder notwithstanding, has hit Lawndale.

Still, this is a neighborhood that until recent years rarely experienced snatched purses, car break-ins, corner drug deals or roaming delinquents - activities commonplace elsewhere that can make residents feel that their community is out of control.

Despite the complaints, membership in Lawndale's Town Watch has plunged, says its president, Ken Hyers, who is about to shut down the enterprise.

"How can you say the neighborhood is getting worse but do nothing to help make it better?" he asks. "Maybe people don't think it's as bad as they say it is."

A police spokesman told me that most complaints to the district's community-relations office are about neglected rental properties with high grass and shady tenants.

Which relates to one of Lawndale's most significant changes.

Over the past decade, as the Naval Depot on Tabor Road transferred many employees out of the area, Lawndale residents who'd worked at the center moved away. Hyers counted 800 "for sale" signs one year, about 400 the next, and 200 the next.

The rapid turnover caught the area off guard, Hyers says.

"Many of the homes were bought by New York investors, and they rent them," says Hyers. "They're absentee landlords. They don't keep up the properties, and the renters aren't committed to the neighborhood."

It's impossible to overestimate the impact on the area's stability, says Hyers.

"You replace homeowners with low-income renters, you're going to feel a change."

Despite his grief over Glatz's murder, retired firefighter Glennon says that he won't leave the home that he and his wife have tended for three decades. Besides, he likes his neighbors - a newly diverse group that includes delightful Colombian immigrants "who treat my wife like their grandma."

"The bad changes aren't about race," he emphasizes. "They're about safety and wanting to feel like you share the same values. I want [Lawndale] to get a handle on the bad stuff."

The civic association's Dolbow is also staying, buoyed by a new level of participation he senses in the community.

A group of parents have revived the baseball league, he says. Lawndale has a new boxing association, which just presented its first state-sanctioned card. This weekend, a neighborhood cleanup is planned. And next week, a Veterans Day celebration will take place - a first, in Dolbow's memory.

"This is the city," Dolbow says. "Change happens. Mr. Glatz's death was horrible. He was a rock to this neighborhood. But this is still a good place to live."

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at

http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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