For Charles Birnbaum, there’s something tranquil in the walls of his three-story Prohibition-era home on Oriental Avenue.
In the more than four decades Birnbaum’s family spent in the house, they dealt with depression, illness and even the 1998 murder of his 86-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor.
Through personal tragedy, Birnbaum, 65, watched the South Inlet neighborhood decline and give way to drug dealers and thieves, who operated with a lack of respect for life, he said. The drug-crazed man who broke in and beat his mother and her elderly companion to death made off with little more than a VCR.
“But through it all, if someone broke a window, I fixed it.” Birnbaum said. “There would be druggies and drug dealers on my stoop. I’d ask them to go somewhere else, and they’d say it’s a free country. I’d say, ‘Can you go be free somewhere else?’”
Now, Birnbaum, who was once accustomed to fighting drug dealers for the 20 feet of space on his front porch, is facing a new opponent: the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
The state agency in charge of redevelopment efforts in the Atlantic City Tourism District has targeted the South Inlet as a prime area for redevelopment.
That means that Birnbaum’s tiny home, built in 1921, as well as more than 60 other residences — primarily in Vermont and Metropolitan plaza low-rises — will be demolished to make way for new development that state officials say will make the resort cleaner and safer.
The South Inlet was targeted as a prime area for redevelopment in the Tourism District Master Plan approved earlier this year. Revel, the $2.4 billion megaresort that opened this year just blocks from Birnbaum’s home, is bound to use tax rebate money to reinvest in the neighborhood.
“It’s the evolution of change in Atlantic City. A lot of that work was outlined in the Master Plan,” said Paul Weiss, chief legal counsel for the CRDA, who pointed to The Walk as another area that improved greatly through redevelopment.
The area pegged for the South Inlet project includes portions of blocks bordered by Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oriental and Pacific avenues and stretches north on Oriental to include four parcels, one of which is Birnbaum’s home.
The CRDA hasn’t yet decided specifics of the redevelopment project but is focusing on acquiring the land, a process expected to cost as much as $25 million.
Much of the area includes vacant and dilapidated properties. In some cases, walking paths have been worn across the vacant lots from apparent use.
In addition to the redevelopment project and nearby Revel, there are plans to develop a 30-story condominium complex across the street from Birnbaum’s home. Developers have discussed including the state’s first robotic parking garage on the property’s grounds.
But don’t try telling Birnbaum that he lives in a lousy area of town. To him, it doesn’t get much better than the view from his roof, a block from the Boardwalk. Nearby Absecon Lighthouse is “my lighthouse,” he said, and the roof provides a spectacular view for the yearly Atlantic City Airshow.
“Is this a little paradise or what? This is what they want to take from me,” he said
Some might question why Birnbaum would want to set foot in a home where his family endured some of its toughest times. Birnbaum said the modest brick house a block from the beach is where the spirit of his family remains.
In 1969, after recovering from a severe battle with depression and a suicide attempt, he drove with his father from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to look at the house. It was time for the family to make a change, and his father transferred from his job at the Lit Brothers department store smoke shop to the Atlantic City branch.
Markings on the walls in the basement show how the water level rose as the house stood strong through the March storm of 1962 that tore down homes and swept away part of the Steel Pier.
In 1985, his parents refused to leave when Hurricane Gloria prompted an evacuation order. Instead, Birnbaum’s father and mother, who met in Poland as widows hiding from Nazis, decided they were strong enough to outlast the storm. They would do so while fending off burglars in the process.
After her husband’s death in 1986, Birnbaum’s mother’s condition slowly deteriorated. But despite several bouts in hospitals, Birnbaum said he took great pride in the fact that he was able to renovate a downstairs apartment and hire a companion, Beatrice “BeeBee” Cabarrus, to care for his mother and keep her comfortable at home.
Louis Crumpton, the man who beat the women to death, broke into the home between Birnbaum’s daily visits. Despite the tragedy, Birnbaum gathered six friends and cleaned the blood-splattered and fingerprint-dusted walls himself.
Though he lives with his wife in Hammonton, Birnbaum, a classically trained pianist who has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, has continued to run his piano-tuning business, used by most of the area casinos, from the home.
The otherwise empty closets are stocked with piano parts and just one of his mother’s housecoats, the only piece of her clothing he kept.
CRDA officials said they’re well aware that they are affecting people’s lives when they order relocation and demolition. While the eminent domain process is most commonly used by municipalities when constructing roadways or public spaces, the CRDA can use the process for commercial projects due to its mission as a redevelopment agency for Atlantic City.
Bunny Rixey, the CRDA’s director of real estate and development, has been involved with the process for 22 years. In that time, the agency has never had to evict anyone from a property. Even residents who are reluctant to begin the process eventually come around, she said.
In one case, Rixey said, the CRDA moved an entire home to another part of the city for a homeowner who didn’t want the property demolished.
For Birnbaum, the joy he takes in his property also comes from its location, which he says is ideal. He maintains the first floor of the home for his business and rents out the top two levels, one to a couple who has been there since 1990, the other to a woman who has been there since 2005.
On Tuesday, the CRDA voted to devote an initial $1.2 million to the acquisition process.
“The new slogan for Atlantic City is ‘Do AC!’ CRDA is telling me: Do it somewhere else,” Birnbaum said. “After having survived so much turmoil and destruction in the inlet, why should we give up the right and the privilege to enjoy the renaissance of the new inlet?”
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