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Joe Waeltermann says he's grown accustomed to petty thefts and vandalism at his Southside Garden Stop. Every Mother's Day, he claims, dozens of rose bushes disappear in the dead of the night. This time of year, it's Christmas trees. Seems the conifers have a habit of jumping his six-foot-high fence and vanishing without a trace.
Given that track record, Waeltermann says he was hardly surprised when he showed up at his greenhouse earlier this month to discover four trees missing. But what really got his goat was that the same hooligans also pulled down the pine rope and holiday lights adorning the front of his store.
"It's little things like that that bother me," gripes the 53-year-old horticulturist, who discovered the vandalism after he and his dogs, Chocolate and Socks, arrived at 1 a.m. for the Dickensian task of stoking the wood fires that warm his ragtag nursery.
With family roots dating back 150 years in the Benton Park West neighborhood, where the Garden Stop is located, Waeltermann says he remembers well when this section of south St. Louis was virtually crime-free.
"It's so worrisome," he says. "Do I spend the night to guard the store or just say, 'The hell with it?'"
This time he chose neither.
After tacking the garland back onto his storefront, Waeltermann marched over to his econo-size marquee, which graces the corner of Cherokee Street and Compton Avenue, and promptly threw up a bitter message: "Want to thank neighbors and police for watching store vandalized."
Crimes in the neighborhood may go unnoticed, but the biting words have not.
"It's like a slap in the face," complains nearby resident Michael Sullivan, whose wife, Christina, organized a block unit this summer to monitor crime and other infractions in the neighborhood. "It doesn't accurately describe what's going on here."
On December 7 three days after the sign went up Christina fired off a letter to Waeltermann, accusing him of insulting the neighborhood and, worse, the police.
"Your sarcasm is unwarranted and entirely unjustified," she wrote. "Your selfish public tantrum jeopardizes not just the safety of your business, but our entire community by alienating the very people whose job it is to protect us from harm."
Further aggravating the Sullivans and others residents is their assertion that Waeltermann is an ungrateful sourpuss. He seems to have forgotten, they say, how fellow neighbors called the fire department last month when his thrown-together greenhouse of transparent plastic tarps and two-by-fours went up in flames.
"The next day, several neighbors went and helped him clean up and fix the place," says Michael Sullivan. "I don't recall a public sign thanking them for saving the business and helping rebuild it."
Waeltermann says he's thanked them plenty, and adds that he could care less whether his angry missive might offend police. Since opening his business five years ago, Waeltermann claims he's filed at least six police reports for damage or theft to his property. And not one of them, he says, has been resolved.
"We shouldn't have to kiss their ass to get the police to do their job," he scoffs. "It's like Russia here. People are afraid of reprisals, but they ain't doing nothing for me now. What does it matter who I piss off?"
Part of the recently named Gravois-Jefferson Streetcar Suburb National Register Historic District, Benton Park West has endured its share of drug and street crime in recent decades. But neighbors say the past few years have ushered in a slow transformation. They hope that improvement will continue despite Waeltermann's public condemnation.
"The facts suggest there's much improvement in that neighborhood," says Twentieth Ward Alderman Craig Schmid, who's aware of the sign but says he's powerless to do anything about it. "Development is gearing up, and property values are on the rise. Still, people are allowed to voice their opinions, and there are some people who look at the glass as half-empty rather than half-full."
"I think the waiting is the problem," concedes Christina Sullivan, who says she can sympathize with neighbors who wish the area would turn around sooner rather than later. But, she argues, Waeltermann's "knucklehead" tactics are no way to affect change.
"Joe's the kind of person who wants somebody else to take care of everything," she adds. "But what gets in my craw is that we have a lot of good people around here spending a lot of time, money and effort to start improving things. A sign like that is counterproductive."
Waeltermann, meanwhile, remains unrepentant and vows the message will stay up until at least after Christmas. Then, perhaps, he may put up a more appropriate season's greeting something he hopes might forge a bright new beginning with his displeased neighbors.
"I'm thinking," he quips, "about 'Happy New Year.'" What does it matter who I piss off?"
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