November 13, 2018
Twenty years ago this month, Charlie Birnbaum stood outside a three-story brick apartment building in Atlantic City grappling with the latest in a long line of tragedies threatening to destroy his family.
Police had already swarmed the 300 block of Oriental Avenue in the resort’s South Inlet area before sunset on that horrible Thursday evening. Investigators with the county medical examiner's office were on their way.
Inside the home that his parents purchased for $13,000 in 1969 – one that a government agency is trying to seize and demolish – investigators found the body of Charlie’s mother, Dora.
She'd been beaten to death during a burglary that turned horribly violent when the intruder realized residents were home.
I know this because I was there as a crime reporter for the Press of Atlantic City, and this was the sort of story that never leaves you.
The looks on the police officers' faces indicated the scene inside was unlike anything they'd ever seen before. The image of Charles standing near the enclosed walk-up staircase, his hands over his head in despair. The body of an elderly 4-foot-9, 100-pound woman being taken away in a bag.
The tragedy would not end with those images.
Dora’s caretaker – 84-year-old Beatrice Cabarrus – also was brutally attacked that day. She'd spend her last four months in a coma, all so a 37-year-old man could steal nothing but a broken VCR.
The killer – Louis Crumpton – pleaded guilty less than two years later to avoid a sentence of death handed down by the court. (It wouldn't stop AIDS from carrying one out in 2002.)
The next morning, Charlie told me about his mother's life, the details deepening the horror of an already tragic story.
Dora was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Her four-year-old daughter had been shot by the Nazis. Her husband was hanged in the town square. Her parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins would not survive, either.
She somehow escaped and hid in nearby woods for years where she’d meet her second husband – Abe – who was also hiding from the Nazis after his wife had been arrested and shot.
Dora and Abe would marry, have two children and ultimately move to Atlantic City by way of San Francisco in 1952 and Philadelphia in the 1960s. Charlie was the second of those children. His older brother Sam committed suicide in 1986, a year before his father died.
Today, photos of Charlie’s deceased loved ones – intermingled with images of his wife, children and grandchildren – give the first floor of 311 Oriental Ave. the feel of a family shrine. That makes sense because the property has served as a haven from life's cruel twists and turns over the past five decades.
It was their safe space in times of unbearable pain, and it's remained so for Charlie who, for the past six years, has been swept up in a legal battle with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), a government agency that wants to tear it to the ground to make way for a yet-defined "mixed-use project."
In his early 70s and battling debilitating medical problems, Charlie is a well-known piano tuner who's plied his trade at the city's casinos for decades. He's also the "last man standing" in a section of town long eyed by developers for its potential, but all the while left to rot as that waiting game continues.
What really irks Charlie and the attorneys who've taken up his cause since 2012 is that they haven't heard a single good reason why CRDA wants to use eminent domain to convert the home into yet-another vacant lot.
At this point, they're starting to think it's just about CRDA not wanting to be told what it can, and cannot, do.
"This home was a new beginning for all of us, and it is the link to what family we have left. That's what this house represents," said Charlie, while standing on the roof of a property that offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean to the south, the Absecon Lighthouse to the north and Ocean Casino Resort to the west.
"If they were to say, 'Charlie, the development here is going to be extensive and you're in the way of an absolute necessity,' I'd say, 'Wonderful, I'm out of here,'" he continued. "I'm not against Atlantic City. I want to see the city thrive.
"If we're in the way of progress, I want to know what that progress is. It's not an unreasonable request. They've said we don't have to answer that question. It's as if they can't tolerate that someone is challenging their power, saying that their power has some limits."
The Birnbaums' voyage to Atlantic City was long, winding and the subject of a documentary detailing the battle with the CRDA.
Sitting on the first floor of the property, not far from a grand piano and surrounded by newspaper clippings, photos and other mementos, Charlie revisited it all again one recent sunny morning.
The Birnbaum family came to America from war-torn Europe in 1952, settling with Dora's aunt in San Francisco.
Charles and his brother Sam started studying piano. They were so good that his brother earned a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music, prompting a cross-country move to Philadelphia, where Charles would further study the instrument at Temple University.
His father would open a jewelry store and the family would live near 11th and Pine streets in an apartment building that permitted the children to practice piano despite the inherent noise concerns.
"After a lot of struggles, a lot of tough times, this was a place where we could finally say, 'This is ours.' It was a breath of fresh air. It was a new beginning for all of us.” – Charles Birnbaum
When that building was declared unfit for human habitation, the family moved to the city’s Logan neighborhood, where his mother went into a “severe depression.” It was then that the children finally learned about the horrors faced by their parents in Europe.
“My father’s parents were murdered. He loses his wife. My mother’s first husband and children were murdered,” he said. “You don’t go through the trauma they went through in Poland and just get over it.”
Emotionally saddled with those traumas, they tried to find the goodness in the world. It would not be easy.
After suffering a psychotic breakdown prompted by fears that he was letting his parents down while studying at Temple, Charles was hospitalized, somewhat against his will. Unfortunately, his roommate left out a shaving razor. The scars on Charles' wrists and throat help explain what happened next.
"What I did there was not a cry for help. I'm a perfectionist. When I do something, I try to do it right," he said, motioning to the scar on his throat. "That's the reason why I have this sexy voice."
The Atlantic City home helped him get grounded after those troubling times.
"My life really started after that," said Charles, who has a penchant for filling a room with hysterical laughter while recalling stories of a less depressing nature.
A year later, the family said goodbye to full-time life in Philadelphia. They bought a Rambler from the Reedman’s dealership and headed to Atlantic City.
“We were ready for a change, and that’s when we saw this building,” he said. “Pop decides to make a move to a place where people can’t tell his children not to f***ing practice piano. After a lot of struggles, a lot of tough times, this was a place where we could finally say, ‘This is ours. This is our American dream.’ It was a breath of fresh air. It was a new beginning for all of us.”
Charles would meet his future wife at Temple that same year, and the courtship involved the family’s Atlantic City home. He proposed there to Cindy, who got a job nearby so they could live down the shore most of the time.
As the neighborhood crumbled in the 1970s, Abe and Dora stayed. Charles would check in often as he split time between part time jobs at Temple and Atlantic County Community College. In 1980, as casinos continued to open their doors, the head of ACCC’s music program steered Charles toward piano-tuning opportunities in their gambling and entertainment halls.
“You have to see the signs unfold in front of you,” he said of opportunities that allowed him to set up a business in Atlantic City, where he could also keep an eye on, and take care of, his aging parents. “I was able to be an intensive part of their support systems while working. This building allowed me to financially make my family secure while being there for them.”
He shares a story about getting the call to tune a piano for Frank Sinatra, who was upset with someone else's tuning of an instrument for his show. He notes that he’s been in Atlantic City long enough to see some casinos get built and then demolished.
When he got the call in 1986 that his brother had committed suicide, Charles mindlessly swept the basement of 311 Oriental for hours on end. In many ways, it was the start of establishing a physical connection to the property that continues to this day.
He goes from that story to one about his beach-loving father – “he looked like Bruno Sammartino” and refused to leave the building during Hurricane Gloria in 1985 – suffering a ruptured esophagus that took him to death’s door, but not through it.
“He was able to eat again after a year,” he said. “The first thing he wanted to do was come back to Atlantic City ... a place that helped my mother cope with years of severe depression.”
The year of Sam’s suicide, Abe ended up in a nursing home. He only could bear it for a month.
“I gotta get the hell out of here. This place is killing me,” Abe told his son.
“He got to spend the last year of his life here," Charlie said. "There’s something special about these walls. He wanted to come home to the place where he was most joyful.”
Abe died in 1987. Dora stayed on Oriental Avenue for the next decade. Instead of going to a nursing home, she lived in the home with a caretaker until the day that Louis Crumpton broke in and violently ended her life.
Six years ago, Charles and his wife Cindy were at a campground in Chincoteague, Virginia when his phone rang.
“Did you see the news?” he recalled his friend Mark asking. “They’re planning on taking your property through the tourism district. There’s a story in the A.C. Press about it.”
When they got back from visiting Cindy’s parents, Charles read the article and, surely enough, CRDA had designs on his home – to demolish it through eminent domain.
The property was included in a “South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project” ostensibly created to help bolster the area near a Revel casino that would close as quickly as it opened.
“It was a state of shock. All I see (on nearby blocks) is vacant ground, so I didn’t think they’d attack me until they got that vacant area attended to,” Charlie recalled. “This was the link to what family we had left. That’s what this house represented. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening.”
He started thinking about the best course of action, as he wasn’t willing to part with his family’s home for the $238,500 that CRDA offered – take-it-or-leave-it with no-further-negotiation.
He learned that the Institute for Justice, a Virginia non-profit, had handled the high-profile case of Vera Coking, who battled Bob Guccione and, later, Donald Trump to protect her family home in the shadows of what would become Trump Plaza, less than two miles away from the Birnbaum home.
After he’d reached out to the libertarian-leaning non-profit, the family’s backstory inspired an offer to take on the case pro-bono. They've been working together ever since.
“They sent someone to check me out to make sure I wasn’t using them to just get more money,” Charles recalled. “The story behind the building was compelling to them. It’s never been about the money for me.”
“You know that ‘Do AC’ motto they were using to boost tourism? We’ve always done AC. The only problem was they were trying to tell me to do it somewhere else.” – Charles Birnbaum
Shortly thereafter, Charles would get notifications that CRDA was holding meetings about a plan that wasn’t so much a plan as a forceful push to buy out property owners to make way for development that might come someday.
He recalled standing up and speaking at one such meeting before a board with several casino bigwigs.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m Charles Birnbaum, the owner of the property you’re trying to take. I’m the guy who’s tuned pianos for all your shows for all these years,” he recalled. “You’re trying to take away my ability to do my job well. I love this building. What you’re doing is not right.”
The dispute has left the family immersed in a seemingly never-ending legal battle with CRDA.
The authority refused to discuss the Birnbaum case, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.
Charles has sued CRDA in state Superior Court, claiming the authority had no right to take private property without specifically detailing its plans.
“The Institute for Justice held a little press conference out front when everything started,” he recalled. “You know that ‘Do AC’ motto they were using to boost tourism? We’ve always done AC. The only problem was they were trying to tell me to do it somewhere else.”
They fought CRDA on two constitutional grounds: the lack of assurances that the demolition would lead directly to formal development, and case law barring eminent-domain use for pure economic development.
In November 2014, a judge ruled against Charlie, saying that CRDA had every right to take the property and proceed with the seizure.
The decision came after the authority chided the Birnbaums for having a primary residence in Hammonton, Atlantic County, with an attorney for CRDA telling the New York Times that "he makes it seem like we're kicking him out with his babies."
A week later, they sent in a motion to reconsider, one that the judge sat on for nine months. The wait proved to be fortuitous, as Revel’s bankruptcy, coupled with an economic downturn, led the judge to halt the process.
He gave CRDA a six-month window to produce tangible plans that reportedly never came beyond the assertion that “we have the funds to take the building down.”
In 2016, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez called CRDA’s designs on Birnbaum’s property a “manifest abuse of eminent domain power.”
His ruling said the authority does not have the power to "condemn a property only to have it sit idly, potentially for years on end, as they wait for the right project to present itself" as was (and remains) the case for 61 surrounding properties.
Institute for Justice attorneys took the decision to mean this: "the history of failed government redevelopment projects in Atlantic City demonstrated that this project was likely to be just another such failure."
Charles' fight came "to symbolize all Americans' struggle to defend their property rights against unchecked government power," they maintained.
At the time, CRDA executive director John Palmer said they were "disappointed in the court's ruling" and considering their next steps. As a result, the case continues today.
“I wasn’t just happy for me and our family, but I was thrilled for the Institute for Justice. Those guys are cream-of-the-crop lawyers who could be making millions, but are working there because they believe in what they do,” said Charles, who said the decision was "like watching a miracle unfold."
“When I told them that, they said, ‘Charles, do you have any idea how important your case is to us?’” he continued. “Their ultimate goal is to overturn (a decision that makes eminent-domain cases that transfer private property to other private interests) possible.”
Any designs on declaring victory would be short-lived, however, as CRDA took the case before a three-judge, state Appellate Division panel in Jersey City in late October.
Charles was particularly irked by the authority’s apparent stance: “We don’t have to answer your questions. When a plan comes, it will come.”
“We thought it was over, but nope. Not so fast. CRDA is using taxpayer money to keep it going,” he said.
At that October hearing, attorneys for CRDA argued that the state legislature authorized them to do what they’re looking to do in the name of tourism-zone development.
Charles was heartened when a judge asked the other side, dismissively, whether they think “CRDA has unlimited power in Atlantic City.”
He estimates that CRDA has spent more money on the legal fight than it would’ve paid out for his property in the first place.
Bob McNamara, the attorney handling Birnbaum’s case, can’t quite understand “why CRDA would use money to destroy the home Charlie’s parents left him.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. It’s baffling. There’s no explanation,” McNamara said during a phone interview last week. “They get angry when the court suggested there’s any limit to their power. They’re offended if anybody even asks if they have a plan for how they’ll use the land.”
After last month’s hearing, they’re in a wait-and-see mode. Should things not go Birnbaum’s way, McNamara is prepared to continue the fight.
“We’re hoping CRDA will see the light and leave Charlie and his family alone,” he said. “We’re happy to take this as high up as it goes, and we will keep saying that until CRDA just leaves him alone.”
He said the decision could come back anywhere between three and six months.
For Charles, it's not entirely about taking a moral stand in the face of governmental overreach. He wants to honor his parents' memory and protect the property that brought them so much peace and joy amid lifetimes of tragic turns.
That's why he's tirelessly redone each room in the three-story building over the years. The floors. The walls. Everything. That work continues in the vacant second-floor apartment to this day.
He knows that some may find it odd that he wants to hold tightly onto a property that's played a role in some of his family's toughest moments. There are practical reasons for it, though.
The proximity to his piano-tuning jobs makes it easier for him to balance work and the myasthenia gravis (neuromuscular disease) that can be physically debilitating.
Sometimes, it's so bad that he feels as if he should be bound for a nursing home much like his parents, who chose to spend their advanced years in the Oriental Avenue home instead. He doesn't say so, but it's safe to assume that he'll spend his last years there as well.
"The labor I put into the building is a celebration. It's 'look what I'm doing, ma,' and the connection is both mental and physical," he said. "Every improvement I put into this building, it's honoring my parents, my brother, the former tenants who were like family.
"It's been 20 years. I want to put the tragedy to the side and not let it drive our lives. I want to stay here and remember the good times when I walk through the front door."
The prospect of parting ways with that connection is what bothers Charles Birnbaum the most. His voice is tinged with frustrated anger when he talks about that.
"For someone to think they can just take it, and take it for no reason, I'll fight back like crazy," he continued. "I'd love to live here to see the area come back from the darker days, something my parents never had a chance to see. I would like to see the Inlet come back up, and I want to be a part of that.
"That's my dream, and I'd like to be given that choice not to get kicked out. Being part of that will be part of our family's tradition."
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