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Getting Rid of That Beer Deli


Councilwoman Bass’ aim is off mark in fight to take  down bulletproof glass

(Photo Left) Whether the problem is in with the delis or with the possibility of crime, the safety of shopkeepers should not be at issue. Photo by Salvatore Patrone.

Is the removal of a degrading institution in predominantly African-American neighborhoods worth the life of one Asian-American businessman in the City of Philadelphia?

This was precisely the strange form of math being debated in City Council last month, as Councilwoman Bass pushed legislation to remove bulletproof glass from beer delis across the city.

The backdrop for this calculus is the prevalence of retail establishments in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of our city. Shops that serve alcohol under the guise of being a “large food establishment” defined as seating 30 or more patrons. Because serving food gets you a license to sell alcohol, we now have the “beer deli” — not a Wawa, not an Applebee’s and, most definitely, not a retail establishment you want coming to a neighborhood near you.

Opening her hearing, Councilwoman Bass said:

“[Beer delis] sell other products that can be turned into street drugs, like cold medications. They sell crack pipes. If these stores sold hypodermic needles, there’d be outrage, there’d be people screaming to ‘Shut ’em down.’ But with crack pipes, it’s OK? That should tell you something.”

In her OpEd on Philly.com, Bass wrote that her bill had been mischaracterized:

“Would you feel safe with an illegal liquor store next door to you, selling shots of cheap booze at 10 a.m. to loitering alcoholics? That’s what my bill debated last week by a City Council committee is about. Unfortunately, the bill has been mischaracterized by the people who run those stores – people who are exploiting a loophole in state law and hurting the neediest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”

The reaction of those standing behind the bulletproof glass was swift and loud. According to philly.com: “Adam Xu, the chairman of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, said a ban would lead to merchants arming themselves, and making the city less safe.

He has 230 members in Philadelphia, mostly in high-crime areas, and 90 percent have protective windows, he told me. The plexiglass, he said, is why his members have suffered no fatalities in more than a decade.

City Council would take that security away. That can’t be right.

‘Our lives are in your hands,’ said Xu in his testimony.

Some store owners were practically in tears when they talked about past assaults without safety barriers and their fear of future assaults.

‘Will you be responsible if a store owner or worker or customer gets killed?’ asked Kevin Kim, 53, a Korean American whose parents once owned a grocery in West Philly.”

The problem with Bass’ argument is that she doesn’t limit it to the bad behavior of the business owners running these establishments. Rather, she broadens the argument to one of dignity in the predominantly African-American communities she serves. As Bass says, “We want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through a Plexiglas only in certain neighborhoods.” Some have argued that this dignity argument amounts to Bass equating bulletproof glass with racism: we don’t buy it. But, we do see the moral hazard when we attempt to legislate behavior in order to restore dignity to an entire community.

If, hypothetically, we are going to put Asian-American lives at risk then there must be a greater and more compelling community interest than the dignity of a consumer who is buying crack paraphernalia from someone standing behind a protective barrier.

If indeed the beer deli owners are exploiting a loophole in state law to sell beer and alcohol then the answer should be to fight to close the loophole. If there’s a problem with these delis selling beer and shots as kids are walking to school then create setbacks for schools and churches like the state set for marijuana dispensaries.

Bulletproof glass should come down because of the type of establishment that those behind the glass are running. If this is really about restoring dignity don’t legislate against the glass in the store, legislate against the store in the neighborhood. Rather than use L&I for what’s wrong inside the store, use zoning to legislate these stores out of existence.

 

Getting Rid of That Beer Deli

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Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural Media Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.

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