About 5 years ago, I was invited by Derrick Compton to join a campaign in the Park Heights community. The initiative sought to put pressure on the liquor stores operating there. I was surprised to learn that there where 4 liquor stores on that one block! I still don’t know how the city zoning code allowed it.
The 5400 block of Park Heights Avenue for me was a symbol of one of the things that is so wrong in Baltimore. Institutional racism and concentrated poverty are not accidental creations here (or anywhere!), but as longtime Baltimore activist, Glenn Ross reminds us “ghettos are created.”
The 5400 block of Park Heights didn’t just have liquor stores, but customary to Baltimore it also had churches, a check cashing spot which sold pornography, a barbershop, and other institutions. Every day that children in that community would walk to school, they’d have to walk past advertisements for liquor, postors for porn, church signs, and littered streets.
No one had to tell them that they weren’t as valued as other children in Baltimore. Their environment sent the message loud and clear.
Citizens in that community rose up to challenge that and the fact that some of these store owners had multiple violations including selling to minors.
With a broad and far reaching coalition, we challenged these institutions on a weekly basis, documenting our work via video and ultimately going before the members of the Governor-appointed, Baltimore City Liquor Board. Progress was made in that one block and in other areas of the city, however much more work needed to be done.
Fast-forward 5 years and now Johns Hopkins and City Health officials have embraced an initiative to close some liquor stores by way of rezoning. Highlighting the relationship between liquor stores and interpersonal violence, city officials now want changes.
The liquor lobby of Baltimore which has very deep pockets and is well organized, will no doubt fight this proposal at every turn.
A less spoken feature in all of this is the racial dynamic. The liquor stores in Baltimore are often owned and operated by Koreans who sometimes live in the establishment as well or outside of Baltimore.As the debate over the proposal intensifies, Baltimore Pastor Donte’ Hickman of Southern Baptist Church added his voice to those wanting the liquor stores out. On June 19, 2012 he released the following statement on his facebook page:
As a product of and now a Pastor in an inner city neighborhood in Baltimore, I applaud the city for it’s plans to rezone many of the corner liquor stores out of the community. These stores have contributed to generations of genocide in our communities. They have largely been owned by Americans of Jewish, Korean, and Arab descent. While I’m not racist, there is something exploitative about people selling alcohol in our communities and going home to theirs without a liquor store next to their homes. It sends the wrong message to our children to have a one or more liquor stores in every block that breeds loitering, littering, violence and self destructing behaviors. Every concerned parent and Pastor should support this effort to restore the heart of the city, our African American communities. We deserve more than liquor stores, drugs, prostitution, abandoned homes, vacant lots, and police cameras. Give our children a chance!
There are other pastors and community activists who are and have been active on this front to challenge the presence and prominence of liquor stores in Baltimore. The question now is will they organize as strongly as this city’s liquor lobby has and force the change they seek.
Time will tell.