Two cultures clash around tiny store Convenience: Affluent residents of gentrified Bolton Hill are eager to drive Chang's Mart out of the neighborhood, but its lower-income clientele wants it to stay.

October 01, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFFSUN STAFF

A stranger to Bolton Hill could pass the tiny corner store a dozen times and hardly notice it. There are no banners advertising sales, no windows, not even a sign announcing its name.

Yet this cluttered shop on the divide between an affluent inner-city enclave and a low-income community just west of Eutaw Place is the focus of tension that has broiled for years.

A vocal, persistent cluster of Bolton Hill residents say Chang's Mart sells liquor that attracts litter, noise and crime into their manicured, tree-lined streets. They want the shop closed or moved.

Others say the market is a vital convenience to the community, offering snacks and other items -- including alcohol -- close to home.

For years, city officials have tried to settle the conflict, but each hearing, court date and informal meeting seems only to solidify divisions between the two camps.

The latest zoning appeal is pending, with a decision expected by this month.

Still, if it seems like a simple difference of opinion, look again.

Most who want to oust store owner Kun Soo Chang are politically active white professionals. Chang's customers -- his most avid supporters -- are largely low-income African-Americans, many of them disabled senior citizens.

Chang and his wife, who have two daughters, are Korean immigrants with no other source of income.

The clash underscores the challenges facing Baltimore's downtown and many urban centers in flux across the country: As city residents continue to flee, the few who return for convenience and inexpensive, high-quality homes often don't mesh with longtime residents who come from a different world.

Conversations with more than two dozen residents, city officials and others following the case reveal that, although some feel the store is a blight on the neighborhood, many more feel the problems near Chang's Mart -- litter, alcohol use, loitering -- are issues of poverty heightened by racial division.

"This shows that two groups of people can live next door to one another and never meet," says Charlie Duff, a Bolton Hill resident who is active on revitalization of city housing. "They don't know one another."

Kun Soo Chang, 42, knows many of his customers by name.

He has operated his store from the same location -- the basement of the hundred-year-old Marlborough Apartments at Eutaw Place and Wilson Street -- for 14 years.

So when the balding, stocky shopkeeper in scruffy tennis shoes walks the streets near his store, his unfailing smiles and waves invite conversation.

"Hey, Chang!" come the frequent calls from stoops and benches. "What's going on?"

He tells a visitor, "My customer very good ladies and gentlemen. They are good people."

When harsh winter weather makes it tough to get to the nearby SuperFresh, many rely on him for provisions. He cashes checks, gives credit and delivers food to sick residents. He has never been robbed.

"He's such a nice man," says Florence Knox, 82, who received Chang's visit one afternoon as she recovered from hand surgery.

She patted Chang's hand and passed him a prescription slip: Later that day, he would deliver Knox's pain pills and make arrangements to drive her to a doctor's appointment.

Selling to minors

But he was cited twice last year -- and fined $1,500 -- for selling liquor to minors.

Though many of Chang's customers, particularly Marlborough residents, are fiercely loyal to him, Doreen Rosenthal and Debbie Diehl are not his customers.

The two are active in the Mount Royal Improvement Association, which encompasses Bolton Hill, and are leading the fight against Chang's store. They say they are uncomfortable going into the store because of the clientele.

For years, they say, Chang's Mart has been a nuisance. Diehl lives behind Chang on Linden Avenue -- her back yard opens onto the alley behind the store -- and attributes the discarded liquor bottles and trash near her home to the store.

"We've started looking at other houses," she says. "Life is too short to put up with this type of thing."

Her goal: to move farther west from Eutaw and Chang's Mart onto a street with more of a buffer from Bolton Hill's poorer edges.

Bolton Hill, where the average home sold for $132,000 last year -- the city average was $77,771 -- is filled with painstakingly restored townhouses. Hand-carved wooden doors and impeccable stained glass face the streets named McMechen, Mosher and Lanvale.

Rosenthal knows the neighborhood like her living room: She points out the street's prized residences, with towering bay windows and gleaming brass fixtures, and she keeps track of "problem properties," those whose owners are contacted regularly to clean and repair their homes.

In the midst of this meticulous care, near Chang's store, Mount Royal Improvement Association members have found discarded intravenous drug needles and condoms. They say they have seen countless customers leave the store, open brown-bagged bottles and drink -- presumably alcohol -- on the street.

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