Boarding the bus for a food run

Stores: Old, converted buses and vans dot South Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood, filling a void in grocery stores.

March 01, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

No one seems to know why the buses are blue or exactly who started them. Outside of Cherry Hill, few people know they exist.

But for at least 50 years, Cherry Hill residents have boarded worn blue buses parked on the side of the road to buy groceries and snacks.

Today, they do it through bullet-proof glass behind the would-be driver's seat.

"I don't know why everybody paints them blue," said Tessa Hill-Aston, who grew up in Cherry Hill and works for the Housing Authority. "Maybe so people would know that's the store on wheels. They used to move around, you know. Then they figured it was easier to be stationary."

Most of the buses are unable to move. They have cracked windshields, poked-out headlights, stripped steering wheels.

The buses have been one of the only dependable businesses to consistently serve the geographically isolated South Baltimore neighborhood, which is dominated by public housing and burdened by drugs.

Buses sell everything from candy, ice cream and ketchup to bread, hair gel and cough syrup.

Some people say the blue color is because of the ocean. Others say it mimics the blue drapes in the Cherry Hill Community Building. James Clea Sr. bought his 1972 yellow school bus 14 years ago for $1,500. He pulled out the seats, put up shelves, installed a refrigerator and freezer and painted it blue. He has been running Clea Grocery in front of his house on Joseph Avenue since.

"Why go to the store when you got a bus?" asked Sherly Burton, 37, as she bought a pineapple soda and a pack of Newport Lights from Clea Grocery. "I'm here every day. I don't need to go to the store."

Clea has a laconic view of the color: "I painted it blue because I like blue," he said. "That's why I did it. I don't know why the others are blue."

But most of them are and always have been.

Welcome substitutes

"I grew up in the projects and there weren't any stores in the projects except the blue buses," said Leonard Hamm, chief of Baltimore's school police, who grew up in Cherry Hill. "The buses certainly had a captured audience. Otherwise, if you wanted to buy something you would have to walk a long way."

If necessity is the mother of invention, blue buses are the children of Cherry Hill.

"Nobody else is going to be brave enough to put a store near by," said Donner Powell, a police officer in the Southern District's drug unit.

The buses were around long before the Cherry Hill Town Center got a $5.5 million renovation in December 1998. The blue buses were selling their goods when the shopping center was a community eyesore, its parking lot an open air drug market.

Even with the renovation -- which includes a Super Pride grocery, Dunkin' Donuts, a Subway and other stores -- it's not easy for people without transportation to get there.

Cherry Hill, which has about 11,000 people, is an insular place that doesn't have a bank and doesn't have the luxury of a-rabs selling produce on the street.

"The buses are here because a lot of people need them bad. You wake up in the morning and you don't have coffee, cream, sugar? You run to the bus and get it," said Smoke Browning, who regularly shops at the buses. "Grocery stores change, buses are always here and you can depend on them."

Each bus is independently owned by an entrepreneur from the neighborhood. They're easy businesses to start because there is little overhead: Owners only have to pay for insurance, a peddler's license and inventory. Most are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.

Some run on generators that sit on the front grill, others have electricity wired into the bus.

"A few of them do a cranking business, up to $150 in Frito-Lay [products] a week," said Pat Whitty, who works for Frito-Lay delivering snacks in the area. "And it's all inside people, no outsiders."

`An institution'

But for people who grew up in Cherry Hill, it's just another way to shop.

"The blue buses have always been there, they're an institution," said Melvin Stukes, 6th District city councilman who lives in Cherry Hill. "Because of the high percentage of public housing, you need different ways and means to accommodate the community."

He said the concept started with traveling salesmen.

"They're as old as the country is," Stukes said. "But now, they've got rubber and a wheel."

But these rubber-and-wheel stores don't move.

"We wish they would bring a McDonald's or something here but with the reputation of Cherry Hill, they must be scared," said Rosita Blackwell, who works at her brother's blue bus at Round and Spelman roads.

In the three years Blackwell's brother has owned the bus, it was burglarized once. Her brother was shot in the hip and buttocks, and drove himself to the hospital. The thief got away with $100 in food stamps.

"Sometimes it gets wild out here," Blackwell said. "But me? I'm fine. I know everyone."

Her customers even bring her a hot lunch some days when she's working.

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