The corner store

Editorial Notebook

June 02, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

To a casual observer, the initials "AK" spray painted on the doors of Yom's food market are a handy reference to its corner location at Abbotson and Kennedy in the city.

But community activist Mark Washington sees something else: shorthand for AK-47, and a reminder of the gang that ran the streets there.

Drug dealing and loitering around the store had brought complaints from neighbors, but when a 33-year-old man was shot and killed inside the market in February 2006, residents had had enough. A concerted push by the Coldspring-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. (CHM) and police (along with the store owner's cooperation) helped drive away the unsavory traffic.

"They have renamed the street `the new suburbs of Abbotson,'" jokes Mr. Washington, the executive director of CHM.

In parts of West and Northeast Baltimore, community groups and residents have had similar complaints about rowhouse corner stores and the crime they sometimes attract.

It's such an issue in some areas that Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is trying to narrow the opportunity for such businesses to locate in old storefronts in many rowhouse neighborhoods. Her legislation would expand the zoning laws against locating a business in a residential storefront once it has been vacant for a year. But in some neighborhoods, the storefronts are seen as an opportunity, not a liability.

Canton, Butchers Hill, Patterson Park and others want the flexibility to locate a boutique, coffeehouse or bakery in a rowhouse storefront even if it has been vacant more than a year. As city planner Eric Tiso rightly observed, "It's extremely difficult to solve crime problems through zoning."

That's the crux of the issue, and the reason Ms. Clarke's proposal falls short. But some neighborhood leaders argue that these "potato chip" stores don't serve the needs of the community and draw the criminal element.

The experience of Mr. Washington's organization has been twofold. In the example of Yom's, a comprehensive approach worked.

Weeks after the murder on that February afternoon, police cordoned off the area of Abbotson and Kennedy and set up a "safe zone" with officers patrolling on foot. The district commander, Major Antonio Rodriguez, urged store owner Kyong Kim to pull out his video poker machines, which drew customers for reasons other than food. The murder victim was playing video poker when he was shot.

City prosecutors also spelled out the ramifications of possible nuisance charges, a legal tool that has been used to clean up troublesome businesses. The poker machines were removed, neighbors and other civic groups helped refurbish a nearby playground, city agencies cleared trash from alleys and the efforts appear to have paid off.

Today, customers come and go freely at Yom's, buying ice cream, lunchmeats, milk and sundries. And Mr. Kim says he feels the difference, too: "No stress. Very nice."

But a visitor to the area also can't help noticing the number of vacant, boarded-up houses in neighboring blocks, the overgrown lots and graffiti-defaced buildings - all of which can be magnets for crime. And a few blocks away, a police cruiser is parked outside a windowless storefront at Jennifer and 30th Street, city spotlights in place to illuminate the area.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents areas of West Baltimore, views the state's nuisance-abatement laws as the way to police problem businesses. A special unit of city lawyers, working for both the housing agency and the state's attorney's office, does just that.

But Kap Park, a spokesman for the Korean American Grocers Association of Maryland, says many of his city members want to cooperate with their neighbors. Language can be barrier, he says, but "if we are informed, problems can be minimized."

The association tries to help, he says, because store owners are crime victims, too. He should know: In the past three years, Mr. Park has been robbed at gunpoint and knifepoint while at his Pennington Market in Curtis Bay.

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