It was supposed to be simple.
City Council set out last month to bring the city’s legion of “stop-and-go” beer delis in line with state regulations. For nearly two decades, local legislators have been trying to put pressure on these establishments that sell takeout alcohol — and in some cases, shots of liquor — while skirting state laws.
But after Councilwoman Cindy Bass inserted a controversial provision to remove bulletproof glass from these businesses, the seemingly unoffensive bill turned into a flashpoint debate, igniting deep-seated tensions between African American residents and Asian American business owners.
“They aren’t delis,” Bass said before a packed Council chamber last Thursday. “They are places to buy drugs to get high … indoor open-air drug markets masquerading as restaurants.”
Testifying against the bill, mostly Asian American business owners, some carrying signs of bullet holes weeping blood, recounted violence committed against them and their families in their stores. On the other side of the aisle, African-American community leaders alleged that stop-and-gos preyed on the poor and addicted, and fostered a hostile community environment.
The vitriolic discourse stunned many Council observers. And while an amended version of the bill passed 14-3, community leaders and residents now worry that Council’s poor handling of the bill has sewn confusion and further misunderstanding between two minority groups.
“What we just saw was a failure of City Council to represent both sides in a way that doesn’t just pit two sides against each other,” says Nancy Nguyen, an activist in the Vietnamese community and the executive director of VietLEAD. “I’m not going to fault the people on both sides who are angry when our leaders couldn’t bring these people together.”
A fraught conversation, poorly handled
Philly’s war on the stop-and-go dates back to at least 2004, when Council and the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia agreed to reforms that would clean up the business model. Store owners, according to Bass, agreed to hire their own security guards, take alcohol management training programs, and cease the sale of drug-related paraphernalia such as glass stemware and rolling papers.
But the city has little sway with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which holds the reins on restaurant liquor licenses. Council’s agreement with AALBA wasn’t legally binding for store owners. And over the years, according to news reports, even booze-selling delis hit with multiple code violations by the PLCB have had little trouble renewing their restaurant liquor licenses.
So Bass re-upped the fight with a focus on nuisance complaints. She went after them for non-compliance about seating and serving food. Then she came for the bulletproof glass.
“There are a lot of ways to deal with racial tension. But the Plexiglas became an issue of black dignity versus safety for Asian business owners — and how do you juxtapose those two things in a way that’s not going to alight those two communities?”
– Nancy Nguyen, Vietnamese community activist and executive director of VietLEAD
The reasoning behind that, according to the stop-and-go owners, was as transparent as the glass itself.
“The rationale is to drive us out of the community,” Adam Xu, president of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, told Philadelphia Weekly after a demonstration outside of City Hall last week.
Outcry against a local government trying to remove this protective barrier from small businesses caught national attention. Xu’s organization represents 230 stop-and-gos in every neighborhood of the city, about 70 or 80 percent of which have bulletproof glass. Before its final passage, however, Council members amended the language to have the Department of Licensing and Inspections issue regulations for “the continued use and removal” of glass no earlier than 2018. It's important to note that this only applies stop-and-gos that operate under "large establishment" food licenses, which requires an establishment to serve food, have at least 30 seats for patrons and at least one bathroom — requisites that many such businesses have skirted around for years. If these businesses don't get up to code by 2018, L&I spokesperson Karen Guss says the agency would issue a violation. Under no circumstances would protective barriers be forcefully removed.
Will the enforcement actually happen? That much remains a mystery.
But the wounds opened up by the protective glass debate run painfully deep.
As PlanPhilly reported, tensions between African American communities and Asian-Americans trace back partially to urban redlining. As black communities were historically denied access to money lending streams, better capitalized immigrant merchants were able to open up shop in otherwise segregated neighborhoods.
Bass pitched a case that bulletproof glass was an indignity and a glaring sign of mistrust of African Americans. Others agreed, despite the proliferation of such protective glass in other businesses all over the city. But observers say the issue highlighted a long tradition of anti-black sentiment with which Asian Americans have their own struggle.
For Asian Americans, according to community leaders interviewed for this story, the issue of bulletproof glass is also intertwined with issues of language access and strained relations with the Philadelphia Police Department.
“There are a lot of ways to deal with racial tension,” Nguyen said. “But the Plexiglas became an issue of black dignity versus safety for Asian business owners — and how do you juxtapose those two things in a way that’s not going to alight those two communities?”
At the end of the day, Nguyen and others now move forward to dispel a lot of rumors about what this bill does and doesn’t entail.
Serve and protect
Meirong Liu just doesn’t know how it’s going to work for the better.
Directly across the street from her Chinese-American restaurant, Great Wall, situated under the El tracks on Kensington Avenue, sits the Steak-N-Beer restaurant and deli, a stop-and-go that features hot food, bench and table seating, in addition to wall-to-wall refrigerators fully stocked with a variety of beers and wine coolers.
Steak-N-Beer’s heavily bulletproofed front counter offers .5L bottles of Mad Dog 20-20 and an assortment of tobacco products. Liu said the store and stores around it are frequented by “the same type of people,” who visit her restaurant, a tiny store with no available seating in which food orders, its delivery and the exchange of money is distributed through a winding display of Plexiglas, making it impossible for hands on either side to ever touch.
For her and her relative Renjie Liu, both of Chinese descent, the glass offers sanctuary. In mixed-race Kensington, Liu explains that the glass isn’t personal. But operating her establishment in this maligned section of the city wouldn’t be possible without it.
“[The glass] is very important. It’s for safety,” said Liu. “I have a lot of customers that are very good, but sometimes you have some that come in and they want to curse and call you names and it dangerous for us. Sometimes it’s just me in the store and I don’t know if I would work here alone if I didn’t [have this glass].”
The Plexiglas countertop of Great Wall offers wares very similar to what is the hotly contested arguments by Bass and members of Council. Walls lined with cigarillos, blunts and wrapping paper are as readily available for purchase as the $5 fried chicken platter or $7 seafood delight special. It’s much of the same for many of the area bodegas that don’t directly sell alcohol but feature the same sort of protective setup, but according to Asa Khalif, the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter who also owns a number of delis throughout the city, there is one discernible difference.
“The Plexiglas in a ‘poppy store’ as we call [bodegas], they are not as armed or bulletproofed as a lot of these Korean stores are,” Khalif said in a phone interview with PW.
The outspoken Black and Brown activist has arguably been Bass’ primary supporter in getting this bill pushed through. “There are bodegas that don’t even have the glass and you can interact with the owner. There is just no interaction with the customer or the community in a lot of these Korean stores. You have Dominican stores hiring within the community and live and participate in the community and aid their Latino brothers and sisters. I have never gone to a ‘poppy store’ as we call them and seen an employee giving free shots [of liquor] or giving shots to underage kids. This is commonplace in Korean stores and this is much bigger than the Plexiglas.”
It’s this same rationale that, although peddling much of the same within the community it serves, these stores have been exempt from Bass’ bill. While many of the bodegas feature bulletproof glass, some claim it’s as much for storage as it is safety.
“So the first thing for us, we use it for protection,” said Crusita Minaya, manager of the 500-sq. ft Coral St. Deli, a bodega situated in a rapidly gentrifying part of East Kensington. “But the second reason is that we have a very tiny store so we use [the bulletproof glass] like shelves. A lot of times this glass for these stores in the neighborhood is used for a lot of different reasons. I don’t know how I would feel if someone came in and told us we had to take [ours] down, it’s just not right to ask people to give up their protection.”
But some store owners don’t plan to give up their protection and politicians know it.
Earlier this week, Councilman David Oh, one of just three members of council who voted against the bill, told WHYY’s PlanPhilly that while the city’s Licensing & Inspections Division is tasked with enforcing compliance in removing the “eyesore” that is the Plexiglas, that people shouldn’t be naive to “proliferation of firearms,” these same store owners will take up with their protective glass being stripped down.
During the initial hearing and proposal of the bill, Xu, on behalf of the Asian-American Licensed Beverage Association stood up on Council floor and said: “Our safety is in your hands, our lives are in your hands...we will be forced to use guns much more to defend [ourselves], there will be a lot more gunfighting.”
Liu, nestled behind her safety of her glass said as much – without actually really saying.
“There’s nothing the [city] can do to tell me that if we had to remove this glass that would make me feel safer. I call cops for emergency, they come four hours later,” she said. “Yes, we make the decision where we put our shop but we also make sure we protect ourselves. This glass is protection. If we were told [there] is a law [for us] to take it down, okay, but we’re going to do what we have to do to protect ourselves and our business. It’s about keeping the store safe. This [bill] now makes it very, very dangerous for stores in the city.”
Asa Khalif didn’t believe it when he was originally told; he needed to see it firsthand.
So he conducted his own social experiment using a pair of black teens, just 15-years-old.
Khalif sent them into an unsuspecting stop-and-go located in Frankford and tasked both with seeing if the owner would sell them a shot and some blunts.
According to Khalif, the boys, without any hesitation from the store, received both.
“I was like shit, man are you for real? They got both?” Khalif said quizzically. “Now, they didn’t drink the shots and their parents were on board [with the experiment], but we needed to show that this is happening in the community. If you don’t respect the people in the community that you serve, if you don’t even like the people that you serve it’s very easy to have that type of attitude.”
The reason it was so easy? Khalif’s theory on that rehashed the cynical rhetoric that has long plagued black communities that feature shops largely owned by Asian-Americans.
“We don’t mean shit to them anyway,” he continued. “In their mind, you’re probably going to kill each other anyway, so sure take a shot. They don’t have anything but disdain for us. And trust me, if they could set up shop somewhere else, they’d be out in a heartbeat."
"Yes, we make the decision where we put our shop but we also make sure we protect ourselves. This glass is protection. If we were told [there] is a law [for us] to take it down, okay, but we’re going to do what we have to do to protect ourselves and our business."
– Meirong Liu, restaurant owner, Kensington
The crusade is a similar one that Bass conducted herself in July when she visited a number of stop-and-go’s with a collective armed with folding chairs and black T-shirts that read “Fit 30.” It was an an effort to prove that many of these stores that operate under the guise of restaurants either don’t have the capacity or seats to hold the minimum of 30 patrons. It was this summer sit-in that set the wheels in motion in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 passing of a bill that largely affects specifically the establishments of Asian-American business owners.
In keeping with theories, Khalif had one for that too.
“You could feel the venom of these owners, they don’t like us but they’re in [the black community] because they can’t go anywhere else and set up shop. So you hate us, but you need us, which is probably why you hate us,” he said. “I can show you some really good examples of delis in South Philly where you can go in and get some really good sandwiches. People aren’t going in to buy blunts, they’re not going in to buy crack pipes, you’re not going to get cough syrup and all the other paraphernalia that not only sucks the blood but sucks the spirit out of the community.”
But this crusade targets Asian-Americans, hence the vitriol. Khalif said his fight is not with them, but that this serves as a warning to anyone setting up shops that “poison the black community.”
“This isn’t about race, anyone that comes into black and brown communities and contributes to illegal activity should also be shut down,” he continued. “It just so happens that we have many different races of shop owners in our community, we have the Dominicans, Africans, Liberians and the Koreans; but it’s the [Koreans] that came out in full force to change the narrative to them being targeted. I have never gone to a ‘poppy store’ [bodega] as we call them and seen an employee giving free shots [of liquor] or giving shots to underage kids.”
Back under those same EL tracks in Kensington, directly across the street from Steak-N-Beer is Martin’s Deli, owned and operated by a Korean-American who purchased the shop from a Jewish family several years ago. Martin’s Deli, which sells alcohol, doesn’t have bulletproof glass and the shop’s owner said that there hasn’t been a serious issue since he’s owned the establishment.
“I don’t sell to black people, I sell to people,” said “Kipp,” who preferred his last name be withheld. Kipp noted that he actively works with the New Kensington CDC and Mural Arts Philadelphia. “I have people that come in here that I know do and deal drugs, but they also know that when they come in here I respect them as a human being. Because of that, knock on wood, we’ve had no issues. But even with that said us not having the bulletproof glass is a choice. The hood is the hood, and if a store thinks they need glass to protect themselves that should be their choice.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated with clarifying information from L&I regarding violation enforcement under the bill.