Don't blame the liquor stores for the shootings in Baltimore - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Don’t blame the liquor stores for the shootings in Baltimore

Get off the corner”, said the authoritarian voice from above.

“Move away from the liquor store.  Go home”, the voice commanded.

This was repeated one night last summer by a Baltimore policeman high above in a helicopter to a mostly male middle aged crowd gathered nearby on Greenmount Avenue.  Hearing it from a block away, my neighbors wondered aloud what kind of person needed to be told not to hang around in front of a liquor store?   Still, some readers may be alarmed to learn how often the police are used to disperse such crowds in Baltimore.

Over the past weekend, a patrol officer arrived to disperse a similar gathering in front of another liquor store on York Road.  Somehow, the officer fired his weapon once, hitting two people who may have been part of the crowd.  While the police department has charged one person related to the incident, we can assume altercations like these will be used to further the point being made in Baltimore that so many of these establishments need to be shut down.

A public hearing held at the War Memorial building, which will undoubtedly lede to closing more liquor stores. But is that the answer?

A public hearing held at the War Memorial building, which will undoubtedly lede to closing more liquor stores. But is that the answer?

A public hearing held last week at the War Memorial building was attended by citizens and civic leaders who feel the 1,200 liquor stores in Baltimore are too many.  Many store owners also attended to defend their right to make a living and to attest the benefits of such businesses in our communities.

Based on various statistics offered by the head of the city’s Health Department, who cited a correlation between liquor stores and an increase in crime, blight and ill health in the affected areas, the City Council is sure to take up this issue during its Spring session.

Street Corner Society, published in 1943, was William Foote Whyte’s attempt to understand, through his own immersion, the experience and social dynamic of Italian Americans in Boston’s North End.  In what was then called an ethnic slum, this work became a blueprint to further understanding the sociology of neighborhoods and cultures.

The Cross and the Switchblade was Pastor David Wilkerson’s 1962 true life account of his ministering to youth gang members in New York.  In particular, the book focuses on the life and transformation of Nicky Cruz, once the leader of the Mau Mau gang in Brooklyn.  Cruz himself is a story of a life redeemed through faith.  A faith that he uses to this day as a pastor.

cross street corner societymanchild








In 1965, Claude Brown’s autobiographical novel,  Manchild in the Promised Land, was published.  In it, Brown examines his own life and choices growing up in drug, vice and gang infested Harlem in the 1950’s.  ‘Manchilds’ protagonist sets a course many others have taken out of America’s ghettoes.

At times, I cannot help but think so many of our problems might be solved if more of us had a job.  Yet even then, our nation would still come up against problems in populations like those described in the books above.  Communities who appear isolated and somehow unable to adapt and who seem averse to achievement as a base means for survival.

In Baltimore, hundreds of bars are in name only.  Businesses that long ago shut down 90 percent of their interior space yet still allow public drinking in six by 16 foot storefronts.  Gatherings at such storefronts often spill out into the street and the public domain.  And such gatherings end up being police involved situations like the one on York Road at 2 a.m., Sunday.

Truly, that so many of these establishments are still constituted bars or taverns is outright silly.

They should be shut down and each made to prove their worth to the communities they serve if they are to re open.  Even so, shutting down liquor stores may simply shift the problem people from one empty street corner to the next.

Nicky Cruz

Nicky Cruz from gangs to God.

For the remaining liquor stores, the city should look long and hard at development.  They should realize other types of businesses that used to serve such communities are gone.  What remains are glaring reminders of why Baltimoreans, black and white, have left the city.  Where once there was a Sears flagship store at Hartford Road and North Avenue, now there is a district court in its place.  Where once a family could shop for the kids, now families in crisis shop their children to the court system and prison.

The debate in Baltimore over the liquor store and its place in our city is a good one.  Still, this is not a single issue problem.  For while there are far too many liquor stores in Baltimore, there are too few other urban amenities as well.  While the average person can walk a block or two to get a can of beer or a bottle of Mad Dog, it is near impossible in Baltimore to walk to a bookstore, a grocery, a shoe store or a clothing shop.

In Baltimore, we are never at a loss in our search for scapegoats.  Yet the overriding fact of the matter is this: we have become suburban in city.  Those who can afford cars, use them for their shopping and their safety.  In offering corporate tax breaks to big developers and the well heeled along the waterfront, city leaders behave like the GOP and ignore the very real and obvious consequences a dearth of commerce and employment in Baltimore has created over the last decades.

Change can happen in Baltimore's slums. Invest in the city.

Change can happen in Baltimore’s slums. Invest in the city. Shuddering businesses is not the answer.

Rather than highlight and focus on the lack of urban amenities and safety on the street, we blame liquor store owners for peddling blight when the blight was already there.  And rather than focus on rehabilitation for alcohol addiction, development and employment, we demonize the very legal right to generate commerce.

The people who protested last week for the removal of so many liquor stores are good people.  They care about this city and in large part, they are right.  We have too many liquor stores.  Still, I fear we’re letting city leaders off the hook because removing such establishments is only part of the solution.

Unless city leaders focus on commercial development, local employment and drug rehabilitation as part of a greater scheme to regenerate Baltimore, we will have simply shuddered more businesses and left more wayward kids and middle aged men to congregate on empty corners.

Street Corner Society showed us that even in isolated slums, there is a dynamic for achievement at play that lay hidden behind the poverty and isolation.  The Cross and the Switchblade  gave us a glimpse of what God’s love can do, even for the most hardened and cruel young man.   Manchild in the Promised Child told us each individual can succeed if they understand they have a choice in the matter.

For Italians, Puerto Ricans and Black Americans like all Americans, these stories are all variations on the same theme.   Whether we know them or not, every one of us has family who has come from these situations or worse.  Our city’s greatness will become evident if we look beyond the obvious, see all parts of the equation and force our leaders to do the same.  Only then will we see the change in our worst families who cause the most harm to themselves and the rest of us too.

Thank you, Nicky Cruz.






About the author

Robert Emmet Mara

Robert Emmet Mara has been in Baltimore since 2006. A native New Yorker, Robert came to Baltimore to do three things: work with kids, renovate houses and write a second book of fiction. Since his arrival, he has managed to do all three and more. He has sought better oversight for his still blighted Harwood neighborhood from the city and has been asked to speak to various community association leaders on the subject of city agency relations. Contact the author.

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