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Stew Harris and Karen Currie are the sort of couple who get off on home improvement. They’ve always got some project cooking, and these days they’re painting the interior of their North Lincoln Park town house and stripping the exterior brick.
You’d think the neighbors would all love them. Apparently, some don’t.
“Stew’s an asshole,” says Terry Card, who lives across the street. “Everybody knows it. Ask her.” He points to a young woman strolling down the sidewalk and calls out, “Hey, Viveca, what’s Stew like?”
“He’s an asshole,” Viveca Ford shouts back and then saunters over to season the insult with some sass. “His problem is, he needs some lovin’. He sits up all night with that telescope peeping on his neighbors, and he’s not getting any.”
Later, Currie hits back hard. “Drunks and drug dealers,” she says of their critics. And her husband doesn’t even own a telescope, Currie says. When he decides to monitor his neighbors, he uses a camcorder. “I think they’re paranoid,” she says.
The residents of Capitol Hill’s North Lincoln Park define their allies and foes not so much by whether they leave their trash out, make a lot of noise, or hog all the good parking spots. Here the wedge issue is a liquor-slash-grocery-store called Trants.
Located on the 1300 block of Constitution Avenue NE, Trants seems as routine a piece of the cityscape as a dead rat in the alley. It’s a typical urban trading post, the kind you can pop into pretty much anywhere in town for a pack of smokes, a Twinkie, a six-pack, or a bottle of cheap wine. It’s got the usual staplesstacks of newspapers, shelves of chips, coolers of beeras well as the customary see-through plexiglass vault encasing a Korean clerk who smiles and nods no matter what you say.
For years the store has supplied the folks who live beyond walking distance from a Giant or a Safeway. “Well, it’s convenient, not for the liquor but for the food items,” says Vivian Edmond, who lives just a couple of doors from Trants. “Especially for me because I’ve got fifty-‘leven grandchildren.”
But for Harris and Currie, Trants is far from the convenient, friendly neighborhood mart of urban folklore. They see the store as a feeding trough for neighborhood drunks and toughs, who get plastered in Trants’ parking lot on just-bought singles and half-pints in bags. As a result, say Harris and Currie, the neighborhood has taken on the feel of a ’round-the-clock happy hour, with trees, bushes, and garbage cans serving as the latrines. They want Trants closed.
Harris and Currie may well get their wish. In the aftermath of the Feb. 5 slaying of police officer Brian Gibson outside the troubled Ibex Club on Georgia Avenue, the city’s liquor authorities are finally taking action on neighborhood complaints about places like Trants. The store’s liquor licensea piece of paper on which its commercial viability dependsis in danger of being yanked.
Trants has been part of North Lincoln Park much longer than Harris, Currie, and most other locals. Willie Robinson, who has lived on Constitution Avenue for 45 years, says Trants was there before him. The store’s first owners sold out and moved to Florida years ago. In the late ’80s, a Korean man named Yung Chun Oh bought the store, and it’s been in his family ever since. Hung Lee, Oh’s manager, had been hoping to buy in and take over someday, but in light of “these recent problems,” he says he may just bail out now.
Lee is referring to the impending probe of Trants by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board. Stung by allegations that it allowed the Ibex to continue operating despite apparent violations of its liquor license, the board is now more wary than ever of liquor establishments that attract criminals and loiterers. An Ibex patron, after all, allegedly wandered out into the street and discharged the five bullets that killed Gibson.
“We filed for a show-cause hearing last July,” says Harris. “And eight months later, the board picks it up. What’s different? A cop got shot outside Ibex.”
The store is vulnerable, too, because Oh signed an agreement in 1990 promising that Trants would stop selling singles, half-pints, and fortified wines. He then realized he couldn’t possibly make the nut that way. So he reneged. “They played us for suckers,” says Harris.
But Soon K. Chang, a family friend who occasionally represents the store, says Oh hadn’t really understood what the agreement was about. “The daughter served as translator. I wasn’t involved at that time,” he says. Chang says half the store’s revenue comes from singles and half-pints.
The ABC Board closed the store in 1991 for five days for the violation. However, it went ahead and renewed Trants’ license last yeara decision that Harris, Currie, and others want reversed. They want the store shut for good. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Harris.
Gilda Sherrod-Ali, president of the North Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, has dutifully backed Harris and Currie in their crusade against the store. “You’ve got young guys hanging out in front of liquor stores who are not even of age to drink,” says Sherrod-Ali.
Then they start using other drugs, says Harris. “Alcohol is a threshold drug,” he says. “When you’ve got guys hanging out drinking, pretty soon you got a whole host of other problems. We’ve had a number of crack busts and heroin busts in the last several months.”
Even Trants’ supporters acknowledge the community has problems. They just don’t agree with the proposed remedy. Robinson says North Lincoln Park suffers from the same ill that dogs every other conflicted community in the city: joblessness. “[It’s the] kids who ain’t out there working,” he says. And, Edmond says, “the store isn’t creating any problems that weren’t there already.”
Like other gentrifying parts of town, North Lincoln Park is divided roughly into two classes of people: the predominantly black residents who were born here and the white residents who moved here. Edmond says opponents of the store are primarily white, and supporters are primarily blacka characterization Harris finds absurd. “The North Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association is on record as opposing Trants Liquor, and that association is 50 percent black,” says Harris.
Trants’ supporters resent what they depict as Harris and Currie’s struggle to redo the neighborhood in their own image.
“If he wants a wine-and-cheese store, why doesn’t he open one up himselfor move to Bethesda?” asks Larry, a black Trants patron. And Ford, a black woman who lives down the street, insists, “I could go out right now and get more signatures to get Stew out of the neighborhood than he could ever get to shut this store. I’d need 400 sheets.”
When I mentioned to Harris that I was going to interview the folks who frequent the store, Harris responded, “You sound white. I’ll be surprised if they talk to you.”
When I arrive at Trants, I find little evidence of the squalor that colors the accounts of Harris and Currie. The store’s front sidewalk and parking lot are clean and swept. A large sign on the front of the building warns against loitering, and nobody does, though small groups do form and break and re-form as friends stop to yak with each other. But nobody pops a top or cracks a seal.
Then, in the side parking lot, I see a kid with cornrows and a black knit cap riding low over his eyes. He has a razor blade in his hand, and he seems to be doing something with it to a blue four-door Caddy parked in the lot. My pulse jumps. Vandalism, I breathe. Crime and corruption for the notebook. I sidle up to get the scoopbut no such luck. Antoine Eldridge says he was just scraping some old tint off the windows of his mother’s car. Sure enough, a matronly woman walks up, gets in the car, and drives off. “I put gas in it!” he yells after her.
So I ask him what he thinks of the store. “Ain’t nothing wrong with this store,” he says. What does he think of Stew? “He be always writing down my plate numbers. Asshole.”
A couple of minutes later, I ask passer-by Card the same question and get the same answer. An ex-con, Card at first didn’t want to be quoted in this story, because, “Stew already put me in the Buzz,” the community newsletter Harris edits for the North Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. You get a sense of the Buzz’s style from the headline it ran on a story describing how a “would-be burglar” got shot while perpetrating: “He Asked For It…He Got It.”
Card made the Buzz’s front page this month after police found several rocks of crack in a van he had been sitting in. “I guess I can say I definitely was in the wrong place in the wrong time,” Card allows. “But I’ve been home since ’95, and this is my first brush with the law. [Harris] already has me convicted in the paper, and he doesn’t even know my side of it. Now my mother is reading it in the paper, and she thinks I’m lying to her.”
The fight over Trants, according to Card, is an example of how the different classes in the neighborhood fail to connect. “I can’t deny that there’s some drug activity going on in this neighborhood,” he says. “But the people he’s talking about, they’ve been living here for eons. To them, Trants is like a meeting place for old friends.”
Currie says it makes sense some people in the neighborhood stick up for Trants. “You’re talking to alcoholics,” she says. “They have a chemical dependency. To these people, [shutting down Trants is] like closing down the candy store.”
Card has contemplated proposing a heart-to-heart talk with Harris and Currie. “I’d like to knock on his door and have a talk with him because, you know, I’ve got nieces and nephews, and I want this neighborhood to be as safe as anyone.”
But he never has acted. “I know he’d get all alarmed and think I’m breaking in and call the police. Who do you think they’d believe?” he asks. Harris, for his part, admits to being “afraid of” Card.
So the bad blood flows on in North Lincoln Park, where neighbors pass on the street without a word or a friendly wave. This place has more serious problems than a corner liquor store.CP