Corner stores under fire

Neighbors on Minneapolis’ Northside have launched an “Action Against Corner Stores Campaign” demanding that local convenience stores stop the sale of drug paraphernalia, keep their stores clean and sanitary, and improve security around the stores by discouraging loitering and installing adequate lighting and cameras. But the City’s response to the problem has been lagging.

There seems to be a lot of “passing the buck” among the business owners targeted by the Action Against Corner Stores Campaign. “[The owners] have sold to their cousins,” said Jennifer Baxa, a member of ACORN’s Northside Neighbors United! “Now they can say in their defense that the complaints are not their problem, but that of the previous owner. Each store is independently operated and no one takes responsibility.”

Ricardo Cervantes, deputy director of Licenses and Consumer Services for the City of Minneapolis, said, “This does not take away the responsibility they have. Owning a license is a privilege. They are responsible for proactively discouraging the activity around their property. Failure to do so is a violation of the law.

“That’s the purpose for this office,” Cervantes said. “[The owners] are supposed to do everything they can to ensure safety, health, and livability. They are accountable to the residents and to the system.”

4-U Foods, formerly Wafana’s, on 24th and Lyndale Ave. N., has staggering police statistics with a high price for taxpayers. “On average, each call costs $225, and there is a booking fee for every arrest,” said Jose Velez, policy aide to Fifth Ward City Council Member Don Samuels. One of the stores that continue to switch ownership, 4-U Food’s record of police calls substantiate its reputation as a Northside “hot spot.”

Reports read by Cervantes show that between January 1, 2005, and February 19, 2006, there have been 1,376 responses to this address, 129 police reports filed, and 160 arrests for criminal activity (including citations). Of those calls, 99.7 percent occurred during the business hours of 8 am to 10 pm. Fifty-four percent were 911 calls, which means the other 46 percent were proactive stops; 84 percent were narcotics calls; two calls reported a shooting, three calls reported robbery, two calls reported a stabbing, and 15 calls reported fighting and assault.

Neighbors say it is no wonder they are fearful living around a place with such a horrific track record. “We pray for a green light when we pass there,” said Baxa.

The City has become involved as well. The Northside Convenience Store Taskforce has been involved in this capacity since late December 2005. The task force is made up of representatives from the City Attorney’s Office (community attorney), the Minneapolis Police Department (eventually representing every precinct), the city council, food inspection, zoning, food stamps and electronic benefits transfer (EBT).

“We are trying to include any agency that has business to do with grocery stores,” said Cervantes. “The mission is to identify the grocery or convenience stores that have been known to cause problems in the community and make an effort around enforcement. We want to review the issues surrounding grocery/convenience stores, including loitering, drug trafficking, sale of drug paraphernalia, littering, and other crimes that occur in the proximity of these stores.

“There are four stores so far that have been approached [by the City]. We are processing the new list and adhering to the regulations and safeguards and considering an ordinance or system change for better enforcement,” Cervantes said.

Council Member Don Samuels and two African American Star Tribune reporters recently spent a day working undercover in Wafana’s. For the approximate eight-hour period, more than 90 percent of all the customers were young Black males between the ages of 16 and 25.

“One of reporters heard [a customer] asking for baggies, and the store owner said ‘Come back tomorrow,’” Samuels said. He also suggests that there is a peculiar confidence about the store owners: “They are so insistent and emotional… They defend themselves saying they don’t sell these things; then you find out they do.

“One gentleman advocated for the stores, then had to abandon them once he found out. There’s such a duplicity of culture within the preponderance of convenience stores… They say they’re working hard. When guys threaten them, they call the police, and they still sell. It is still unknown if those business are truly viable in the community,” Samuels said.

“It’s important for the community to give its voice,” he continued. “[These store owners] get the impression that the community is accommodating [them, and] it’s just the civil servants and police officers that are making their life hell,” he said.

“This confidence… When you see a recent immigrant who you would expect to be intimidated by this demographic, said to be violent, and you are still able to do business 365 days of the year — there’s either arrogance or complicity. Everyone else is scared, so there has to be something going on…and I say that as an immigrant, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in an unfamiliar place,” said Samuels.

The owners of these stores are mostly Middle Easterners, but D’Andre Norman, lead organizer for Northside ACORN, says, “This is not a race issue, because young Black men who own barber shops are able to keep [trouble] away. These stores attract a certain element,” he said.

Another target location that is actually in the process of getting its license revoked is Uncle Bill’s on Plymouth and Sheridan Ave. N. Ali Hassan Meshjell, owner of Uncle Bill’s, agreed to stop selling single blunts, which may have been motivated by a reporter witnessing the exchange between an ACORN member and the business owner.

“He gave us $300 to $400 worth of blunts, then joined ACORN, but I think he gave it up too easy,” said Veteran ACORN member Beverly Stancile. “[He] acted in innocence as if he could not understand why people would want him shut down.”

The statistics recorded for his location would answer that question. After the sale of the business from the original owner, there was a 44 percent reduction of calls from this location, but also a 200 percent increase in narcotic calls (made by residents), a 200 percent increase in robberies, a 33 percent increase in fights, and a 150 percent increase in police reports. Not only did activity increase, but the new owner has not been reporting it.
“Who are you truly servicing?” asks Cervantes, “because we don’t believe it’s the community. You’re enabling folks to hang around…then come the other crimes.’

Meshjell also owns apartments above his store, and there have been complaints from neighbors about his tenants. “We would like to keep [stores] open for those who are actually selling and buying groceries versus closing the store due to the owners’ track records,” said Baxa.

ACORN is pleased with the City’s input, but they also favor a more inclusive process. “We’ve asked for someone from ACORN to be on the task force,” said Norman. “We’re waiting to hear back from Don [Samuels]. We want the community to have a seat at the table. The community has an interest in resolving the problem and has the ability to influence store owners. We want to work with [the City], but we can’t if they’re not communicating with us.”

“There is a combined effort, but not a collaborative effort, “said Samuels. “We want the community to put pressure along with the City.”

“It’s currently internal, but ACORN’s input is welcome,” said Cervantes.

The fourth location targeted by the City, Big Stop (26th and Knox), has had its license revoked, and the new applicant has been denied. The store owners failed to comply with the “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) policy, which is a law requiring business owners to adhere to design plans proven to help prevent crime. The sale of drug paraphernalia, combined with a double-entrance driveway, led to consistent congestion in the area.

Four stores only mark the beginning of this battle. ACORN members have identified many more problem sites and continue their efforts to prevent crime in the community by insisting that convenience stores clean up their acts and become responsible neighbors.

For more information on ACORN or Northside Neighbors United! contact D’Andre Norman or Brandon Nessen at 651-642-9639.

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    Lauretta Dawolo Towns's picture
    Lauretta Dawolo Towns

    Lauretta Dawolo Towns (email Lauretta [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a freelancer for several local community and ethnic news outlets. She is also a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and a con