City Journal: Through the Plexiglas

Some see Philly's Asian-run delis as magnets for crime. Bill Chow sees his as a ticket to the American Dream (as long as he doesn't get shot)

Drive down the 4900 block of Wayne Avenue, and you’re in a section of Germantown locals call "The Hollow." The name is an abbreviation of the nearby Happy Hollow Playground, but look around, and you understand the omission of the word "Happy." This isn’t the city’s poorest neighborhood, but signs of urban decay and looming violence are everywhere: drug dealers scanning the traffic, broken glass, abandoned houses, and, of course, the presence of the one type of business that proves you are absolutely, positively in a Philadelphia ghetto: the much vilified, always controversial "stop-‘n’-go" deli.

What’s a stop-‘n’-go? It’s a restaurant that’s allowed to sell alcohol for takeout, technically. But what makes a stop-‘n’-go different from, say, the Continental is where it is, who owns it, and what it looks like on the inside. Put bluntly, in Philadelphia a "stop-‘n’-go" means a business located in the highest-crime areas of the city, one that has floor-to-ceiling ­bulletproof plastic between the customers and the merchandise, a robust trade in 40-ounce bottles of beer and malt liquor, a mostly black clientele, and owners of Asian descent. 

It’s also a type of business that’s at the center of a nasty political fight. On one side are those who claim stop-’n’-go’s are magnets for crime and disorder, “crappy little stores where dealers and prostitutes order their cheap malt liquor through grimy bulletproof windows,” as former Daily News columnist Carla Anderson described them. These critics call for a level of regulation that would allow even a single complaint to result in a yanked takeout license. For a stop-’n’-go, this means you’re no longer in business.

On the other side of the argument are people like Bill Chow. Bill, who just turned 34, owns a stop-’n’-go at 4931 Wayne Avenue. It’s called Kenny’s Seafood and Steaks, but Bill would be the first to admit his customers aren’t looking for lobster bisque or prime rib. They want cheap beer and malt liquor, and they’re willing to slide their money through a slot in the Plexiglas to get it. If you’ve ever seen a stop-’n’-go, you’ve probably wondered what kind of life it offers its owners. Bill Chow invited me to join him on the other side of the barrier and find out.