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)

 Not long ago, I visited Councilwoman Blackwell at her office in City Hall. I began our conversation by asking whether she thinks all stop-’n’-go’s are bad for the city.

“No,” she says, “I think there are a lot of good businesses. It’s always the small [ones], those that don’t run well, where they sell cigarette papers, blunts, and have people with 40s standing in front of their businesses. It’s always — it’s always the problems that get the press. We have a lot of excellent businesses. … But we’ve reached a point in our city, given the upsurge in crime, [where] people are afraid of stop-’n’-go’s.”

“Is there a specific place you have in mind?” I ask.

She names a West Philadelphia stop-’n’-go. “You can walk in,” she says, “and there’s an Asian lady holding a baby. There’s, like, one loaf of bread in there. And then you walk to the back and there’s still more Plexiglas with a little mouse-hole carved out. And they pass shots through the window. So that’s ridiculous. And I have a responsibility and a right to vote against that if I have the chance.”

Selling shots at a stop-’n’-go isn’t ­illegal — remember, they’re restaurants — but it’s hard not to see that in a neighborhood where the quality of life is already fragile, a place offering dirt-cheap shots through Plexiglas isn’t exactly helping things.

And this seems to be the crux of the arguments against stop-’n’-go’s. Most of those arguments are very short on specific allegations of illegal activity — i.e., “I saw 10 drug deals happen at this stop-’n’-go at this time” — and long on generalizations about them being bad for the community. From what I observed while driving around the city and visiting stop-’n’-go’s at night, it seems that what most people have against them is that in a city with a gun homicide crisis, a stop-’n’-go is almost by default a problem, in this sense: In the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong time of night, it’s a place where the city’s most at-risk population can gather, get drunk, and have the kinds of petty disputes that have resulted in hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead bodies over the past decade.

“I have one in my mother’s neighborhood,” Blackwell tells me, “where the owner is afraid to tell people to leave. So he’s lost his business to those who want to do blunts and act unsavory. They look like they’re criminals. They look like they’re selling drugs. They stand in the store, so I would be afraid to go in there.”

It’s the oldest problem in the neighborhood handbook: loitering.

“It drags the whole community down when people who don’t mean well for the community take over,” Blackwell says.