The scene at Philadelphia City Council during its last meeting of the year was a controlled but raw emotional battlefield of Black residents versus Asian business owners. Racial lines were clearly drawn, and there were few (if any) signs that one side was jumping to the other’s way of seeing things.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ highly-charged Stop-and-Go bill could be thanked for that. Asian business owners who’ve long set up shop in mostly low-income Black neighborhoods won’t agree, but Bass’ bill presented a healthy and structured channeling of rage on an issue that’s gnawed away at Philadelphia’s Black residents for years: The ongoing, explosive proliferation of Asian-owned businesses in urban Black communities and the relationship—or lack thereof—they have with the people who patronize them.
Hence, Bass’ bill, officially known as the Restaurant Licensing Bill, was a welcome disruption. Hole in the wall, corner store, low-resource establishments have long stuck their middle finger at state law and, in turn, Black neighborhood consumers. It’s become a public safety and public health issue where, as Bass and others have rightly observed, the stores are essentially “… indoor open-air drug markets masquerading as restaurants.”
Which is true, and it seems to only occur or be acceptable in low-income Black neighborhoods beset by limited grocery options. Stores selling shots of liquor, carcinogenic product and items easily transferrable into illicit drug use have not only been an eye sore but hubs of addictive and dangerous, unhealthy behavior in neighborhoods most Asian merchants don’t (and wouldn’t) live in themselves.
It’s long been a tolerated fact of Black neighborhood life in Philadelphia that residents struggling with alcohol and drug addiction can easily access a Stop-and-Go to feed the addiction. And it’s been way-too-long accepted that stores promoting themselves as “beer delis” or places serving “food” are acting as anything but that, few offering chairs and tables to sit in as state law requires and none really offering bathrooms as mandated. Reality Check has heard from many rightfully angry residents offering testimony of public urination outside these establishments.
The Stop and Go conversation should already be shifting to an active dialogue about urban food deserts.
Asian store owners did stage an impressive show of coordinated advocacy last Thursday morning outside and in City Hall. They accused supporters of the bill for instigating racially-driven “hate” against Asians and snatching away the bulletproof plexiglass that protects them from the dangers of doing business in safety-challenged neighborhoods. There is some level of truth in that argument, as Stop and Go delis can attract patrons who are anything but, and face risks in neighborhoods daily victimized by violent crime.
But Bass’ bill forced the city and affected store owners to finally face what everyone knew: The owners of these establishments operate businesses in a manner that’s code-violating—and often inhumane. In a way, it’s actually quite laughable that aggrieved Asian store-owners suddenly want to have a “can-we-get-along” conversation about better race relations considering their historic mistreatment of neighborhood customers.
It’s time for a complete overhaul of Stop and Go. With tensions so high, and many of these establishments still remaining, all parties should move towards establishing formal platforms for ongoing dialogue. A common community gripe, as voiced during Thursday’s Council hearing, has been that invitations to Asian business owners to attend community discussions on how to establish greater cooperation between proprietor and consumer have gone unheeded.
Now would be the time to reengage and formally structure that dialogue. That would be a bonus for both: Owners should up their customer satisfaction game and learn what customers want and really need, while creating a pipeline of job prospects for members of the community.
And consumers shouldn’t just use those forums as griping sessions, but as a chance to explore employment opportunities and creatively brainstorm ways to bring the offerings of such establishments more in line with customer desires. We need a unified discussion on how these businesses can follow best practices in the retail world. There’s no sense basing a brick-and-mortar business in a community if you have no social, political or economic connection to it —unless you really didn’t respect it in the first place.
Now would be the time for dialogue. Owners should up their customer satisfaction game and learn what customers want and really need, while creating a pipeline of job prospects for members of the community. And consumers shouldn’t just use such forums as griping sessions.
The Stop and Go conversation should already be shifting to an active dialogue about urban food deserts. Locations still lacking the presence of a grocery store, after all, are cluttered with Stop and Go establishments. Why not put the pressure on those stores to adapt themselves as satellites or distribution points for quality produce and healthy food and beverages? There may be an opening here to enhance the offering in these stores.
In essence, Stop and Go establishments could be the foundation for a sophisticated network of kiosk-like or satellite food distribution points whereby local producers, urban farmers and regional manufacturers could sell healthier items to low income consumers. Not only does that help in the fight against food, alcohol and drug-related illnesses that plague such communities, but it gradually eliminates factors aggravating city violence.
Lastly, the next big step of Bass, the Mayor and other policymakers, is figuring out how to truly diversify urban business establishments. So-called “Stop and Gos” in “the ‘hood” shouldn’t solely be owned by Asians. Policymakers and community leaders should look at creating entrepreneurial incubators that encourages ownership by traditionally disadvantaged black and low income residents, adding a dose of healthy competition that further forces existing establishments to up their game.
Stop and Gos are finally in the news. Now that they are, let’s be smart and truly progressive about reforming them.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday-Thursday, 4-7 p.m. on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and Contributing Politics Editor to TheRoot.com. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on Twitter.