we park our bar in Harvard Yard

“Good lord, we don’t want those poor folks drinkin’ in our neighborhood!” That seems to be the substance behind this little kerfluffle. I’m giving the alderman something of the benefit of the doubt here: perhaps what he really thought there was an “overconcentration” of was carryout stores: there are two within a block of AK Mart, I think. Because if he thought there was an overconcentration of liquor outlets period, what’s he doing accepting license applications from other folks – other folks who, as the article points out, do not have the business history of Parshotam Singh, the owner of AK Mart?

Worse, though, are the comments of some of the area business owners quoted in the article – which pains me, since I patronize or am somewhat likely to patronize several of these businesses. Paul Jonas, owner of a proposed new club, brother of the co-owner of LuLu cafe and bar (and a guy that shows up on a few recordings in my collection), is quoted as saying something about “an undesirable element” – a euphemistic phrase so clichéd that it’s lost its euphemistic qualities and comes across pretty much as directly saying “drunk people who either aren’t white or don’t have a lot of money.” (As an aside: the only time I’ve ever been injured in a public place came about on Water Street – home of wealthy white Marquette fratboys – and the only time aside from that I’ve been threatened with violence was from a drunk guy on the “fashionable east side”…who thought I’d been hitting on his girlfriend – I hadn’t.) And then there’s Kristian Sydow, landlord… who comes across quite charmingly in this little article. “If people want to get [carryout] alcohol they should go to a grocery store,” he says – ignoring the fact that the nearest grocery store selling liquor is about three-quarters of a mile away, and that many of these residents don’t own cars. And even better, Sydow continues: “A bodega closing down because they can’t sell beer – I can’t shed any tears over that.” Way to express solidarity with neighborhood business owners, Kristian – I’m guessing your attitude toward someone else’s livelihood was a lot less arrogant when it was, say, the Harry W. Schwartz store in your own building closing down.

I’d understand this opposition if there was a track record of police calls and other disturbances – but as the article makes clear, there’s a lot more fear and supposition than actual problems. A few folks loitering, a few drunks pissing on walls: not good, to be sure – but you see a lot more of that on Water Street. I guess if you’re drunkenly pissing in an alley in fashionable clothing and a nice haircut, that’s okay.

I don’t begrudge Deanna Wecker or Paul Jonas their businesses or liquor licenses – it’s an entertainment district, and liquor licenses are a key part of it, and Wecker’s store (Dee’s Wine Shop) is a nice little place. But it seems clear that Ald. Zielinski and these business owners in particular only want certain kinds of business, certain types of clientele. And while on one hand, that’s understandable – what you want is people who’ll patronize your business…and, bluntly, people without much money won’t do that – being obnoxious and pushy about it, and using codedly borderline racist language about it, is a lame-ass strategy. A neighborhood needs a range of venues: if someone has a better idea for the small space Singh’s store currently occupies, let him or her approach Singh about buying out his business, if it’s failing, and see if they can make a go of it. But if not, let the man run his business as he sees fit, in accordance with the law and his own reputation and record. I’ve only stopped in his store once, to buy a bottle of soda, but I think he’s getting railroaded here, and I think I’ll stop by and buy a few things in support.

Update: When I wrote this entry, I also e-mailed the alderman in question (who’s also the alderman for the district we live in). I received a very quick response from him, which confirmed some of my ideas above (indeed, he and some of his constituents who expressed an opinion on the matter did distinguish between carryout licenses and bar or restaurant licenses) – and partly mitigated, partly exacerbated some of my other ones. Specifically, the concern expressed by these constituents was that the neighborhood didn’t need any further encouragement for down-and-out alcoholics. True…but here’s where euphemism shades over into its opposite: frankly, if Paul Jonas or any other constituents had said “down-and-out alcoholics, many of them with mental illness problems,” they could never be accused of being PC…but they also couldn’t be accused of not being direct, to the point, and clear in their concerns. The problem with a phrase like “undesirable elements” (which probably means the phrase I quote immediately above, rather than my earlier, more tendentious paraphrase) is that its vague, mealy-mouthed description leaves open the possibility that it means something much nastier.

The less pleasant aspects of the constituent comments are summed up in a complaint about AK Mart’s “green and gold, poorly made fence,” and a suggestion that Singh is unlikely to have “big handwritten signs that advertise every kind of tobacco product you can think of” in front of his house in a suburban subdivision. This seems to speak more to issues of taste, of what’s hip and what’s not, than anything else. A recently closed restaurant on KK had a metal sign in a sort of art nouveau style: I thought it was wonderful, but I’m sure there were those who thought it was a ugly, colorless, sharp-edged sign with illegible type. The green and gold fence in front of AK Mart is surely no masterwork – but as I drove by it on my way home this afternoon, I did observe that it was recently painted. Singh at least is trying to keep his property looking nice. As to the tobacco signs: well, no, I’m sure Singh doesn’t advertise them at his home…and I’m pretty sure none of the other business owners in the area advertise items they sell in their stores at their homes either. Tobacco’s a downmarket item, to be sure – but as obnoxious as the product is, it’s legal to sell, and someone selling it has every right to advertise that fact. And funny how a handwritten sign in a hipster bistro is artistic and funky, a handwritten sign at a quaint rural vegetable stand is charming and full of character…but a handwritten sign at an urban market is, one presumes from the constituent’s attitude, tacky and tasteless.

Alderman Zielinski also points out that his decision was less an aldermanic powerplay than a response to what he felt was the wishes of his constituents. On the one hand: of course that’s what he’d say…but then it appears that constituents opposed to granting a license to AK Mart were far more vocal than supporters.

So I’m pretty much where I was before: Zielinski gets a pass, in that it’s likely he’s simply doing his job and responding to what he perceives to be the wishes of his constituents; but some residents need to rethink the way they conceive of these issues. No neighborhood wants to attract roving bands of drunks…but the assumptions and characterizations underlying some of the constituents’ objections begin to shade over into an unthinking prejudice (reminiscent of the half-assed coded racism exhibited by some Fox Point residents when a Best Buy proposed a store for the Riverpoint shopping district a couple years back).

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