Hard Stuff: Challenges to West Baltimore liquor licenses show closing establishments doesn't go down easy

Hard Stuff: Challenges to West Baltimore liquor licenses show closing establishments doesn't go down easy
Rev. Dr. Ruby Purnell has lived on Smallwood Street, a couple blocks from Uptown Liquors, since 1955. "I think it's time for us to live in a place that's decent," she told the liquor board. She said she only found out about the hearing a few days ago, and would have brought more people if she'd known about it earlier. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

Four Sandtown-area liquor licensees defended their licenses from community challenges yesterday, all winning renewal of their licenses despite petitions from members of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association. But all were asked—and agreed—to work with community members to improve conditions in and around their establishments.

"It's a good thing that we have communication," said Domingo Kim, the owner of the Stadium Lounge, who recently became President of the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland and seemed to be acting as an advisor and translator to the licensees. "We have no objection to making Baltimore better."


The Baltimore City Liquor Board found all of the protests insufficient, and it was unusual to see four license renewal protests in the same area in a single day.

"I don't really understand what happened here today," Liquor Board Chairman Albert J. Matricciani Jr., said after the last hearing. "We got several protests from the same small group, and they look like proforma complaints."

Members of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association did not respond to City Paper's emails.

Becky Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center who helps community groups fight bad bars at the liquor board, says she visited the group at their Wednesday meeting and found that no one was prepared to testify at the board the next day. She said a woman in Mayor Catherine Pugh's office had indicated the license challenges were part of a concerted effort, part of the mayor's "Transformation Zones" strategy, which targets blight and crime in four distinct areas by coordinating efforts between police, the Housing Department, the Health Department, and other city agencies.

"I was here to support the community, and I thought the community would be here," City Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III told the board during the first hearing of the morning, a challenge of Whispers, a tavern and liquor store at 1811 Baker Street. He mentioned that the bar was in a Transformation Zone. A map shows that three of the four are in the zone near Sandtown, but one, Mel's Liquors, is not.

Inez Robb, President of the Fulton Community Association, told the board that she supported closing Whispers because "we have a lot of problems that come from this establishment."

Under the law, the liquor board requires a detailed accounting of the alleged problems, Matricciani explained. Robb said she thought someone else was going to bring the details.

Steve Fogleman, a former liquor board chairman who was representing the licensee, then challenged the validity of the Henson Neighbohood's petition.

The law requires the signatures of at least 10 neighbors from the "immediate vicinity" of the establishment; Fogleman said that, using Google Maps, he calculated that one of the petitioners lives four miles away. Another is two miles away, "way down in Pigtown."

Noting that the board had never defined "immediate vicinity," Mattriciani took that under advisement.

Fogleman then pointed to the vagueness of the allegations against the bar: no dates, no specifics.

The Liquor Board's own records pertaining to the establishments were similarly thin, with no violations in the past year.

"It sounds like there may not be enough evidence to go forward," Matricciani replied. "I, too, had concerns when I looked at these petitions, that they are almost identical."

After the hearing, Pinkett said he did not think the Transformation Zone had anything to do with the protest, and that the neighborhood association president had simply not realized that the hearing dates would conflict with her long-planned trip out of town. But he said liquor licensees are generally a problem in his district.


"Part of the issue, you can get access to liquor stores but you can't get access to a grocery store," Pinkett said.

The mayor's office did not respond to an email from City Paper asking about the liquor protests. The Health Department sent links to the 311 database and the inspection portal. Neither of the two bars had been inspected (the other two licenses that were challenged belonged to liquor stores, which are not subject to inspections by the Health Department).

Typically, when a residential group challenges a liquor licensee, the community group takes months, or even years, to build a case. They call for inspections, they call police, they call 311, and they document specific instances of violence and disorderly behavior. Then, the group sends several members to the hearing to testify about the terrible things that the bar or liquor store owner condones. License protest hearings are scheduled for two hours, and they often go longer than that. Thursday's hearings were each wrapped up in a half hour or less.

All four went about the same: two or three Korean-American store owners entered with their lawyer (Fogleman for Whispers and the Oxford Tavern, Peter Prevas for Mel's Liquors and Uptown Liquors) and Inez Robb stood to decry the establishment, but had few specifics.

The lawyers noted that several of the petitioners live two or even four miles away, effectively invalidating the petition, then handed over their own petitions with dozens or hundreds of supporters listed. The board asked the owners to work with Robb and any other community groups in the area, and the owners agreed to do it—handshakes all around.

"My clients are always willing to cooperate and be good neighbors," Prevas said, "regardless of how far that neighborhood is away."

Despite the seemingly good feeling as liquor store owners met, sometimes for the first time, with their activist neighbors, Witt said the pro-forma nature of the protests would not help strengthen community-building efforts.

"This is what happens when random sample documents that we provide as a sample…get widely disseminated," Witt told the liquor board's deputy executive secretary, Thomas Akras, during one of the long breaks between the hearings.

"It's a legal process," Akras replied. "People don't understand, it's a lot of work."

"I know," Witt replied. "It's my whole job."

As in many struggling neighborhoods, the complaints centered on loitering, selling loose cigarettes, drinking outside the establishments, and crowds menacing the older neighbors. It's not an easy problem to solve, particularly in the area where Freddie Gray died just two years ago in the aftermath of a corner-clearing operation.

"I deal with a lot of it myself, because there's a lot of traffic in there," Edward Brown said. He helps run a shop across the street from Mel's Liquors on the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue and tells people to move along and not to sell drugs, he said, but "I don't see how they're gonna move people out of the area, unless they get a gun."

Pinkett returned to the hearing to testify against Uptown Liquors, saying the shop hinders efforts to revitalize West North Avenue.

"We collectively say, 'Enough is enough,'" he told the board. "Our young people, the only apple they see is the apple-flavored Boons Farms at the corner store."


Ruby Purnell, president of the Smallwood Street Association, told the board that there are too many liquor stores. "Our community is just going down," she said.

Mattriciani said he doesn't disagree with the sentiment, but that his board doesn't have authority to punish a liquor licensee for the general poverty and disorder in a neighborhood.

Pinkett said he was glad to learn how the process works: "You can rest assured, the next time we come, we'll be prepared."

(Note: this post was amended to correct Thomas Akras's job title)