Korean-American liquor store owners feel targeted by city

When Michelle Ha came to the United States in 1980, she dreamed of getting a college degree and returning to South Korea to become a politician.

That didn't happen, but she's still serving her community. From the liquor store she runs in a downtrodden part of East Baltimore, she works as a liaison to other Korean-American-owned businesses, a minder of children and seniors and an organizer of many large holiday meals. Ha also does her part to deter crime, police and neighbors say.


"A lot of business owners make money in the city and don't support the community, but that's not me," said Ha from her Kay's Liquor and Convenience, in the 2400 block of Biddle St. "Now the city wants to take my life away."

City health and planning officials want to strip 128 liquor stores of their licenses — about a third of those licensed in Baltimore — because, they say, the stores are linked to higher rates of violent criminal activity. They cite studies done by Johns Hopkins University researchers that found more violence in areas immediately surrounding the stores.


Officials believe they have an opening to target the stores because they are "nonconforming" under Baltimore zoning law. They all are located in residential neighborhoods, mostly poorer ones.

The stores were grandfathered into the code in the 1970s, when the last comprehensive zoning overhaul was done. Now, the city is redoing the law and wants to give these shops two years to relocate, sell their licenses or stop selling alcohol. About 20 will be rezoned and allowed to stay.

About 90 percent of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Korean-Americans, according to city estimates, and some community members believe the city is unfairly targeting Korean-owned businesses.

Ki Kang, 47, owner of Calvin's liquor and grocery store in the 200 block of E. Preston St., called the legislation "unfair" and "ridiculous," adding he would challenge the rezoning in court if it is passed.

Since his father opened the store after immigrating to Baltimore from South Korea more than 40 years ago, the surrounding Mid-Town Belvedere neighborhood has changed drastically, Kang said, and the store has changed with it.

Kang said he now sells more imported wine and high-end liquors, and only about 30 percent of his sales are from alcohol. The rest is from groceries and other items, like cigarettes. He doesn't have a problem with crime or customers loitering outside, he said.

"What they're trying to do with rezoning, targeting Korean-Americans, it's sad," said Kang, adding that city officials should work with the store owners to improve the neighborhoods they are in, not force them to relocate.

Darryl Morgan, a Calvin's customer and five-year resident of the neighborhood, agreed, saying Kang's shop is an asset.


"He does a great business in the neighborhood," Morgan said.

During recent snowstorms in the city, Kang's shop was the only local grocery open because Kang "fought his way in through all of [the snow] and did what he needed to do to make sure the neighborhood was supplied," Morgan said.

Lawmakers will have to "answer to the people," he said, if they take away such businesses.

But some owners say they aren't sure what to do, including Seun Hee Lee, 62, and her husband Won Suk Lee, 66, who have owned Sherman's Liquors in the 200 block of East Lafayette St. for 12 years.

The couple, who live in Perry Hall, planned to sell the store and retire on the proceeds. But they won't be able to if they can't sell their store along with their liquor license. The store is too small to accommodate any other type of shop, they said.

"We came to this country, America, supposed dreamland, 30 years ago, and for others 50 or 60 years ago, and is this the result for us?" Seun Hee Lee said through a translator in Korean, tearing up and becoming upset.


The couple immigrated to Highlandtown from South Korea, raised their children in Baltimore, and opened Sherman's in 2000, she said. Like other owners, they've come to know the clientele in their Greenmount West neighborhood well and have developed an affection for many of them, despite not being able to speak much English.

"I understand where the city government is coming from, to better off our neighborhood," Lee said. "But we all need to think about a solution where everybody, everybody can live together."

City officials say they are mindful that the action would disproportionately affect one community and plan to link the owners with assistance. The zoning overhaul is likely more than a year away and faces many public hearings and meetings.

"We understand there will be challenges for some individual business owners," said Thomas J. Stosur, city planning director. "But this is an opportunity for the city to support neighborhoods eager to reduce high liquor store density, the legacy of which is high crime and generally poorer health outcomes."

He said the research shows stores that sell carry-out liquor "double the risk of assaultive violence and are associated with increased homicide rates."

The city has about 1,300 liquor licenses, including stores, taverns and restaurants. By 2015, officials want to reduce the number by 15 percent. To that end, zoning officials also will take action against taverns that sell more alcohol as carry-out than at the bar.


There are more than 500 of these outlets, open seven days a week, and the majority of those owners are not Korean-Americans, according to the state chapter of the Korean American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association.

The group has not taken a firm position on the issue, but officials are "carefully considering the possibility of discrimination in our analysis of this proposed legislation," said Bryan Everett, legal counsel to the association.

He said he hopes the issue is explored, along with impact on city and state revenue and property rights.

"My clients are willing to make necessary sacrifices in order to make Baltimore a better place to live and work," he said. But, he added, "we feel that the comprehensive rezoning bill places far too great a burden on only one particular class of business owner in Baltimore City in order to justify the purported intent of the legislation."

Some owners, like Ha, who is a board member of the association, say they are supporting extended families on their income.

Few, however, may have become such important members of their communities.


"She clearly cares about Baltimore," said the Eastern District police commander, Maj. Melvin T. Russell. "She feeds hundreds of people at a clip. She's an advocate for the small business community. And when the police need help from the community, she's the first one I call."

Ha lives upstairs from the store she bought more than 14 years ago. And while it has a plexiglass shield and video cameras, she said it's not to protect her from her immediate community. She's never been robbed. And her patrons are loyal enough to keep an eye on her.

"She watched out for the neighborhood," said Reginald Johnson, who came in to buy a beer Monday. "Everyone knows that. She feeds people. Why would they take that from the neighborhood?"

And another customer, Herbert Coleman, added, "She supports the neighborhood at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And she hands out free stuff. I got a hat once. … She doesn't contribute to crime. She's always calling the police and reporting crime."

Coleman noted that no one loiters on her corner, as they do at other liquor stores.

Ha said many in those groups of men at nearby corners are drug dealers, whom she blames for nearby violence. She acknowledges that some other stores may not be as fearless as she in reporting them to police or shooing them away. But she doesn't believe the liquor stores are causing the violence.


"Why doesn't the city go after them?" she said about the dealers and those who own vacant properties where they operate. "Aren't they a health problem?"

For now, Ha, who was standing beneath several certificates of appreciation from the city and police hanging on her wall, feels like her adoptive home has turned on her.

"I don't know how to do anything else," she said about her business. "I don't know about clothes, except to get dressed. I don't know about food. I know liquor."

Staff multimedia/news intern Hojung Lee contributed to this article.