January 14, 2003

Don't grieve for Steve's

Recently, residents of Woodlawn voted to end liquor sales in a small area of their neighborhood with the objective of shutting down Steve's Food and Liquor. This action reflects the changing character of the Woodlawn neighborhood, which is moving away from the high-crime reputation that it has held in past decades. Relationships between the University and Woodlawn have a checkered past, and it is fair to say that many of the troubles that it faced in the second half of the 20th century were in some way a result of the University's urban renewal programs. The University now is of course working with the community in the effort to revitalize Woodlawn. It is now at the point where community activists can shut down businesses that, in their opinion, attract crime. Steve's is not the first store to have faced such public pressure to be shut down. But before the community applauds too much, we would like to bring up some concerns we have about these recent actions.

This vote, and the subsequent suit filed by Steve's owner, Jamal F. Al-Sallal, which allows the store to stay open for now, bring up questions of community rights versus the property rights of individuals. It may be true that liquor stores tend to increase crime in the area. Nonetheless, they are legitimate businesses, and so long as they obey the law, they deserve its protection. In this particular case, however, the evidence suggests that Steve's as an institution had been particularly conducive to crime, and that its management had not addressed the concerns of the Woodlawn community. Therefore, we view the community action to shut down Steve's as a lamentable necessity.

There has certainly been precedent for such an action in the past. This is the fourth time that Woodlawn has voted a portion of the neighborhood dry. The Woodlawn Organization has worked to close down liquor stores as far back as 1968.

We think that in this case, if Steve's is ultimately removed, it will be for the best. However, we would caution that the brand of community right, as practiced in the ongoing move to close Steve's Food and Liquor, echoes the urban renewal of the past, and the destruction of 55th and 63rd Streets as commercial corridors.

The relevant administrators should proceed, but proceed with caution. If the removal of Steve's Food and Liquor finally lands in the realm of the good, it toes the line between community building and economic discrimination. Those involved should be advised to watch this line carefully.