Grocery Is Flash Point for Changing Neighborhood
Monday, December 10, 2007
For Paul Whatling, it was the yellow smiley faces that did it.
The Columbia Heights resident had long suspected that the white plastic bags with the cheery logo came from Seven Days Grocery. The telltale bags were wrapped around 80 percent of the empty beer cans and bottles he found on the streets around the store as he filled 55-gallon bags weekly with the trash. Then Whatling found that Seven Days was the only store within six blocks that used the bags.
Whatling knows that Columbia Heights, now seeing redevelopment after languishing since race riots almost 40 years ago, faces bigger problems, particularly violence and drug dealing. Still, he says, it's the principle of the thing: Seven Days has flouted legal agreements and is fostering public drunkenness.
Police "need to start at the simplest things to make people know the law means something," Whatling said. "It's not like we're trying to get rid of Seven Days Grocery."
But some residents suspect just that. In a dispute that has come to symbolize the tensions of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, factions have sparred in recent months over the liquor license that the store at 14th and Fairmont streets NW has held since 1991.
Whatling and other members of the South Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association, which includes many newcomers, enlisted an attorney and collected an accordion file folder full of witness statements about drunken brawls and public drinking and digital photos of litter they link to the store.
In April, they took the evidence to the city's alcohol-control board.
Supporters of Seven Days suspect the move is yet another against working-class establishments and longtime residents who already feel marginalized by change.
"This issue needs to be on people's radar screen. This is real. This is palpable," said Dorothy Brizill, a D.C. government watchdog who has lived in Columbia Heights for 25 years.
"I'm just amazed how people just talk about their property values, as opposed to talking about community," she said. "It's just a jumping-off point for tension."
For Brizill, Seven Days is a neighborhood institution, the place to go for a loaf of bread or a Diet Pepsi, a community resource that dared to open its doors when rowhouses were crumbling and drug-related violence was rampant.
Blaming community problems on the store is "doing a disservice to trying to fix the problems in the neighborhood," she said.