A new round of alcohol sales for SE block, and residents are taking sides

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Three black security cameras hang over the nearly seven-foot-tall coolers that house cold beer and wine at the rear of the Dollar Plus Foodstore in Southeast. On signs written in blue marker and taped to the refrigerators, the message is clear: Dollar Plus doesn't sell alcohol past 9 p.m.

That's good enough for customers including Jacqueline Horton. Before the store began selling beer and wine in June, Horton, 45, said she traveled almost half a mile to liquor and convenience stores on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Southeast to get her beer. She's lived in the area most of her life, and she's had to do the same to buy groceries.

"I don't have a car, so I literally had to catch the bus to Giant to get an onion," Horton said. To her, Dollar Plus is fulfilling a need.

But for some longtime residents near the Howard Road convenience store, whether the beer and wine is sold before or after 9 p.m. doesn't make much difference. Alcohol sales mean crime, they say, and crime means a return to an era of shootings and drug deals that the neighbors have worked hard to move beyond.

"I couldn't even go out my front door," recalled Hannah Hawkins, a former Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who helped lead the fight against Dollar Plus's liquor license. Hawkins has lived on Howard Road for nearly 40 years. She has watched as more homes and businesses began to spring up over the past few years. But she also remembers what the neighborhood was like 20 years ago.

"It was criminal activity happening over here all day long, right in your face," Hawkins said, and she doesn't want to see a return of that time.

Store owner Melesse Hunde, known as Mike to many of the customers he greets by name, said the sale of alcohol is just business. He's only trying to do what he can -- working to survive in a tough economy while providing a convenience for residents.

"Now instead of focusing on my job, I got to defend, explain to everyone," Hunde said with an air of exasperation.

Hunde opened the Dollar Plus store two years ago. It sits in the Stanton Shopping Plaza, a church on one side, another convenience store on the other. Townhouses had sprung up just a few years before he arrived, bringing in new residents, some with higher incomes and demands for a variety of neighborhood services.

Nearly one-third of homes in the area are owner-occupied, up from 19 percent in 2001. The median home value has risen to $268,730 from $102,676 since 2001, according to the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership.

"The community has evolved," said Benjamin Dzieketey, 29, who has lived in one of the newer townhouses on Stanton Road SE since 2006. He testified on Hunde's behalf at a May hearing on the liquor license.

Dzieketey said there is a separation between community leaders and the neighborhood at large. He said Hawkins and the ward's current ANC commissioner, Lendia Johnson, are judging Hunde's decision to sell liquor based on issues they faced when crime and drug use was more rampant in the area.

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