Corner Liquor Stores May Set Stage for Drug Trade By Mike Field Insights can come at the strangest times. Driving home one night to his family in suburban Pikesville, Thomas LaVeist noticed that in one inner city neighborhood known for its poverty and crime, he had passed no fewer than three separate liquor stores all in the space of about a city block. He was stopped at a traffic light thinking about this unusual concentration of liquor-to-go when, directly in front of his car, he watched a drug transaction take place. "It got me to thinking about the infrastructure of chaotic communities," said Dr. LaVeist, an assistant professor of health policy and management in the School of Public Health. "We are used to referring to the infrastructure necessary for a well-functioning community. Things like a police force that responds to crime, good schools, well-maintained roads and so forth. As I thought about it, I began wondering if there was a necessary infrastructure for chaotic communities as well." Dr. LaVeist's curiosity soon led him to take a closer look at the way drugs and alcohol are sold in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. "I have a friend who is a minister in West Baltimore, and he had told me in the past that he had a list of all the liquor licenses in the city," Dr. LaVeist recalled. "It occurred to me that there may be a correlation between liquor sales, ethnicity, social status and crime." Using the list of the city's 1,356 liquor licenses and an IBM personal computer, Dr. LaVeist set about trying to find connections between the way liquor was sold and the kinds of neighborhoods in which it is sold. Because his project has been and remains unfunded, most of his efforts have gone into working evenings, weekends, whenever he can find the time. And although Dr. LaVeist is quick to insist it is still too early to draw any specific conclusions, his work has nonetheless suggested that certain kinds of liquor sales may contribute to the infrastructure inherent in chaotic communities. "A key issue is not the sale of liquor so much as it is the way in which the liquor is sold," Dr. LaVeist said. "I'm not trying to re-establish temperance here. We've proven that prohibition won't work." To illustrate his point, Dr. LaVeist takes two unopened bottles of beer from the bookshelf near his desk. The first bottle is the familiar 12-ounce bottle of beer, in this case a long neck of Miller. The second bottle is more of a jug, really, a giant 64-ounce bottle of malt liquor conveniently contoured for easy handling. "These bottles represent the two primary ways in which alcohol is sold in Baltimore's poor communities," Dr. LaVeist said. "Essentially they fall into two categories: taverns and what I call corner stores. A tavern is where you go to buy a bottle of beer. A corner store is the sort of operation where you pay through a turnstile for a very limited selection of cheap wine, malt liquor and beer." Using a mapping program on his computer, Dr. LaVeist began to look at the kind of liquor license each premise held and compare it with the predominant ethnicity and social status of the neighborhood where it was located. "What you find is that in the more affluent neighborhoods-- both black and white--there are hardly any liquor licenses, and those that are there are almost exclusively associated with restaurants, hotels or private clubs," Dr. LaVeist said. "Furthermore, you find the more African Americans in an area, the fewer total liquor licenses there are, largely because there are few restaurants or hotels serving liquor within poor black neighborhoods." But it was the remaining licenses and their distribution that really struck Dr. LaVeist. "Overwhelmingly, you find taverns in poor white neighborhoods and corner stores in poor black ones," he said. "Probably some of this is a deep-seated cultural difference. In the low income Greek or Polish neighborhoods, a corner tavern was a feature of life, just as it was back in the old country." It is the different functions these liquor outlets play within their communities that Dr. LaVeist is now investigating. "Taverns have a certain function and can arguably be said to build a sense of community," he said. "Patrons are drinking in a social environment where the bartender is legally sanctioned to prevent over-indulgence. Furthermore, when you buy beer by the bottle or by the mug it is more expensive, which serves as another check against having too much to drink." Corner stores, by contrast, have no such social pact with the neighborhood. "The rules governing this kind of license require that the alcohol not be consumed on premises," Dr. LaVeist said. "In fact, you must be at least 100 feet away from the building before opening the bottle. Now what does this mean, practically speaking? It means you establish a sanctified pattern of people standing out on the street consuming liquor, a form of quasi-legal loitering. Furthermore, since these stores are selling the most alcohol for the least money, you have individuals drinking an entire 64-ounce bottle of malt liquor, which has a much higher alcohol content than ordinary beer. "Look at how this bottle is ergonomically designed for ease of handling," he says, picking up the 64-ounce bottle of malt liquor. "I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be around anyone who had consumed all this." The presence of these corner stores in Baltimore's poorest communities may be contributing to some of the social path-ologies they are experiencing, Dr. LaVeist believes. "What do you need as an infrastructure for open air drug markets?" he asks. "Well you need a pay phone, a route to escape and a reason to be standing around." Baltimore's infamous system of back alleys makes it easy to disappear quickly, and pay phones tend to be common in poorer neighborhoods, where many residents are without phone service. It is the corner stores, which promote patterns of loitering, that may be contributing the final missing piece of the puzzle. "One thing I believe may be happening is that the location of the corner stores may be helping to support the infrastructure of the drug trade," Dr. LaVeist said. "It is too early in this study to say with any certainty, but I would not be surprised if we find a correlation there." Having plotted liquor licenses by type and location, Dr. LaVeist intends next to start matching crime statistics-- particularly open air drug arrests--with the existing data. If, as he suspects, a strong correlation exists, then in the future community organizations and political leaders may want to pay more attention to the kinds of liquor licenses granted within specific communities. "What I'm really trying to do is identify the infrastructure that sustains chaotic communities," Dr. LaVeist said. "If we can identify some of these components then maybe we can begin to dismantle them. That's really what this research is all about."
Go to Gazette Homepage