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Liquor Stores, Dispensaries and Smoke Shops: Our Neighborhood Is Killing Us

Beer froth | Timothy Dykes / Unsplash
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Editor's note: The author of this article is currently the Communications Director for Community Coalition. She has been a resident of South Los Angeles since 1974 and has previously covered issues impacting the African American community for the L.A. Sentinel as a reporter.

Being in community with others gives us opportunities to connect with people, makes us feel part of something greater than ourselves, helps us feel safe and secure and promotes a sense of mental and physical well-being. But many of the feelings connected to community are impacted by the physical environment in which we live.

While Los Angeles has the reputation of being a city of dreams, its urban landscape has become a nightmare for Black and Brown residents. Development and planning have not been about creating spaces and places that benefit this community. As a result, South L.A. residents do not have enough grocery stores, broad access to organic produce, thriving small businesses, affordable housing, medical services and places to eat, drink, shop and socialize.

A Walk Through South L.A. History

South L.A. has had multiple waves of cultural, racial and ethnic groups put down roots, but it has historically been known as a Black community. The "Great Migration" saw an influx of African Americans fleeing racial violence and oppression in the Southern states. South Central, as it was known then, became one of the only areas African Americans were allowed to live due to banking and political redlining. Many also called the area home because of its booming manufacturing businesses at which Blacks were employed in middle-class jobs — affording workers the opportunity to purchase homes in what were then thriving communities.

In the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing companies began shutting their doors and fleeing to cheaper labor centers in the Third World countries. They took with them millions of well-paying, middle-class, unionized and skilled labor jobs. The '80s saw a continuation of these employment shifts. South L.A. lost more than 70,000 jobs between 1978 and 1982. The '80s also heralded the rise of violence and criminal activity due to the crack cocaine epidemic. By 1989, more than 320 manufacturing plants had shut down, and an additional 124,000 workers lost their jobs. The combination of a dearth of employment opportunities, high crime and rampant violence resulted in residents, employers and developers leaving the area.

Years of disinvestment and the inability to attract major retail developers and small businesses to South Los Angeles continues to be felt 30 years later as severe blight has given rise to nuisance businesses that foster crime and addiction. Exacerbating this scarcity of business development is a lack of affordable housing, access to medical services and an overabundance of liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, smoke shops, and empty lots. Activists have identified thousands of vacant lots in South L.A., many of which have been sitting empty since the Watts Riots of 1965.

Businesses That Harm

Monarch Liquor Store | Courtesy of  Marsha Mitchell
Monarch Liquor Store | Courtesy of Marsha Mitchell

"I have lived in South L.A. since 1963. I live a block away from Monarch Liquor Store and have witnessed and experienced the harm this liquor store has caused my community for decades. Walking by there, I've been harassed, told very disrespectful things, and truly felt threatened," says Maria Rutledge, a resident of South L.A. for 57 years and a long-time member of Community Coalition (CoCo). The group is a social justice organization established in 1990 to help transform the social and economic conditions in South L.A.

Brought together by now-Congressmember Karen Bass (who at that time was an emergency-room physician assistant), the group was haunted by the raging health crisis that resulted from the crack-cocaine epidemic. The group knew criminalizing addiction would only make matters worse. CoCo founders believed the South L.A. residents most affected by the crisis needed to be included in creating real solutions. It was from this vision that the idea of a community-driven organization was first born. Three decades later, CoCo has spearheaded policy campaigns that have resulted in more than $10 billion in community investment promoting a more equitable way of life for its community members, including this critical program discouraging businesses that tear away the fabric of community life in South L.A.

Despite the continuing work of CoCo and other advocacy groups, businesses that produce undesirable community effects continue to open in South Los Angeles. "Now there are new smoke shops showing up and other nuisance businesses," Rutledge continued. "Neighbors share with me that are drugs sales, sex trafficking and gun violence at that corner. Two years ago, six people were shot outside Monarch. Two of them died. As residents, we have called for their license to be revoked. The owner cannot be allowed to just add 'market' to her store sign. The store must really become a market. We are in desperate need of a real grocery market in the area that is welcoming to families, provides healthy food choices, and that supports a safer environment."

"Food Desert to Food Oasis: Promoting Grocery Story Development in South Los Angeles" is a 2010 study that found South L.A. had only 60 full-service grocery stores for the area's 1.3 million residents. The same study found the rate of obesity in South L.A. is more than triple the rate in West L.A. Compounding the lack of grocery outlets is the overabundance of liquor stores. At their peak during the early 1990s, the number of liquor stores in a 54-square-mile radius encompassing South L.A. was 728. While that number has gone down considerably, South L.A. communities are still overrun by liquor stores.  South L.A. now has approximately 8.5 liquor stores per square mile compared to 1.97 stores in West LA.

A recent UC Riverside-led study that focused specifically on South L.A. found liquor stores and their activity attract other nuisance businesses like tobacco shops and marijuana dispensaries. It is common to see these three businesses clustered together throughout the area creating what researchers like Dr. Cheryl Grills, a clinical psychologist with an emphasis in community psychology and long-time member of Community Coalition, call the "Trifecta Effect."

Neighborhoods and Population Health

As stated in a recent study co-authored by Dr. Grills, "Population health is fundamentally connected to the conditions in which people live, work, learn and play. This phenomenon is apparent in disadvantaged communities that experience adverse work and neighborhood conditions and unequal access to health-promoting resources [like parks]. Residents contended that off-sale alcohol outlets compromised park accessibility and community mobility, asserting that these nuisance properties were magnets for crime and violence."

A John Hopkins study found that for every 10% increase in access to local liquor stores, there was a 4.2% increase in violent crime. There are reportedly 158 liquor stores in just nine square miles of South Los Angeles. Fourteen of which are on the right side of the Vermont Avenue corridor — starting with Monarch Liquors at 88th and Vermont. Based on the Hopkins data, it is no surprise the Los Angeles Police Department dubbed this notorious thoroughfare as Death Alley.  In 2014, the area had the highest homicide rate in the county. Between 2007 and 2014, 60 people were killed, most from gun violence, in this two-mile stretch of South Vermont Avenue.

Trifecta establishments have had an extremely adverse environmental impact on residents.  For years, CoCo members have reported being sexually harassed, accosted for money, robbed, threatened and made to feel unsafe. The sex and drug trafficking, and gang activity occurring at these sites, have ended in countless assaults and deaths. This high crime impact is mirrored by dismal physical and mental health outcomes for residents.

"We know that constant exposure to violence can take a toll on your mental health and is a risk factor for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). We have youth [at Manual Arts High School] plagued with PTSD and suffer from depression, anxiety and sleep issues. This carries into adulthood, which can have detrimental effects on quality of life," says Roberto Ramos, founder of Bridging South Central Communities.

During a 2018 interview, Pia Escudero, Director of School Mental Health for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) said that nightmares, hypervigilance, feelings of numbness and depression were common among the students. When the district screened nearly 2,500 students in 2017, 40% reported not feeling safe, and 26% were at high risk for traumatic stress. The fact is if you live in South Central, Lynwood or Compton (Service Planning Area 6), your life expectancy is 6.6 years lower than if you lived in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica or Malibu (Service Planning Area 5). Additionally, based on the County of Los Angeles Department of Health's 2015 Community Health Assessment, SPA 6 has some of the worst health statistics in Los Angeles County, encompassing high percentages of adults diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes and the highest percent of obese adults in the county.

Hope on the Neighborhood Horizon

The lack of green space development and the presence of nuisance businesses are inextricably linked to residents' physical and mental health outcomes. South L.A. is inundated with liquor stores, dispensaries and smoke shops when what it needs are grocery stores, parks and bike paths. But there is hope on the horizon. With the support of L.A. Food Policy Council and sweetgreen restaurant, Hank's Mini Market has become a trendsetter. The one-time liquor store now provides a warm, inviting space for residents to connect and explore literature and art in an area lacking libraries, parks or museums. Its profitability serves as an example for liquor store owners who are skeptical of making the switch from stocking and selling liquor to being part of the healthy alternatives business movement taking shape in the area.

"I didn't see businesses investing in the area. We see a lot of fast-food chains and 7-Elevens, but no safe spaces for the kids, no access to healthy food," says Kelli Jackson, who inherited the business from her father. "I wanted to continue my dad's legacy but incorporate art and healthy food options to inspire and uplift the community."

See more photos of Hank's evolution below. Click right and left:

Hank's Mini Mart now offers better selections for its residents and a more inviting interior | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
1/7 Hank's Mini Mart now offers better selections for its residents and a more inviting interior | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Hank's Mini Mart after the makeover | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
2/7 Hank's Mini Mart after the makeover | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Hank's Mini Mart new exterior | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
3/7 Hank's Mini Mart new exterior | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Hank's Mini Mart reopens | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
4/7 Hank's Mini Mart reopens | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Hank's Mini Mart before photo | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
5/7 Hank's Mini Mart before photo | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Hank's Mini Mart old shelves | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
6/7 Hank's Mini Mart old shelves | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council
Inside Hank's Mini Mart before the makeover | Courtesy of  Los Angeles Food Policy Council
7/7 Inside Hank's Mini Mart before the makeover | Courtesy of Los Angeles Food Policy Council

Working with Rutledge, the owner of Monarch Liquor Store is following Jackson's example to become a market that benefits its patrons. Mi Ja Yang has added fruits and vegetables to her inventory, donated over 400 face masks to residents in response to the pandemic, put up a community bulletin board to share resources, now accepts EBT to facilitate the purchase of food and is offering one of her store's exterior walls for the creation of a community mural.

Mi Ja Yang at Monarch | Courtesy of Marsha Mitchell
Mi Ja Yang at Monarch added fruits and vegetables to her inventory. | Courtesy of Marsha Mitchell

"The legacy of racist health inequities, zoning discrimination, racist land use policies and lobbying from alcohol and tobacco companies have created an environment with social health determinants that has put South L.A.'s health and immune system at a great disadvantage during COVID-19," says Carlos Leon, a Community Organizer with CoCo. "We applaud Mrs. Yang's willingness to become a business that contributes to a better quality of life for South Los Angeles residents and endeavors to keep the community safe."

Community Coalition is continuing to do its part to build a thriving community landscape too. Knowing land use and economic development are processes that expose the complexities of political, social, economic and health determinants, the social justice group submitted a project to the Great Streets Challenge and won. Community Coalition plans to use the $500,000 prize money to build out an empty lot on Vermont (near Manchester), which has been vacant since the 1992 civil unrest. The new project, aptly named the People's Plaza, will house a boarding school, a grocery store, affordable housing and retail space that they hope can be utilized by local merchants from the area. 

Top Image: Beer froth | Timothy Dykes / Unsplash

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