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Could closing Wilmington corner stores earlier reduce the city's spike in violent crime?

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

Facing rising violence in Wilmington, one city councilwoman is taking aim at neighborhood convenience stores that she said are breeding grounds for crime at night.

Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver of the 3rd District is pushing a proposal that would require those stores to close at 10 p.m. rather than midnight in a wide swath of lower-income neighborhoods across the city. 

"At a certain hour, it's nothing but trouble out there," Oliver said. 

She said residents have long complained about crowds gathering or loitering outside corner stores. She thinks the congregating creates a "safe haven" for drug dealing, fighting or other criminal activity and added that reducing it could also slow the spread of COVID-19.

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It's not clear whether police believe certain corner stores are linked to a recent spike in violent crime. Wilmington police spokesman David Karas on Wednesday referred questions to a representative of the mayor's office, who did not respond.

Taffy Food Market on the corner of Spruce and 4th Streets in Wilmington.

If passed, the restricted hours would apply to all convenience and fast-food stores – including those attached to gas stations – in parts of the city that have been designated as distressed under past government urban renewal plans.

Neighborhoods under this designation include Hilltop, West Center City, the East Side, Southbridge, Brandywine Village and Price Run. The proposal was heard by the City Council's community development and urban planning committee Thursday but was held after council members said they had not seen a map showing the areas affected.

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Store managers objected to the proposal, saying it would hurt small businesses and customers alike while doing little to curb crime. Many local convenience stores are family- and minority-owned, and they said cutting the hours would put them at risk of losing business to chain stores.

This archival City of Wilmington map shows areas where a bill sponsored by City Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver would require convenience and fast food stores to close at 10 p.m., two hours earlier than the current midnight requirement. The bill would affect all shaded areas.

"I think people need to focus on the houses that have people selling drugs out of it," said Abdull Alsamet, owner of the Family Deli & Grocery at Seventh and Washington streets in West Center City. "That's what brings more traffic to the area."

His store closes at 11 p.m., but he said in the summertime, people still gather on the corner at midnight. 

Alsamet is no stranger to the common complaint that corner stores in urban neighborhoods are hotbeds of crime. He sometimes helps manage his uncle's East Side store, Bill's Deli Market, which the city shut down for a week last April after six people were injured in a shooting on that block.

Customers check out at Bill's Deli Market on the corner of East 10th and Pine Streets in Wilmington.

Oliver was one of several East Siders at the time who blamed the store for attracting lingering, rowdy crowds.

"That corner affects all the residents on the East Side," she said recently. "Police officers are doing the best they can do. Homeowners want to enjoy their steps. Some of these store need to close early. It's as simple as that."

BACKGROUND:City cites public safety as reason it closed corner store; neighbors tell a different story

But the unusual move last year outraged others who lived within a minute's walk of the store at 10th and Pine streets, where a patrol car frequently sits watch. Neighbors rallied around the store, where they said workers watched their children and let them buy food on credit when money was short. 

"It's a community store," said worker Jamil Butler on Wednesday at Bill's Deli Market. "People in the inner city can't afford cars to get to these grocery stores."

Canned goods line the shelves at Bill's Deli Market in Wilmington's East Side neighborhood.

Customers, familiar with each other and the employees, gathered around him, reacting to the proposal.

The store currently closes at 11 p.m. Some customers who work late hours do shop for food after 10 p.m., Butler said. One customer said neighbors "need this store."

"We can't control that," Butler said of loitering outside. "That's a police problem. People get off work and this is their release."

At Taffi Food Market also on the East Side, manager Husein Mossen said the busiest hours were between 9 pm and midnight. It's one of the city's few food stores that's open past 11 p.m.

Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver speaks to The News Journal on Wilmington's East Side in April 2019 after six people were shot on North Pine Street. "I think the corner store has something to do with it, they let people hang out there all night," said Oliver.

In northeast Wilmington, Jaehn Dennis of the Vandever Avenue Civic Association said he wants to see any attempt to reduce the loitering that he said drives more violent crimes.

"We have to start somewhere," he said. "The worst corners are the ones that have businesses. All of the chaos is right around those geographical areas. They don't extend too far past those areas, they congregate around there."

Alsamet said most store owners live in the same neighborhoods and are willing to work with police and the city to reduce crime. His own corner at Seventh and Washington, once a hot spot for crime, he said, has been "clear for six months to a year."

The city in 2018 bought two liquor stores it deemed a nuisance in that neighborhood, and Alsamet said he also bought out a neighboring building where drug dealing was suspected.

"It needed a lot of work to be done," he said. "I've seen a big difference."

Oliver this year also introduced legislation to halt the opening of any new liquor stores in her district. That bill has been tabled, she said, because liquor licenses are issued by the state. 

Contact Wilmington reporter Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476.