Liquor Store Fights to Stay Open Despite Neighbors’ Opposition By Pauline Bartolone Special to the Planet
Sucha Singh Banger had a hard summer, and life isn’t getting any easier for him.
Back in June, one of the employees at his liquor store at 3027 Adeline St., Black & White Liquor, bought alcohol from an undercover cop who had informed the store clerk that the liquor was stolen. The violation resulted in a 20-day suspension of Banger’s liquor license.
Only a month later, an arson-related fire ripped through the back wall of the retail space and upstairs apartments. When firefighters arrived at the number of semi-automatic weapons, M-80 firecrackers, and dozens of marijuana plants in the second-floor apartment, rented out by one of Banger’s tenants.
Now, residents of the surrounding Ashby district of South Berkeley have been stepping up the complaints against the liquor store, saying the place attracts drunken malfeasance and drug dealing. Consequently, the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) is beginning nuisance proceedings, which could result in the permanent suspension of Banger’s liquor license.
“While the owner [Sucha Banger] has always been friendly enough, he seems unable and/or unwilling to control the behavior of his patrons,” wrote neighbor Dawn Rubin in a written complaint filed recently with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).
Rubin and the 24 other nearby residents who have filed complaints to the department report loitering by intoxicated persons near the property, loud noise late at night, and urination, defecation and littering by the store’s patrons.
Some residents say they even avoid walking to the Ashby BART station a block away from Black & White out of fear for their safety.
But Banger said he tries to control the behavior around the store by telling his patrons they can’t loiter.
“I’m calling the police because they are not leaving,” said Banger, arguing that there are indigents all over Berkeley, not just in front of his store. “What do they want me to do?”
According to the ZAB report, 44 police calls were made for service at Black & White Liquor between Jan. 1 and July 31 of this year. Most were for public disturbances. A few were for medical aid and reports of a gun.
Banger said the reason why there were so many calls to police during the seven-month period is because he made them. But Gregory Daniel, the code enforcement supervisor with the Zoning Adjustments Board, says most of the calls were made very late at night, when Banger had already returned to his Antioch home.
“It doesn’t matter who made the calls,” Daniel adds. “What matters is how many resources are being used ... We should not allow the community to be at risk.”
But Banger, who’s been working at Black & White since 1986, and has owned the store since 1989, says crime has gone down around the store in the last two decades.
“I’ve cleaned up this neighborhood,” he said. “Back in 1986, there would be 10 or 15 guys hanging out on the corner.”
Residents stepped up the complaints against Banger’s business this fall because they said problems disappeared when Black & White was closed for renovation after the summer’s fire.
For the 85 days while the store was boarded up and blackened on the corner of Emerson and Adeline streets, neighbors said they hoped another type of business would replace it. But that hope turned into disappointment when residents learned that Banger was reapplying for a liquor license after the ABC enforced a mandatory suspension during the store’s renovation.
“I thought Black & White was leaving and we were going to get a different kind of store,” says Mina Caulfield, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1981. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s always been a problem.”
Caulfield says a café, a bookstore or another antique store would serve the neighborhood better than another liquor store. She says she and her husband Tom hardly patronize the minimarket.
Meanwhile, Banger says the suspension of his liquor license until Dec. 5 resulted in a decrease of 98 percent of overall sales at Black & White.
“Who’s going to come to buy candy and cigarettes?” he asked, adding that he will fight to keep his liquor license. Banger shows some signs of trying to clean up the store’s image. “Welcome Back—Grand Reopening” posters are plastered all over the front windows, along with the ABC’s notices of suspension and Banger’s own “No Trespassing” sign. The corner store sports a new black and white paint job, and is now closing at or before 8 p.m.
Some community members have come out in support of Banger, including the local mail carrier Martin Vargas. He has passed out handwritten petitions and flyers calling on the city and the neighborhood to support minority-owned businesses.
But for many residents, the summer’s incidents have, at best, permanently raised the bar of scrutiny about Banger’s businesses.
“The community hasn’t gotten any answers,” said Les Shipnuk about the activities at 3027 Adeline St. “In the absence of answers, the mind can run riot.”
A public hearing to determine whether the property at 3027 Adeline St. should be declared a public nuisance will be part of this week’s ZAB meeting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 8 at Old City Hall. Banger and supporters are holding their own meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 6:45 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church at 2024 Ashby Ave.