Columnists Opinion

Reducing liquor stores in South L.A. anyway possible

In the early 1990s, South Los Angeles had more alcohol retail spaces than the total number in 13 states.

Think about how insane that is for a second. At its peak, the number was around 700.

While that number has gone down considerably since that time, our communities are still overrun by liquor stores which now number approximately 200. It’s one of those “once you see it, you can’t unsee it” phenomena.

Next time you drive through South L.A., count the number of liquor stores you pass by. It might be one of the more depressing road trip games you play, but once you’ve done your tally, you’ll fully realize that this isn’t a normal problem. In fact, you won’t find this many liquor stores in any other section of L.A. or, as mentioned earlier, in some entire states.  

The reason you don’t find an overconcentration of liquor stores in other areas lies in the root causes of our work. We believe substance abuse and addiction have their roots in unresolved trauma. Often, this trauma comes from growing up in communities sorely lacking in economic and educational opportunities and that do not receive the resource investment it’s owed as a tax-paying community.

These areas are overrun with police, are environments rife with rampant racial profiling and the ravages of the homelessness crisis, and grappling with violent crime. All these trends tie back to historical racist policies like redlining and disinvestment in predominantly black and brown communities. And liquor stores are particularly problematic because they serve as magnets for nuisance activity. 

Motivated by profit, many — certainly not all — liquor store owners sell alcohol by the cup, even if customers are already intoxicated. Customers are then allowed to hang out outside the store because owners desire to continuously sell to these patrons. This leads to a dangerous atmosphere for nearby residents who are often sexually harassed, accosted for money, robbed, threatened and made to feel unsafe. 

What’s worse is that these nuisance businesses attract other nuisance businesses. A UC Riverside-led study that focused on South L.A. found that “tobacco shops and liquor stores are associated with high levels of violent and property crime around their locations.” Liquor stores, and the activity outside of them, not only attract tobacco shops but marijuana dispensaries as well.

It’s common to see these three businesses clustered together in areas throughout South L.A., creating what researchers call the “Trifecta Effect.” Don’t just take our word for it. When you’re playing “eye spy” on that next drive of yours, keep a lookout for these businesses as well. 

At Community Coalition, a social justice organization led by South L.A. residents and founded by current U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, we’ve been aware of the problems that liquor stores pose for three decades. More than 200 liquor stores were destroyed during the 1992 civil unrest, serving as proof of the communal resentment toward these nuisance businesses.

To prevent stores from re-opening, our community organizers launched the “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores” campaign which mobilized tens of thousands of residents that participated in hundreds of hearings, rallies, and actions. 

The multi-year campaign resulted in the permanent closure of over 150 liquor stores and the conversion of 40 others into community-friendly businesses such as laundromats, markets without alcohol, affordable housing, and nonprofit organizations. And, the fight to limit the proliferation of liquor stores continues to this day.

Most recently, Community Coalition successfully led the “Rebuilding a Healthier & Safer South Central Los Angeles,” campaign to revoke Monarch Liquor’s license. 

Monarch has been a menace business in the community for more than 20 years. On Jan. 15, the L.A. County Regional Planning Commission ruled to officially revoke the license due to Monarch’s repeated pattern of noncompliance as it relates to facilitating nuisance activity like loitering, disturbing the peace, and not hiring security personnel to tamp down these problems.

They didn’t operate with any respect toward South L.A. and didn’t start working with the community to fix the problem until they knew a hearing was coming. The campaign is yet another example of the power of residents coming together, organizing and acting in unison. Our people power is the greatest strength we have when it comes to making progress. 

But revoking licenses is only a first step to addressing the problem. It is also about building healthy community landscapes that address the food deserts that have all but engulfed urban areas. What South L.A. clearly needs is more grocery stores and healthy food markets, not more of the trifecta effect. And, while a liquor store may call itself a market, the proof is in the produce. If fresh fruits and vegetables are absent and only processed foods abound, that’s not a market. 

It’s a shame so many of South L.A.’s residents have to rely on liquor stores for food because they lack access to transportation to reach real grocery stores that are oftentimes miles away. For too long, economic development in South Los Angeles has been driven by people who do not look like us, who do not live in our community and who profit from our pain. South L.A.’s residents deserve a safe and healthy community. 

I hope you will join us in future campaigns to combat the trifecta effect caused by these problem businesses. What our recent mobilization at the Planning Commission proves is that it takes us stepping up together to create change. How will you step up?

Carlos Leon is a lead community organizer for Community Coalition, a social justice organization in South Los Angeles dedicated to transforming the economic and social conditions that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty.