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Barrier windows in Philly beer delis: Symbols of safety or distrust?

The bill is set for a City Council committee hearing and vote Monday, when hundreds of protesters are expected to rally against the bill's prohibition on erecting or maintaining protective windows in affected businesses.

Bill Chow, the former owner of Kenny’s Seafood & Steak in Germantown, spoke on Monday, Nov. 27, at the beer deli about how a customer had tried to throw bleach on him.
Bill Chow, the former owner of Kenny’s Seafood & Steak in Germantown, spoke on Monday, Nov. 27, at the beer deli about how a customer had tried to throw bleach on him.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

For Jeff Liu, the thick, bullet-resistant window that separates him from patrons at his Germantown beer deli, Kenny's Seafood & Steak, is a matter of safety. For City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, the barrier window is an insult.

The partition serves to protect workers from crime, but it also cuts them off from customers — a literal and metaphorical divider between their worlds.

Several years ago, after Liu argued with a man selling drugs in the Wayne Avenue deli's lobby, the man returned with a rifle and shot Liu's car, shattering its windows, Liu said.

Bass says the windows only foster a sense that the establishment – more specifically, its clientele – is dangerous. And that too many of those stores masquerade as eateries when their biggest sales draw is alcohol, feeding vices in the city's struggling neighborhoods.

"It's an indignity" to buy a meal through such a window, she said.

The debate is likely to gain steam Monday, when hundreds of merchants and advocates are expected to protest before a Council committee hearing on the matter. Bubbling beneath are undercurrents about class, race, and how far the city can go in telling business owners how to operate.

Bass has proposed legislation that would force beer deli owners to remove thick, bullet-resistant, counter windows. Her bill has five co-sponsors.

It needs a majority, or four, votes in the seven-member public-health committee to head to a full Council vote Dec. 14. Mayor Kenney, through his spokeswoman, said Thursday that he doesn't yet have a position on the bill.

Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson, who has written extensively on Philadelphia's urban environment said the barrier window sets up "a symbol of distrust" in neighborhoods where many African Americans live.

"Of course some people are bad, but most people who come to that window are good, and they're not trusted either. That angers, alienates them," said Anderson, who previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania. "They know they're civil, honest people. They're hit with this symbol of distrust and it works on your psyche in subtle ways. You know that you're devalued as a customer."

But Adam Xu, 54, chairman of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, said the protective window should be a business owner's choice. His association represents 217 beer delis in the city, about 70 percent of which are owned by people who are ethnic Chinese and another 20 percent of Korean descent.

"Most of our businesses," he said, "are in not-as-safe neighborhoods."

State law requires businesses selling malt liquor or beer to have tables and chairs sufficient for 30 people and to regularly prepare and sell food. The proposed city prohibition on the window would apply to beer delis, but not to takeouts that don't sell alcohol.

Bass and Liu have clashed before. Over the summer, she and others visited his store unannounced, setting up folding tables and chairs, in a bid to showcase businesses that she said flouted the law by selling alcohol without providing seats or food.

During a visit Monday, Liu pointed out the benches, tables, and chairs now in the lobby and said customers could order cheesesteaks, burgers and fries.

"You can ask us to cook food, no problem, to put in bathrooms, no problem, to put out seats, no problem," said Liu, 53, who came to the U.S. from China in 1985. "The problem is the protective glass. Because without the glass, maybe one day I would get killed."

The deli's previous owner, Bill Chow, said a customer who claimed Chow shortchanged him threw bleach at him through an opening in the window even after he showed the man the surveillance video disproving his claim.

"Without [the window], it's going to be right in my face or right in my eyes," said Chow. "Luckily, I wasn't hurt."

Nearby, at the Wayne Junction Deli on Windrim Avenue in Logan run by Chow's wife, Michelle Tran, 12 customers were milling about, some drinking beer or smoking cigarettes.

"I can ask them to leave, but they tend to hang around," Tran said. She recalled a time in 2011 when an unarmed man climbed over the 6-foot barrier window and stole $200 to $300.

"I would love it if it were Center City, I could sell $8 burgers and $10 beers," as opposed to $1.25 beers, said Tran. "But it's a solid working-class neighborhood."

Sae Kim, who owns Broad Deli on Broad Street near Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia, said his business has been threatened numerous times but never robbed at gunpoint, crediting the bullet-resistant window as a deterrence.

Before his family took over the business 20 years ago, the prior owner's son was fatally shot when there was no partition, Kim said.

About 15 years ago, Kim said, a man with a knife tried to rape his mother-in-law but she was able to escape to safety behind the partition and lock the door.

"Basically, they're telling us either to do away with the glass, knowing you could be endangering your life and employees, or shut down the store," said Kim, 46, who was born in South Korea and came to Philadelphia when he was 10. "Who's going to be responsible when we see body bags going out of these establishments?"

Bass said she certainly isn't aiming to put lives at risk.

"I would never want to be part of a bill that would put somebody in jeopardy," said Bass, whose district includes Germantown, Nicetown, Tioga, Logan, and parts of North Philly. She said the proprietors could hire security guards and install surveillance cameras.

"These businesses in particular have skirted and flouted the law for years," said Bass.

She said the bill stemmed from constituents' complaints about stop-and-go stores being nuisances that sell alcohol nearly round the clock.

"My interest is to see restaurants where a family can go down and have a meal," she said, adding that she has been "flabbergasted" by the image of workers serving food through a window as if customers were "in prison."

Councilman At-Large David Oh said he is not against Bass' effort to regulate nuisances surrounding beer delis, but has concerns about ordering owners to remove the windows.

"I would just prefer the bulletproof glass, it's transparent, as opposed to the person with the gun on the holster on the hip," said Oh.

Meanwhile, Councilman At-Large Allan Domb said Thursday he has to learn more about the issue. Safety is his top priority, but there should be some way to make the windows look "cosmetically better," he said. "A compromise is a win for everybody."

Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 11, 2017, to remove the word "plexiglass" to avoid any reference to the trademarked Plexiglas® product.