The current furor bursting at City Hall about bulletproof glass transported me back to Lancaster Avenue, where, well ahead of gentrification or university advancements, my family owned and operated a corner store in the 1980s.
After school and weekends found me there, alongside my parents. I stocked shelves, made sales, cleaned the counter – including our two-foot-high glass partition.
The glass showcased our wares and provided a sanitation barrier, but had an unobstructed opening to transact business. Plenty of people came through the door, because we welcomed and served any and everyone – kids, workers, returning citizens, retirees, and sometimes people who were drunk, homeless, or addicted.
We weren’t from West Philly, but smiles and greetings with “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” helped ease away distrust. So did our good relations with fellow shop owners – including Wolff Cycle at the top of the block, Dwight’s BarBQue, Freddy’s Barbershop, and Frank and Belle’s Mobil tire and gas station across the street.
If you worked or lived in the area or caught the 10 trolley there, you probably popped in for soda, snacks, candy, pantry items, or a lottery ticket. Before long, we were trading recipes, praising report cards, sharing laughs, and mourning losses with all.
But none of that goodwill stopped a man from entering the store one day with a gun, seeking to hold up my mom, who was working alone. She managed to steal away and call the police. That spooked the crook and he ran away. But he just as easily could have killed her, because we didn’t have a bulletproof partition.
Up to that point, safety hadn’t really been a big concern for us. Per our invitation, police visited regularly and signed our log. We knew most of our customers by face, if not by name. After that robbery attempt, I doubt any of them would have begrudged us had we swapped for a more secure partition. It had scared us, as shop owners trying to do the right thing.
That’s the tickle line in this current debate.
The language Councilwoman Cindy Bass inserted calling for removing the partitions at stop-and-go shops may heed some constituent concerns regarding businesses not doing the right thing, but it also harkens back to other unresolved issues.
Many underserved African American neighborhoods have watched the area bars of my grandfather’s day give way to establishments that seem more interested in aggravating and exploiting community weakness for profit. Behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere – whether it’s selling alcohol early in the morning or treating customers as less-than, if not criminals – feels too common.
This long has been part of a standing gripe among these residents, particularly when “others” stream in and set up shop, but bypass living, mingling, or shopping – let alone hiring – in the neighborhoods where they operate.
For many, that bulletproof glass represents the final insult, physically standing as a shield, as if those spending their money there are but a horde of savages rather than law-abiding citizens.
Clearly, efforts to provide safer environments by making operators opt for being a beer distributor, convenience store, or restaurant would help lessen criminal magnetism. And creating viable eateries, with seating, bathrooms, and all, would be a community value-add.
But it’s easy enough to let poor business practices by some owners mitigate actual fears of others doing the right thing. Many well-intentioned business owners may be reticent after having faced snubs or even threats from locals, feeling pressures to feed their families or hearing stories of loved ones snatched by a bullet while working. If safety is a concern, as a business owner, bulletproof glass should be an available option.
All business license holders should help to foster community, regardless of a neighborhood’s economic level. There remain many legitimate perspectives on this issue, all deserving honest airing and not just recriminations. We should press to make that happen as we move forward as a city.
Because at the end of the day, this is about more than just bulletproof glass.
Nia Ngina Meeks, a fifth-generation Philadelphian, is a communications strategist and freelance writer. Follow her at @nmpurpose.