WASHINGTON – Maryland’s poorest ZIP code has nine times as many liquor stores per resident as the state’s richest ZIP code, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the 2000 Census.
Baltimore ZIP code 21201, where the median household income was $16,148, has 58.9 liquor stores per 100,000 people, according to the analysis. In Montgomery County, Potomac ZIP code 20854 had the highest income in the state, at $140,222, and just 6.5 liquor stores per 100,000 residents.
The trend is most profound in urban areas, said Thomas LaVeist, associate professor of health and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore’s highest income, $51,531, was in ZIP code 21209, which had only 4.2 liquor stores per 100,000 people — 14 times less than cross-town ZIP code 21201.
Poor neighborhoods across the state have more liquor stores per resident than wealthy neighborhoods, but the trend is not as clear-cut as in urban areas. Each jurisdiction has its own rules to enforce the state’s laws, and some have essentially no liquor stores at all, LaVeist said.
“I don’t know that you could look across the state and observe a phenomenon,” he said. LaVeist, who studied Baltimore, said others have found similar patterns in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
The abundance of liquor stores in poor areas is blamed on everything from historical accident to deliberate targeting of poverty-stricken areas. But residents and government officials agree that it is a problem.
“We’re way above our percentage of liquor stores per population,” said Glenn Ross of Baltimore’s McElderry Park neighborhood. “It’s definitely a problem.”
Michael Sarbanes of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association said the stores that sell cheap liquor in small units cause problems because people leave the stores and drink their purchases nearby on the streets. Ordinances prohibiting loitering within 50 feet of the stores only point out that people do loiter, Sarbanes said.
Ross said liquor store patrons often drink outside, where they drop empty bottles near the alleys and steps where they gather, and urinate and vomit on the streets.
And liquor stores do not generate much economic activity in surrounding businesses: People go to the liquor store but not to the store next door, Sarbanes said.
Ross said liquor stores can also be magnets for drug addicts and others who can cause problems, problems McElderry Park has been fighting for years.
“One liquor store can destroy the whole block if it’s a badly run store,” he said.
But government regulators say there is only so much they can do about the location of the stores.
“It’s not something we have any control over,” said Jane Schroeder of the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners, which regulates the sale, storage, and distribution of retail alcoholic beverages in the city.
The number of licenses in Baltimore actually shrank in the past 30 years. No new licenses have been issued since 1968, and some have been surrendered since then. While there were 2,200 licenses in 1968, there are 1,500 now, Schroeder said.
Licenses for stores, bars, and restaurants were issued back when there were no limitations on number, said Jane Springer of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents the interest of licensed alcohol retailers.
Schroeder said the board will not deny a renewal just because there are too many stores in an area. A significant complaint has to be filed for the board to deny renewal of an establishment’s license.
But Sarbanes said poorer neighborhoods do not always have the knowledge they need to challenge license renewals, leaving them with a higher concentration of problem stores.
Many of today’s liquor stores were neighborhood bars that converted their licenses into package liquor store licenses that only allow consumption off- premises.
“Package stores with bulletproof glass tend not to play the same role that the neighborhood bar used to,” Sarbanes said.
Others speculate that liquor licensees move their stores to poorer neighborhoods because the business is good there.
“You’re dealing with a depressed economy,” said Constance Maddox of the Madison East End Improvement Association. When most of the men are out of work, “what else do they have to alleviate the pain of not being able to be the responsible breadwinner that they should be?”
But judging cause and effect is not easy.
“I don’t think the one was the cause,” Springer said. “People didn’t go in to buy stores thinking they’d be able to sell more” in a poor neighborhood.
Whatever the cause, the solution is difficult to find.
LaVeist said the state should fix the problem, since local authorities do not have the power to do so. The state could buy back licenses, or make it impossible for people to inherit them when owners die, he said. Or it could provide incentives to convert liquor store licenses back into restaurant licenses, which would have a “positive social impact” on the community.
Maddox said the community must be part of the solution. In an area with as many churches as bars, not one of the churches was working with the proprietors to keep things calm, she said of her neighborhood.
And store owners should become part of the community, she said, quoting one who told her, “If you’re concerned about your business, you should be concerned about the area your business is in.”
Community organizations can also protest renewals. The Board of Liquor License Commissioners is looking into two protests against stores, Schroeder said, but she did not know the details of the complaints.
Maddox said the efforts pay off. When her group shut down some bars in the neighborhood, there was less loitering and less trash.
“I’m not opposed to alcohol altogether,” she said. But “there should not be a liquor store on every corner.”