Bulletproof glass barriers are as much a Philadelphia institution as cheese steaks and soft pretzels. Inspect the small businesses along North Broad Street, up near Temple University, and you’ll come away with the impression that the Plexiglas barriers there probably rival the amount of see-through glass at nearby Camden Aquarium. Or go into any North Philadelphia KFC, Wendy’s, or McDonald’s, and you’ll find that they all have glass-barrier windows, some stylized to resemble old Horn and Hardart automat windows. As for the area’s large apartment complexes, most have full-enclosure Plexiglas “igloos,” behind which security guards can safely buzz in visitors. The city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, such as Strawberry Mansion, Hunting Park, Tioga-Nicetown, Germantown, and Fairhill have been bulletproof-glass havens for decades.
That’s why it was a surprise to me and many Philadelphians when Councilwoman Cindy Bass announced that she wanted the city to outlaw glass barriers in large “beer delis” that sell alcohol. Bass claims that there is a “sort of indignity” in food being served through Plexiglas slats. Yale professor Elijah Anderson, who has written extensively about urban Philadelphia, echoed this sense of shame. “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. “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.”
Of course, one can easily say the same thing about having to conduct bank business through bulletproof glass, which is the norm even in affluent neighborhoods, yet no one complains that talking to a teller through Perspex gnaws at the self-esteem of bank depositors. But Bass has made clear that the bulletproof barrier is not really the point: she is targeting these small businesses—mostly run by Asian immigrants—because she sees them as parasites feeding on the black community. “Nuisance establishments like stop-and-gos harm neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia in several ways,” Bass said. “First, they contribute to increased crime. On any given day, you can find people in front of these businesses selling ‘loosies,’ or loose cigarettes, and engaging in other nuisance behaviors like loitering, public drunkenness, possible drug sales, and even public urination.”
Criminal behavior on the streets outside these delis could best be addressed through stricter law enforcement. But in a city where homicides in 2017 were up 14 percent over the previous year, it is not surprising that anti-social street crime is also rampant. Blaming Chinese and Korean shopkeepers—who account for 70 percent of the city’s beer deli owners—for social problems in dysfunctional neighborhoods is an old and cheap tactic that serves the political ends of demagogues. Philadelphia’s crime problems are not the fault of Mouy Chheng, whose teenage son was killed by two men who robbed her family’s barrier-free store in South Philadelphia in 2003. Nor can Councilwoman Bass blame Peter Ly, who was shot six times during a robbery in his deli ten years ago. Ly’s deli also lacked a bulletproof barrier.
It may cause a patron some consternation to order food or beer through a partition. But when storeowners face the threat of being killed, this slight to a customer’s self-esteem is a small—and fair—price to pay.
Photo by Peeter Viisimaa/iStock