Urban Gentrification Meets Bulletproof Windows

As some Washington, D.C., neighborhoods become more affluent, the bulletproof glass in local convenience stores is causing conflict between merchants and area customers.

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In many American cities, store clerks serve their customers from behind bulletproof glass. Many of the barriers went up after urban riots in the 1960s. Store owners have been reluctant to take them down, even when the neighborhoods around them are rapidly becoming safer. Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports there's still a lot of Plexiglas to be found in the nation's capital.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

It's a rainy Monday afternoon and things are pretty quiet at the Modern Liquors store on the corner just across the street from Washington, DC's shiny new Convention Center. The neighborhood is slowly being gentrified. New condos are springing up. Down the street from Modern Liquors, storefronts are boarded up as buildings wait to be gutted or torn down. Step inside Modern Liquors, and the first thing you see is a Plexiglas window. At this hour, a door leading into the store is open, and customers can walk around the Plexiglas and shop.

Unidentified Man #1: Orange soda?

Unidentified Man #2: Orange soda, yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: ...(Unintelligible).

MARSHALL-GENZER: Anna Fleming and her late husband opened their business in 1968, the same year Washington was convulsed with riots. Fleming says they were robbed constantly, 15 times in 1987 alone. They finally installed the Plexiglas in 1995. Fleming has mixed feelings about it.

Ms. ANNA FLEMING (Owner, Modern Liquors): I feel like I'm in jail sometime, but I feel secure, because before, too many time, I got gun in my head, they knocked me down the floor, they locked me in freezer too many time.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Fleming points to a hole in the wall kitty-corner to the register. It's a bullet hole. Her husband was standing behind that wall in 1995 trying to call 911 while she was being robbed with a gun to her head. The gunman shot her husband through the wall. He survived and finally agreed with her long-standing request for the Plexiglas shield that now surrounds her. Most of Fleming's customers understood, she says, but her relationship with them changed. Her husband used to be known as the mayor of the neighborhood. He tried to steer young people away from crime and gave some of them a hundred dollars when they showed him a good report card. After the glass went up, Fleming says some customers who weren't regulars got angry.

Ms. FLEMING: A woman will come in and say, `I don't see why I have to talk to you in front of--between this glass.' And I scream and I say, `If someone put gun in your head, 15 time within three years, and your husband got shot, you would do the same thing.'

MARSHALL-GENZER: Today Fleming's customers say they understand why she wants the Plexiglas barrier to stay put. Mary Maynella(ph), who stopped in the store to buy some wine, understands completely.

Ms. MARY MAYNELLA (Customer): I don't feel insulted at all. I'm from New York. No. No, these people put their lives on the line doing their job, working every day, earning honest living, and if that protects them, I'm all for it. I don't feel offended at all.

(Soundbite of music in the background)

MARSHALL-GENZER: A couple of streets over, the owner of Best In Liquors finally got the nerve up to take down his Plexiglas. His neighborhood is much more gentrified than the streets around Modern Liquors. The shop was transformed. Light jazz plays in the background. The store's clay-colored walls are lined with newly built shelves filled with brightly colored bottles. Customer Kathie Lee Galvin(ph) doesn't consciously avoid shops with Plexiglas, but she doesn't like it.

Ms. KATHIE LEE GALVIN (Customer): You know, I'm from the West Coast where we don't glass in anything, and it's a little off-putting, quite honestly. It just makes everything here seem a bit more formal, a bit more focused in, much more impersonal.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Back over at Modern Liquors, Anna Fleming says her fear keeps her behind the Plexiglas. Her son-in-law, Jeff Harrison, who mans the store with her, would like to see it come down eventually.

Mr. JEFF HARRISON (Store Manager): Ten years from now, I can see that happening. The police presence now is significantly higher than it was a few years ago, and 10 years from now, I mean, it would be like Georgetown, so, yeah, I can see that happening. I would like to be able to say yes, I'm Plexiglas-free, but you know, we'll see. We'll see.

MARSHALL-GENZER: So for now, at least, much of the Plexiglas that sprang up in stores across Washington after the riots 40 years ago will stay up as store owners struggle to adjust to a new reality they're not sure is permanent.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer.

(Soundbite of cash register)

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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