Kheder "Barney" Attisha gently refuses to sell a customer a pint of vodka. "You can't buy no alcohol. You drink it and sleep in the street," he explains.
"I'm so cold. I'm so tired," the woman whines. She is dressed in clean, warm clothes, but she is shaking. She reeks of alcohol. "I'm not drunk. I'm on a lot of medication." After a bit more pleading that leads nowhere, she grabs a stick of beef jerky from the display, slaps some coins on the counter, and skips out the door.
Attisha, burly enough to pass for a bouncer, shakes his head. He is annoyed that he has been shortchanged but relieved the arguing has ended. Even during his final days as a merchant in downtown San Diego's East Village, Attisha remains careful not to create a nuisance by selling liquor to someone already inebriated, particularly someone who might pass out on the sidewalk. "Nuisance. I don't like that word. That is not me."
Nonetheless, the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) last year declared Attisha's business a "nuisance," contributing to public drunkenness and urban blight. On Tuesday the agency, backed by last year's city council vote, seized Barney's Market through condemnation. The store is now closed after decades of catering to the working poor, the homeless, the occasional transvestite, and nearby residents living on Social Security and disability checks. On the second floor, Attisha had operated the seedy 29-room Monte Carlo Hotel for people teetering on the brink of homelessness. Only two years ago, Juan Vargas awarded Attisha a certificate for community service. The city councilman apparently had heard that Attisha fed the poor on Thanksgiving and, more importantly, treated the less fortunate with respect on a daily basis.
"They can't close Barney's!" Laurie Johnson wailed as she frantically searched for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon during one of the store's final days of operation. "It's part of the neighborhood."
Although no business, home, or other establishment in the East Village redevelopment district is immune to condemnation, Barney's address at 1301 Market Street made it vulnerable. And its sales of cheap liquor to the poor made the enterprise unsavory. The store and upstairs hotel appear to be among the first casualties of the Padres' proposed ballpark site, which lies only six blocks away. Some proposed parking for the stadium is within three blocks. However, on voting for condemnation last year, San Diego mayor Susan Golding said the ballpark was not a factor.
Earlier this month, the city council condemned 11 properties within or adjacent to the ballpark's boundaries, a move that will force dozens of small business owners and residents to vacate in September. Similar action involving another 20 parcels is expected this summer.
Attisha's lawyer, Rhonda Thompson, says shutting down Barney's Market is a way to sanitize East Village -- that is, rid the neighborhood of drifters, panhandlers, and the destitute -- in preparation for the ballpark. "To me, Barney's is illustrative of how the constitutional mandate of condemnation has eroded. Years ago only in exceptional cases would the government be allowed to take property for public use, for roads and railways. Now they're saying, 'We don't like certain people hanging around in an area.' I think that carries the mandate too far."
Donna Alm, the CCDC's marketing vice president, said the 1992 redevelopment plan to create residential housing in the East Village, not the proposed ballpark, led to the closing of Barney's Market.
Advocates for the homeless say the proposed ballpark hastened the demise of Barney's and bolsters the city's agenda of pushing the homeless out of not only East Village, but also downtown.
Countering that view, Alm said the CCDC has spent $11 million since 1992 to help charities build facilities serving poor people. In addition, the agency spends more than $3 million a year to provide housing to downtown residents on low and moderate incomes. Much of that assistance subsidizes existing residential buildings to keep rental rates affordable. "I don't think that could be qualified as chasing the homeless out of downtown," Alm said. While the CCDC gives with one hand, it takes with the other. On occasion, the agency has threatened to withhold expansion funds to nonprofit organizations to force them to stop serving meals to the poor. The agency has taken such action in response to neighbors' complaints about the loitering, litter, and noise resulting from food lines.
Removing the infrastructure on which the poor depend is a way to make them more invisible, said Ron Sills, a research technician for Street Light, a monthly publication that focuses on poverty and homelessness.
Allan Co. at 415 14th Street, a source of pocket money for downtown residents with little or no income, closed in February. The CCDC treated the 22-year-old recycling center like Barney's Market. The agency seized the business through condemnation after labeling it a "nuisance."
Diane Dixon is among several homeless advocates who claim city officials successfully pressured San Diego Rescue Mission to stop serving evening meals to indigents in 1996. The CCDC recently succeeded in getting First Lutheran Church to close its soup kitchen and is now trying to make St. Vincent de Paul follow suit. "The actions of the city council, as well as the CCDC, has been a policy of very low tolerance of dealing with the homeless," said Dixon, who operates Christ Healing & Prayer, a volunteer lay ministry serving poor people downtown. "I can't tell you how many times when it comes to discussing winter shelters for the homeless, the city councilmembers plead they have no money, yet they have money for the ballpark." Charles Hansen, the Salvation Army's program-development administrator, recalls that the redevelopment of downtown's Gaslamp Quarter forced his organization and San Diego Rescue Mission, both committed to helping poor people, to exit that neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s. The same thing could happen again in East Village. "There's nothing official yet on the nonprofits being condemned," Hansen said. "Naturally anyone in the district could be targeted."