Shape Up Or Ship Out

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"Yes," says Charles, whose eyes are glazed and empty-looking.

"How long have you been smoking crack?" she pushes.

"Since the '90s," he says, turning to tell the other cop that he isn't carrying any crack pipes or weapons.

Charles is telling the truth about this. The officer who searched him instructs Charles to have a seat on the curb while the other cops question his friend.

The Unsinkables have finally caught up and formed a line behind Charles. After his buddy turns up clean and satisfies the officers' questions, the cops ask Charles where the third guy went, but he says he doesn't know.

The officers finally release Charles, who hurries down the sidewalk, away from the curious stares of passersby.

Hell hath no fury like pissed-off neighbors. When the Unsinkables are happy, they're a jolly lot, joking and laughing. But when they're mad -- watch out. They're organized and resourceful, persistent and thorough. They know how to make allies and present a unified front. So when it comes time to do battle, enemies be damned.

The liquor store at 1300 Pearl Street has been the source of the Unsinkables' wrath since the early 1990s, when it was known as Howerd Liquors. The owner had been cited more than once for selling to minors and intoxicated customers. The neighbors didn't appreciate the broken beer bottles that littered the surrounding sidewalks and felt that the shabby building was an eyesore. When the store's liquor license was nearing expiration in 1996, residents told the owner that they wouldn't oppose the renewal if he agreed to hire a security guard to patrol the premises, to refuse to sell to minors and drunks, to repaint the interior and exterior of the store and to pick up trash outside four days a week.

The owner consented and his license was renewed. For a while, things improved. But two months later, the new security guard was caught selling alcohol to a minor. The owner was fined and had to close the store for several days.

Three months after that, the store was cited again for the same thing. This time, the owner entered into an agreement with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses to close his store for fifteen days and have his liquor license suspended for 36 days if he sold his business by January 8, 1997. If the business was not sold by then, the department decided, the owner would have to close his store for an additional nine days.

The neighbors were outraged at what they saw as a slap on the wrist -- they wanted Howerd's license revoked entirely -- so they appealed to Ed Thomas, their councilman, as well as to councilwoman-at-large Susan Barnes-Gelt, who wrote a letter to the excise and licenses director on their behalf.

On April 1, 1997, the liquor store was sold to Kyung Lee, who renamed it Bonanza Liquors. (She's never installed a sign outside to indicate the store's new moniker, however.) Despite the change in ownership, problems persisted. On March 7, 2000, Bonanza was cited for selling to minors; after a police sting on October 21, 2000, it received another citation for the same infraction. The store has since been cited twice more for selling to underage customers -- on December 7, 2001, and on January 26, 2002.

Not only have the neighbors had enough of Bonanza's legal problems, they also dislike the unsavory crowd that the store draws. "They sell the forties, the airline shooters and the fortified wines, like Mad Dog," Anderson says. "It attracts the transients and the drug dealers, who wander around the neighborhood drunk."

Snake Pit's Oberbroeckling, however, characterizes the dispute with Bonanza as another example of elitist residents going after a business because they don't want certain types of people in their neighborhood. "I'm not going to defend Bonanza Liquors; it's been a mess over there for years," he says. "But these people just don't like their neighbors -- they're against the neighborhood they claim to represent. I mean, do you think any of Bonanza's customers drive to this little liquor store in Capitol Hill from somewhere else in Denver? No, it's the people who live here who buy there."

Peter Yoon, a friend and spokesman for Lee, who doesn't speak English, says the Unsinkables are using Bonanza Liquors as a scapegoat for societal problems that a group of neighbors just can't fix. "We feel it's unfair. We've agreed to almost their whole list of changes, and yet they're still not happy. We're at their beck and call. We have to play by their rules," Yoon says. "Unless you move all of those people out of the area, there's no way to solve these problems."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon