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Liquor store hangout splits neighborhood

The corner of 23rd and Lake is a place where people get stuck. Mattye Speights stays locked behind her fence, hiding in her garden from a hostile world. Rodney Thomas is trapped behind a counter, keeping a close eye on the cash register. His customers stand on the street. They have nowhere else to go.

For the residents of this urban neighborhood in north Tampa, lifestyles clash. Everybody may want the same thing _ just a little peace at the end of a day _ but nobody can agree how to reach the goal.

The problem is the liquor store.

A squat cinder-block building takes up the corner lot at Lake Avenue and 23rd Street, across the street from the College Hill public housing complex.

Starting at dusk and into the night, customers gather at the store to talk, laugh and drink. Without much money and no neighborhood center to go to, residents have their parties outside under the street light _ just feet from Mrs. Speights' house.

And every night the frustrating cycle begins.

Thomas tries to make the crowd leave, but they hassle him. Mrs. Speights gets angry at the crowd and calls the police.

For almost eight years, Mrs. Speights, 83, and her elderly neighbors on 23rd Street have worried and complained about the young people who gather at the Lake Avenue Liquor Store. They have lodged complaints about drunken patrons, public urination, petty thefts, fights and noise.

As simple as a solution sounds _ closing the store down _ the problem is complex and tangled like the city bureaucracy that has fielded complaints all these years.

"All night long, you can't sleep," Mrs. Speights said when describing drunken parties. "We need some help. All we need is help."

Store owner Mike Kwasin and store clerk Rodney Thomas feel equally powerless. Kwasin said he has been trying to stop the loitering since he bought the store in August.

"I've been trying to clean it up and do it right," Kwasin said, noting that he added lights outside and peepholes so he can keep track of crowds. "I've even stopped a couple of police cars and asked them to help me."

Keeping the crowds away is almost impossible, even though several large fluorescent "No Loitering" signs are posted on each side of the building.

"I can't control what happens outside," Thomas said. "And I refuse to argue with people. It's come to that. No way. You don't know how they will react. I don't want no enemies."

The way Thomas sees it, the older residents are trapped in a neighborhood that has deteriorated around them. His customers only want some fun in a life that often is dulled by poverty.

"They're just trying to talk to their friends," he said. "But I wouldn't want my yard used as a restroom, either.

"Sometime it smells like a zoo."

Assistant City Attorney Ty Brown acknowledged that the city has received numerous complaints about the store over the years. But he said that unless he can prove laws are being broken, little can be done.

For example, the Drug-Related Nuisance Abatement Board can close the liquor store if the police department can prove drugs are sold at the store.

So far, no such proof has been offered, and the board has not been able to do anything despite several complaints from Mrs. Speights and her neighbors.

"There may be rowdiness and loitering," he said. "But it's another thing catching people with drugs. They may be a pain, but they also may be legal."

Tampa City Council Member Perry Harvey has lobbied for better police protection for years but got it only recently when he brought residents from the neighborhood to address the City Council.

Council member Ron Mason called to revoke the store's liquor license, but before that can happen a lengthy investigation must be carried out to see whether owners are breaking the law. As of Friday, the investigation continues.

For more than 30 years, the store has sold liquor, but residents didn't notice problems until about a decade ago. With each year, the crowds became more brazen.

"When I first moved here, this was a nice neighborhood," said Young Knox, 84, who lives behind the store.

During the intervening decades, the housing complex was built and the neighborhood declined into poverty. Soon, the liquor store and its stoop became a gathering place.

Knox said that people often stop in his yard to urinate.

It's up to store managers and employees to make sure there is no loitering outside, but Thomas said that chore is almost impossible as he tends the store, often for 16-hour shifts.

Not only is Thomas too busy, the configuration of the store prevents him from easily leaving it. The only area of the store open to the public is a small lobby and counter area. The cash register, liquors and coolers are placed well behind the counter to prevent thefts.

"I try to let them know before they buy their drinks they can't stay," Thomas said. As for the frequent urination problems, Thomas shrugs. That's another problem. He runs a package store, not a restaurant with public restrooms.

"If you have to go to the bathroom, where do you go?" he asked. "You go around the corner."

Some residents think the answer is simple: The store should be closed.

But Mrs. Speights sees all sides too. She thinks the store can stay open if patrons can respect the neighbors.

"I'm not worried about that man selling his whiskey, if those people would just get it and keep on going," Mrs. Speights said.

Then she could sit on her porch and watch the sun set over her flower beds _ and the concrete liquor store across the street.