Barney's Parting Toast

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."

Homeless advocate Daniel Fagan said he thinks the CCDC is likely to condemn San Diego Rescue Mission, which at 1150 J Street stands two blocks from the ballpark site and across the street from proposed stadium parking. Officials for both organizations have been meeting lately.

Chris Michaels, a commercial photographer in East Village, says it's ironic that poor people are being used as pawns to enrich others. Michaels, whose home and studio lie within the ballpark site, campaigned against the Padres' proposed stadium, which was approved by San Diego voters in November. "The city considers the homeless part of the blight. Before the election last fall, the media filmed the homeless in East Village," Michaels said. "Images of the homeless were being used to obtain more millions for the millionaires, for the Padres and John Moores," he said, referring to the team's owner.

Michaels is considering the CCDC's offer to buy his converted warehouse, but the building is likely to become the 12th property condemned this year for the ballpark. A sign inside Michaels's tastefully renovated live-work loft drips with sarcasm: "Welcome to Blight." While he is less than thrilled to find trespassers sleeping and urinating on his property, Michaels says, the city won't resolve such problems by purging the neighborhood. "I'd rather the homeless have someplace to go."

Downtown real estate broker Bobbi Gilliam noted that the poor have few allies. At public meetings she has observed that some East Village residents opposing the ballpark's location also object to feeding the hungry downtown. "That's why I get a little upset," she said.

Stephen Young, president of Allan Co. in Baldwin Park in Los Angeles, says condemning his company's San Diego branch reflects the city's move to "corral the indigents." Yet the 20 or so poor people who had arrived daily with aluminum cans, glass containers, plastic bottles, newspapers, and cardboard accounted for less than 1 percent of the recycling plant's business. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and other commercial enterprises downtown were the more significant customers. "They called us a nuisance. I take severe offense at that."

Like Hansen of the Salvation Army, Young said concluding that the East Village homeless used their recycling money to buy booze at Barney's Market was overly simplistic and smacked of stereotyping. "Some of those customers had been coming to us for 15 years. Some of them didn't drink a drop." Both Young and Attisha claim the CCDC couldn't find them suitable relocation sites downtown. Both claim the CCDC's offers for their property, equipment, and fixtures are inadequate. Like other small business owners whose East Village real estate has been condemned, their best hope is to recover lost revenue and profit through a "good will" claim.

Allan Co. operates temporarily in National City until it can reopen a recycling plant in the Miramar area, many miles from its downtown customers. "For a long time, the CCDC had been telling us that they were going to move us, and they would find a place for us," Young said. "They never found a place for us. We tried to modify our property. They didn't accept our plans."

Attisha's ability to move is hampered by several factors. The CCDC's offer of $763,325 -- to be disputed by Attisha in court in September -- doesn't leave much after the mortgage is paid. Plus, as much as 90 percent of his customers lived or worked within a quarter mile from Barney's Market. "He's between a rock and a hard place," Thompson said. "How can he move nearby and not have the city say he's a nuisance again?"

To duplicate his business, Attisha would have to find retail space and a hotel providing "single-room occupancy," a type of housing often utilized by the poor. In addition, Attisha would have to secure approval from the California Alcoholic Beverage Control to resume selling liquor. Amar Salim, a co-owner of Qwik Korner at 1101 C St., faces some of the same obstacles. Last year the city condemned his convenience food store, which sells beer and wine, and he must vacate the premises by September. The CCDC is taking possession of the entire block to enlarge the trolley station and create a transportation and retail center.

"The CCDC has been very nice, but they don't know the ABC zoning. Moving a beer-and-wine license is very difficult," Salim said. The amount of crime and presence of other liquor stores in a neighborhood usually dictate whether the state would issue a license.

Although Qwik Korner was spared the unflattering "nuisance" designation, Salim said, that doesn't make finding a similar location any easier. "This is the number-two trolley stop on the entire line," he said, pointing to dozens of potential customers outside his store. "No one can kick you out of your house. When they come and take your business, it's very scary."

Ronald Endeman, Salim's lawyer, said seizing property by calling it a "nuisance" is unusual. "In a pure nuisance case, the business owner wouldn't be compensated for the property. It could be a guise to pick up the property cheap, but every condemnation is different." Taking property for redevelopment is different than taking it for a highway or a park, said Endeman, who specializes in condemnation and land use. "In a redevelopment area, you must use the term 'blight.'"

In losing Barney's Market, a gray, squat 10,000-square-foot building, Attisha feels that he has lost his retirement, his children's future, and his own American dream. The Chaldean immigrant from Iraq had never encountered a CCDC in Baghdad, where he operated Attisha Grocery Store, nor in Detroit, where he owned another Barney's.

Customer Johnson recalls how Attisha improved McKee's Bay Liquor on acquiring it in 1981. "There's a lot more food. You can get something to eat. It's not just a wino hangout." With its worn linoleum and warped ceiling tiles, Barney's Market could use some extensive interior decorating; however, its varied merchandise could equip a household. Soap, toilet paper, batteries, pantyhose, birthday cards were as readily available as cigarettes, beer, bourbon, lottery tickets, money orders.

Now, Attisha says he doesn't know what to do. One possibility might be to help his older brother, Ben Attisha, operate Valu Mart Market, a nearby grocery store at 604 12th Avenue. That family business, however, sits dangerously close to two CCDC projects: one that would expand a trolley station and another that would create a landscaped pedestrian walkway amid shops. Kheder "Barney" Attisha and his lawyer think that Valu Mart, too, is likely to be condemned.

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