MAXWELL:  The fence isn’t the problem

2/24/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As if the area did not already have enough legitimate problems, an unnecessary controversy is brewing in St. Petersburg’s riot-torn sector. Some potential shoppers and community activists are angry that a soon-to-open Walgreens, at 22nd Avenue S and Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) Street, has erected a 6-foot chain-link fence around most of the property.

Maurice Evans, a marketing consultant and resident of Lakewood Estates said of the fence: “It’s very offensive. Are they going to have an armed guard at the gate, too? Will they have a gun tower at the top? It’s not what their intention has been, it’s what the fence suggests.”

Indeed, what does the fence suggest? Michael Polzin, a spokesman at Walgreens’ national headquarters, told the Times that the fence does not reflect racial prejudice but a practical business decision intended to “create a safer environment for both customers and employees. It is certainly not to keep people out. What it does, we feel, is an excellent job of cutting down on shoplifting and muggings and confrontations in the parking lot and loitering in the parking lot.”

Police reports support Polzin’s concerns. Crime is high in the area, and many shoppers feel unsafe. Many businesses in the area have had burglar bars, steel doors, guards and fences for several years. Some owners say that they must protect their investments as best they can and that racial prejudice is not an issue. For years, Walgreens’ standard policy has been to build fences around stores in high-crime areas. It owes its employees and customers no less.

But activists, such as Marva Dennard, reject this argument and want to punish Walgreens, the first major business to locate in the area in many years. “Rest assured the community _ along with the Coalition (of African American Leadership) _ will not stand for it,” Dennard told the Times. “They want to come into our community and soak up the resources and money and take away business from a pharmacy down the street that is black-owned and has been in the community as long as I can remember. If that (fence) is not a slap in the face, tell me what is.”

Some activists want to boycott the store before it sells its first aspirin, thus hijacking progress, and denying average citizens the opportunity to shop near their homes and find gainful employment in their community.

Walgreens should not become a question of to fence or not to fence. The marketplace _ not the hyperbole of a few self-styled leaders _ should decide this matter. If people want to shop at Walgreens _ despite the fence _ they will. If the fence is an unacceptable insult, the nation’s largest drugstore company will learn soon enough at the cash register. Not so ironically, so-called leaders and ordinary residents are outraged for different reasons: While some activists are outraged over fences, most ordinary people are outraged that Badcock and several groceries and homes have been burned down, making life even more difficult.

As for the black-owned pharmacy that Dennard mentioned, the owner said that none of the area’s so-called black leaders ever shop there. In fact, long before the riots, as much as 70 percent of his clientele was white. Today that percentage is down to about 50 percent. This drop in business has undeniable meaning: Crime _ not fences _ hurts business, especially black business.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.