Prompted by a petition from nearby residents and businesses to revoke the liquor license of La Raza Cantina, a bar at the corner of Eastern Ave. and S. East Ave., the Board of Liquor License Commissioners did just that last Thursday.
“I have personally never seen this happen before, and am extremely happy with the way that that group of residents organized themselves for a common goal, and better yet, succeeded,” said Kevin Bernhard, president of the Highlandtown Community Association.
The petition, according to the liquor board, had 137 signatures. It references a double stabbing that the petition says occurred in the early morning hours of Sept. 30, “which resulted in the shutdown of S. East Ave. for many hours.”
The petition also references “an incident on Monday, Oct. 1, resulting in screaming people coming out of the bar, multiple police cars encircling the bar, and numerous citations given.
Earlier this year, on April 26, La Raza had received a three-week suspension after a “protest of renewal” hearing, which, according to Jane Schroeder, deputy executive secretary of the liquor board, was “based on a petition from the community.”
The current petition says that since it re-opened, La Raza, owned by Yerelin Mejia and Mellas Inc., has “refused to take actions to stop the disruptive and dangerous activities, and refused to work with the community to maintain a safe and responsible business.”
Numerous neighborhood residents, community groups, and businesses, including the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, Highlandtown Community Association, Hampstead Hill Association, and Canton Community Association sent letters to the board asking for the bar’s license to be revoked because they believe that La Raza’s patrons disturbed the peace and made nearby residents feel unsafe.
The Hampstead Hill Association, according to Jean Pula, its president, wrote a letter requesting the revocation of the bar’s license because of complaints.
The association had supported La Raza’s application for a license transfer years ago.
“We were the only organization who did,” said Pula, who adds that the organization reached out to Mejia on many occasions, in person and via text messages, to come to community association meetings and develop relationships with the community.
“She did pay dues in 2012,” said Pula, but has not attended meetings or established a rapport with anyone in the organization.”
“It’s sad,” said Pula. “It did not have to get to this point.”
At the same time, Pula says she has a lot of respect for the community activists who live on East Ave. and their commitment to improving quality of life in their neighborhood.
“Being so organized, taking time off work to come to the hearing. That’s not easy to do,” said Pula.
Residents felt unsafe
Approximately 60 people attended the hearing, which lasted almost three hours. Several residents of East Ave. attended and testified before the board.
Corey Profit, who owns a house on East Ave., said that the neighborhood is great and there are plenty of bars that give the community no trouble, but La Raza is not one of them.
“We were hoping that after the last hearing, things would get better,” Profit said.
Deborah Puggi, who lives across from the bar and testified at the April hearing, said, “I stood before you at the last hearing, and this has gotten exponentially worse.”
Puggi told the Liquor Board that on Oct. 1, she was awakened by screaming outside. The police arrived, and she stayed in her house initially, but then went outside. When she did, she said police told her to “get back inside the house. This could turn into a shooting,” Puggi said.
“This is coming from the officers who are protecting me,” Puggi said.
State Senator Bill Ferguson, who represents the 46th District and lives on East Ave., testified before the board and said it’s tough to balance the interests of business owners and residents, but his “constituents feel threatened.”
“When a [liquor] license has been restricted and a stabbing occurs six months later, the license should be revoked,” Ferguson said.
Regarding the complaints, Mejia said that she is at the bar three or four days a week, but is “aware of everything that happens there.”
She said that the bar makes every effort to provide security and crowd management.
She said the bar has several security cameras and one staff member who provides security on the premises. The bar has a capacity of 215 patrons.
“The security guard has his friends help him on the weekends,” she said.
“What happens outside is beyond our control.”
Mejia did suggest that perhaps La Raza could post signage outside “telling people to go directly home” after they leave the bar.
At the hearing, Liquor Board commissioner and chairman Stephan Fogleman said that many of the issues addressed at this hearing were addressed at the April hearing, and he was experiencing “déjà vu.”
Fogleman said that the board had hoped that La Raza’s conduct would have changed since its license was suspended, but the licensee had “failed to preserve the peace, welfare, and quiet of the community” and “the license is revoked, effective immediately.”
La Raza has appealed the decision, according to Schroeder, who says that such appeals are typically heard within three or four months.
In the meantime, the bar can remain open.
La Raza’s legal counsel, Melvin Kodenski, did not respond to requests for comment. Attempts to reach the bar by telephone were unsuccessful.
by Danielle Sweeney