“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
—Hillel the Elder, c.110 B.C.–10 A.D.
In her bid for a variance to sell beer at a grocery store on the corner of Edgewood and Orchard, Bethzaida Davila would have done well to heed Hillel’s famous directive to be one’s own advocate.
The saying was a favorite of Leon Pinsker, a prominent 19th-century Zionist and someone who probably knew a few things about trying to set up shop in a hostile neighborhood.
Instead, Davila, the owner of Shop Smart, was a no-show at last week’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, giving those in attendance the chance to provide a resounding answer to Hillel’s rhetorical question: “No one.”
Davila sought city permission to sell beer at the Shop Smart Caribbean food market she runs at the corner of Orchard Street and Edgewood Avenue—across the street from a preschool, blocks from two other schools, in the midst of a neighborhood struggling with street crime.
Her idea didn’t sit well with the neighbors. Even before last week’s public zoning hearing, some wrote letters objecting to the idea. John Cotten, proprietor of Cotten Barber Shop, across the street from Shop Smart, wrote one of the letters. “There’s enough liquor stores already,” he said later. “We got a school down here. We don’t need more people hanging out.”
With neither the applicant nor supporters present, the zoning board jumped straight to the opposition portion of the public debate when the matter of the proposed packaged permit arose at the public hearing.
Five neighbors, including Dwight Alderman Frank Douglass, lined up in the basement of the Hall of Records on Orange Street to take turns verbally flogging the aspiring alcohol purveyor in absentia.
Linda Townsend-Maier (at left in photo), director of the nearby Montessori School on Edgewood, read a statement protesting the addition of a new liquor store to the neighborhood.
“In my opinion, this will have a negative impact on the progress the community has achieved to make the area safer,” she said, noting the neighborhood’s history of violent crime. “Dealing with another package store will take us backwards.”
Kenneth Providence, who lives next door to the property and complained about the debris that gets onto his lawn, picked up Townsend-Maier’s theme. “It takes it ten years back to add a package store,” he said, referring to the neighborhood.
Reached by phone Thursday, Davila said she was applying for permission only to sell beer, not to open a package store. (Both require a “package permit.”) When asked why she didn’t go to the meeting to make her case, she said that her lawyer, Hartford City Councilman Alexander Aponte, had advised her that her chances of success were so low that it wasn’t worth paying his fee to attend. (Aponte did not respond to a message left with his secretary.)
Davila said she was afraid to speak at the meeting without a lawyer. She argued that since the previous store owners had sold beer, she should be able to as well.
“I know it’s so hard to get the beer license,” she said. “I just don’t understand why, when it was there before.”
Thomas Talbot, deputy director of zoning, said that while the board did approve a variance for beer sales at 214 Edgewood Avenue in 1999, that decision was overturned the following year as a result of a lawsuit brought by neighbors.
When it came time to vote on the proposal following public testimony at last week’s meeting, board member Victor Fasano pointed out that the applicant hadn’t even tried to get a variance from the city prohibition on selling alcohol within 500 feet of a school. That would be required in this case.
“The fact that no relief was sought from that makes it impossible to approve,” he said. The rest of the board agreed, voting 5-0 to reject the application.