Out with the old?

At Danneman's grocery in Kirkwood, two worlds collide

From behind his counter at Danneman's supermarket, Dae Su peers at the outside world through steel bars and past signs that say "Fresh pork neck bones 59c a pound" and "We gladly accept WIC vouchers."

"I see all things changing," Su says.

The 33-year-old Korean immigrant's store is one of the last old-style groceries in Kirkwood, the gentrifying neighborhood a few miles east of Moreland Avenue bordered by DeKalb Avenue and Memorial Drive. As new upscale businesses cater to young professionals, the bars on Danneman's windows seem a relic of a different past.Su points out, however, that not everything has changed.

"Most of our customers are black," he says. "A lot of them walk here. Some use food stamps. Sometimes I let them borrow my buggy. Most of the new, white people don't shop here. They're the ones who complain."

Earl Williamson, secretary of the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization, has lived in Kirkwood for six years but rarely shops at the College Avenue store. "The stuff I generally get, they don't have. The vegetables are not fresh, and their frozen food has been thawed and then refrozen."

What's more, Williamson claims the store attracts loiterers, littering, crime and underage drinking. In 2003, after the neighborhood organization urged residents to call 911 whenever they saw suspicious activity outside Danneman's, police received 49 calls, nine of them involving fights and eight involving drug activity.

"I don't like seeing dope sold right in front of me in broad daylight," Williamson says. "The owners turn a blind eye to drug dealing in the parking lot and have reneged on past agreements to clean up the store."

As much as Su would like to stand behind his cash register and act like it's business as usual, he knows he's caught between two contentious visions of his store's impact on Kirkwood. On the one hand, Williamson claims Danneman's drags the neighborhood down. On the other, Su's loyal customers consider him an irreplaceable asset.

Since Su and his family began running the store five years ago, many longtime patrons have been replaced by young professionals attracted to Kirkwood's historic Victorian and Craftsman bungalows, as well as its social and racial diversity. Established as an early streetcar suburb of Atlanta in the 1870s, Kirkwood has experienced wild demographic change in the past half-century. According to U.S. Census data, the number of white residents dropped from 91 percent in 1960 to 3 percent in 1970 — then rose from 1 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2000.

The proportion of white residents continues to rise. In the past 10 years, home prices in Kirkwood have increased by 275 percent, while crime has decreased by 35 percent. And although Kirkwood is still predominantly African-American, most decisions about its future are made by the predominantly white neighborhood organization.

For instance, KNO currently is urging Atlanta City Council to revoke Danneman's beer and wine license on the basis that the store was caught selling alcohol to a minor. On Nov. 5, the Council's license review board will make its decision. The board gives emphasis to "public opposition," meaning a small handful of KNO members might determine if a greater number of Kirkwood residents will lose their only local grocer.

If the license is revoked, the store likely will close, Su says. And if the store closes, many Kirkwood residents say it will further disenfranchise them at a time when rising property taxes and high demand for housing is already pushing them out.

Annie Williams, a 68-year-old grandmother who's lived in Kirkwood for 40 years, says she shops at Danneman's almost daily. "I don't drive," she says. "I have rheumatism in my legs and am about to have a knee operation. I can send my granddaughter up there, or I can walk up slowly. Every store in this neighborhood has turned into a drinking establishment. Now there is nowhere you can go but Danneman's to get a loaf of bread."

Williams says she believes some of Kirkwood's newer residents want to close Danneman's so they can increase property values or upgrade the supermarket. Profit is not the whole story, but it is part of it. A 1998 letter by KNO's former secretary to Danneman's previous owner cites the store's impact on property values as a major concern: "Your apparent disregard for the property values, health and safety of your neighbors is now apparent," the letter states.

More recently, KNO members have debated on the organization's online discussion forum the kind of business they'd like to see replace Danneman's — and which KNO members might be interested in buying the building.

Yet Williamson insists KNO members don't want to get rid of Danneman's. "The point is not to take away the store's beer and wine license and force them to close," he says. "We're simply trying to use the beer and wine license as leverage to get the store to act more responsibly."

He adds that the majority of KNO members want what's best for the community. "I personally have changed my opinion. Six months ago, I viewed Danneman's as a not very useful part of the community. I don't think that anymore."

Whether Williamson views Danneman's as "useful," Danneman's survival depends in part on whether KNO thinks Su is a good neighbor. Su is beginning to realize that. He's considering hiring security guards to stand outside the store and has visited "role model" grocers like the Candler Park Supermarket to see what improvements he can make. But he's also overwhelmed by the prospect of change.

"They sell totally different things," he says of model grocers. "Rich people like expensive wine and low-calorie food. My supplier only sells low brand things, so it's hard to please everyone. My attorney advised me to upgrade my store, but I worry that I'll lose my older customers."

But to Williamson, profound change is the only answer.

"We need to refresh the neighborhood and bring in new blood," he says. "We need younger people with higher incomes who are not scared of fighting for basic services. It's just that a lot of these people have grown tired of fighting the city to get basic services. Kirkwood needs people who aren't tired."