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A coffee shop at the city's grittiest crack-cocaine corner is being branded as a "public nuisance" by City of Toronto lawyers, who are threatening to use an obscure new law to shut down the business.

This big legal hammer is being invoked after police complaints that a Coffee Time franchise, at the troubled intersection of Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street, is a haven for junkies and dealers.

The city's legal department quietly sent a clean-up-or-be-closed ultimatum letter on July 24 to the shop's immigrant owners, who became Toronto entrepreneurs after arriving as refugees from Cambodia. This letter is thought to be the first time the city has used a new "public nuisance" law in a bid to clean up Toronto.

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Among other things, the city's lawyers allege that the coffee shop is the site of "ongoing criminal activity" and that people from all over the city go there to buy and use drugs "in plain view" of the staff. None of this has yet been proven in court by the city.

Complaining of a "spill-over" effect on the neighbourhood, the city is demanding that the owners reduce overnight hours and hire security guards.

Expressing shock and saying they have been wrongly smeared, the family that operates the Coffee Time say they are the victims, and not the cause, of a flourishing drug trade. "They're basically blaming us for the poverty on the corner," Robert Lim, 20, says.

Mr. Lim, a student, has worked at the Coffee Time since he was a teenager, after his mother, Molly, opened the business in 1995. He says he is baffled by the city's demands, given that the family has tried to co-operate with the police and keep the store as problem-free as possible -- despite the family's complaint that officers usually arrive either late or never when staff call for help.

"Why are they asking us to hire security guards when we're paying taxes for police officers to do their job?" he says.

He adds that his business does not discriminate against customers who appear to be down and out, and that his mother has even occasionally given a behind-the-counter job to someone who needed the chance.

"They're trying to accuse us of harbouring drug dealers, but it has nothing to do with us," says Mr. Lim, who says he tries to run a clean store. "If we see it [drugs] we always ask them to leave. If they don't, we call the cops . . . Sometimes they don't show up."

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To stare out of the windows of the Coffee Time is to glimpse into a bleak underground of addiction and hopelessness that few Torontonians care to see. The entire Queen and Sherbourne intersection serves as a 24-hour, open-air drug market. A newly erected crucifix in a parkette serves to remember an 18-year-old crack dealer who was gunned down there two weeks ago.

The Coffee Time's arrival in the mid-1990s coincided with the corner's decline. The Lims set up shop in a former T-D bank that is surrounded by shelters for homeless people. The large transient population often serves as a ready market for nuggets of highly addictive crack cocaine, sold by low-level dealers for $10 or less.

Just how to clean up the corner is a civic conundrum that has prompted a blame game among politicians, the police and entrepreneurs as they struggle to deal with a deeply ingrained social problem. Debates can -- and do -- touch upon everything from revolving-door criminal courts and half-hearted policing to urban renewal projects and the problem of addicts migrating to the area when the city tries to clean other corners up.

Through all this, transients at Queen and Sherbourne have continued to operate with their own lawless logic. People mill about listlessly day and night, including a woman nearing emaciation who recently begged for change in a singsong voice.

Opposite the Coffee Time, where a sign urges patrons not to linger for more than 20 minutes, cheerless bars sell draft beer for $1.50. The owner of an art shop complains that watching addicts migrate to the corner "is like watching a bunch of seagulls coming to feed." Street cops who patrol the area say they could increase their numbers 10 times over and still not make much of a dent, given the forces of copious supply and even greater demand that are at work.

Change, in the form of development, is around the corner. Condominiums are being built farther south, and a boarded-up tavern just west of the Coffee Time is being renovated. Politicians point out that they have improved lighting at the open fields of Moss Park, kitty-corner to the coffee shop.

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Yet none of that prevented a gunman from shooting 18-year-old Michael Junior Malcolm -- a.k.a. Smokey -- in the face, in front of witnesses, at 6 a.m. on Aug. 30. Nor did it didn't prevent others from reportedly rummaging through his pockets as the teen lay dying. The crime remains unsolved.

Such overt violence at the corner is rare. In fact, the last killing most people remember occurred three years ago, when Wayne Fairclough, a relative of Mr. Malcolm, used a shotgun to slay a mother of five, known locally as "Crosseye," for $20 worth of crack cocaine. He was convicted earlier this year. Users often turn to petty crimes such as breaking and entering and prostitution to feed their addictions.

"Crack is the most dehumanizing drug there is. It turns people into animals," says Councillor Pam McConnell. She says the city has made strides in cleaning up Queen and Sherbourne, and vows that soon "we're going to turn the corner."

But she is hawkish about the Coffee Time, regarding it as a significant obstacle. "In this city, if you run a business, you're responsible for the activities that go on inside your business," Ms. McConnell says simply.

While the Coffee Time owners complain that the July 24 lawyer's letter from the city came out of the blue, Ms. McConnell says that "nice, quiet meetings" held during the past two years were fruitless, leading the city to enter its current "big-stick stage" in negotiations with the store.

While city lawyers say they don't necessarily want to use the courts to close the Coffee Time, they notified the Lim family that they have launched proceedings under Section 433 of the new Ontario Municipal Act.

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As far as the city's solicitors know, this "public nuisance" provision has not been tried before in Toronto, and may have not been used anywhere in Ontario. Specifically, it allows municipalities to apply to a Superior Court judge to shut down a business for up to two years if the city can prove the owners knew "circumstances constituting a public nuisance were taking place or existed and did not take adequate steps to eliminate the public nuisance."

This law evokes memories of the so-called "broken windows" theory of criminology put into action in New York during the mid-1990s. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city's police chief cracked down on so-called quality-of-life crimes, starting from a theory that rundown areas lead to bigger and bigger social problems. (In fact, one of Mr. Giuliani's pet peeves was public urination, which happens to be one of the city's complaints about what's going on behind the Coffee Time.)

It remains unclear whether the courts will abide by the city's interpretation of the "public nuisance" law. The Lim family, which has retained a lawyer to respond to the city's letter, complains that the profit margins on its store are so small that they can't afford security guards.

The matter may never appear before a judge -- everyone involved says they would like to reach a compromise out of court. But Mr. Lim is flustered, saying poor planning by the city has constituted a bigger public nuisance than his store ever has.

"We can't say we want these shelters to be there. They put it there, we didn't put it there," he says.

He also says the city doesn't really want to tackle the crack-cocaine problem. "They want to move the situation. They don't want to solve it," he says. "If they did, they'd put repeat offenders in jail for a long period of time."

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