From his bungalow on the 9000 block of 16th Avenue Southwest, Timothy Rambo keeps a permanent stakeout. He watches cash change hands on his sidewalk. A car will idle near his curb as a woman sidles over. Down the block, at the corner of Southwest Henderson Street, Rambo sees some of those same faces congregate around a mini-mart.

Rambo has compiled these clues for a long time and drawn a conclusion: His neighborhood is a hot spot for drugs and prostitution—and the mini-mart, 16th Avenue Grocery, is part of that culture. A group of neighbors—and Seattle Police officers—agree with him. "Inundated with criminal activity," is how Lieutenant Steve Paulsen describes the one-block radius of the mini-mart.

But it's Rambo and another neighbor, Mauricio Vela, who have been most aggressive—not just about chasing bad guys, but trying to turn them good. They have merged their interest in a safer neighborhood with their rediscovery of religion.

Rambo wears eyeglass frames in the style favored by Malcolm X, but speaks slowly, without the bombast or pedantry common to men on his kind of mission. As he sees it, God delivered him from drug addiction, and he wants the same for those whose addictions make them regulars on this block of 16th Avenue.

"I was involved in the drug scene—I know what it can do to a person's life," says Rambo. "And when you have that experience, you can't help but try to redeem some of these young people."

Last Saturday they took it to the streets, brandishing placards and chanting into the storefront of 16th Avenue Grocery—much to the consternation of its owner, Batha Gebrezigher.

This rivalry dates back to the fall of 2004, when Gebrezigher applied for a liquor license for the convenience store he planned on the site of a failed Mexican restaurant.

Neighbors like Rambo expressed wariness about a mini-mart becoming a clubhouse for unsavory characters. So with the help of the Seattle City Attorney's office, they drafted a Good Neighbor Agreement in which they would support the license only if the shop owner, Gebrezigher, agreed to their conditions: no beer signs that can conceal activities inside, close the store early at night, install security cameras, no selling single-serving containers of alcohol, no graffiti, no loitering, and absolutely no pay phone.

Gebrezigher signed the document. And shortly thereafter, says Assistant City Attorney Tuere Sala, Gebrezigher's shop "violated all of those provisions." Beer signs went up, single-serve containers were sold, security cameras broke (and weren't repaired). Even a pay phone appeared. Loiterers flocked.

"It undermines the idea of neighborhood change when you have a place that is criminal friendly," says Lt. Paulsen.

Subsidized housing surrounds the store and across 16th Avenue is the Salvation Army, which has programs for reformed addicts and activities for at-risk youth. For these groups, it may be hard to resist the temptations—drugs, hookers, malt liquor—that seem to orbit the mini-mart.

Gebrezigher admits he violated parts of the agreement with neighbors, but he says it was only for the sake of keeping his business open. "We are not doing illegal things," says Gebrezigher, who points out that police haven't charged him with a crime. "If they know [of a crime], what are they waiting for?"

It is a family operation, clerked at all times by either Gebrezigher, his son, or his daughter. For all their alleged lapses, the one commitment the family has honored has been attendance at neighborhood meetings.

Slumped low in his chair and sitting in the St. James Lutheran Church cafeteria, Yemane Batha looks like the guy who drew the short straw for the April 27 meeting. Gebrezigher's son, and the store's night clerk, Batha must have expected he'd be the focal point of neighbor outrage.

Rambo tells of how he had talked to a woman at an apartment near the 16th Avenue Grocery who was complaining about its denizens hurling their empty bottles and cans into her yard.

Lt. Paulsen tells Batha that one way to discourage loitering is to stop putting your lawn chair on the front stoop and talking to the loiterers.

Other neighbors want to know why Batha welcomes into his store a junkie and petty thief they refer to as "Archie."

"It's kind of hard to tell him, 'You're not welcome in my store anymore,' because he tells me he has no other place to go," says Batha. This answer elicits groans from the roughly 50 neighbors and one shouts out, "We can tell him for you!"

I talk to Batha after the meeting and, as he tells it, his store is merely serving a disadvantaged population. "Most of our customers, it's all apartment buildings and most of those people are low-income people," says Batha. "Archie, I know he's a drug user but he never does anything to us."

The day after the meeting, a police patrol spotted Batha sitting in his lawn chair in front of the store, in defiance of Paulsen's demand. Rambo also learned that on the same day, Batha knocked on the door of the neighbor who complained about the littering from mini-mart customers. Rambo says the visit scared the woman, and he suspects that was Batha's purpose.

Batha says he was not hostile, that he merely wanted to hear the woman's concerns firsthand.

It was that visit which prompted Rambo, Vela, and their allies to march last Saturday. "When there's an act of intimidation, you can't let that slide," said Rambo. "You have to have a response—otherwise [they] think they're taking over."

At the end of October, the liquor license at 16th Avenue Grocery will expire. Over the last few months, Gebrezigher has painted over graffiti and pulled down beer signs. It's a start, but the Assistant City Attorney Sala says that it will take major strides by the shop owner to stop the city from recommending the mini-mart lose its license to sell alcohol.

In the meantime, Rambo and Vela say they will continue stalking the sidewalks. They figure their tactics are working—otherwise they wouldn't be getting death threats themselves. They aren't armed, but before embarking on block watch patrol, they pray. "We only depend on the protection of God," said Vela. It's got them this far. recommended