How to kill Providence nightlife
Proponents of a more sedate downtown nightlife target the under-21 crowd. Is
this any way to run a Renaissance City?
by Ian Donnis
THE CONCEPT of meshing vibrant city life with something resembling
suburban-style quietude -- Bright Lights, Big City meets Miss Manners --
is an inherent contradiction. It ignores the fact that nightlife -- an
essential element of city life -- is one of the major things that made
Providence hum long before WaterFire and the Providence Place Mall
sparked renewed interest in the capital city. And even with the glacial
unfolding of plans for Downcity (which is supposed to become a vibrant arts and
entertainment district) and the Jewelry District to be reinvented as mixed-use
neighborhoods with more residents, they're never going to be mistaken for the
All this, however, has done nothing to discourage a bevy of supporters -- most
notably the Cianci administration, Providence police, the Providence
Foundation, and a coalition of universities and neighborhood groups -- from
enthusiastically backing a proposal to ban anyone under 21 from nightclubs that
The device for bringing this idea to fruition is a bill, sponsored by state
Senator John Roney (D-Providence), to create a separate licensing category for
nightclubs, and the measure is slated to be debated on the floor of the Senate,
possibly as soon as the week beginning April 30. Although some proponents, such
as Patricia McLaughlin, Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci's director of
administration, couch their support in bureaucratic niceties, the legislation's
real intent is clearly to thin the crowds of young people that flock to dance
clubs in the nexus around Richmond and Pine streets, and to Lupo's Heartbreak
Hotel on Westminster Street.
Most significantly, the bill would require nightclubs -- defined as
establishments with a minimum capacity of 200 that make most of their money by
selling alcohol and/or charging cover charges -- to not admit anyone under 21
on occasions when alcohol is being served. While the measure won't do anything
to diminish the access of young people to drugs or alcohol, it may burnish the
image of local universities and support efforts to bring more residential
housing to Downcity and the Jewelry District.
It's undeniable that the dance club district, which is pretty subdued by day,
takes on a sharply different character on Thursday through Saturday nights.
It's also true that police have been wrestling for years with the task of
managing the snarled traffic -- and related misbehavior -- that comes with peak
nightlife activity. At the same time, many of the same arguments that were
marshaled against last year's proposed closing time rollback still hold true.
This kind of active nightlife befits a city like Providence. It would be a
mistake to sanction the majority of law-abiding patrons, and responsible bar
and club owners, because of the troubling behavior of relatively few people.
And while lowering the boom on the under-21 set may appeal to some, it could
also have unintended consequences for Providence's desirability as a place to
Rich Lupo, whose embattled Heartbreak Hotel is second in annual downtown
drawing power only to the Providence Performing Arts Center, says the ban on
under 21-year-olds could kill his club and the live music industry in Rhode
Island. One-third of his audience for concerts is under 21, and "If you can
only get two-thirds of the audience of a band, then you can't afford them," he
says. "It's supply and demand." Some groups, like the Dave Matthews Band, won't
even play venues that don't admit those under 21. And although Lupo could
choose the option, if the under-21 measure becomes binding, of admitting all
ages, rather than selling alcohol, he believes that doing so would eliminate
many of those in his over-21 audience who want to have a beer at a rock show.
Some world-class cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, don't typically
allow those under 21 to go to nightclubs where alcohol is served (although the
practice is permitted in New York, Boston, and Austin). But because Los Angeles
and San Francisco are large cities in the first tier of arts and entertainment
booking, they're never going to want for better live music. Compare that to
Providence, an appealing, albeit distinctly smaller place, where the music
scene is hardly robust and the quality of bookings is closely tied to the
willingness of out-to-town bands to make a visit.
Michael E. Hogue, president of the Jewelry District Association, who moved a
few years ago into a Chestnut Street condo near the dance clubs, contends that
club owners and the whole city will be better off in the long run if the
proposed ban on 18- to 21-year-olds comes to fruition. "To me, it's inexcusable
that someone doesn't feel safe walking the streets of a city after clubs
close," he says. "There's nothing healthy about that. They're [the problems
associated with nightlife] not creating economic development. In fact, they're
a barrier to economic development."
The fact, however, is that downtown Providence isn't a dangerous place, and
the presence of more people makes it safer. The headaches posed by a few
intoxicated yahoos and some snarled traffic during peak weekend hours, and the
sad reality of an occasional violent crime in the heart of the second largest
city in New England, hardly justify dampening activity that has seriously
contributed to Providence's rejuvenation. And it's unfortunate that Cianci,
who's been an enthusiastic supporter of reinventing Downcity as a vibrant arts
and entertainment district, has taken a step back in his support for
By providing jobs and paying taxes, the nightlife industry probably
contributes more money to the local economy than many of the day-time
businesses in the area. For many years, clubs like Lupo's and bars like the
fabled former Leo's were the only thing that stopped Providence from becoming a
ghost town. The presence of a thriving nightlife scene clearly didn't do
anything to discourage the development of Providence Place, the most
significant nearby form of economic development in recent years. And the
quality of nightlife in Boston and New York has done more to support economic
development in those cities than to hinder it.
This move against the under-21 set is essentially a replay of the same debate
that flared last fall when two city councilors proposed rolling back the
weekend closing time for bars and clubs in Providence from 2 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Although there were some genuine nightlife issues to address, this reactionary
movement was heavily influenced by the June 2000 carjacking slayings of college
students Amy Shute and Jason Burgeson. It was a gruesome crime to be sure, but
also an anomaly, and the proposal to curtail the closing hour, thankfully, came
Although his critics would like to caricature him as a Puritan, Hogue, a
former executive with Providence Washington Insurance, is an articulate and
thoughtful advocate with real interest in the envisioned residential-commercial
reinvention of the Jewelry District, and he recognizes the fragile quality of
what makes a city special. A student of new urbanism, Hogue touts the
importance of avoiding what happened in Austin, once the capital of hip
slackerdom. "It got so corporate and upscale that it got completely sterile,"
he says. "It drove out the thing that brought everyone in."
He envisions a future in which urban dwellers populate the streets of Downcity
and the nearby Jewelry District from the morning well into the night.
Empty-nesters and young technology workers, appreciative of the
pedestrian-friendly scale of the area, slip between their lofts to new media
start-ups, hip cafes, snazzy restaurants, and other destinations. And there's
still nightlife in downtown Providence of the future, but like the rest of this
activity, it's a whole lot quieter and better behaved than it used to be.
Hogue says he doesn't have anything against live music or responsible
nightlife. But after suffering the brunt of vandalism, rowdyism, excessive
noise and other problems, he's convinced that the youngest element of the crowd
has to go. "It's been our experience that the under-21 nights are the worst,"
he says. "It's a much more volatile crowd. Our sense, if you want to relieve
the burden on the police -- cut the density down to eliminate a bunch of
problems. [Otherwise] I don't care how many cops you put out there, you're just
Some supporters of the under-21 ban, however, are overly optimistic about the
future of live music in Providence and Lupo's ability to make a go of it if he
loses a large part of his audience. And while the goal of enhancing nightlife
is laudable, the idea of imposing civility on city life reflects a suburban
mentality that's best described as somewhere between fanciful and ridiculous.
Rather than targeting a segment of the population for exclusion, a better
answer would be to staff the downtown with a sufficient number of police
officers to maintain a safe and orderly atmosphere. If Boston and New York can
manage the headaches that come with nightlife, it should be pretty easy to do
the same in a small part of Providence. "We're addressing this the wrong ways,"
says Bert Crenca, artistic director of AS220, the nonprofit arts space on
Empire Street, who emphasized that he was expressing his personal opinion. "Do
we want to bring more people downtown or not?" If the answer is yes, he adds,
"You don't legislate people's behavior. You have to create a more secure
THERE'S ALREADY evidence that this kind of approach can yield dividends.
Although a corresponding amount of police attention was slow to develop as
Providence became an increasingly popular nightlife destination, the
introduction of additional patrols last summer brought positive results. Hogue
is understandably wary about the heightened level of outdoor activity that
comes with warmer weather. But despite sporadic problems since last fall, even
he says the situation is "significantly better" than it was two years ago.
But young people are an easy target, and supporting the proposed ban allows
the collegiate supporters -- Brown, RISD, Providence College, Johnson &
Wales, and the University of Rhode Island -- to look as if they're taking a
tough stand against underage drinking. In a statement, RISD President Roger
Mandle said he's supporting the proposed nightclub ban on under 21-year-olds
"to maintain a vibrant downtown nightlife while developing safe and responsible
behavior in downtown Providence. Success in these endeavors is a mandate for
the continued development of our city as a cultural hub."
These proponents, however, are kidding themselves if they think that keeping
those under 21 out of nightclubs will do anything to diminish the ability of
young people to obtain alcohol and illegal drugs. Supporters of the prohibition
cite the admission of those under 21, in a setting where alcohol is being
served, as a recipe for trouble. But it's hardly in the interest of club
owners, who face considerable liability, to allow the underage set to drink.
It's more likely that club goers are motivated by the chance to see a band,
mingle with peers, and meet prospective romantic partners.
"One thing that hasn't been said at these [State House] hearings is that most
underage drinking goes on in unsupervised settings," says Anthony DeSisto, a
lobbyist for the hastily formed Rhode Island Music and Entertainment
Association, which represents nightlife impresario Michael Kent and other
nightclub owners. During one hearing, reference was made to an alcohol-related
fatal car accident involving under 21-year-olds in Barrington, with the
implication that it came after a night of drinking in Providence. But after
researching the accident, DeSisto says, he learned that the youths had been
drinking at a beach in Barrington.
Critics like Hogue also fault club owners for showing little interest in
taking responsibility for the social cost associated with what happens after
patrons leave the clubs. But Lupo, who pays for two police details during large
concerts, indicated his willingness last fall to implement new measures. And
DeSisto says his clients are open to discussion. "I think a better approach
would be seeing if there can be a solution," he says. "The people I represent
are saying, `Let's sit down and talk about this.' "
At the same time, critics have marshaled little hard evidence to back up their
belief that those under 21 are more likely to be a problem than anyone else, or
to buttress the unsubstantiated claim made by former police chief Urbano
Prignano Jr. that between 5000 and 10,000 out-of-towners flocks into downtown
at the cusp of 1 a.m. on weekend nights. Prignano's successor, Colonel Richard
Sullivan, was out-of-town and couldn't be reached for comment. "I don't see any
relationship, or any proven relationship, that under 21-year-olds are the cause
of our city's problems," Lupo says. "This movement got activated after the
carjacking slayings. What's going on now has nothing to do with it. I believe
making this town emptier will make it more dangerous."
Still, the nightclub-licensing bill is seen as having decent prospects in the
General Assembly, particularly after it was amended to give cities and towns
the option of adopting the measure. "We're taking it very seriously," says
DeSisto. In addition to banning under 21-year-olds from clubs that serve
alcohol, the bill would bar the admission of patrons one hour before nightclubs
close, and ban the sale of alcoholic drinks in the last half-hour of business.
The option on whether to adopt the measure, if it becomes law, would be left to
councilors in individual cities and towns.
The legislation, which must go through the legislature since it involves a
proposed change in a state license, has been supported by the city councils of
Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls. In a practice dating to at least the
'50s, both clubs and restaurants are required by the state to have the same B
license -- meaning they have wide discretion in admitting patrons under 21 --
and it would clearly be unfair to impose a stipulation on one, say, police
details for a large club, that might not make sense for a restaurant.
"Certainly, we appreciate the intent of this," says Tom Kogut, a spokesman for
Governor Lincoln Almond. While the process of creating a new license category
is laden with complexities, "I don't image our opposing this," Kogut says, if
the measure clears the Senate and House.
Despite signs that enhanced police patrols have brought improvements,
proponents seem intent on criminalizing young people, rather than using
existing laws to target illegal behavior. McLaughlin, Cianci's point person on
downtown development, says, "It's not in any way the city's intention to
adversely affect nightclubs." Asked what is stopping the police from enforcing
the law against people who commit crimes, she says that's not the issue. "The
problems are the fact that people can come in after one o'clock, the problem is
that people 18 to 21 are inside the establishment," McLaughlin says.
IT'S WORTH NOTING that Joey Ramone's death was mourned by many of the same
graying editorial writers at major dailies who, if an under-21 ban was in
effect in their city of residence, would have once been excluded from seeing
the Ramones or some other great band. But the hypocritical attitude on the part
of some cultural arbiters in Providence seems to be, as downtown columnist
David Brussat recently wrote in the Providence Journal, "that was then
and this is now."
Brussat was referring to how he applauded the advent of Lupo's second
incarnation in 1993, five years after a landlord who wanted to put the building
to a residential use boosted the club from the Conrad Building on Westminster
Street. Now, though, Brussat lives in the Smith Building, around the corner
from Lupo's and next to the Met Café, and the nightlife that he once
celebrated has become an object of his exaggerated scorn.
If Brussat wants peace and quiet, he should move to Barrington. Kudos to
people if they choose to settle in something envisioned as a residential
neighborhood. A critical mass of such people holds the potential of
transforming Downcity and the Jewelry District into more interesting
neighborhoods, and this kind of interest reflects a forward-looking attitude.
At the same time, early settlers should also realize that being an urban
pioneer doesn't bring with it a guarantee of country-style solitude.
As Crenca says, "If someone moves downtown and expects it to be quiet at 2:30
in the morning -- and [we're] trying to create an entertainment district -- I'd
suggest they don't buy a condo downtown. If you have a lively arts and
entertainment district, you're going to have a spillover after the clubs close.
If people want a fancy loft downtown, and they want it to be quiet, I don't
know how they're going to have that."
Distorted hyperbole isn't the only threat to Lupo's. The club owner and his
landlord, Arnold "Buff" Chace, a major downtown property owner, are locked in a
legal fight over the terms of Lupo's tenancy in the Peerless Building, which
Chace wants to convert into an apartment building with more than 80 residential
lofts. Both men blame each other for the standoff, and although Lupo won the
first round, Chace is appealing the case to Superior Court. Asked about his
long-term plans, Lupo, who has seven years left on his lease, says, "At this
point, I'd be happy to make it that far."
It's possible that the dormant Strand on Washington Street, currently slated
to become a dance club under Michael Kent's ownership, might one day be able to
host live shows. This jibes with Chace's vision of Washington Street becoming
Downcity's entertainment strip, with Westminster serving as a residential
street, and Weybosset as an educational area anchored by Johnson & Wales
University. And boosters, like Brussat and Chace, describe the residential
development of the Peerless, the 37-unit Alice Building, due to be completed
this September, and four smaller buildings -- with monthly rents in the $550 to
$1500 range -- as the key to creating a critical mass of residential activity
"Everything we're trying to do is to make Downcity Providence a more
attractive place to come, which should increase their [club owners'] business
over time," Chace says. "Yes, we are very interested in relocating Lupo from
his current location. [But] no, we have no interest in having Lupo's go out of
For his part, Lupo questions whether 200 residential units will make for a
noticeable presence of people downtown, and whether it's worth replacing a
demonstrated attraction. And because downtown developers have targeted their
real estate to well-heeled clients, rather than making it available at more
affordable prices, Downcity's evolution remained trapped through the booming
late '90s in a vicious cycle of going nowhere fast.
Lupo clearly resents the implication from some that concertgoers are
riff-raff. "What we have here is a normal cross-section of society," Lupo says.
There's not much difference, he says, between the departure of a large crowd
from his club and a hockey game, but no one defines the latter as a problem.
(In fact, the Providence Civic Center, which is owned by the City of
Providence, would be excluded from the nightclub definition, enabling it to
host concerts and serve alcohol).
In the final analysis, the battle over banning those under 21 from nightclubs
that serve alcohol -- like the fight over closing times that preceded it -- is
ultimately about how Providence will manage the problems that come with the
city's enhanced status. Critics would probably call it a fight for civility.
But a city is nothing if not a clash of different people and varying interests.
It would be better for Providence's future if the concerned parties worked
together to reach a solution, rather than fervently trying to keep young adults
away from the party.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.