[Sidebar] April 26 - May 3, 2001

[Features]

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 suburbs.

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 serve alcohol.

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 live.

RICH LUPO

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 nightlife.

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 up short.

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 overwhelmed."

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 setting."

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 in Downcity.

"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 business."

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 idonnis@phx.com.

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