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Regulation at D.C. Clubs a Sobering Failure

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Washington's unusual practice of allowing music fans of all ages to join the fun at nightclubs that serve alcohol is one of this city's distinctive assets, an attraction that's known all over the world and cherished in the annals of punk history.

Washington's lax policy of letting unsupervised adolescents mix with drunk night crawlers lends itself to underage drinking and occasional tragedy, such as last month's shooting death of a 17-year-old girl.

If those contrasting realities aren't confusing enough, try a third:

The District has two distinctly different underage scenes -- one centered on rock clubs that attract a primarily suburban crowd of white kids, sometimes accompanied by their parents and generally well-supervised by club managers and security personnel, and the other focused on go-gos that attract an inner-city audience of black kids, with almost no parents on hand and a checkered record of effective supervision.

Now, you're a politician trying to figure out how to regulate all-ages clubs. But the code of conversation about race forbids you from acknowledging publicly that the same easygoing regulations play out very differently in these two separate night cultures.

If you talk about scrapping the all-ages policy, you get big-time blowback from owners of clubs such as the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club, from the music lovers who frequent those spots and even from many parents.

If you talk about keeping the all-ages policy but cracking down hard on any clubs where violence or underage drinking incidents occur regularly, you hear it from owners of go-go clubs and from people who've grown up loving that uniquely Washingtonian experience, a communal gathering that at its best transcends the neighborhood turf battles that senselessly divide so many young people.

"Closing a club here or there is just a Band-Aid," says Charles Stephenson, co-author of "The Beat," a book about the District's go-go scene, and a longtime aide to former congressman Ron Dellums. "As long as we keep dealing with this one club at a time, we're going to continue to go to Johnson & Johnson's to buy a lot of Band-Aids. The venue is not the issue; it's the larger problem of violence in the black community."

Stephenson argues that politicians should focus not on isolated incidents outside some club's front door but on developing alternatives to the street corner for teens. He points to New Roc City in New Rochelle, N.Y. -- an entertainment complex with a skating rink, bowling alley, movie complex, go-kart track and games arcade, and a police substation prominently placed at the entrance -- as the kind of development that provides a safe environment for people not old enough to drink.

"Let's do some creative things to show young people that we really love them and want them to learn and to have a good time," Stephenson says. "All they hear is that go-gos are bad and their schools are bad and whatever they're interested in is bad and they are bad. The kids who go to the Black Cat get very different messages. They hear that the 9:30 is a nice place to go to, the schools in Fairfax are excellent, and all those messages are internalized."

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who has become the central figure in this debate because some of the most prominent venues are in his Ward 1, initially was so outraged by the shooting death of Taleshia Ford outside the Smarta/Broadway club on Ninth Street NW that he thought about trying to end the all-ages policy. But he's come to agree with those who say the problem is not the existence of the clubs but the security provided by club owners.

So Graham is seeking a Solomonic solution that uses tougher a licensing regimen to make club owners keep underage customers away from the alcohol and provide a safe environment for all ages. "I'm no longer willing to react to every single case as tragedies occur," he says. "I want to fix this."

The Smarta club stayed open even after 34 calls to police about assaults or disorderly conduct in little more than two years, police records show. D.C. police saw drunk teens leaving the club, smelled marijuana and observed that no ID checks were being performed. The existing regs just aren't working.

In a society riddled with contradictions over underage drinking, the all-ages policy both adds to the confusion and provides a good outlet for kids.

"Making music available to young people is part of the reason I do the club," says Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat, on 14th Street NW. "This is not the greatest business in the world; you don't make that much money off live music. To try to do it without the 20-and-under crowd would be devastating. And for better or worse, the alcohol is what subsidizes concerts. Without selling drinks, you couldn't afford to have good security."

The real issue here, Ferrando says, is making club owners take responsibility for creating a safe place.

"You have to have experience to know which bands draw a bad crowd and which draw a good crowd," he says. "Some hip-hop draws an intellectual, inner-city crowd that's into the poetry of the music and isn't going to bring any trouble, and other hip-hop shows draw a younger, suburban crowd that brings fights and graffiti. I try not to have those groups back.

"The thing is to manage the club properly. If a manager isn't doing that, use the regulations on the books to make the club take the law seriously. Because where else are kids going to learn music? It's already been taken out of the schools. Don't take music out of the lives of young people and put them onto street corners."

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com

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