A story in the March 18 edition of The District Weekly about the Whistle Stop bar controversy in Takoma reported incorrectly that Robert Hinton has formal approval from the Plan Takoma community group for a proposed restaurant or bar. He does not.
In the middle of quiet, residential Takoma, amid small and sometinmes neglected shops, sits an old tavern that has become a source of controversy pitting an aggressive businessman againsta group of community activists.
The businessman, Philip Poling, bought the former Lucky Lady Lounge at 6916 Fourth St. NW at a tax sale last year, formed a corporation with H. Russell Miller and Paul Myers and reopened the bar as a country and western lounge called the Whistle Stop.
The community groups, Neighbors Inc., Plan Takoma, and members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B, charged that the bar was inappropriate for the neighborhood and lobbied with the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control board to deny the bar a permanent liquor license. The bar is now closed and the case is before the D.C. Court of Appeals.
At the heart of the controversy are the issues of who makes the final determination as to what is appropriate for a neighborhood and how much say community groups should have in the operation of private businesses.
Poling, who may have lost his chance to open a restaurant and bar, says he was "harassed" by overzealous activists. The community groups complained that Poling would not reveal his plans for the Whistle Stop in sufficient detail, and feared that he would turn it into a go-go bar. Poling, former president of a controversial Wisconsin Avenue topless go-go bar called the Godfather, has said from the beginning that he had no such intentions.
Neighbors Inc., formed in 1958 to promote neighborhood stability and integration, has evolved into a community activist group with a membership that includes leaders and members of a similar neighborhood organization called Plan Takoma. Several members of both groups are also involved in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
In meetings with the Whistle Stop management, members of Plan Takoma, the neighborhood citizens' group, wanted the bar replaced by a classier "neighborhood restaurant" responsive to their tastes. Loretta Neumann, president of Neighbors Inc., suggested gingham curtains. Plan Takoma president Randal McCathren advocated a dress code to keep out Whistle Stop patrons he described as "wearing denim motorcycle jackets so that you could see their hairy arms and beer bellies." Gloria Johnson, a nursing student who was then the ANC chairman, insisted that Poling steam-clean the rug before opening, and suggested that he decorate the bar with Mexican wall hangings rather than what she called, "cheap $3 prints."
"We don't mind a restaurant bar, but we didn't want a run-down, shoddy bar like there was before," said Neumann.
The bar's owners "were not interested in making it a neighborhood, community place," said McCathren.
Poling refused to let the neighborhood groups dictate what kind of bar he should operate. "These people want another Clydes," he said. "This is not the kind of neighborhood where people are going to pay $6.95 for a spinach salad."
Last March, Poling and his partners purchased the business, which included rights to a Class C liquor license. According to Dallas Evans, ABC board acting staff director, the board, in its discretionary power under D.C. law, allowed the owners to open the bar on April 20, pending the board's approval of the license transfer. The neighborhood groups are challenging this decision, saying it amounts to a de facto temporary license, not provided for under D.C. law.
Before the bar opened, Poling and Whistle Stop manager Wayne Hall met with the community groups three times at the groups' insistence. At these meetings, the groups asked for investment figures and information about lighting, furniture, air conditioning and an opening date. Poling and Hall's answers, according to Plan Takoma member Carl Bergman, were noncommittal and evasive. Poling denies Bergman's allegations.
One of their main concerns was whether the new management intended to discourage a return of the clientele from the previous bar, the Lucky Lady Lounge, whom Neumann described as "a really sleazy element of people" from rural Maryland. Community residents interviewed, however, were not unanimous in sentiments about the clientele of the Lucky Lady and its successor, the Whistle Stop.
"I liked the place," said Takoma resident David Meyer, a law student. "It wasn't the highest class place in the world, but it certainly was not a threat to the neighborhood. . . . Where do these people get off telling the guy how to run his business?"
Tuula Smith, another resident who also works near the bar, said, "I passed the place every night when I walked my dog and nobody ever bothered me." She also said that two weeks were not long enough to determine the appropriateness of the Whistle Stop.
D.C. Police Officer Melvin Johnson, who patrolled the area around the Whistle Stop, said that the bar was not troublesome and "it was not what you would call a rowdy bar--not at all."
The Whistle Stop was opened nine days before its ABC board hearing at which Plan Takoma presented a petition signed by 180 residents opposing the license. The group also contended that Poling violated building codes and ABC regulations.
Also present at the hearing were six witnesses protesting the license, including D.C. City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-4). Witnesses said that public drunkenness and boisterous behavior often occurred at the Lucky Lady Lounge, and that its customers were verbally assaulting women and blacks. The witnesses said that under the new management, these problems would probably continue at the Whistle Stop. Poling did not bring witnesses in support of his business, something he now regrets.
"We had a damn good cross-section of people, . . . at least nine or 10 steady black customers," said Poling, responding to allegations that blacks were mistreated by Whistle Stop customers.
The ABC board denied the business a liquor license on Aug 6., saying it found the bar inappropriate for the neighborhood. Poling called the decision "capricious, arbitrary and politically motivated," and is contesting it in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Since the hearing, Poling said he has been trying to sell the bar because he is tired of battling community leaders.
"Those people wanted to buy the bar themselves," Poling said, referring to tax sale at which Neumann was present.
But Neumann said "I was not the one who led the troops in this fight. It was Plan Takoma." She said that although she and several friends had considered opening a restaurant bar in the same building, they have long since abandoned those plans.
By most accounts, what closed the Whistle Stop was the neighbors' contempt for the former bar's "rural Maryland" patrons. The April meetings between the groups and Poling and Hall, which evolved into bickering over decorating and cleaning, soon turned to tactical discussions on how to discourage the so-called "rednecks" who were to be "phased-out," in Poling's words, and "discouraged from coming back at all," according to former ANC chairman Gloria Johnson.
Bergman, former deputy D.C. auditor, recalls feeling uncomfortable at those meetings because of "an underlying element of classism in their attitude which, frankly, I did not like." But he also said that Poling and Hall "exploited these people's feeling about rednecks" in their promises to turn them away. "It was two-sided: nobody there was defending the customers," Bergman said.
Poling said he never called the clientele rednecks. "We said we planned to improve the stature of people frequenting the bar by making improvements on it, but this would take time," he said.
As the controversy continues, it is still difficult to determine what is inappropriate in this area one block from the Maryland line and just minutes from Northeast. The block in question is across from the Takoma Metro station and is bordered in part by a residential community. It includes a dry cleaner's, a corner grocery and a floor-covering business. A liquor store is across the street.
According to D.C. Code, the ABC board is the arbiter of what's appropriate: "The board must satisfy itself that the place . . . is appropriate considering the character of the premises, its surroundings and the wishes of persons residing or owning property in the neighborhood." McCathren, an attorney, interprets this clause as placing the burden of proof on the applicant to show he is worthy of the license.
But Benjamin Chaplin, ABC board's chief investigator, said that both sides share the burden, and that the board's decisions are based on testimony at the hearings.
Neumann, of Neighbors Inc., is proud of the community groups' success in getting businesses to compromise or negotiate with them in building and zoning issues in other cases besides the Whistle Stop. "We have one of the most reasonable groups as far as zoning is concerned," she said.
One of their recent successes, she said, was getting the Safeway grocery chain to reduce the planned expansion of its store at Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch from 54,000 square feet to 44,000 square feet, and to make concessions in design and interior landscaping. "By the time we were finished, we were happy and they were happy," Neumann said.
Safeway spokesman Larry Johnson said the company and the community groups reached an agreement "that we could live with." Johnson said the store's expansion is no longer being actively considered, however, because the economy has worsened and construction costs have risen signficantly during the 1 1/2 years or more it took Safeway to reach a compromise with the citizens groups. Safeway's decision to delay the project is particularly significant at a time when grocery chains have begun to close smaller stores in the District in favor of the suburbs where they have space for larger stores that the chains say are more profitable.
"Had we been given the green light a year ago, the expansion would have been in the works today," Johnson said. "When community groups delay a project for a year or more, it costs a lot of money. The process has been trouble for us for a number of years and has cost us money."
The conflicts between business interests and those of the community have led to protests that have become commonplace in neighborhoods like Georgetown and Adams Morgan.
Bill Adams, a fund-raiser for the National Organization of Women and a member of the Adams Morgan Organization, commented that "It gives the people a feeling of power. . . . All day long we're trampled on by big business and here we have a chance to fight back, right in our own neighborhoods."
Donald Shannon, president of the Georgetown Citizens Association, said: "We've been opposing liquor licenses till we're blue in the face." Shannon complained that Georgetown has too many bars and restaurants and that, with the raising of Maryland's drinking age to 21, the neighborhood will be over run by teen-agers.
But in this Takoma neighborhood, which has no bar, it is a question of finding an owner who can win the favor of influential residents, and many single adults yearning for a watering hole they can frequent.
Robert Hinton, a 40-year-old prospective restauranteur, now a regular at Plan Takoma meetings, has won the group's approval to open a bar or restaurant but has had less luck with bank loan officials. Others have tested the waters, but as of yet there have been no takers.