After a summer of late-weekend cruising, colossal crowds and constant complaints, Broad Street's hottest Sunday night corridor is now a tow-away zone.
The strip of West Broad Street from Belvidere to Harrison is still cooling off after months of Sunday-night heat as the asphalt backdrop to what used to be Urban Night. Crowds of mostly black teens and young adults clustered here by the hundreds. Many went to nearby clubs like Twisters and The Boss. Those who couldn't get in endlessly cruised Broad or parked bumper-to-bumper on the north and south sides of the street. The rest spilled over into parking lots, until these were roped off. Along with detailed cars, sport bikes, stereos and cell phones, a few even brought lawn chairs. It was the ultimate block party. But for Richmond Police, it was a ticking time bomb.
Today, this portion of Broad Street is a ghost town on Sunday nights, thanks less to cold weather than police persistence and the costly threat of tow trucks. After a summer of Sunday-night gridlock, sizable overtime spent on extra policing, and countless complaints from city residents who live off Broad, police from the 3rd Precinct recommended that "no parking" signs be installed on both sides of Broad from Belvidere to Boulevard.
And while police welcome the quiet, empty streets, some area businesses have closed Sundays and complained that police action went too far. What's more, what some view as nixing crowds for public safety, others see as a racially targeted crackdown.
Urban Night was an all-black event, with very few exceptions. Hip-hop the popular music that combines soul, rap, jazz, funk and reggae pulsed inside clubs and outside on stereos across city blocks. Nearly 300 packed in Twisters on Grace Street to bump and grind to the mixings of Lonnie B or DJ Foot and DJ Reese. The Red Light Inn heralded all-black women dancers and tagged the night Chocolate Sundays. And around the corner on Harrison, The Boss sizzled at capacity with 450 over-18-year-olds who each paid up to $10 at the door to dance to house music by Power 93.
Now on Sundays, except for The Boss, the colossal crowds are gone, along with the traffic jams, lawn chairs and neighbor complaints. And it's not just because of cold weather. Three weeks ago more than 120 "no parking" signs were installed on either side of Broad Street from Belvidere to Boulevard. The signs read: "No parking 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Monday thru Sunday." The signs are the result of police requests, says Steve Hanson with the city's office of traffic engineering. Hanson says the purpose of the signs is to prevent cruising on Broad Street and to eliminate crime problems. And at $25 each, they're cheaper than paying for extra police patrols. So far, Hanson and Lt. Clay Hamilton of the 3rd Precinct say the signs have worked. Cruising has practically been eliminated and parking on Broad has stopped.
"Over the years there have been trouble spots [on Broad Street], and it's normal if people are allowed to park," says Hamilton. Consistently on Sundays complaints were made by area residents about loud music and crowds that blocked traffic. Hamilton concedes it wasn't that more arrests were being made, but that the types of things police stopped people for cruising, drinking and acting disorderly could escalate to more serious crimes. In the early '90s, Hamilton says a similar type of cruising and conduct ballooned off Broad near DMV and in the old Farmer Jack's parking lot. Despite criticism by some that police used excessive harassment with this latest group of mostly black young people, Hamilton says the same force was used in the DMV Drive and Farmer Jack situations where the crowds were mostly white. And, he adds, "no parking" signs proved effective then as they do now.
But Nat Dance questions the timing of the signs and says their placement reflects a frequent police response: too little, too late. When Dance, 34, opened The Boss seven years ago, he remembers "people used to tell me not to advertise anything as hip-hop because it would bring to mind the image of a gangsta, drugs and guns. Now it's the thing."
Dance says the problem with Urban Night was not so much in the way police handled it, but in the way nobody addressed the problem for what it is: fear of large groups of black people partying. "Blacks don't want to say anything because they're embarrassed, whites don't want to address it because they're afraid they'll come across as racial. But I'd pay a million bucks for a system that would tell us who's a thug and who's not."
That's why in addition to his own security inside, Dance uses off-duty Richmond police officers to comb the area outside on Thursdays and Sundays the nights when it's a hip-hop crowd, and mainly black."I know it's an urban crowd, I know what to expect. Out of every 10 there's one you have to check and be extra cautious about. It's reality and you can't turn a blind eye." On the hip-hop nights and not on Latin nights or disco nights that are mainly white Dance uses the off-duty police and checks bags at the door. "I know what the element can be in crowds, I'm inside it." Dance says he understands the police have a job to ensure public safety even if that means patting down black kids and stopping them on the street if they look menacing.
It was Dance who first called police this summer when cruising got out of control. "With so many kids working six days a week, and a lot working Saturdays, Sunday is like Saturday used to be," says Dance. And he thinks, so far, Richmond's been lucky. "You have to know the groups you're dealing with in other clubs in other cities it's Dodge City."
And Dance says the black twenty-somethings who go to The Boss on Thursdays and Sundays don't seem troubled by the club's no-drugs, no-weapons policy. "When they come here, they enter the safe zone. And they'd rather come here than go to parties in their own neighborhoods."
Twisters on Grace Street started hosting Sunday hip-hop nights in June. But the club's manager Jerry Burd says his club quickly was targeted by police for any possible infraction they could find, like not having beer invoices in proper enough order. "We were harassed more on that night, even though the crowd was no more trouble than on hard-core or punk nights," says Burd. Dance, too, says, "I'm looked at more by police and ABC agents" on nights when The Boss has a hip-hop theme. Burd admonishes "It's a classic case of institutionalized racism."
Burd acknowledges that there was a problem with traffic and cruising, but he believes police response was too overpowering. "They'd bring in K-9 units, they would use pepper spray. These officers were out of control," says Burd. Add the roadblocks set up by police, Burd says, and the wrong tone was set for kids right from the night's start. "By the time they make it to the club, they're pissed." Burd says that police crowd-control efforts went far beyond reasonable scope of action. "I'd see these kids cuffed with their face to the concrete, and it's unnerving."
Richmond Police's Hamilton says, "Yes, it's true we may have four or five officers on an individual," if, that person's caught breaking the law or resisting, for things like drug possession or disorderly conduct. "But that's to protect both the officers and the individual from injury," says Hamilton. "Pepper spray is the least amount of force we use," he says. And any type of force, he adds, is a last resort.
Until two months ago, Twisters' business on hip-hop Sundays was booming, but rather than fight police, Burd decided to close. "Ten officers would come in weekly and stop people on the dance floor and shine flashlights in their face." Burd says this hassle was costly. Closing means one less night of revenue for the club, bartenders, three off-duty sheriff's deputies and promoters. "Maybe if I had the resources of a Hard Rock Cafe I'd fight." But for now, the chance of a Hip-Hop Night Redux is slim.
More than the cost or the halted hip-hop, Burd feels this is a loss to the city. "All this police attention says to the kids is, they're not welcome in the city. They'll go away with a negative experience, and they're not going to forget
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