A large group of Virginia Commonwealth University students in semiformal threads and sparkling cocktail dresses gyrate on the gridlocked dance floor. Stone-faced young men in tilted baseball caps stand on the margins of the crowd, bobbing their heads to the heavy bass of rapper Gucci Mane. Outside in a line along the velvet rope, women impatiently clack their heels on the concrete to try to stay warm while a burly doorman checks IDs. It's early, 10:45 p.m., and a relatively quiet Friday night at Have a Nice Day CafAc in Shockoe Bottom.
Tucked away on 18th Street, just off East Main, the nightclub appears nestled in darkness. Unlike the other nightclubs and restaurants crammed together along Main Street in a typical row-house grid, the building stands alone, its vastness amplified by a mostly empty parking lot to the north. It's painted black, shooting up three stories, and on good nights this old warehouse can swallow as many as 700 people.
The summer-long debate about how to quash nightclub violence throughout the city has taken several twists and turns, but sights have ultimately been set here, in Richmond's oldest neighborhood. More specifically at the corner of 18th and Main, on the building with the yellow Wal-Mart-like smiley reflecting in rippling waters that fade down the wall, a holdover from its 1980s predecessor, the Flood Zone.
The club unwittingly has become ground zero in the city's political war on nightlife. A fight that erupted outside the club in April led to an exchange of gunfire in the adjacent parking lot, killing a Petersburg man. It was one of many incidents throughout the city this year, including two teen dance parties that turned violent on West Broad Street and another spring shooting in the Bottom.
In the process the neighborhood has become exhibit A amid a growing perception that nightlife in the city has become unruly, violent and out of control — leading City Council to adopt a controversial dance hall ordinance Sept. 13, which attempts to hold club owners accountable for violence that spills into the streets.
In a span of a few short weeks, the two murders in Shockoe Bottom led to a show of force by Richmond police and City Hall. A three-club event in mid-May, which goading promoters dubbed Shockoe Bottom Shutdown, drew heavy police presence — officers on horseback, a mobile police command center and tower, complete with spotlights and a city street sweeper that doused the sidewalks to disperse crowds when the clubs let out.
Many see the ordinance as a necessity. It requires more security officers for larger crowds, for example, and background checks for club managers and promoters. It passed unanimously, with the mayor's blessing.
But others say there are larger forces at play. They worry that restrictive regulations will make it difficult for clubs to stay in business, undermining the city's growing reputation as a thriving regional hub for arts, culture and music.
“The city needs to come up with a real plan to embrace entertainment, and how it works for everybody,” says Thomas “Fat Thomi” Hairston, owner of X Records in Richmond. “You've got to figure out how entertainment can exist and work hand in hand with the city.”
The debate also has a decidedly racial tinge. The clubs targeted by the ordinance mostly cater to blacks, and proponents of cracking down on the clubs are largely white business owners and politicians. The debate, some say, is underscored by some old demons in a city that's still racially divided.
“There are certain business interests that do not embrace nightlife,” says Councilman Marty Jewell, who supports and voted for the dance hall regulations. “And in this city, there is still unease among some people about too many black folks being in one place at the same time.”
How the battle over nightlife found its way into Shockoe Bottom is no accident. The area developed into the city's most popular nightlife district in the early 1990s, when destinations such as Castle Thunder, Bird In Hand and the Flood Zone drew legions of college students and hipsters. Nightclubs are destinations, and successful ones manage to do the bulk of their business on weekends and scattered weeknights.
After the tobacco manufacturers began leaving in the 1960s, the neighborhood was hit with two major floods in 1969 and 1972, forcing many traditional retail shops and restaurants to close. In a sense, the area never fully recovered. Few business owners were willing to invest in an area prone to flooding, and the nightclubs took hold.
When a flood wall was completed in 1995, the Bottom again became desirable. Developers erected thousands of loft apartments along Tobacco Row, and new restaurants, retail shops and offices emerged.
A few got in early, seeing Shockoe Bottom as the city's last link for potential development, the lost neighborhood wedged between Church Hill and Tobacco Row and the city's financial district. Kenneth Farino, a downtown lawyer who began amassing property in the Bottom in the 1980s, envisioned a Bohemian, Soholike community, drawing young people to live in loft apartments and bringing in new cafes and restaurants. Law offices and advertising outfits also relocated to the neighborhood.
While development began to change the area, the main drag on Main Street continued to suffer from high turnover and vacancies. The city's banks remained reluctant to invest in the area. Meanwhile, the Bottom continued to solidify its niche as a throbbing entertainment district.
“The big difference between then and now? The only game in town was down here,” says Farino, who was in town last week to check on his properties and visit his son, who attends VCU. Twenty years ago, the Bottom drew young people from all walks, and the crowds were more diverse. Now, there's Short Pump, and other restaurant and nightclubs near the population centers in the suburbs.
While the area has seen a second wave of residential development since 2000, to the east along Tobacco Row and in Church Hill, development in the Bottom has been slow to take hold. Tropical Storm Gaston flooded the streets in 2004 — ironically, the flood wall kept water out of the river while intense rain overflowed the storm water drainage system — stunting progress again.
But the Bottom remains a potential, undeveloped jewel in the eyes of city leaders and developers. Millions have been pumped into Main Street Station to the west, with visions of high-speed trains and revival of the adjacent 17th Street Farmers' Market. Plans to build a slave history museum are in the works. New cafes, restaurants and retail shops have opened, catering to young professionals living nearby.
And then there's the nightlife, which is thriving again. New clubs are opening in the 1700 block of Main Street, the neighborhood's main drag, breathing new life into vacant properties. But the nightclubs are drawing on a different clientele. The music is mostly hip-hop. The club goers are mostly black.
Whether or not the increasing perception that the Bottom is unsafe has something to do with race is open for debate. One thing is clear: Despite the perception, violent crime in the area during the last five years has declined — significantly. From 2005 to 2009, major crime incidents dropped 46 percent. Violent crime — including aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder — has largely gone unchanged. Until this year. So far in 2010, violent crime is on track to reach a six-year low. With a month to go in the year, major crime in Shockoe Bottom is on pace to drop more than 50 percent since 2005.
Richmond police officer Craig Buchbinder, who was on patrol in the neighborhood on a recent weekend, says the need for greater police presence is due to the concentration of nightclubs, not necessarily high crime. And he says the area has gotten safer of late. “It's gotten better over the last year or two,” he says.
The two homicides in the Bottom this year are an aberration: The shooting deaths of Jeremy Uzzle on April 24 and Reshawn Devon Thurman on May 9, both from Petersburg, account for the neighborhood's only two homicides since 2005. Still, the killings have cast a long shadow over the area.
The violence hurts business, including Have a Nice Day CafAc, says Rodney Peterson, owner of the club. Peterson and his brother, Ray, have accumulated several buildings and operate two nightclubs, including Vision Ultra Lounge at 1718 E. Main St. Peterson also recently purchased the former 321 Supper Club a few doors down, which he's converting into an upscale nightclub called Aqua Lounge, complete with waterfall windows and a 265-gallon, 7-foot-long shark tank. By the time the new club opens in early December, Peterson will have spent more than $100,000 renovating the building. Another one of his properties is being converted into a Caribbean restaurant.
During the last two or three years, Peterson, 36, says he's been pushing the age limit up, attempting to draw more mature crowds to the Bottom. He regularly brands events as “grown and sexy.”
At 6-foot-6, Peterson is a giant of a man and easily could be mistaken for a bouncer. He dresses simply, in solid T-shirts and sweats, and wears fitted baseball caps with a slight tilt. Peterson grew up in the Richmond area and graduated from L.C. Bird High School. He got into the business in 2003.
“We've got a lot invested down here,” he says, adding that he purchased the former 321 Supper Club because he wanted to prevent someone else from coming in and continuing its reputation as a place for younger, 18-and-older crowds, which he says are responsible for most of the violent incidents. “We've turned Main Street around.”
Peterson only recently took over Have a Nice Day CafAc, which Farino owns, and says the club's more suited to college parties and the younger set. He could renovate the place into something more upscale, but says it would require a hefty investment, upward of $150,000. “It costs money and you've got to rebrand the whole thing,” Peterson says. As for his other clubs, which attract older crowds, he says he'd prefer the crowds to be more diverse, and ultimately that's the direction he wants to go.
“I don't want an urban club or a black club right now,” he says, “but they are the only people spending money.”
Indeed, other operators say urban clubs can be lucrative. There's a strong market for nightclubs that cater to black clientele, not surprising in a majority black city.
Farino says it's a matter of simple economics. “If you decide to take all nightlife out of the city, you are going to take a lot of money out of the city,” he says. “If you have an issue with black clubs, where do you want them to be? … If you don't have it here, you've got to have it somewhere.”
Peterson sees the recent complaints about Bottom nightclubs as racially motivated. He and other club operators have been working to lure mature crowds, he says, with strict dress codes — no white T-shirts or sneakers, for example, attire preferred by the younger set. The white business owners and developers in the Bottom, he says, look out of their office building windows and see only black faces.
“You're up in those buildings and all you see is black people,” he says. “You don't see black people with ... collars and careers.”
David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association, says he has no problem with urban clubs in the Bottom, but is incredulous about the recent violence, particularly at Have a Nice Day CafAc.
“If we didn't have violent crime related to bar activity, the neighborhood would be in a lot better position,” says Napier, who runs a catering business out of the old City Bar next to Main Street Station. “The urban culture is not what's causing the problems in Shockoe Bottom; it's the bottom five or 10 percent.”
Napier says he and Peterson don't agree on some things, but they both want the Bottom to see some positive economic growth. Both were in attendance during last week's planning meeting at Main Street Station, organized to explore possible revitalization strategies for the neighborhood. After the most recent ballpark proposal for the area fell through last year, the city embarked on a wide-reaching study about its future.
But Napier expresses the frustration that many property and business owners feel about the process. The Bottom has been studied to death, he says, and it's high time the city got serious about developing the area.
“If we can all put our colored crayons away and get out some shovels,” Napier says, “we'll be all right.”
Just where entertainment and nightlife fit into such redevelopment strategies — in Shockoe Bottom and elsewhere in the city — is unclear. Some fear City Hall isn't doing much to encourage a healthy nightlife. Its handling of the new dance hall ordinance is case in point. After City Council passed the new law on Sept. 13, officials were slow to create the permit application forms and establish a clear process for nightclubs and restaurants to comply. The businesses were given 60 days to submit permit applications or face civil charges and possible closure, but the city didn't make the forms available until Nov. 5, giving owners a week to meet the Nov. 13 deadline.
Nat Dance, owner of Club 534 on Harrison Street near VCU, was the first to submit an application to the city, and he says it took him almost a week getting the forms together. He says he spent about eight hours at City Hall dealing with the permits and inspections office, but finally got the paperwork straight.
Dance has battled bureaucracy before. He's been a constant target of raids from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and pressure from university police, and says he's somewhat battle-tested. Others, however, may not be able to survive the bureaucracy at City Hall.
“A lot of people haven't been through that and aren't used to it,” he says. “We are going to be able to survive, but it's going to be very hard.”
The new regulations aren't limited to club owners. The city already bars any prospective club promoter with a felony conviction from obtaining the required business permit. But with the passage of the new ordinance, club promoters — who are often the real power brokers when it comes to luring crowds and bringing business to the clubs — now must submit to criminal background checks.
Under the new rules, dance hall owners are barred from bringing in promoters who have been convicted of any of a litany of criminal offenses specified by the new ordinance — possession or conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance or firearm, for example. Some say a conviction for what might be a minor offense shouldn't prevent someone from entering the business.
“It's an easy hustle for people to get into,” says longtime concert promoter Carleen Burrell, chief operating officer of Carleen Presents. “So I don't understand why you would take that away from someone who maybe made some mistakes but is trying to go legit.”
For now, the future of Richmond nightlife is cloudy. The city hasn't made it easy for those in the entertainment business. In addition to the nightclub regulations, City Council has also passed a relatively new noise ordinance, which appears to be unconstitutional, according to local defense lawyers and Richmond's commonwealth's attorney, Mike Herring. Last year, the city also cracked down on the increasingly popular First Fridays Art Walk, sending fire marshals and building inspectors to East Broad Street and threatening to shutter participating galleries.
How the nightclub battle plays out in Shockoe Bottom likely will determine the future. At Have a Nice Day CafAc on a recent Friday night, it's difficult to tell how it became public enemy No. 1.
“You've got to look at it from this perspective, would [University of Richmond] and VCU keep allowing kids to hold private parties here if it was that dangerous?” asks Tyonne, the lone female member of the club's security team, surveying the dance floor from the second-floor balcony. On this night, Have a Nice Day is a United Colors of Benetton ad, filled with a multiracial cast of students and hip-hop club-kids, all of them grinding against each other with enthusiasm.
Tyonne has worked security at Have a Nice Day for the past two years. She says Shockoe Bottom's reputation as a den of lawlessness is “way overblown.” Minutes later, she's on the floor tussling with a male patron.
When tempers die down, Tyonne relays the story. She'd been attempting to help one of the VCU students locate her lost purse. Frustrated after 15 minutes of fruitless search, the girl's date got aggressive. “So, I tried to walk him out,” she says. Instead, they ended up on the floor in a scrum, sending her nerd-chic glasses, a few chairs and a table flying. But the club's security team — eight strong — gains control of the fight without it escalating further. There are no arrests.
“And here I just got through telling you about how quiet it usually is,” she says.