Trouble plagues bars that cater to growing minority population

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Monday, August 3, 2009
— Hip-hop clubs have run into problems with the authorities in Janesville, which raises the question: Can a community accommodate the entertainment desires of a growing minority population without conflict?

A perfect answer does not seem to be within anyone's grasp in Janesville or elsewhere. Even Madison, famed for its supposed welcoming of diversity, in recent years has experienced several violent incidents at hip-hop nightclubs and accusations of unfair police treatment.

In Janesville, Spankys featured late-night dancing with mostly hip-hop and rhythm & blues in 2007-08. Corvina's at 123 E. Milwaukee St. now has much the same music.

In both cases, police got involved when violent incidents were linked to those bars.

Corvina's owner Janelle Barlass appeared before the city's alcohol license advisory committee July 7 to answer police concerns. She said police unfairly target her bar because many patrons are "a different culture of people."

The subtext: Maybe there's a racial element to the conflict.

Police say they target behavior, not skin color. Deputy Chief Steve Kopp said police walk-throughs of bars are common, and police don't visit Corvina's more often than any other downtown bar.

Bar owners and police interviewed for this story said the way bars are managed is crucial, especially when patrons are youthful. Bouncers must be trained to spot and defuse trouble, and some believe music can play a pivotal role in controlling a crowd.

Fingers were pointed at the music played both at Spankys and Corvina's. Can a bar feature hip-hop and provide a peaceful experience for patrons?

"I don't know. I really don't know," said Matt Schreier, owner of the Looking Glass bar and member of the alcohol license committee.

Spankys, at 18-24 S. River St. River St., closed in 2008 as the city was moving to shut it down. Corvina's is open. The owner said she has improved security.

Spankys had many more serious incidents than Corvina's, Deputy Chief Steve Kopp acknowledged, adding that police are trying to get out ahead of any trouble at Corvina's.

Quotes Bar & Grill, which is located two blocks from Corvina's, had more police contacts since Jan. 1, Kopp pointed out.

"The difference between Quotes and a lot of other establishments is most of the incidents are reported by Quotes," Kopp said. "They're recognizing the problem, and they're calling us. We don't hold it against the bar. That's what we want in these situations."

'Discriminated against'

Barlass said she doesn't call police because there's never been an incident that her staff couldn't handle.

Police reports from May 14 to July 19 show only two violent incidents at Corvina's.

The worst was the June 28 stabbing of one woman by another woman a block away from Corvina's. Police believe the suspect, who was 20 and not legally allowed to drink, was served at Corvina's earlier in the evening.

The victim was treated and released at Mercy Hospital. Police still are investigating and not releasing details.

In the other violence report, a brief fistfight, police were not even sure the violence had happened, reports indicate.

"Why am I a trouble bar? I've not had any arrests in the bar," Barlass said, adding that she's always been open and honest with the police.

Many of the incidents police have connected to Corvina's have been minor, such as a stolen purse or a bicycle stolen from outside, she said.

"I don't know how I'm not supposed to think I'm being discriminated against," she said.

In an April incident when Corvina's was under different ownership, a 23-year-old Janesville man was hit on the head with a bottle, causing injuries that required 12 stitches. The incident was related to a Beloit gang dispute, and some witnesses said a handgun was involved, police reports indicate.

One witness told police that when a bar gets shut down in Beloit, gang members often pick a bar in Janesville, and in April that bar was Corvina's.

Barlass said her dress code focuses on keeping gangs out.

Kopp said police are scrutinizing Corvina's out of concerns of officers, two nearby bar owners, another neighbor of Corvina's and passersby, Kopp said.

The common thread in the complaints is large numbers of people standing outside the Corvina's entrance on the busy corner of Milwaukee Street and Parker Drive.

The role of race

David Toles, who has taken over as Corvina's security chief, said people's concerns might be heightened because of the crowd's race.

"Janesville isn't used to seeing but a handful of black people, and yet you've got a whole room full of them on the weekend," Toles said.

Whether race played a role in complainants' perceptions is anyone's guess. Local diversity specialist Bob Baldwin said it's plausible.

"Bias exists, and it exists because whites don't have to think about it. They don't have to think about how their actions affect other people," Baldwin said. "As an African-American man, my presence can affect people, just by the fact that I'm there."

"When people are reporting these behaviors to us, they are not saying it is black people or white people. They're saying it's groups of people," Kopp said. "I can't speak for what's going on in people's minds. But what is being portrayed to us is, it's people. It's not people of a different race."

Kopp said he focuses on practical matters, such as safety: "It doesn't take too many people on that corner to crowd into the street. I have safety concerns. Somebody could get clipped by a vehicle."

Madison, a much larger city, has had worse if similar clashes in recent years.

As recently as February, participants at one Madison dance event accused police there of overreacting to a report of a fight at bar time. The Brink Lounge announced it was banning hip-hop shows after that event, according to The Capital Times.

Music mix

Quotes, 24 N. Main St., is a bar that also garnered police scrutiny shortly after it opened about five years ago.

Quotes owner Denise Carpenter said she was not ready for the influx of youthful partiers, but she soon learned. She now offers her bar as a model for how to control a crowd of youthful drinkers.

Quotes is not a hip-hop bar, but it does play some of the hip-hop that makes it into the Top 40.

Carpenter said it doesn't matter the style of music. She wants to keep her music mix full of what she calls happy songs, not angry songs.

"It's the overall feel of the music, kind of positive and upbeat versus something that could be more aggressive and attract the wrong crowd and perhaps make people who are happy-go-lucky to not act so happy," said Quotes disc jockey and security chief Bill Salmon.

Carpenter also bans a few rock songs and slow-moving R&B tunes, such as Kanye West's "Good Life," which can cause a gloomy mood, she said. Other banned songs cause dancers to want to bump and grind on other dancers who might not want that.

"There's a lot of great hip-hop, great rap out there that's happy," Carpenter said.

She also won't play heavy metal rock music, except on sparsely attended Monday nights.

Barlass said she doesn't allow gangster rap at Corvina's, but she's had trouble with DJs who ignored that ban when they got requests from the crowd. She said she's gone through three DJs because they didn't obey her orders.

Barlass said she had to wait until the end of the night to fire the DJs. "If you cut it off, you're going to create a riot. It's kind of a touchy situation," she said.

Barlass said her background is in classical music, but "I understand what angry, violent music is. I'm not an idiot."

Other than those constraints, Barlass said she tells her DJ to "play what people want" because "I need this bar packed."

Normally, however, the bar is packed only in the late-night hours on weekends.

Carpenter calls Quotes "an entry-level bar," a place where the 21-plus set can learn proper behavior, and Quotes provides it, she said.

Carpenter backs up her control of musical choices with security. Sixteen cameras are mounted inside and outside the bar, she said. Four bouncers are on duty on busy nights—similar to Corvina's security force.

Everyone who enters Quotes must have an ID that is scanned to verify it's real and to ensure that anyone on the bar's database of banned patrons stays out.

The bar staff and bouncers are trained to recognize trouble before it starts, Carpenter said.

"It's being aware of what's going on in your bar, the mood that your customers are in. Good bartenders, good door staff, should be able to see a situation starting before it bubbles over," agreed Matt Schreier, owner of the nearby Looking Glass bar.

Carpenter has sent her staff to the Janesville police's occasional conflict-resolution training. Barlass has indicated an interest in an upcoming session, police said.

Corvina's has something Quotes doesn't have, a metal detector.

The detector wand was used on every patron who entered on a recent Friday night.

A female bouncer with a flashlight searched women's purses.

No one objected to being searched.

They seemed to expect it.

Last updated: 11:14 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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