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Neal Connors is bullish on Belleville. The 42-year-old suburban-Chicago native arrived in this city of 41,000 ten years ago and quickly fell in love with its rural and metropolitan charms. In 2001 he opened Main Street Jazz & Blues, where today barflies sip pints of Schlafly and vibe to live music.
Located on downtown's historic main drag, Connors' establishment is part of the city's burgeoning bar scene, where, in recent years, increasingly larger crowds have been drawn to venues like Castletown, Geoghegan, the Ground Floor and an outpost of Soulard mainstay Big Daddy's.
"Belleville really seems to be coming alive and starting to establish itself as a destination," says Rick Ortiz, director of Belleville Main Street, a downtown booster organization. "I see it as something comparable to U. City or the Central West End or Soulard on this side of the river. It's starting to have kind of a renaissance."
But many local pub owners fear the thriving nightlife may be in jeopardy. Since former Granite City police chief Dave Ruebhausen became Belleville's top cop last December, the town's watering holes, bar owners say, are being closely monitored by police looking for underage drinkers and bars staying open past the 2 a.m. closing time.
"They're just watching everybody like a hawk," says Gay-Ann Blondell, owner of Pour Haus, a karaoke bar.
"You get a little scared that if you piss off the wrong person, you're gonna get shut down," says Bobby Menard, a former metro-east bar owner. Menard says police are more intent on punishing bar owners than patrons who break the law. "You don't seem to have that problem in other cities, like you do here."
Belleville's 85-member police force has issued 38 citations for drunken driving through April of this year. Jason R. Kent, the owner of Friday's South, was arrested in January for serving booze past 2 a.m.
"I was belligerent because [four police officers] were there five or ten minutes after 2 a.m. trying to kick everybody out," Kent told the Belleville News-Democrat. "It struck me as odd that they were even there."
In early March simmering tensions came to a full boil when police raided Main Street Jazz & Blues. Acting on information from undercover surveillance and a tip that gun-toting gang members might be attending a hip-hop concert, twenty police officers, some with canines in tow, shut down the performance.
"Everybody was trying to get the fuck out of there," recalls Imran Rao, DJ for the group Fu-Fops, who were performing that night. "A cop yanked the mic away from one of my rappers. He said, 'If any of you gang-bangers in here have firearms, just lay them on the ground and we can end this peacefully.' Outside, there were all these SWAT team guys with assault rifles. One was running around with what looked like a freaking rocket launcher, but I'm guessing was a tear-gas launcher."
No firearms were found. One patron was charged with possession of marijuana, and two bartenders were caught serving alcohol to minors, who had purchased drinks as part of the sting. The bartenders were not prosecuted.
Putting people behind bars wasn't the point of the raid, Chief Ruebhausen says. "Our focus there was to not necessarily be interested in the prosecution of those people. It was to send a message to the bar owners. The real penalty of that case came with the suspension and the fine not the prosecution of an employee."
Main Street Jazz & Blues was briefly shut down. Connors paid a $1,000 fine and fired the bartenders who served the minors. If there were concerns about his club, Connors says, he wishes police would have contacted him first. "No one ever said to me, 'Hey Neal, what's the scene at your place?'"
Rao, meanwhile, says more than 100 people were coming to the Fu-Fops' weekly shows before the March incident. Now, it's less than twenty. "A lot of our fan base is kind of scared to go out there now, because they're worried about having to deal with the police," he says.
Says Ruebhausen: "If they want to get involved in police work and police chief decisions, they should become [a police officer], and then they'll understand why we do those things. It was for the safety of the officers, and the safety of the patrons. If they think I'm going to send two beat cops into a bar with 100 or 150 people in it and close it down, that's not good policing. That's not good safety."
Elizabeth Gold, owner of Deuce's Wild located in a residential neighborhood claims excessive policing has cut into her livelihood. Because of noise complaints, she says, the police chief and mayor demanded she close at 9 p.m., three nights a week.
"I'm a single mother with two kids. I'm struggling," says Gold. "Everybody goes somewhere else when they know they're going to get kicked out at 9 o'clock at night. You can't even finish watching a football, hockey or baseball game."
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, who also serves as Belleville's liquor commissioner, denies that police have heightened bar scrutiny.
"We were just as aggressive in making sure the law wasn't broken under [former police chief] Terry Delaney as we are with Dave Ruebhausen," says Eckert. "Nothing's changed at all. If it comes to underage drinking, if it comes to the possession of drugs being used inside an establishment, or if it comes to where we get a lead on a possible dangerous situation, we approach it the same way we always have."