Last Call?: East St. Louis nightclubs under siege

It's three thirty on a humid Saturday morning. Last call in St. Louis was 45 minutes ago, and now Club Casino's getting wild. A party-hungry swarm has completed its migration across the Mississippi River, drawn like moths to the neon-orange glow of the nightclub's marquee. Here, just off Interstate 255 on State Street in the heart of East St. Louis, they'll dance till dawn.

Under a moon-size disco ball, the floor is a sea of bobbing dreadlocks and flat-brimmed ball caps. A syrup-slow bass line thumps over the speakers, the beat sped up by synthesizers and a jittery hi-hat. A woman in a tiny pink dress grabs her ankles while her partner steps up behind her and grinds. Others do a knee-swinging version of the twist, adding a sly two-step that looks like walking in place with swagger.

The air-conditioning has been off since an electrical transformer in the parking lot blew just after midnight. It's sticky and sweaty, and a haze of menthol and blunt smoke adds weight to the air. Enclosed in a tinted glass booth, Derrty DJ C-Note spins minute-long song snippets, fittingly referred to as "club bangers," prompting mass sing-alongs to choruses like "Donk dat booty," "Do da booty do" and "Ride dat pussy."

"Call yo' people, tell 'em we still open!" C-Note shouts. "We gon' keep it poppin'! Text yo' people and tell 'em it is on!"

Seated on a stool beneath the fluorescent lights at the club's entrance, holding a fistful of $10 admission cash, Cedric Taylor, Club Casino's owner, imparts that attendance on this night is about 280 — less than half of what the club averaged three months ago in the dead of winter.

That was before the trouble started.

On March 19, leaders from across the metro east gathered at a press conference and demanded that East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks, who also serves as the city's liquor commissioner, make the nightclubs in his jurisdiction close earlier. Several establishments remain open until 6 a.m., and law-enforcement officials say patrons, primed by a night on the town in neighboring St. Louis, arrive in East St. Louis in the wee hours and wreak havoc.

A week after the press conference, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Parks' office in city hall, carting off documents pertaining to what the mayor has delicately characterized as an investigation of "unlawful solicitation of money regarding liquor licenses."

Responding to mounting public concern, Parks called an "emergency town-hall meeting" on April 4 to discuss the situation. There he distributed a survey that asked respondents to circle the time they would prefer local nightspots to stop serving liquor. The options were 2 a.m., 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.

"After that a lot of people thought we were closing at two," Cedric Taylor says. "We had people cruising by at 3:30 who would stop in and say, 'I thought you guys were supposed to be closed.' We did an ad on the radio — $2,000 just to say, 'Hey, we're still open.'"

Parks decided late last month not to curtail the 6 a.m. closing time, but the controversy is far from resolved. The FBI investigation looms over the mayor's head, and his political rivals have pounced on the galvanizing issue.

Taylor, who maintains he's merely an upstanding citizen trying to provide a safe place to party, says his livelihood hangs in the balance.

"Don't penalize me because there are some idiots out there who don't run their club like a business," the club owner gripes. "It's these little, I call them holes in the wall, that have about 50 people in them and have an incident every week. We have 500 people and never have any problems. It reflects poorly on the city, and it's upsetting to get lumped in with a problem that we're not a part of."

East St. Louis nightlife has long been the stuff of legend. Thanks to Chuck Berry, the local juke joints were among the first in the world to feature rock & roll. Ike met the future Tina Turner in a downtown bar called Club Manhattan. And before Miles Davis became a jazz icon, he was tooting his horn here, in the city nicknamed "East Boogie."

Today, according to Mayor Parks, 70 East St. Louis establishments are licensed to sell liquor. Of those, 8 are classified as nightclubs and remain open until 6 a.m. The 2 most popular venues, Club Casino and Blackmon's Plaza, have been around for decades.

Cedric Taylor has owned and operated Club Casino for 21 years. When it opened, the place was called Club 24/7 and was a popular stop for touring funk and R&B groups. These days it hosts after-parties for national hip-hop artists who perform across the river in St. Louis. In the past year, the club has hosted events for rappers Jim Jones, Soulja Boy, Yo Gotti and St. Louis' own Nelly, to name just a few.

"We went from the Temptations to Gucci Mane," Taylor says, conceding he's more of a Marvin Gaye sort of guy.

For as long as the city has been known as a place to party till dawn, it has battled an equally gaudy reputation for crime, violence and corruption.

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