Perhaps 2,000 people are crowded into J's on the Landing to see hip-hop chart-toppers the Hot Boys. The four members prance the stage, barking out hard street- life rhymes while a DJ behind them spins window-rattling beats. They press their microphones tight against their mouths, swapping rhymes with each other as they bounce to the rhythms. The Hot Boys, along with leader Juvenile, who will soon perform solo, are part of New Orleans' Cash Money Records, one of the hottest- selling rap labels on the planet. Outside the bar at the northern edge of Laclede's Landing, hundreds of people gather -- some on sidewalks, some on vacant lots near the bar, some in bumper-to-bumper cars on Biddle and Carr streets, some on the balcony of the neighboring Super Inn, which affords an unobstructed view of the bar's outdoor stage and monstrous patio. Tickets cost $35, but the music doesn't stop at the bar's boundary. It boom-booms into the warm September night, drawing hundreds if not thousands of young people.
At the entrance to J's, everyone is frisked and IDs are checked. Many never go inside the bar, where handwritten signs advertise Moët White Star Champagne, cheese fries, hamburgers and hot wings. A glass of ice water costs a buck. The bar does a decent, but not booming, business. The line is short enough that you can get a Bud in less than a minute. Bar co-owner Jeff Eilers appears casual as he roams the premises in jeans and a forest-green sportcoat with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a glass of Sprite in hand, a slight smile on his face. He's looking over the crowd, showing soundmen where to set up their equipment and making sure the opening acts get on- and offstage smoothly. The crowd applauds when he's introduced as the man who has provided a place for music that has a hard time getting booked in other clubs. Everything seems orderly.
There are no obvious drunks, but some folks are smoking pot and making little attempt to hide it. Three or four groups precede the main acts but don't inspire much excitement among the crowd, which gathers slowly in front of the stage as the evening progresses.
The gathering attracts police as well as hip-hop fans. The cops show up early, just as the crowd starts arriving. They've come to inspect the bar's private security staff, composed mostly of off-duty police officers from departments in St. Louis County.
The scene is somewhat surreal as a dozen or so off-duty cops line up to have their security-guard licenses and uniforms checked by city cops. The inspection is being videorecorded by Sgt. Byron Pargo, an off-duty officer for a small city in the county who coordinates security for J's and who wants to make sure the city cops don't overstep their bounds. Eilers saunters over to watch. Pargo has a copy of city regulations governing private security guards in his hip pocket for quick reference. The procedure has every appearance of the police hassling the police.
"That's exactly what it is," says Pargo. On this night, the city cops send one off-duty county officer home because he doesn't have his city security license with him. Then they retreat to the parking-lot entrance, keeping a watchful eye as traffic crawls in front of them. At least two officers will remain there for most of the night.
Inside, the mood changes instantly when Juvenile, the headline act, takes the stage around midnight. The concert now has an element of controlled mayhem not uncommon when young people -- be they punk rockers, metal heads or rap fans -- get together for a night of cutting-edge music. Dozens jump onto plastic tables and chairs, swaying and stomping until the furniture buckles. Juvenile is accompanied by the audience, which shouts the words of their favorite songs so that the fans are nearly as loud as the performer himself.
The show briefly stops when a fight breaks out in front of the stage. While security guards hustle the combatants out, Eilers jumps to centerstage, picks up a microphone and helps restore order by yelling, "Shut the fuck up!"
The show ends 20 minutes later, after less than an hour of music by the headliner. It's as if someone threw the proverbial light switch. No one seems upset by the short performance. There are no raised voices, no pushing or shoving, no sign of trouble as the audience makes its way to the parking lot. Suddenly a beer bottle falls from the sky and shatters on a woman's head just as she leaves the gate separating the patio from the parking lot. She doesn't appear seriously injured, but paramedics take her to a hospital as a precaution. This show was better than the one held the previous weekend, when two people were shot -- one fatally -- in separate cars stuck in traffic on Collins Street minutes after a concert. Police believe the killing may have been a case of retaliation: the dead man had been acquitted of a gang-related shooting a couple of years earlier. Eilers cradled the wounded man until an ambulance arrived.
J's is empty 10 minutes after the concert ends. The patio is littered with broken glass and busted plastic furniture. There's a lot of work to do before morning, when Rams fans are due for the team's home opener. J's is just two blocks from the four-year-old Trans World Dome, which was part of the attraction when Eilers and his partner, Janet Tennant, bought the land and began building the bar with their own hands in the early 1990s.
A bar at the edge of Laclede's Landing seemed like a such good idea when Eilers, 43, and Tennant, 55, started J's on the Landing six years ago. A place with an outdoor stage, a volleyball court, good food and space for more than 3,000 people couldn't miss, they figured.
They figured wrong.
Tennant and Eilers didn't think they'd become the city's last refuge for hardcore rap any more than they anticipated sinking all their money into a business that's been on the edge of bankruptcy almost from the beginning. They didn't think that they'd get arrested for permit violations or that the city would try to shut them down. They didn't anticipate a near-riot. They didn't want to upset their neighbors.
But all this has happened. Tennant and Eilers blame the cops. They blame city building officials. They blame the Wharfside Redevelopment Corp., which holds development rights in the area. They blame racism. They blame everybody but themselves.
One thing is certain. They've been fighting to survive since they applied for their first building permit in 1992. And they don't plan on quitting now. In July, they filed, then withdrew, a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city, which they claim has tried to shut them down because they do mostly rap shows. They vow they'll soon be back in court with a bigger and better lawsuit.
But first, they're due for a conference tomorrow in the office of Robert Kraiberg, city excise commissioner, to answer charges that they failed to notify his office about the woman who was hit with a beer bottle. Police who reported the incident to Kraiberg consider it a case of assault. Under city liquor laws, licensees are required to notify Kraiberg of any illegal acts on their premises. Eilers isn't worried. He dismisses the matter as "bullshit" and one more attempt by the police to close him down. "I've never been worried about any hearing I've ever had with them," he says. "I've got a right to free enterprise. I had no knowledge that a police report was ever made. It wasn't like somebody came and belted somebody over the head and actually assaulted somebody. It wasn't aimed at anybody. It was something that kids do stupidly."
Hassles with the city were the furthest things from Eilers' and Tennant's minds when they started out as partners in a general-contracting firm about 10 years ago. Both are native St. Louisans; she had experience running an office, and he'd been in the construction business most of his life. With Tennant as president of J. Tennant Construction, they banked on winning contracts reserved for businesses owned by women or minorities.
Eilers had long dreamed of owning a bar. It would fit right in with his love of gourmet cooking and ballroom dancing. As the pair did contracting jobs in bars around Laclede's Landing, a vision formed. "At first, it wasn't the most serious thing," Tennant recalls. "It's just one of those things we fell into. We started looking at property." They found what seemed like the ideal spot, just north of the Landing proper. The land was zoned K, which allows virtually any kind of development. They could have built a slaughterhouse. They could have started a shoe factory, a funeral home or an ice-skating rink, for that matter.
But what the area needed was a place for outdoor entertainment, they concluded. Country music, string quartets, boxing matches or anything else that offered the chance to make a buck would be welcome at J's. During the day and early evening, diners drawn by Eilers' food would flock to the bar. They would build the place themselves, sort of like my-mom-can-make-the-curtains-and-we'll-put-on-a-show. There wasn't anything to tear down. They'd just add onto a tiny building that was already there. The property was surrounded by vacant lots and light-manufacturing businesses that close at night, so noise wouldn't be a problem.
But Eilers and Tennant overlooked the Wharfside Redevelopment Corp. and its president, Thomas Purcell.
In an effort to lure business, the city in 1981 designated the area a blighted zone and gave development rights to Wharfside, a private entity that offers tax abatements to developers. Wharfside is a subsidiary of the Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corp., which oversees development on the Landing. Both redevelopment corporations are headed by Purcell.
During Purcell's long tenure, he's made Laclede's Landing one of St. Louis' leading entertainment and dining centers. The Landing is home to some of the city's best-known restaurants and nightclubs, including Mississippi Nights and Planet Hollywood, and the city's only casino, the President. About 60 people were working in Laclede's Landing when Purcell became the Landing-redevelopment corporation's first president in 1976, when he was just 32 years old. Now, two dozen building renovations later, the area supports 3,000 jobs. "I want to be at 5,000 jobs by the time I get the hell out," Purcell booms. "When I started here, this was nothing. This has taken 23 years of work. It has been a tough, tough time. A lot of people obviously believe in it, because they're investing millions of dollars. There's a lot of money down here."
"Down here" is laid out in building blueprints, maps, aerial photographs and development proposals scattered in a conference room at Purcell's office at 801 N. Second St., in the heart of the Landing. He has charts that show existing and proposed hotels, diagrams that spell out where casinos are now and where they might be in the future. Name someone with an interest in the Landing and Purcell can give you a phone number without looking it up. He's an alumnus of the Peace Corps, an ex-Marine, a St. Louis police commissioner from 1981-85, a mover and shaker, someone on the must-call list for anyone wanting to do business on the Landing. He's not modest. He takes credit for creating jobs and finagling money for road improvements that have opened up the Landing.
Purcell isn't satisfied with the Landing's reputation as a nightclub district. Yes, there are lots of bars and restaurants along quaint cobblestone lanes traveled by horse-drawn carriages toting tourists, but that's not all. "Mixed use" is Purcell's mantra. He boasts that the Landing is the largest office-rehab project between Chicago and New Orleans, a fact easily obscured by the large surplus of parking spaces on weekday afternoons. It's only a matter of time until residential development arrives, he predicts.
All this doesn't happen overnight or by happenstance. Long-term land-use plans are vital, Purcell says, because they provide certainty that lures capital. He aims for perfection in land-use matters because the market can be a cruel mother.
"There's no margin for mistakes -- none," he says.
And the way Purcell sees things, J's has been a mistake from the beginning.
City planners didn't say yes or no when Eilers and Tennant filed their first development application in 1992. They said, "Ask Tom."
Purcell's redevelopment corporations hold the development rights for the Landing and the area immediately north of the Landing, including the property owned by Eilers and Tennant. In order to get property-tax abatements, developers must get Wharfside approval for any new construction.
Purcell said no. In a letter to Tennant dated July 22, 1992, Purcell wrote that the Landing already had more than 18 restaurants and bars, which was enough of that sort of business. "The process is only effective if it says no as well as yes," Purcell wrote. "Thanks for your time. Our decision is no at this stage until further definition of market factors occur after November."
As is the case today, Purcell in the early 1990s hoped that an area that had seen virtually no new development for decades was about to turn a corner. There was money to widen Biddle Street and talk of other road improvements that would improve access. Casinos were interested. He saw the area as a new gaming district. If not casinos, then offices and residential development should go there. Anticipation continues with the recent decision to build a $550 million bridge across the Mississippi just north of the football stadium, which would make it even easier to reach the area once cut off from downtown by railyards and freeways.
Just what Wharfside has in mind for the area has changed over the years, but it doesn't include an expansion of the Landing's nightclub district. Purcell talks plenty, but there's lots of skepticism among property owners who've learned that plans don't always come true.
"They say they're going to do something and then they don't," says Robert Williams, owner of Sev-Rend Corp., a tag- and label-manufacturing business next to J's. "Everything he (Purcell) says is a lot of crap and blue sky. They've had a lot of damn plans. They've had casinos and hotels and residential. It's a joke."
Some business owners, such as Jerry Kirk, like things just the way they are and want more nightclubs and bars, which could generate more customers for his horse-and-carriage business, Brookdale Farms. "That's what people come down here for," he says.
Purcell says he was concerned about the partners' pocketbooks when they first told him about their plans for a bar. He says he doubted the bar would succeed. "I don't want you to lose your money," Purcell says. "I want to see you succeed. My goal is to be right every time for my investors, including Jeff."
But Purcell didn't have the power to say no. Eilers and Tennant asked development officials to cite the legal source of Wharfside's power to scotch their bar. There wasn't one, so long as Eilers and Tennant weren't seeking tax abatement.
So it was that Purcell sent a letter to Tennant, six months after his initial answer, saying Wharfside now took no position on the project. "In addition, the Corporation is always active in pursuing developers to carry out the intent of the plan and when found, the Corporation will assist that developer in every way possible to achieve the defined goals of the Plan," Purcell wrote.
In other words, you can have your way -- for now. But once Purcell found a proposal more to his liking, J's on the Landing would be pushed out. The law gives Wharfside the power of eminent domain to ensure that developments not compatible with its redevelopment plan can be torn down to make room for projects that fit.
Eilers and Tennant say that was fine. They see their bar as a temporary land use, albeit one that might be there for a while. After all, they note, Purcell hasn't been able to lure much development to the area under Wharfside's jurisdiction. And so they went to work. By now, their dreams were really big.
"When we were building it, I would be calling these concrete companies to get prices, and I would say, "We're pouring a 25,000-square-foot patio,'" Tennant says. "They would say, "Oh, honey, don't you mean 2,500, not 25,000? You can't mean 25,000.' And I said, "No, I mean 25,000.'" Today, that patio has an occupancy limit of 2,800 people, with room for 600 more inside the bar.
Although Purcell didn't have the power to approve or deny the project, he kept close tabs on it. As redeveloper for the area, Wharfside is notified of all permit applications and given the right to comment on them. If Purcell didn't get copies, he was quick to ask for them, even for such small things as installing fire doors and wheelchair ramps.
"He wanted to know everything that was going on because if they made one misstep, he was going to be on them like a bad smell," says Karl Dickhaus, attorney for the partners. "And he has been."
The appearance of the proposed bar was a concern from the beginning. Eilers recalls that one nearby property owner told him the construction drawings looked like plans for a hotdog stand. "I told him to come on down when we opened and I'd make him a hot dog," Eilers says.
City planners also were concerned about the proposed design, but the project complied with zoning regulations. So planners approved it, with the stipulation that Eilers and Tennant do some landscaping and pave the parking lot. Construction began in 1993. The partners got an assist from builders of the Trans World Dome, who helped excavate dirt from the patio area and used it in stadium construction. The bar opened in October 1993. Early entertainment included blues, rock, country & western and the occasional rap show.
But Eilers and Tennant were slow to deliver on aesthetics. They didn't pave their parking lot. They say they landscaped the property, but shrubbery and trees either died or were stolen. Construction debris and other junk was piled alongside an outside wall. Purcell complained to city planners, who subsequently asked Eilers and Tennant when they would finish the building, pave their parking lot, clean up their property and install landscaping. By August 1993, planners were calling the bar an eyesore in interoffice memos. The partners ignored two letters from city planners in the spring and summer of 1994 asking when the project would be finished and the property cleaned up. The partners say they didn't have enough money to finish construction.
They didn't know that their skirmishes with the city were about to go way beyond a few letters from the planning department.
A Labor Day weekend blues festival at the Landing in 1994 promised to be a big moneymaker for the bar, which was due to host several acts. But the show nearly didn't go on.
As the festival neared, Eilers and Tennant worked to finish their outdoor stage, even though their building permit had expired. On Aug. 2, they received a summons for allowing parking on the unpaved lot. On Aug. 16, they got a stop-work order from the city building division because they didn't have a valid building permit for the stage. On Aug. 25, the building division notified Eilers and Tennant that their occupancy permit, which had been issued six months earlier on a temporary basis, was being revoked because they hadn't completed the bar before their building permit expired. Once the occupancy permit went, so did the bar's liquor license. Nonetheless, the partners continued preparing for the festival. They soon found out the city was serious about shutting them down.
It was Friday evening, less than 24 hours before the festival, one of the Landing's biggest annual events. Police arrested Eilers for allegedly serving alcohol without proper permits, but no charges were filed. A flurry of phone calls ensued, with festival organizers contacting the mayor's office on behalf of the bar, which was to be one of the celebration's key venues. On Saturday, the city reinstated the liquor license and occupancy permit.
Some might argue that Eilers and Tennant got a break. After all, top city officials, including Excise Commissioner Kraiberg and then-Director of Public Safety Julian Boyd, responded on a holiday weekend and reopened the business. But Eilers and Tennant find the timing curious. The bar's occupancy and building permits had expired months earlier, yet the city hadn't done anything more serious than write letters. Only as the blues festival neared did the city turn up the heat. The partners accuse Purcell of trying to shut them down by complaining to the city building division and pressuring officials to pull the bar's occupancy permit.
Purcell adamantly denies he has tried to shut down the bar. Purcell says he spoke with planning officials about J's, not with building-division officials, who have the power to pull occupancy permits. Boyd, now chief of staff for Mayor Clarence Harmon, says he doesn't recall any pressure from Purcell to close the bar.
Says Purcell: "I don't want to be pictured as a bully. And I'm not. I've never been a bully. I have a right to comment, and that's what I did, comment."
However, city-planning files say Purcell did more than comment.
Two months after the blues festival, Eilers and Tennant complained to Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., saying the city wasn't treating them fairly. The mayor's staff asked Larry Bushong, who was then executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., the city's economic-development arm, to look into the situation. Bushong told the mayor that Purcell wanted the bar closed.
"The owners were faced early on with opposition to their business from Tom Purcell," Bushong wrote in a Nov. 12, 1994, memo to Bosley. "No doubt this was frustrating for them. Tom generally tries to scare people away by overstating his authority. Nevertheless, we determined that Tom could not prohibit the use and that this use made some sense for this location. When they failed to pave their parking lot in 1993, Tom tried to get the building division to shut them down."
Bushong wrote that city planners intervened and told Eilers and Tennant they could wait until the spring of 1994 to pave their lot. However, Bushong wrote that Eilers and Tennant hadn't followed basic building codes and design requirements that could no longer be ignored. "Our experience has been that J's has accepted the requirements but has merely failed to perform," Bushong wrote. "All the J's owners need to do to resolve their problems is to be honest about what they can or will do and to do what they promise. Closing the business down for failure to satisfy building codes and permits is an extreme result and we will try to work with them to keep that from happening. However, if they continue as they have in the past, action by the building division may be necessary."
Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th), who represents the area, thinks the building division has been more than patient. "I think the people in the building division have gone out of their way to try to give them as much time as they needed to comply," Young says. "I've taught behaviorally disordered children in the past, and everybody pushes their limits, no matter whether it's a child or whether it's an adult."
Even though the city allowed them to stay open after the blues festival, the bar was not proving a success. Eilers and Tennant didn't have enough money to install a ceiling to conceal rafters, nor could they afford anything more fancy than bare drywall. An indoor stage area remained unfinished for lack of money -- the city wanted fire doors and sprinklers under the stage before the area could be used.
In 1996, creditors filed involuntary bankruptcy petitions against J's and J. Tennant Construction, which held title to the property. The petitions were combined into a single case, with debts of at least $227,000 and the bar the only asset. In bankruptcy papers, Tennant said the property was worth $1 million, but she had trouble finding a buyer. With the court's blessing, the partners sold the land to the TLJ Corp. in early 1997 for $265,000 and paid off their debts. The court dismissed the bankruptcy case. Eilers says TLJ's president, Thomas Jones, is a friend. The partners say they are making payments to Jones so they can keep the bar open under the name Biddle Street Bistro.
The bar closed in late 1996 and remained shut down through most of 1997 while Tennant and Eilers worked on the place and got a new liquor license in the name of Biddle Street Bistro. But the sign outside still says J's on the Landing. Since the bar reopened on Dec. 12, 1997, it has opened its doors only for Rams games and concerts, primarily rap shows. And those shows have brought nearly as many problems as concertgoers.
J's has had rap shows since it opened, but the genre has been the club's main source of income for the past two years. The reason is simple: cash. "The hip-hop show gets you $50 at the door, per head," Dickhaus says. "You make the money. There's people willing to pay five grand to rent the place. There's a lot of pent-up demand."
There aren't many clubs in St. Louis that book the type of hip-hop artists who have played at J's during the past two years. The club is known for shows featuring established stars who perform a brand of rap once known as gangsta. The gangsta label has fallen from favor, replaced by a list of subgenres, including "Southern bounce." But the themes remain the same: sex, violence and drugs, all with a bass-heavy beat you feel as much as hear. The music is far from universally popular.
"There's tension between the Landing and the proprietors in regard to the kinds of business they promote," says Ald. Young. "They draw a crowd that's typically not one that's interested in the Landing." In other words, the folks who frequent J's are there for one thing. They don't eat at the Landing before a show or go bar-hopping afterward.
Well-known Landing clubs such as Mississippi Nights aren't interested in shows that end up at J's. "Rap doesn't sell tickets," says Tim Weber, manager of Mississippi Nights. "Finding a profitable rap act is very, very difficult because rap acts will sell a million albums and think that they're worth $25 a ticket in St. Louis, and they're just not, because the kids that are buying albums are afraid to go to their shows. There are inherent problems with rap in the live-music industry right now as far as a concertgoing situation. We did Eminem four or five months ago, and he came on and played for 45 minutes and charged $20, and nobody's going to feel like they're getting their money's worth there. He's a perfect example of a guy who sold 3 million records and only sold 300 tickets."
Rap promoters who have managed to earn a living say they can sell plenty of tickets, but their choices boil down to five or six clubs in the metropolitan area, with J's being the largest. Kamau Whitfield of Ballout Entertainment, who promoted the Juvenile show last month, says he'd like to do a 10-concert series at J's during the summer. "The factor is that people need to have room, and at J's that's one of the factors," Whitfield says. "They have the space at the venue, and just the atmosphere that the facility has, it makes you want to come out."
But Whitfield and other promoters say the police have done their best to discourage rap shows at J's and elsewhere by scrutinizing various licenses and permits. A car and rap show held in May 1998 is one example. Before that event, police had noted no problems or incidents at J's, according to Capt. Beverly Noble-Barnes and city excise-commission files, which show that the police had had no problems at J's when the bar applied for a liquor license in 1997.
Originally scheduled for Club Utopia near Union Station, the show featuring Eightball was switched to J's at the last minute after police said a special-event permit was required for Club Utopia. There wasn't time to get the permit. "OK, fine, we call J's and say we have to push the event to his place because they're telling us we can't do it here, blah, blah, blah," recalls promoter Reginald Greene of No Doubt Productions. "Of course, the place we were going to use charges $800 and J's charges $5,000. So we have a tremendous expense increase in the last week."
Greene, who lives in New York, has stopped promoting shows in St. Louis. "I just don't want to deal with it," he says. "It was crazy. What they would always do is, within days of the event, like the night before, the police would go to the owner of the venue: If you have this event tomorrow, all hell's going to break loose. We'll take your licenses; we'll make your life hell from this day forward. All the advertising money's spent, and then 24 hours before the event we get a call from the owner saying, "Sorry, we can't do it because the police came in here and they're threatening to shut us down and if all our licenses are in order they're just going to harass us. There was just a general climate of sabotage."
Noble-Barnes says her troops treat everyone equally. When Mississippi Nights holds an all-ages event, for example, she says officers make sure patrons under 18 go home before the city's curfew. She says she questioned whether J's had a valid occupancy permit for the Eightball event in May 1998, but the show was allowed to go on. Problems with police persisted as summer neared and the concert season heated up.
The day before a Too Short show that was expected to draw as many as 3,000 people on June 13, 1998, police said the bar's occupancy permit wasn't valid. But building-division officials agreed to let the show go on after Eilers argued he wasn't given sufficient notice. There were no problems at the show, but the building division pulled the bar's occupancy permit the next day. The permit had been issued six months after Eilers promised to fix building-code violations within 60 days. The violations included defective exit signs and emergency lighting, obstructions in doorways, failure to provide inspectors with a floor plan and working on the indoor stage area without a building permit. The partners say they didn't have the money to fix the violations. The lack of funds isn't their fault, they say. If the city would just leave them alone and let them hold concerts, they'd have the money to finish construction and correct violations.
Eilers and Tennant didn't consider the violations serious enough to keep them closed, and the city eventually agreed. After meeting with building-division officials, they applied for building permits and appealed the revocation of their occupancy permit. The city gave them 60 days to fix the violations and allowed them to remain open. The deadline was later extended by another 30 days when the work still wasn't done.
Occupancy permits weren't the only thing that concerned the police, who have shown up before each rap concert looking for problems. They've issued parking tickets to club employees for parking on an unimproved parking lot. They've blocked streets leading to the bar. They've told the partners that security guards can't conduct patdown searches as patrons enter, although this rule wasn't enforced at last month's Juvenile show. And off-duty county police officers who work security have regularly violated city regulations governing private watchmen, says Noble-Barnes. The violations have ranged from improper uniforms to mounted off-duty officers patrolling public right-of-ways outside the bar. "They can't do that," Noble-Barnes says. "There's a liability issue there."
Security coordinator Sgt. Pargo admits the use of mounted off-duty officers, which occurred before he took over security duties for J's, went too far. "They (city police) do have a legitimate complaint about that," he says.
The horses are long gone. But the police are still there. Just how far they will go to enforce the rules was demonstrated on Sept. 5, 1998, when Eightball appeared for his second show at J's.
The Eightball event was big enough that Eilers and Tennant planned on 20 armed security guards. To avoid problems with watchman licenses, Pargo says he lined up 13 city officers for the concert, but they canceled at the last minute, with some telling him Noble-Barnes told them not to work the show. Noble-Barnes denies this and points out that a subsequent internal inquiry -- triggered when Eilers and Tennant complained to her supervisor -- produced no evidence she told officers they shouldn't work at the bar.
Pargo eventually found 10 off-duty county officers, but that wasn't good enough. As always, Noble-Barnes and several other city cops showed up during opening acts. They found that the off-duty officers either didn't have proper city licenses or were wearing uniforms from their own departments, which isn't allowed under city regulations. The city cops told the off-duty officers they would be arrested if they didn't leave. All but three went home. Those who remained changed to street clothes and put away their guns. People inside and outside the gates who watched the security staff leave knew something was up.
Because the bar now had no security, Noble-Barnes says she did her best to maintain order with a complement of five officers and a lieutenant. She didn't succeed.
Crowds gathered on streets and sidewalks around the bar. The main act was late -- the partners say they had trouble convincing Eightball they could safely get him inside. As the clock ticked past 1 a.m., a crucial decision approached. The bar's liquor license specified a 1:30 a.m. closing. Tennant says she stopped selling alcohol at 1 a.m., but that didn't satisfy the police.
"Her main act had not gone on stage yet and she didn't think I had enough policemen to shut it down, so she was going to allow the concert to continue," Noble-Barnes wrote in a letter to Excise Commissioner Kraiberg four days later. "I told her she did not have a concert license and she was violating her liquor license. She shrugged."
In an interview, Noble-Barnes says she doesn't recall ordering the bar to close but adds she would have been justified in doing so. She and the bar owners do agree on one thing: The situation was extremely volatile. Tennant and Eilers say closing down before Eightball performed would have sparked a riot. About 1,000 concertgoers had already paid to see him. "As anyone could plainly see, the best solution was to give the crowd a quick concert to appease the situation," Tennant says.
Anarchy approached with Eightball's appearance onstage at 1:30 a.m. Crowds stormed the gates, breaking down fences and spilling onto the bar's parking lot. Some left their cars parked and running in the middle of streets. "It was really, really chaotic at that point," Noble-Barnes recalls. "I think we were blessed, how it ended without anyone getting hurt."
"All sorts of fights broke out, and there was nobody to stop it," says Pargo. "It could have been much worse than what it was." The concert ended a few minutes past 2 a.m.
"It's our position that they destabilized the event by taking away the security and any ability we had to maintain order," Dickhaus says. "They come in at the 11th hour, once all the people are there, and say, "We don't think your security is up to snuff.' All these things, there may be a technical justification for them. But as a practical matter, they just create these kinds of very explosive situations."
Rules are rules, Noble-Barnes responds. She didn't write licensing regulations governing private watchmen, she says, but she makes sure they are strictly enforced for J's and every other venue in her jurisdiction.
Four days after the Eightball show, Noble-Barnes notified Excise Commissioner Kraiberg that the bar had violated its liquor license. Kraiberg decided to let the state handle it. The Missouri Division of Liquor Control started proceedings to revoke or suspend the bar's liquor license on the grounds the owners didn't cooperate with police and failed to prevent a disturbance by stopping the concert. Eilers and Tennant escaped with a warning letter, even though the state found that they had violated their license by not closing the show.
J.T. Taylor, chief of enforcement for the state Division of Liquor Control, says Eilers and Tennant showed good faith and common sense. "Under the circumstances, I think the licensee and their employees did what they could to keep the peace and keep a riot from happening," Taylor explains.
Eilers and Tennant were less fortunate when it came to their occupancy permit, which expired seven weeks after the Eightball show because they still hadn't corrected code violations. Police arrested Tennant and Eilers when they opened for a Rams game, but prosecutors did not pursue charges. "There were a ton of cops, a paddy wagon, the whole deal," recalls Dickhaus, who was present during the arrests on Oct. 25, 1998. "This wasn't some happenstance thing. The city was waiting for it to happen. As soon as it did, Beverly Noble-Barnes sent the troops in."
The building division issued an occupancy permit on Nov. 20, 1998, two days after Dickhaus and his clients met with building officials. "I told them, "If you guys have a problem with his occupancy permit, I want to know what it is right now, in writing, and we'll comply,'" Dickhaus says. "We really haven't had any problems in terms of the occupancy-permit arrests since then."
But police still keep a close eye. Inspections of security guards will continue before every event that requires private security, regardless of the type of entertainment offered, Barnes-Nobles says. "The reason we've been inspecting their security licenses is because there have been problems with it," Noble-Barnes says. "It still hasn't been corrected."
One violation concerned Sgt. Pargo, who was fired from the St. Louis Police Department in 1995 after he was accused of stealing a pair of boots from a store. He was tried and acquitted of criminal charges but dismissed from the force after the Board of Police Commissioners held its own trial and determined that he was guilty. Under city regulations, officers who have been fired from the police force can't work as private security guards in the city.
Pargo says the police department revoked his private-security license last month when he complained to the internal-affairs division about what he saw as a lack of police response to trouble brewing during the show. He says officers didn't come when he called 911 to report signs of trouble that culminated in the fatal shooting last month outside the bar. Pargo continues to coordinate security during shows, although he can't wear a uniform or carry a gun.
After receiving complaints from the bar owners and Pargo last month, Chief Ron Henderson says an internal investigation is under way. "It's not our goal to harass or interfere with business," Henderson says. "At the same time, we want to make sure people are adhering to the rules and regulations. Certainly I don't want them to feel we're giving them more or less service than anyone else. We don't want to give them any more inspections than anyone else. Certainly we're going to do everything we can to get to the bottom of it."
Nearby business owners, including some who have supported Tennant and Eilers in the past, say they've already seen enough to draw conclusions. They say the bar has become a blight that worsens the cruising problem on the Landing. Young African-Americans have cruised the Landing for at least five years, but the gridlock that comes with hundreds of cars filled with kids is especially bad on concert nights, according to police and business owners.
"It's not good for the Landing," says Brookdale Farms' Jerry Kirk. "Basically, we can't do our business."
The problem isn't what goes on inside the bar. On concert nights, it has taken Kirk's horse-drawn-carriage drivers 45 minutes to travel a single block through streets and parking lots clogged with cruisers drawn by the booming music. Kirk signed a petition in support of Eilers and Tennant's getting a liquor license two years ago when the bar changed its name to Biddle Street Bistro, but he wouldn't do it again.
"We're trying to support other businesses," Kirk says. "If it was another nightspot or another nightclub, I'd be all for it. I think they had the right idea when they got started. When they first opened up, they had decent food and all that kind of stuff. It's like the place never got going. Basically, it seems to me they have an abandoned building they use once a month. You've got to be open every night. That's how you make your business work."
Gridlock isn't entirely the bar's fault. After all, cruisers have brought traffic to a standstill on nights when J's is closed. The Board of Aldermen has rejected pleas from Purcell and Landing business owners to pass an anti-cruising ordinance. Some aldermen objected on the grounds that the measure appeared to be targeted at young African-Americans. Meanwhile, police say they don't know what to do about the cruising situation, absent an ordinance. It's not illegal to drive around the same area for hours, even if it means would-be customers can't get through traffic to spend money at Landing businesses.
Traffic isn't the only hassle for nearby business owners. Williams says he wouldn't have supported the bar's application for a liquor license if he'd known his employees would be picking up trash after shows instead of making labels and tags. Like Kirk, Williams doesn't consider the business a true bar because it's open only once or twice a week.
"When they were actually a bar, they were a little better," says Williams, whose business is immediately west of J's. "Now, they've got these rap concerts and it creates a bit of a mess out here. It's not a favorable crowd, put it that way. No one else is crazy enough to have concerts like this. But I don't blame them for doing what they can to generate business. They need the money."
That much is certainly true. After the Too Short show in June 1998, Betty Jane Eilers, Jeff's mother, wrote a letter to Mayor Harmon saying she had her life savings invested in the business and the city was unfairly targeting the bar. "The city doesn't care if we are open for business, they just don't want us to hold black concerts, and right now that's our livelihood," she wrote. "Black promoters are the only ones approaching us to do business, we assume that's partially because they have been shut out everywhere else."
Aside from the near-riot that resulted when police pulled the bar's security, police can point to no major problems that have occurred during rap shows at J's. Why, then, do the cops make such a big deal about whether off-duty police officers are wearing the right clothes or if the bar is in good graces with the city building division?
City officials say they're just trying to maintain order and make Eilers and Tennant follow the same rules that apply to everyone else. But Whitfield, who promoted the Juvenile show last month, says there's a bias against rap shows. Sure, rap attracts an element that requires more security than, say, an R&B concert, but that doesn't mean shows can't be safely staged or that rap events are any more dangerous than, say, a Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails concert. "Once law enforcement or specific aldermen hear of a hip-hop concert, they always think of the scenario of gang members, drug dealers or some type of confrontation," he says.
Greene, the promoter, also believes race plays some role in the way city officials treat a rap show as opposed to other types of music. "What I found was that at some point, they just made up their mind that anything that was geared toward the young black kids -- no matter what it is, whether it's a rap show or a party that they think the kids are going to come to -- anything that attracts an under-21 black-youth crowd was frowned on," he says.
There are other factors besides race, Greene says. After all, rap shows drawing a primarily African-American audience have gone off at Mississippi Nights and other clubs with no problems from the city. Greene says it's a question of who's promoting an event and where it is being held.
"First it was a general view that these type of events shouldn't occur, but then there were exceptions with who knows who," he says. "They pick and choose who they want to operate in the city. Somebody's in somebody's back pocket. If they don't want you to do well, the police come in and make sure you don't. They literally came in in a shakedown mode, like these events are not going to happen, period. They tried desperately to intimidate Jeff and Janet and they just didn't buckle, so I guess they're paying for it."
Eilers and Tennant also smell a conspiracy, though they can't prove it. From Purcell's initial opposition to the present day, someone bigger than them has been trying to make them go away. As they see it, Noble-Barnes has inherited Purcell's old role of trying to close them down. They've tried meeting with police and notifying Noble-Barnes of concerts well in advance, but run-ins with police have persisted.
The last straw for the partners came Sept. 18, when Eilers was arrested after he refused an officer's order to turn his van around on Carr Street outside the bar. One lane in either direction was barricaded on opposite ends of the block to allow road construction. Eilers says he was stopped at a barricade waiting for oncoming traffic to pass when the officer ordered him to turn around. The officer claimed Eilers was on the wrong side of the road, even though Carr is a two-way street and cars routinely snake around the temporary barricades in full view of police. There are no signs indicating any part of the road is closed. In addition to citations for operating a vehicle on the wrong side of the road, failure to obey an officer and driving with an expired license, Eilers was arrested for carrying a loaded gun in his pocket. He says he needed the weapon because he was on his way to the bank to make a night deposit.
The arrest convinced Eilers and Tennant that the cops really are out to get them. They say they'll no longer meet with police to try to avoid problems in advance of shows. But they won't give up their dreams, which are getting bigger all the time.
For the past two years, Eilers and Tennant have been working on an indoor stage and dance floor that would provide room for even more concertgoers. They plan to open the area within a few weeks, just as soon as they install fire doors required by the city. Though they can barely afford such amenities as wheelchair ramps, the partners have plans for a four-story Teflon dome over their property to eliminate the threat of rainouts for outdoor events. Advertising plastered over the gigantic white bubble, which the partners call Thunderdome, would eliminate all their financial worries. They see it as a nice addition to the city's skyline.
Eilers says he has no regrets. He'd do it all over again.
"If you believe in something, I think you ought to go for it," he says.
Randall Roberts, music editor of The Riverfront Times, contributed to this report.
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