Last Call?: East St. Louis nightclubs under siege

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.

"It's had a wild nightlife since it was founded shortly after the Civil War," says Andrew Theising, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis, The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town. "And they've had federal investigations into their handling of liquor licenses three times dating back to 1918. It has always been a haven for crime, sex and drugs. It's always been there, and it's still there today."

In short, while dancing till sunrise and beyond is the norm in famous clubbing cities like Barcelona, New York and Las Vegas, outsiders' views of the festivities in East St. Louis are a different story. To many it will forever be the place where a goofy honky from Chicago named Clark Griswold gets his hubcaps stolen in the movie Vacation.

Caricatures may depict a machine-gun-toting thug on every corner, but the sad reality is that the city is mostly desolate. Virtually every block is dotted with boarded-up or burned-out buildings. Of about 31,000 residents, 98 percent are African American and 24 percent are unemployed. There were 19 homicides in East St. Louis in 2008 and 31 the previous year. In the eyes of several local officials, the bloodshed and raucous nightlife are inseparable.

"Let's face it, if those places were to close at 1:30 a.m. like everybody else does, East St. Louis would probably get rid of half their crime," contends St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus. "I been sheriff for 27 years. The nightclubs have been a problem since day one. In the summertime, when it's warm, my people have been down there, and there are literally hundreds of people swarming around on Collinsville Avenue, drinkin' and druggin' and everything else going down there."

"Our judgment, law enforcement's judgment, is many of the city's problems are caused by nightclubs being allowed to stay open," echoes Robert Haida, St. Clair County Prosecuting Attorney. "You get people who are already intoxicated, and they're armed, and they get into trouble on the east side. We know we can save lives by closing the clubs."

Justus and Haida made their views public at the March 19 press conference. They were joined by U.S. Attorney A. Courtney Cox, Illinois State Patrol Captain Mark Bramlett, U.S. Marshal Don Slaznik, East St. Louis NAACP president Johnny Scott, three members of the East St. Louis City Council and a handful of local clergymen.

Conspicuously absent was Mayor Parks. He says he was never notified.

The next day many reports about the gathering focused on a single statistic: The Illinois State Patrol stated that fifteen homicides over the past five years "came directly out of East St. Louis nightclubs."

Bramlett concedes the figure is inaccurate: Two of the murders were actually associated with clubs in nearby Washington Park and Venice, and one came from a report that vaguely cited "an undetermined East St. Louis nightclub."

Nevertheless, Bramlett says, his agency responds to enough nightclub-related shootings to validate the claim that the bars add to the body count. Beyond the murders, he notes, there were "five separate cases of weapons fired into vehicles as patrons are leaving the club and on their way back to St. Louis, and four cases where individuals were shot as a result of an issue in one of the clubs."

The last month of 2008 was a particularly violent one. On December 29 a security guard at the Broadway East nightclub was wounded in the thigh after trying to break up a fight in the parking lot at 4:45 a.m. The shooters sped across the Eads Bridge into St. Louis in a red Lincoln Navigator. Three days earlier a shooting inside the VIP Lounge at Blackmon's Plaza had sent more than 300 people fleeing into the street. And on December 7, a woman walking to her car alone after leaving Club Etta on State Street was hit in the back by a stray bullet at 3:45 a.m.

(Nightclubs west of the Mississippi River have not been immune, however. At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, May 8, three men were gunned down after leaving a concert by rapper Yo Gotti at Club Society, near Union Station in downtown St. Louis.)

Bramlett also cites an episode from January when two cars leaving East St. Louis at 3:30 a.m. exchanged fire on the Poplar Street Bridge, killing a 23-year-old woman.

"If these places close down at the same time St. Louis does, then we don't have those types of incidents," the state patrol captain argues. "It's that simple."

On March 26 the FBI raided Alvin Parks' office and several others inside East St. Louis City Hall. Parks says about eighteen boxes of files were carted away, records dating as far back as 2003 that deal with "what's taking place with the liquor-selling operations, what's happening with how we handle liquor licenses here, liquor penalties and other aspects related to liquor."

A spokesman from the FBI's Springfield, Illinois, office declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

The search has yet to produce an arrest or indictment, but Parks' deputy liquor commissioner, Walter Hill, was placed on administrative leave shortly afterward. On April 19 the city council voted to eliminate Hill's position as part of a citywide spate of job cuts.

Hill could not be reached for comment. Parks says the dismissal of his appointee, whose duties included "the total management of all liquor licenses in terms of fees," is unrelated to the investigation.

The day after the city hall raid, federal agents struck again. The U.S. Secret Service, along with deputy U.S. Marshals and East St. Louis police, arrested Robert Williams, owner of Club TV One, a nightspot in downtown East St. Louis that had been open less than three months. A search of the club unearthed 419 pounds of marijuana stuffed into "eleven large military-style duffel bags." Williams has been charged with mail and wire fraud and with transporting more than $5,000 worth of stolen property across state lines.

Finally, as if to drive home their point, on the morning of Sunday, April 12, state and federal agencies joined forces to conduct a "roadside safety check" of all vehicles entering downtown East St. Louis via eastbound Interstate 64 between midnight and 4 a.m. More than 50 agents, officers and deputies from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Illinois State Patrol and the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department were present.

The squad arrested 22 people on outstanding warrants, 7 for driving under the influence, and 4 for misdemeanor drug possession (3 for marijuana and 1 for crack cocaine). Another 49 were cited for having an open alcohol container in a vehicle, and 39 were caught driving with suspended or revoked licenses. Officers seized two illegal firearms — an assault rifle and an unregistered pistol.

"If you pulled up and could produce a driver's license and had your seatbelt on — unless you rolled down the window and a purple cloud of [marijuana] smoke came out — you were on your way," Bramlett says, adding, "I think it's indicative of type of clientele they have coming into the city."

Beneath its chaotic veneer, East St. Louis possesses a strong sense of community. There's a sizable elderly population that can still remember the days when the population topped 80,000 and jobs were more plentiful. Churches are ubiquitous and play a vital role in local politics.

Both camps were up in arms by March 31, when Parks convened his "emergency town-hall meeting" to discuss the federal investigation and the suddenly pressing issue of the nightclubs. Several hundred residents, a noisy herd of media and nearly the entire East St. Louis police force packed city hall to hear what the mayor had to say.

Dressed in a navy suit, starched white shirt and red tie, the silver-tongued Parks did his best to charm the crowd. He announced plans to appoint a commission to study the nightclub situation and distributed the survey asking residents what time they thought clubs should close. He even suggested that the raid on his office was a good thing for the city.

"The people from the U.S. Attorney's Office are very interested in helping expand law enforcement in this community," the mayor declared. "The positive outcome is that we're having conversations with them that we may not have otherwise had. So there are silver linings to this situation."

But when he opened the floor, a line of eager and angry critics quickly formed.

"We in East St. Louis cannot afford to keep going the way things are," one middle-aged man said to scattered applause. "You [need to] shut it down at one o'clock and let people go to sleep."

Club Casino proprietor Cedric Taylor was one of the few people present to defend the clubs.

Taylor and his wife, Keisha, are known for their philanthropy. They have contributed to a number of causes — from purchasing letter jackets for East St. Louis High School's state-champion football team to buying computers and other equipment for the Brooklyn Police Department to renting a helicopter to help search for a young woman who was swept away in a flash flood last year.

Taylor pointed to his good deeds and asked that nightclubs be treated as individual entities rather than lumped together as one troubled whole.

"Don't penalize me if I'm running my business effectively and efficiently," he pleaded. "Club Casino is a way of life for me; it's a way to make a living. We been in business over 21 years. It's one of the oldest clubs in East St. Louis. We give back to the community."

Then it was back to the mayoral skewering. One woman brought up the subject of Walter Hill, Parks' erstwhile deputy liquor commissioner.

"I been told by more than a few employees and club owners," she said, "that even your own assistant comes into the business, goes behind their bar, drinks from the bottle and then asks for some type of, um, 'economic facilitation' to get their liquor license. Mr. Mayor, are you monitoring your own staff?"

After the hooting died down, Parks, clearly rattled, responded: "If you know of or you see evidence of public corruption or know of city employees unlawfully soliciting money or other unlawful activity, please contact the FBI or the U.S. Attorney's Office."

Ironically, such a call may have led to the March 19 press conference.

In November Parks appeared to bend over backward to issue a liquor license to Johnnie Blackmon, owner of two downtown nightclubs, Blackmon's Plaza and Club Illusion, for a new business called the Gentleman's Club.

Despite the suggestive name, the promise of pole-dancing and a flier depicting a woman pulling down her bikini bottom, Parks maintained that the new venture was not a strip club because the dancers would wear "swimsuit attire or other attractive clothing."

The new club was located across the street from a church and near a cluster of residential homes. Several citizens complained, and the club, which opened November 12, was forced to close eight days later when the city council voted unanimously to deny Blackmon's application for a business license.

"A lot of things coalesced into the timing of that [press] conference," says St. Clair County prosecutor Robert Haida. "Several citizens groups approached us and asked us to do something. We had been aware of the problem for a long time, and concerns had been expressed through official channels. We were asked to increase our efforts and make it a more public issue."

Johnnie Blackmon did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

East St. Louis is in dire fiscal straits. Facing a $2 million budget deficit, the city plans to cut seventeen positions, including five police officers and five firefighters.

In an embarrassing but illustrative example of the depth of the crisis, the police department's drug-sniffing dog was nearly repossessed last month by a breeder who said the city failed to pay him the $5,000 he was owed for the canine, which changed hands on February 1.

At the town-hall meeting, Parks pointed out that forcing establishments to close early would have a significant impact on the city's strained coffers. Cedric Taylor, who also owns Javon's Fine Dining, an east-side restaurant and bar, came prepared with figures to back the mayor's claim.

"We paid this year over $150,000 to the state of Illinois and more than $100,000 to East St. Louis in revenue from sales taxes," Taylor told the crowd. "These are the things you have to look at."

According to statistics kept by the Illinois Department of Revenue, sales taxes from "Eating and Drinking Places" in East St. Louis generated more than $1.3 million in 2008. The funds were divided among the state, county and city.

Beyond the clubs' direct contributions, others point to a trickle-down effect on the city's economy. Parks argues that the late-night visitors help keep other local businesses afloat. Taylor points out that he employs fifteen people at Club Casino, almost all of whom live and spend money in East St. Louis.

"There are a lot of people that work in these clubs. Right now, with the economy the way it is, you going to take jobs away from people?" seconds Club Casino's DJ C-Note. "I need that money at the club. I got a mortgage. I got kids to feed."

Willie "Bay-D" Spratt is a promoter who heads a group of East St. Louis entertainment businesses, primarily record labels, collectively known as the Coalition. Spratt believes that closing at the same time as St. Louis' bars would almost certainly put East St. Louis' nightclubs out of business, given that the vast majority of customers arrive after 1:30 a.m.

"Towns die because of things like this," he says. "Look at Wellston — they used to be a hotbed for entertainment. If [the clubs] close, East St. Louis doesn't have anything going beyond that. It's a run-down city already. Imagine what it will be like without this revenue."

Further complicating matters is the Casino Queen. Taxes collected from the riverboat gambling facility account for roughly 40 percent of East St. Louis' annual operating budget. Because the Casino Queen has the same type of liquor license as the nightclubs', it would be subject to any mandated change in hours. With business at the casino down 20 percent in 2009, many city leaders are wary of inflicting further damage.

"We surely don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face," says Delbert Marion, an East St. Louis council member. "If [the nightclubs] are generating the type of revenue that can offset the losses of the Casino Queen, then we'll take that into consideration. But then again, do we want to take the risk of having people under the influence of alcohol and drugs pouring into the city, where the police department is already strained?"

Hard-line nightclub opponents insist that any arguments about the clubs' financial contributions to the city are moot.

"The highest priority is saving lives, not whether a bar would go out of business," county prosecutor Haida says. "That's an easy call. If it's revenue versus saving lives, I'll take saving lives every time."

Ask anyone who has ever frequented or worked at an East St. Louis club if the establishments are behind the city's crime woes, and you're likely in for a resounding "no."

"With clubs and anything else, you have to look at things deeper than that," says DJ AJ, of radio station KATZ the Beat (100.3 FM). "Education, schooling, upbringing — that's where it falls. I can't say a nightclub is the cause of people getting killed and murdered. I don't want to hear that as an excuse.

"Violence happens away from the nightclub when people follow each other outside, so the easy logic is that if the club wasn't open, those people wouldn't have been there in the first place," he continues. "But at the end of the day, people who do wrong — whether in the club or in the mall or whatever — they going to do whatever they going to do. Using the club as an excuse is valid to a point, but it's not everything. Not even close."

Others argue the violence has subsided in recent years.

"I don't think at this point it's as bad as it was in the late '80s, when crack hit the scene," says DJ C-Note. "That's when it was crazy. It's not like that now. It's gotten a lot better."

Some say race has played a role in shaping the debate. Many of the public officials who've spoken out against the predominantly black nightclubs are white.

"Go to any of those [night]clubs in Sauget, and it's the same thing; it's just not talked about," contends DJ Snow. "They're trying to pinpoint it and say it's just a black thing. It's not. As a white boy who has worked in these clubs, I can vouch for that."

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of after-hours clubs is that in some cases the dance floor is the safest place people could be.

"If they got no place to go, it's only going to be worse," DJ Lonnie Bee points out. "That means you have more people giving house parties. And from my history of DJing, you have more crazy incidents at house parties than you do at clubs, 'cause there's no control."

Nowhere does this line of reasoning hold true more than at Club Casino, whose security measures may only be rivaled by those at a state penitentiary.

All patrons are frisked and swiped with a metal detector. Sixteen video cameras record areas both inside and out. A uniformed East St. Louis police officer often sits in the entrance. Golf carts shuttle customers to and from their cars.

And then there's the crew of nine bouncers who call themselves the Goon Squad. Four men are stationed in the parking lot, five inside the club. All look like they could play left tackle for the Rams.

The squad members claim their reputation alone deters most would-be troublemakers, but if a scrap does break out, they trigger "fight lights," strobes placed throughout the club, to alert fellow team members. The guards generally issue two warnings before giving anyone the boot. One of the combatants is kept behind for a few minutes to prevent the clash from continuing outside.

"I would throw my own brother out if I had to," says Chico, a Goon Squad member with light skin, sleepy eyes and arms the size of anacondas. "But honestly, we get more women fights than anything else. That's almost worse, because when women locked up, they locked up."

The only club rule that seems to be consistently flouted is Illinois' statewide smoking ban.

"We try to enforce it," Taylor says with a shrug. "But when they see us coming, they just put it out."

Mark Bramlett of the Illinois State Patrol says that none of the fifteen homicides mentioned in his agency's report are linked to Club Casino. Nevertheless, he says, the club's patrons cause problems after they leave the virtual lockdown.

"I can tell you anecdotally that we've had shootings on [Interstate] 255 early in the morning from patrons who've left that particular club," Bramlett says. "I can't call it a drive-by, 'cause both suspects were in cars driving down the interstate shooting at each other."

"There are just certain things that are beyond our control," Taylor counters. "You can't fault us for that."

Nearly everyone — Taylor included — agrees there's a seedy side to East St. Louis nightlife that the city could do without. There is, however, no such consensus when it comes to a solution.

Many of those in favor of rolling back the clubs' hours acknowledge that any new measures will be counterproductive if not applied to all of St. Clair County.

City council member Delbert Marion has a full-time job as chief of police in the tiny village of Brooklyn, a few miles north of East St. Louis on Route 3. The town is home to several popular strip clubs that remain open all night. Marion says the crowd the strip joints draw already strains his eight-man police force.

"On a Friday night our population already doubles," he says. "If East St. Louis is at the forefront of closing early, those displaced people are going to come to little communities like Alorton, Centreville and Washington Park, and other city leaders are going to have to look at doing the same thing."

"It doesn't matter if you close down at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m.," agrees former East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer. "People who really want to go out and do their drinking will do it in those neighboring communities."

Officer proposes setting a last call of 11 p.m. for all places that sell liquor in East St. Louis. Business owners who want to continue serving would pay a fee for each additional hour they remain open. The licenses could be priced on a sliding scale based on square footage and gross revenue.

Officer, who consulted with Marion and NAACP leader Johnny Scott to create the plan, says the additional fees could cover the cost of installing surveillance cameras and stationing a uniformed police officer at each club.

"How are you going to put men and women out of business strictly because of an hourly thing?" asks Officer, who now runs his family's mortuary business. "Business is tough enough as it is. You need to treat everyone fairly and protect the employees of these places."

In terms of enforcement, Bramlett says more roadside safety checks are in the works, but regularly patrolling the streets around the clubs isn't an option.

"We certainly have jurisdiction. We could if we wanted to," the state patrol captain says. "We tend to prioritize, putting coverage on areas where no other police agency is at — such as the interstate — and allow the places that have police, like East St. Louis, to police themselves."

East St. Louis Police Chief Lenzie Stewart did not respond to requests to discuss his department's handling of nightclub-related crime.

Still others, including Robert Haida, insist that as mayor and liquor commissioner, Parks has had unilateral authority to crack down on the most egregious offenders but has failed to do so.

"Under the current administration, in my view, there's been a lax view taken toward the operation of these clubs," the county prosecutor says. "There's little to no enforcement of laws pertaining to liquor establishments, and we've seen a substantial increase in violence as a result."

"I've made that abundantly clear to our liquor-selling operations, if we have a club that is clearly irresponsible in its behavior, we have the opportunity to shut it down as early as midnight if necessary or to shut it down for a certain time period," counters Parks. "We've typically said when we have a troubled nightclub or liquor-selling establishment, there's either been a fine or penalty or a suspension of the license."

Parks announced late last month at a meeting of the city's 70 liquor-license holders that nightclub hours would remain the same.

"When you say that these places are basically sources of violence, that's not true. The source of the violence is the drugs that people are trying to deal, and gangs," he says, explaining the decision. "And when you're trying to maximize revenue for your town along with maximizing health and safety, you don't do things that restrict revenue-producing opportunities."

Parks says there will be a few changes to the current system. Bar and club owners are now required to post a note that reads "No weapons allowed on these premises except by properly licensed persons." He also recommended that business owners increase the lighting near their entrances and parking lots and install security cameras.

"They're not actual laws," Parks concedes, "but strong, strong suggestions from the liquor commissioner."

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