Barroom Bawl

Just in time for Mardi Gras, a venerable Soulard watering hole is forced to dry up

Feb 18, 2004 at 4:00 am
Every day, the "island" of Soulard plays host to a complex social ecosystem of yuppie transplants, gays, politicians, bureaucrats, brewers, artists, young families, childless couples, bar-opening alcoholics, grizzled hoosiers and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. It is a delicate balance, to say the least. But come Saturday before Mardi Gras, the day of the grand parade and al fresco Hurricane hawking, the complex borough is thrown for a bona fide loop.

In short, it's amateur hour...after hour....after hour. But if you choose to live in Soulard full-time, buster, you'd better know that TOLERANCE is spelled out in all caps and indelible ink on the neighborhood's unofficial bill of rights.

"I'm not anti-bar and neither are 90 percent of the people in Soulard," explains Gary Siddens, incoming president of the Soulard Restoration Group (SRG), an assemblage of residents and business owners whose primary goals are neighborhood promotion, crime prevention and beautification. "If you are, you couldn't live here."

Siddens ought to know. He lives in a brick townhouse next door to the 1860 Saloon, a boozy, bluesy hang that caters primarily to the Harley-straddling set. Despite such seemingly nettlesome traits, Siddens harbors no ill will toward his neighbor and the noisy Hogs parked out front.

It's the bar around the corner -- Molly's -- that he's got beef with.

"A lot of bars and restaurants can be blamed for being noise polluters," says Siddens, "but Molly's has been consistent."

So consistent that on December 22, Siddens and a group of concerned residents submitted enough valid signatures -- 36, to be precise -- from tenants within a 350-foot radius of owner Jeff Brayton's thirteen-year-old Geyer Avenue establishment to merit a protest hearing before the city's excise commissioner.

Hanging in the balance: a decision on whether or not to renew Molly's liquor license.

On January 12, Brayton was the only citizen to testify in favor of his bar retaining its liquor license beyond February 20, the day before the aforementioned Saturday Mardi Gras bender. In his corner, Siddens lined up a half-dozen protesters, who testified that Molly's was a bastion of loitering, littering, public intoxication, brutish behavior and, alas, noise.

On January 23, hearing officer Thomas Hayes, a local attorney who sat in for City Excise Commissioner Bob Kraiberg (who recused himself because he lives in Soulard, near Molly's) found in favor of Siddens and the protesters.

"Quite honestly, I'm not upset about it at all," says Carol Norton, who owns and operates Norton's, a white-linen restaurant and bar next door to Molly's on Geyer. "They put their pool table out back next to where our diners are, so you have rough language going on where people are eating. He [Brayton] had a great business, and it's a shame that he's out of business, but I'm not upset about it."

Unless Brayton, who claims to have already found a buyer for the property, decides to appeal the decision, there will be no more Mardi Gras at Molly's.

"I can tie it up with appeals if I want to make it through Mardi Gras," speculates Brayton, a husky, heavy-breathing St. Louis native who spent seventeen years in east Texas before returning home to purchase the shell of a building that he would soon painstakingly mold into Molly's. "It'd be nice to get one more under my belt. It's gonna hurt to give it up. It's my baby."

Brayton says he didn't bother lining up any pro-Molly's advocates for the hearing because, in light of the neighborhood group's uproar, he'd already decided to sell the place. While similar protests have been filed and dealt with in the neighborhood, Molly's imminent closure marks the first time in Commissioner Kraiberg's memory that a citizens' group has actually succeeded in preventing the renewal of an existing owner's license in Soulard.

"A protest in Soulard is pretty rare," says Kraiberg, who has frequented Brayton's bar in the past. "Soulard is a tolerant neighborhood. It's not hypersensitive to bar issues. But every rule has an exception, and Molly's is the exception to this rule."

Still, the sum of this fiasco causes Brayton to suspect that his establishment might only be the first domino to fall.

"You can say that about any bar," says Brayton, in reference to the laundry list of findings against his bar issued by hearing officer Hayes. "Who are they gonna nail next?"

Hard to say, although if some dude gets shot in the abdomen outside a Soulard establishment after a racially tinged squabble over a game of pool -- which was the case this past Thanksgiving night outside Molly's -- smart money says that joint might be high on the hit list.

It doesn't matter what holiday it is. Holidays are amateur nights, and pros like Jeff Brayton and the regulars at Molly's -- a "bar bar," if you will, that serves no food -- know what to expect from the likes of Thanksgiving evening.

According to a police report, a dispute between two white men, Richard Beck and "John M.," and two black men, suspects "Rico" and "Twan," emerged while the four were playing pool upstairs. Long story short: Twan threw the 14-ball at John, and Brayton got slugged in the face while trying to play peacemaker. The argument spilled outside, and Rico whipped out a pistol and put a bullet in Beck's stomach (Beck survived the incident). The suspects fled before police arrived to find John punching and kicking a white Chrysler Sebring.

John was arrested for destruction of property; Rico and Twan remain at large. And Molly's is getting the electric chair.

Brayton feels that the real reason he was targeted by Siddens and company is that he wouldn't pony up $100 per month for a private, roving security detail that several other bars in the area employ. Brayton says he would if he could, but he can't spare the coin in light of slow economic times. Siddens says that Brayton promised to fork over the fee as part of a good-neighbor agreement -- wherein Brayton pledged to keep noise and rowdiness down and security beefed up -- that the Molly's owner signed in the summer of 2002, when under threat of a prior protest petition brought forth by the SRG.

It also couldn't have helped that Brayton failed to report the Thanksgiving incident to Kraiberg, as required by law. The oversight resulted in a ten-day suspension of Molly's license that lasted from January 12 (the day of the Hayes hearing) till January 22 (the day before Hayes' ruling was handed down).

It's worth noting that Siddens submitted his first go-round of petitions to Kraiberg's office on November 10, evidence that the shooting was not what prompted the neighborhood group's action. But the violence outside Molly's certainly didn't help matters.

"I imagine the neighborhood wasn't thrilled with the fact that there was a shooting there," says Kraiberg. "Having security there could have potentially stopped that."

Brayton has a cabin by a trout creek near the Iowa-Minnesota state line and is looking forward to spending more time there. But he won't be entirely scarce -- he and his brother own some other properties in Soulard that they're preparing to develop, hoping to capitalize on the same demographic shift that, ironically, helped seal Molly's fate.

"Most people who are here weren't fifteen years ago," says Brayton. "If it weren't for the bars, the neighborhood wouldn't be what it is today."