Shrill Thrills in Soulard

"Neighborhood alerts" may keep black business owners from getting liquor licenses

Aug 25, 2004 at 4:00 am
When Carlos Weeden tried to hold a comedy show in May at the old Soulard library across from the farmer's market, someone complained that he didn't have an occupancy permit. The police shut down the street and sent all 300 ticket holders home.

Now that Weeden and three business partners have leased the library on Lafayette Avenue and the adjacent Carnegie Café on Seventh Street, they are seeking liquor licenses, and someone has anonymously mailed a "neighborhood alert" to all residents living within 350 feet of the establishments.

The sternly worded missive encourages nearby residents to not sign petitions for a liquor license because the new owners, who happen to be African American, are planning to turn the old library into a hip-hop club that rap superstar Nelly wants to buy.

Not true, says Weeden, who believes the rumor is racially motivated. The library, which was converted into a nightclub years ago, will be rented for weekend concerts and private parties, he explains.

The "neighborhood alert" claims the café and library will bring an "influx of outsiders" that will "take our parking spots" and increase the potential for shootings, car thefts, noise, litter and gang-related graffiti.

"If you don't want outsiders cruising our neighborhood with the irritating thump-thump of bass reverberating from their cars -- DO NOT SIGN EITHER PETITION," the letter warns. "If you don't want squatters with 24 oz. cans of beer in brown paper bags horning in [on] your favorite outdoor legitimate Café -- DO NOT SIGN EITHER PETITION."

Weeden says he was shocked when he read the letter and claims it was written by a "cowardly hatemonger that is afraid of change." He envisions the library as a venue for all types of music. "If a promoter wants to bring in hip-hop, we're not going to turn them down, but we're going to have reggae, jazz, blues, rock, country & Western -- whoever wants to book it."

This isn't the first time Weeden and his business partners have felt unwelcome in Soulard, a neighborhood that is 80 percent white and includes a "diverse mix" of upper-class professionals, rehabbers, gays, hoosiers, Section 8 tenants, and twenty- and thirtysomething renters who love living a stone's throw from thirty-plus bars and restaurants.

When Weeden rented the library from the previous owners of the Carnegie Café for a comedy show, St. Louis City Excise Commissioner Bob Kraiberg, who lives in Soulard, ordered the event shut down because the building did not have an occupancy permit. "We lost six grand," Weeden laments.

Weeden wonders why no one complained to city officials when the neighborhood association -- the Soulard Restoration Group -- hosted a large party at the same building a week earlier. Kraiberg says he was unaware of the occupancy-permit problem until someone brought it to his attention.

"The main reason they shut us down is someone said Nelly was going to be coming there and bringing 5,000 to 8,000 people," Weeden says.

Nelly actually considered buying the building a year and a half ago but was dissuaded by Kraiberg and other city officials, who said Nelly's presence would create traffic, parking and crowd-control problems.

But Weeden says he has no intention of bringing Nelly to his venue because it's not big enough. "I never met Nelly in my whole life," he adds.

So far a few regional rock concerts and private parties have been held at the library. Instead of bottles of booze, the back of the huge antique bar is lined with plastic bottles of juice and Hip-Hop H2O.

Weeden says someone complained to the liquor-control office that minors were drinking alcohol at the library during a private party. The teenagers were members of a youth basketball league and were drinking soda and juice, Weeden says. "We had a deputy sheriff in uniform at the door doing security."

Kraiberg says he's heard complaints about kids running up and down the street near the café and library since the new owners took over. Because the library building can hold up to 300 people, parking and crowd control are big issues in the minds of neighbors, Kraiberg says, but he adds that those were problems when the building was a nightclub in the past.

"The person who wrote this letter may be racist, but the neighborhood is not," Kraiberg maintains. "There are legitimate concerns about how that business is operated because of the nature of it. Some people can control their crowds and some cannot."

Weeden outlined his plans to use the library as a banquet hall for weddings, birthday and office parties, and weekend concerts when he met with members of the Soulard Restoration Group earlier this summer. The association's support is essential to getting and keeping a liquor license in Soulard -- a fact of life that irks many bar owners and residents.

"Our support was for the occupancy permit for the library, not for an application for a liquor license," says Gary Siddens, president of the SRG. He adds that the group will meet with Weeden and his partners this week to get a better idea of how they will handle crowds, parking, traffic and safety.

The Carnegie Café and the library are not the only places where liquor licenses are being challenged in Soulard. A cadre of neighbors associated with the Soulard Restoration Group recently challenged the licenses of 1860's Hardshell Café and Bar because of motorcycle noise and Mike and Min's because the bar set up a Slip 'N Slide in the street.

Bar owners in Soulard usually come to one another's defense against what they view as hypersensitive neighbors. Why move to Soulard if you don't like bars, they ask. But so far the Soulard Business Association has shunned the proprietors of the Carnegie Café. After the "neighborhood alert" was mailed, the business group delivered its own letter to residents saying it had nothing to do with the anonymous mailer but that it did not support a liquor license for the café or the library.

According to the letter, the business association wants Weeden to address questions about parking, security, noise, trash, traffic and whether "the new addition will add value to our community."

Martin McGreal, a renter who lives a block away from the Carnegie Café, says he isn't planning on signing the petitions because he "got a shady feeling" from the café and library. "They say they're going to make it a banquet hall, but I just knew they were talking about making it a club," he says. "These are bars here in Soulard. Dance clubs invite a different type of crowd."

Weeden has so far collected only ten of the eighteen signatures needed in order to receive a hearing before Kraiberg for the liquor licenses. At least one person withdrew his name after receiving the "neighborhood alert" letter.

"I don't see how they can deny the café a liquor license when the past owners had one," says Brad Alexander, a café employee, who notes the previous owners were white. "We want to be good neighbors. Are [they] just making a judgment on the color of our skin?"