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Party Down: City Faces New Club Epidemic

Unruly partygoers, violence bring fresh attention to Richmond's club scene.



Ted Santarella, the owner of Tarrant's Cafe, was so angry that he too nearly went to jail.

On two weekends this spring kids fought just outside his restaurant at Foushee and West Broad streets; a customer's car was hit with two bullets, through the hood, windshield, window and headliner. The mayhem occurred just before 10 p.m. after nearby Club Rendezvous dispersed its most recent teen party, sending hundreds of patrons, most from ages 13 to 17 (Santarella says he even saw a toddler) onto the sidewalk.

The fights and gunshots got the attention of police, who showed up in force, but by then it was too late. Boiling, Santarella unleashed an invective-laced tirade at the officers in his native New York tongue. “They said if you don't go inside we are going to throw you in jail,” he says, regrettably. “Me sitting in jail is not going to solve the problem, so I backed off.”

Santarella likes to point out that this is where he and the teenagers diverge. “The kids don't have that maturity level yet,” he says.

The past few weeks have been fraught with unruly partygoers and the ensuing violence that often occurs when the clubs shut down. Shockoe Bottom has drawn particular attention in the wake of two murders near Have a Nice Day CafAc on 18th Street. Police blanketed the Shockoe Bottom Shutdown, as a Saturday party was known, held after R&B singer and domestic assailant Chris Brown's concert at the Siegel Center.

Backlash from politicians, business leaders and residents focuses on clubs appealing to certain patrons: young, black and drawn to hip-hop, and, some of them say, prone to violent outbursts.

Most of the problems occur with managing the crowds, particularly after venues close. But whose responsibility is it if a man leaves a club and shoots someone in a nearby parking lot? Is Burger King liable if a customer orders an Angry Whopper and gets in a brawl outside?

Shortly after midnight Saturday, Reggie Brown, general manager of Have a Nice Day CafAc, oversees a club throbbing with hip-hop music. It crawls with bouncers and off-duty police officers, including a large, scowling man who stands at the foot of a Soul Train-esque stage while a few patrons gyrate behind him. The city police mobile command center, a large RV, is parked out front.

“We try to coordinate with the cops on a weekly basis,” Brown says.

Nat Dance, owner of Club 534 near Virginia Commonwealth University, goes so far as to scan driver's licenses at the door, which cross-checks for previous incidents at the club. He has bouncers monitor potential beefs and conflicts. The key, he says, is knowing who's in the club, a major problem for teen parties, which typically don't require IDs to get in. “You don't even know their real age,” says Dance, who swore off teen parties a few years ago after a couple of “disasters.” 

Shutting the clubs down, an idea proposed by many merchants in the Bottom and Tarrant's Santarella, may temporarily move them out of the neighborhood, but they're prone to come back. It's simple economics: Purveyors of the club scene are simply meeting demand. Mayor Dwight Jones, at the urging of some City Council members, plans to introduce an ordinance that would require clubs to obtain licenses to operate a dance hall or teenage nightclub.

The smarter strategy is to get to know the players, Dance says. Just like clubs are mistaken to let anyone inside without an ID, so too are residents and politicians for assigning blame without knowing the culprits. “You just see the faces,” Dance says, “you don't know the names of the people involved.”

What's the word out of City Hall on the city's club violence? Read more here - "Mayor Mulls Nightclub Fix."

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