- Brian Chilson
- DANCE ALL NIGHT: Patrons of Electric Cowboy.
In Little Rock, for the time being, it's still possible to stay out drinking and dancing 'til the break of dawn. That soon could be history. For months now, the City Board of Directors has been discussing the possibility of forcing all clubs in Little Rock to close by 2 a.m. The discussion is aimed at the few nightspots that are currently allowed to stay open until 5 a.m. by virtue of possessing one of the few grandfathered-in Class B Private Club licenses, which the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board stopped issuing in 2001. There are 13 Class B licenses in Little Rock, only eight of which are connected to an active nightclub: Triniti, Salut, Paper Moon, Midtown Billiards, Jazzi's, Club Elevations, Discovery and Electric Cowboy. (Jazzi's elects to close at 3 a.m.)
One ordinance that would shut down late-night clubbing is the work of Ward 4 City Director Brad Cazort and at-large Director Gene Fortson. It would close Class B clubs at 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. during weekends and on holidays. A counterproposal presented to City Manager Bruce Moore by an association of private clubs would allow the clubs to stay open until 5 a.m., but would require a contingent of at least two off-duty police officers on site at each location, with the option to require more on a case-by-case basis if the Little Rock Chief of Police deems it necessary. An earlier ordinance put forward by at-large Director Joan Adcock, which would shut private clubs at 2 a.m. every night of the week, now appears to be off the table, with Adcock evidently supporting the proposal put forward by Cazort and Fortson.
Votes on the ordinance proposed by Cazort and Fortson and the pro-club proposal could happen as early as the next City Board meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19.*
On a recent Saturday morning visit to three of the 5 a.m. clubs — Midtown Billiards, Electric Cowboy and Club Elevations — we saw easily more than 1,000 people out between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The crowds we saw skewed young, and the off-duty police and security contingent overseeing them was large. We're not ashamed to say that there have been times in the past when we were among those crowds.
There's been a lot of fear-mongering recently about the 5 a.m. clubs — from opponents saying they are hotspots of crime to a recent story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which Cazort (escorted on an exploratory jaunt to the 5 a.m. clubs by two undercover vice cops) called the wall-to-wall crowd at Midtown "a huge public safety issue" because they were allegedly beyond the capacity set by the fire marshal. But there are great and, dare we say it, important reasons to keep the clubs open all night. Just to be clear, we're not just pushing protectionism for those with Class B licenses, either. If we had our way, we'd let any bar or club that wants to do so stay open until dawn, and we believe it would still be a good thing for Little Rock. No foolin'. Here's why:
1. Because great cities have great nightlife.
We've got a couple hundred thousand tourists a year streaming through Little Rock these days, and those are just the overnighters. That's not counting all the people who drive in from the hinterlands on the weekends to party and listen to music. Have you been on President Clinton Avenue around midnight on a Saturday lately? It's a zoo down there, man. Enough spangley outfits, revving motorcycles, stripper shoes, big hair and questionable undergarments to stage "Jersey Shore: The Musical" right this minute. Some people want to party. They want to dress up and drench themselves in sweet smellums. They want to drink and laugh and sweat and listen to music and have a good time. Some of them even want to do all that stuff 'til dawn. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's something right about it, especially if we want to help this city break the Bible Belt stereotype that has the rest of the world thinking Arkansas is still "Li'l Abner" meets "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Three little hours might not seem like much, but to the tourists who stay up until 2 a.m. only to find their entertainment options from then until daybreak are limited to Waffle House, it's a big deal. Do we really want to take the first step toward the re-podunkification of Little Rock, led by the same kind of prudes who wrote the Blue Laws back in the day to help make sure everybody kept the Sabbath holy whether they wanted to or not?
Here's the facts, ma'am: When people travel to a city, they don't take home fond memories of Johnny Gubmint knocking the drink out of their hand, yanking the plug on the jukebox and telling them it's time to go to bed. Sure, there is bound to be some drunken bad behavior associated with keeping these Little Rock clubs open until 5 a.m. (though not as much as you may have been led to believe). But that, friends, is the cost of making sure Little Rock keeps a reputation as a city that doesn't roll up the sidewalks when the chickens go to roost.
2. Because the "public safety" argument is a red herring.
Since some on the City Board started talking about trying to limit the hours of the 5 a.m. clubs, the core of their argument has been about concern for public safety — that the clubs are associated with bad behavior. "Nothing good happens after 2 a.m." has been the rallying cry of those wanting to close late-night clubs, who are always ready to trot out the number of police calls to these venues between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Crime is being caused by the nogoodniks who frequent these clubs! If only they were at home watching funny cat videos on YouTube!
Well, before we pronounce Electric Cowboy a hive of scum and villainy, consider the following comparison. The Arkansas Times made a Freedom of Information Act request to the LRPD for all requests for police assistance made from the Walmart Supercenter stores at 8801 Baseline Road and 2700 Shackleford Road. Let's just say that if public safety is the issue, then the City Board better get its big pants on and tell Walmart it will have to close for the public good as well.
There were a total of 413 police calls made to the eight clubs with active Class B permits in 2013. Meanwhile, there were 692 calls made to the Walmart Supercenter at 8801 Baseline Road alone, and that particular store actually closes from midnight to 6 a.m. every night. There were 596 calls made to the 24-hour Walmart Supercenter at 2700 Shackleford in 2013, with police responding 46 times between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. last year. That's almost 8 percent of the yearly police calls to that location, and Uncle Wally sells duct tape, butcher knives, shovels, sheet plastic, thong underwear, Nyquil and Billy Ray Cyrus albums all night long. Oh, the humanity!
Meanwhile, the clubs themselves have also compiled some figures. The Arkansas Licensed Beverage Association (ALBA) — a coalition consisting of Elevations, Discovery, Triniti, Electric Cowboy and Midtown — says the number of total LRPD calls made to all the 5 a.m. clubs in 2013 was less than 0.3 percent of the 146,668 calls the department received last year. That's three-tenths of 1 percent. Not exactly a crime wave.
If the argument for closing the 5 a.m. clubs is one of safety, then the city needs to stop playing favorites and close Walmart and everything else at 2 a.m. From there, they can order lights-out after "Jimmy Kimmel" and have the vet put a microchip in everybody's neck in case any of us get lost.
But seriously, folks: One of the reasons we live in Arkansas's biggest city is because if we get a hankering for lime sherbet at 3:30 in the morning, we can have it. Same with ordering a beer. If you want to have a 24-hour economy, let's have a 24-hour economy. It's a good thing. It allows adults to make choices on when they spend their money. If a small percentage of those adults run afoul of the law, deal with them, whatever the venue.
- Brian Chilson
- SAVE THE NIGHT: Revelers at Elevations.
3. Because adults generally don't want other adults to set their bedtime.
Like City Director Adcock, we don't generally frequent nightclubs at 3 in the morning. But we understand that laws shouldn't be decided by what we, personally, don't like to do.
The list of things that are (and should be) legal but that you yourself have absolutely no interest in doing is a long one, and the composition of that list varies according to who you are. It's guaranteed that there are activities out there that interest lots of people but leave you cold, perhaps baffled, maybe even a little disgusted. That's fine; you're allowed to think those whose sense of decorum doesn't match yours are a bunch of deviants. You can think anything you want. It's when you start trying to use the hammer and tongs of the law to straighten out the supposedly kinked behavior of others that the problems begin to surface.
Actually, we're upset on a daily basis by questionable behavior we see around us. We're dismayed by individuals who sink the cost of a new West Little Rock McMansion into a garageful of shiny antique cars or a NASA-level home entertainment system. Or who spend a beautiful fall day chain-smoking their way through a 12-hour slot-machine binge at the Isle of Capri. Or anyone who keeps the thermostat set at 78 in the winter and 65 in the summer. But while we may loudly complain about the things that offend our sensibilities, we're not trying to pass laws prohibiting people from doing them unless there's serious public harm at stake.
If all this sounds a little libertarian ... well, it is. This attempt to close the 5 a.m. clubs is one of those cases where civil-liberties-minded folks from the left and the right should be able to find common ground. We don't like the idea of being nannied for no good reason any more than Rand Paul does.
If a 2 a.m. closing time for clubs would make for a safer city, how about making an even safer one by closing everything down at midnight? Better yet, a blanket citywide curfew after dusk. Think of all the police resources that would be saved! Absurd? It follows from the same premise with which Adcock and her ilk begin: Public safety trumps free assembly.
Crime is no joke, but neither is the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers probably weren't envisioning the early morning dance floor at Discovery when they articulated the right to assemble, but the gist still stands. When you start regulating when and where adults can meet in privately owned spaces, you better have a damn good reason.
The best argument against drifting over to Midtown in the middle of the night is the self-evident one: There's a good chance you'll spend too much of Saturday with your ashtray-scented head drooping over a cup of coffee while you lament the futility of your life. Fine. But that's an argument to be made to your drunk friends who want to keep the party going at 2 a.m. — not one to be imposed on the public by city officials with a weird concern over our collective bedtime.
4. Because legislating morality doesn't work, and might actually hurt in this case.
Witness the following quote from Adcock that Arkansas Times reporter David Ramsey collected back in January for a story he did on the push to shutter the late-night clubs:
"Lots of people, when you go out and drink until 5 a.m., then you go home and you're not very willing, probably, to get up and get the kids off to school, or visit and spend time with the family. One thing we desperately need in this city and this state and this country is more family time."
Somebody go dig up Carrie Nation and retrieve her hatchet.
As hard as it might be to believe, some people don't even have kids. Even among those who do, the City Board isn't going to fix or break the art of parenting by passing an ordinance to make sure mom and dad are in their PJs by 2:30 a.m. so they can spring out of bed the next morning to fix French toast. Good parenting is an issue that must be addressed by individuals and families, not by the edict of an elected official. But we digress.
If the grand, national experiment of Prohibition and the 35-year boondoggle of the war on drugs have taught us nothing else, it's that you can't make people conform to a narrow view of morality with a gavel. Sure, as a good attorney told us once: All laws are moral laws in the end. But there's a difference between making sure people don't do outright evil by the rest of mankind, and using the law to make them do what you, personally, think is best for them.
Here's a radical idea: Having late-night clubs might actually keep Little Rock and its citizens safer. Your average politician and policeman are shaking their heads right now, clucking over our naivety. But bear with us.
Punishing the law-abiding majority for the misdeeds of the small minority of law-breaking knuckleheads is not only an ass-backward way to go about crime suppression, it takes away the beneficial effects of giving people who do want to stay up late a well-lit place to congregate. Nightclubs, no matter what you may think of them from afar, are at least somewhat regulated. There are people there whose job it is to remain sober, to bust up fights, to keep out underage drinkers and to call a cab for someone who is blotto. Bartenders, floor managers, bouncers and private security (typically off-duty police officers) are a constant. You close the late-night clubs, and you're just going to drive their customers to neighborhood house parties and other less-than-legal venues, where nobody will be checking for weapons and under-age I.D.'s at the door, where there will be much less supervision by the sober, and where folks will be a whole lot more likely to get up to the kind of reckless, dangerous, maybe even illegal nonsense that would never fly in an establishment with a rare and precious 5 a.m. liquor license on the wall.
Yes, some people do stupid and illegal stuff late at night. By all means, arrest them for it. But until a person steps over that line, let's resist the urge to do pre-emptive strikes on peoples' choices. That kind of thinking rarely leads to better outcomes, sends a bad message about the law, and punishes exactly the wrong people.
5. Because closing the clubs will cost people their jobs, and cost the city tax revenue.
According to ALBA, the association of club owners, four of its five member clubs collect the majority of their revenue between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. If Adcock's ordinance passes, some may well have to close down entirely. That will throw a lot of people out of work: bartenders, janitors, bouncers and even cops who make extra money working off duty. Elevations makes 53 percent of its total revenue after 2 a.m. For Discovery, the figure is 87 percent of total revenue. For Triniti, it's 83 percent; for Midtown Billiards, 80 percent. You can believe those figures or not, but we suggest you go to any of these places at midnight and then return at 3 a.m. and look at the difference in the size of the crowd. Then ask yourself if those businesses, which ALBA says employ over 150 of your neighbors, can survive being shuttered at 2 a.m.
Jake Udell is a co-owner of Club Elevations at 7200 Col. Glenn Road. The club, which primarily serves an African-American clientele, was packed when we visited around 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning in July, the bass from the speakers thumping so loud it made the hair on this reporter's arms vibrate. Sitting in his office under a bank of screens showing the views of 34 security cameras inside and outside the club, Udell said that in addition to bartenders, DJs and other staff, Elevations employs 28 security guards inside and five off-duty police officers outside.
"If we had to close at 2 o'clock, I'd have to fire half my staff," Udell said. "That's the main thing. A lot of people would be out of jobs. My people and police officers, because we wouldn't be able to afford to keep them. We have so many employees here who depend on Elevations, and we depend on the customers."
Garrett Voth has worked at Electric Cowboy since last August, first as a floor man and currently as the dress code enforcer at the door. Asked what he thought would happen to the club if it were forced to close at 2 a.m., Voth said, "We're going to end up closing, most definitely. We're on a separate side of town, and most people want to go downtown. There's no way Electric Cowboy can compete, in my opinion."
Voth said he and around 25 other people at the club stand to lose their jobs. Once the club is gone, he said, Little Rock will lose revenue from the taxes on the money spent by Electric Cowboy employees, annual taxes paid by the club, the taxes on the liquor purchased by the 5 a.m. clubs and sold to guests, and more. With the dance floor full in the club over his shoulder, we asked Voth where he thought all those people would be if they weren't at Electric Cowboy. "They would be at Waffle House three hours earlier and in the middle of the street causing trouble," he said. "When the City Board says that 5 a.m. causes more trouble, I don't believe that. When you start closing down at 2 a.m. on everybody who is used to being out until 5, now they have another three hours to do whatever they want. That's bad."
- Brian Chilson
- BE NICE OR LEAVE: A late-night band at Midtown.
6. Because some people work until midnight or later.
Most of the patrons we approached on our tour of late-night clubs had caught wind of the 2 a.m. proposal. There weren't many fans.
"I work in food service, at P.F. Chang's," Jared Snowden, a customer at the Electric Cowboy, said early one Saturday morning. "I get off at 11 p.m. or midnight some nights. By the time I go home and jump in the shower and change clothes, I have an hour or an hour and a half before the bars close.
"We should have the ability to choose where we go late at night. If you're an adult, you should be able to choose when and where you drink."
To the service workers who toil away their evening hours attending to the thirst and hunger of 9-to-5ers, the city's proposal is more than an inconvenience. It's an insult. Ask anyone who's ever been a waiter: When you've just finished an eight-hour second shift with a long string of jerk customers transferring their own workday frustrations onto your deferential, indentured ass, you deserve a drink.
At Midtown, the Times spoke to five people crammed into a tiny booth next to the door. All of them work after hours in bars and restaurants around town, and the late-night clubs are their domain.
"I know half the people in here, and most of them work in the service industry," said one man in his early 30s, gesturing toward the crowd. "They get off at midnight or 2 a.m. and they want to go out, too. I want to hang out right here and have a drink after work. What's wrong with that? All work and no play, what's that? That's chaos."
Plenty of other lines of work entail late nights too — nurses and paramedics, janitors and taxi drivers, even security guards and cops — but it's the low-wage folks who mix your drinks, bus your dishes and cook your lo mein who would be most affected by the city ordinance. Census data shows there are about 21,000 service workers employed in the Little Rock area. Many of them work late into the evenings. We think a commenter on the Times blog said it well, in a rant directed toward Director Adcock:
"The hours of these Revenue Generating Businesses ... which provide respite to those who have had to endure and serve pointlessly demanding people (hint, hint), do not put any unnecessary or undue stress on this city in any way. Plus, after dealing with people like you, the service industry needs to decompress ... trust me on this! The fact that you clearly show no regard for the recreational needs of this sector reveals to me your lack of regard for these people and the jobs they do."
7. Because being out late is FUN, and people deserve that experience.
Believe it or not, this — by our way of thinking — is the most important point of all. It's simply not true that nothing good happens after 2 a.m. Oh, we've had bad times at late-night bars. We've also had moments of deep friendship, of inspiration, of resonant conversation, of creative epiphany, of loony storytelling fodder. We've made new friends and had fascinating encounters with strangers we never saw again. Public spaces are vital to cities because they foster community and possibility. That stuff happens after 2 a.m., too — and sometimes it happens with a special energy peculiar to the late night, and to the late-night crowd.
There's an allure to the deep of the night, especially when you're young. When you're 23 or 24 — even when you're 29 or 30 — you still acutely remember the disappointment of being told it's bedtime. It's a magic moment when you realize that nobody else is making decisions for you but you.
For our more seasoned readers: Think back. Before serious relationships. Before mortgages. Before responsibility, car notes, kids and dogs, when all you needed was a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and whatever was left over for beer and cover charges after your share of the rent. Think back, more vintage friends, to a time when every one of us could hang out in a bar and laugh with friends until dawn, catch three hours of sleep, take two Tylenol and still go be productive at work. If you didn't have at least a taste of that experience in your youth, we downright pity you. There is a tragedy, we think, in the idea that the 50- and 60-somethings on the City Board might be considering taking the experience of being in a bar at 4 a.m. away from the people of Little Rock, especially because some of the best memories of our lives were made in the early morning hours, and in some of the same nightclubs they're considering closing at 2 a.m. for the vaunted good of the city.
Yes, there are stupid choices made in the darkness before the dawn, even some reckless and dangerous choices. But wherever failure is an option, life lessons are plentiful. Allowing young people to hang with friends, do adult things, and make those right and wrong choices that will shape the right and wrong choices they make as older taxpayers is a good thing for Little Rock, not a bad thing. If they break the law, arrest them and make them pay the penalty. But until then, let them — and all of us — have the space to have those experiences.
David Ramsey also contributed to this story.
*This story has been updated to reflect decisions made at the Aug. 12 Little Rock City Board of Directors meeting, which took place after the Times went to press for its weekly edition.