The two faces of Odells nightclub


Inside Odells nightclub, gigantic speakers blast music by performers like Doo Doo Brown and Kriss Kross. Party folks, who call themselves "live" people, gyrate on a two-level dance floor.

Outside, a video camera pans the first block of E. North Ave. as music blares from cars cruising in front of the club and groups of people dot the street. Suddenly, pandemonium erupts as gunfire crackles. Bystanders scatter in all directions. One young man draws a handgun from his waistband as he flees.

These scenes show the two faces of Odells. When Milton Tillman bought the club three years ago, he imagined it as a place for black teen-agers and young adults to party in a city that has few other centrally located nightspots for them.

Odells has served that role, but the club's detractors say it is a public nuisance, a magnet that draws large noisy crowds to the area on weekends. Moreover, angry residents who live near the club blame its patrons for a rash of shootings, car thefts, burglaries and street robberies that have plagued the area.

Mr. Tillman steadfastly denies that the club's patrons are responsible for the crime problem. He blames the crime on troublemakers who loiter on the streets outside the club.

"A lot of the neighborhood's problems are blamed on us," Mr. Tillman said. "We've never had any incidents inside of Odells, so how can they blame what happened two blocks away on the crowd that comes here? That's not fair because it's not our fault what happens away from the club."

But the club's detractors are unswayed by Mr. Tillman's denial.

"It [Odells] has created an atmosphere where people just can't live there anymore," said the Rev. Dale W. Dusman, pastor at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, in the 1900 block of St. Paul St.

"We want to see some kind of harmony restored to our community," said Mr. Dusman, who is also co-chairman of the Charles North Community Association.

One of the club's detractors, who asked that his name be withheld, says the videotape of the shooting illustrates why Odells should be shut down. The detractor recently provided a reporter with a copy of the tape, which was shot last summer.

Last year, the city moved to close Odells in response to complaints about violence and rowdiness and after zoning officials determined that Odells had violated its permit to operate as a private club by opening the premises to the public.

But an accord was reached and Odells was allowed to stay open temporarily, pending a hearing on the club's request to operate as a "dance hall" and to double its capacity by allowing the second floor of the club to be used.

A hearing on the zoning appeal is scheduled for today at City Hall.

Odells clientele is mostly hip, young people who in many cases are oblivious to residents' complaints and who come to the club for one reason: to party.

One young man who parked on the lot of a nearby fast-food restaurant dances with a young woman he met en route to Odells. Another man tells passing women he'll play any song they like in return for a phone number. "The outside is part of Odells, too. You get pumped up before you go in," this man says.

One recent Sunday, Tresda Wright of Columbia saunters to the door of Odells around midnight, dressed in gym shorts and a halter top adorned with red hearts. A member of the security detail usually frisks patrons before they're allowed to enter. Patrons also have to pass through metal detectors.

"You think I came for anything else but to dance?" the 20-year-old Howard University student asks a security man. A line of partygoers waits impatiently behind her. After several tense moments, the doorman decides to forgo frisking Ms. Wright.

At Odells, security is taken seriously.

"This is a club of the times, and maybe it shouldn't be that way with security, but they've had trouble with knuckleheads being stupid," says Darren White, 21, as he enters Odells shortly after midnight.

"If you ain't bringing no trouble with you, or don't plan on getting in trouble, you shouldn't have no trouble with being checked," says Mr. White, a Coppin State College student and regular at Odells. "I know for me, I feel safer."

Mr. Tillman says he tries to be a good neighbor and goes out of his way to accommodate the community. He says his crews clean the area after the club closes. He also says Odells is available for neighborhood activities.

"What I thought would be fair, I figured that if they put up with the burden of our people coming up here in the neighborhood, then I would do things in return. That's the approach I went to them with," he says.

While some neighborhood residents appreciate Mr. Tillman's gestures, others say they are too few and too late.

"He's [Mr. Tillman] got to make a living, but there is a sufficient lack of police protection in the community," says Dwight Whitley, a neighborhood activist who lives in the 1800 block of St. Paul St. "It's just been a lot of problems."

A year ago, six people -- including five teen-agers -- were wounded in a drive-by shooting near Odells.

About a month ago, five people were wounded when a gunman fired into a crowd that had formed about a half-block from the club. The incident occurred in the early morning hours shortly after the club closed. The gunman fired into the crowd after someone bumped into him, police say.

After that shooting, Odells hired 10 armed guards from two private security firms to patrol inside and outside the club. The security detail, which includes off-duty police officers, disperses loiterers on both sides of the first block of E. North Ave. and patrols St. Paul Street one block south to Lafayette Avenue.

The guards were hired in compliance with a Baltimore Circuit Court order. "It's good to have the security outside but it's also a negative," Mr. Tillman says. "That sometimes makes people think that we have to have that type of atmosphere around for the people to behave and that's not necessarily true.

"As long as we're getting this negative [publicity], the clientele's going to go down because people are not reluctant to believe everything they hear instead of seeing what works. We have not lost people that have come here and normally understood everything that went on."

During a recent visit to Odells, many patrons told a reporter that they welcomed the tight security.

"If me or anybody else is going to smoke, snort or drink anything, or shoot or stab anybody . . . I'm definitely going to do it before I get here because these boys with the guns [security officers] don't seem as though they're too much fun," says an Odells patron, a man who goes by the nickname "X."


The city zoning board is scheduled to hold a hearing today on Odells' zoning appeal. The board meets at 1 p.m. in Room 215 at City Hall, 100 N. Holliday St.

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