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Late-night unruliness near club hinders progress of arts district

It's 3 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and Vander Pearson is standing guard at his flower shop at Charles Street and North Avenue. He has the gospel music turned up, trying to drown out the car horns and stereos thumping outside.

Down the block and around the corner, Vernadine Kimball and her 10-year-old grandson are trying to sleep, but the noise is making their windows rattle.

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By 6:30, up to 10 members of Solid Rock Freewill Baptist Church will arrive to pick up the bottles, needles and chicken bones on the ground before Sunday school begins. The air reeks of urine, and rats sometimes scurry through the trash.

This is the heart of Baltimore's new arts and entertainment district.

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City officials have celebrated the success of businesses here, including the Charles Theatre and Tapas Teatro restaurant, and hope to lure artists to live and work in the area. But after midnight on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the scene outside turns rowdy, leaving neighbors awake and afraid.

The neighbors attribute noise, traffic, garbage and crime to a crowd that comes to party outside and inside Club Choices, on North Charles Street just south of North Avenue. They park or double-park, or circle the block, stereos blasting. Some bring their own booze and drink on the street.

One recent Sunday morning, as off-duty police officers working as guards looked on, the sound of obscene song lyrics filled the air, and someone drove a car down the sidewalk on Charles Street.

"It's a madhouse," said Tapas Teatro co-owner Mary Ellen Massi. "You have people urinating all over the place. I see people doing drugs right in their car."

Years of complaints

Problems caused by the club encourage residents to leave and discourage others from moving in or starting businesses, undermining the city's development goals, according to interviews with more than a dozen residents and business owners. They say that despite years of complaints, law enforcement officials have given them short shrift while protecting the club's owner, Anthony D. Triplin.

Triplin is a longtime friend of Nathan C. Irby Jr., the liquor board's executive secretary. Samuel T. Daniels Jr., the liquor board's chief inspector, acknowledged that the club's problems are generally "overlooked."

Triplin, 53, vehemently denies that he has gotten any special treatment and says police have singled him out for harassment in an attempt to shut down the city's black-owned clubs. He said he is responsible only for what happens on his property but nonetheless tries to be a good neighbor.

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Choices, at 1815-1817 N. Charles St., is one of three clubs in the city with licenses to stay open all night. It has strip shows twice a week. Although it cannot sell liquor or allow patrons to bring their own, it is connected by a door to a Triplin-owned bar, Trip's Place, that serves drinks until closing at 2 a.m.

Together, the businesses can accommodate 1,200 people, but Triplin says they usually don't draw more than 600 on the busiest night, Saturday. Complaints revolve around Choices because Trip's Place closes before much of the activity starts.

Few consequences

Through the years, authorities have cited numerous problems at the club, with little long-term consequence for Triplin:

On May 9, a fire inspector shut down Choices and Trip's for the night after finding fire exits locked on the outside, bolted or padlocked for the second week in a row. The matter was referred to the liquor board, which could suspend Trip's liquor license as punishment but hasn't acted.

Irby said he recuses himself from all matters related to Triplin because of their longtime friendship. Irby's deputy, Jane Schroeder, said in June that she had received police reports on the locked doors but that "we haven't had time to look at them. We have so many." Last week, she said the liquor board would hold a hearing on the matter, but she didn't know when.

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Triplin said nearly all of the exits were unlocked from the inside and called the Fire Department's action outrageous.

The Police Department's vice squad and liquor board inspectors have repeatedly walked in on adult entertainment at Choices that they said was illegal because Triplin did not have a license. According to a police report from March 15, 2000, Triplin told Sgt. Craig Gentile of the vice squad: "I know Nathan Irby, and the liquor board knows I can do this. Write me up, but I'm going to continue."

Gentile charged Triplin in June 2001 with making a false statement for saying the courts held that he didn't need an adult entertainment license when a Circuit Court judge had just ruled that he did. The criminal case against Triplin was indefinitely postponed.

Triplin obtained an adult entertainment license this summer. He continues to fight in court for his right to have adult entertainment whenever he wants to, not just twice a week.

In February 1998, Triplin's attorney wrote to Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, complaining about a sergeant who "seems to be more concerned about prosecuting club patrons on some vague charges of loitering rather than working together with my client."

Soon after, Triplin said in an interview, "they relocated him because he was harassing me."

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The unusual configuration of the club and bar has withstood repeated scrutiny. "Technically, every night, there are probably several hundred violations," as people take their drinks from the bar, which has a liquor license, into the club, which doesn't, said Daniels, who conducts liquor board inspections.

Triplin said the Fire Department ordered him to keep open a door in the wall separating the two establishments, making enforcement nearly impossible.

Choices is a magnet even for people who don't enter it. People come from other bars that have just closed, joining the throng outside the club.

Late-night crowds

The effect stretches north to North Avenue, south to Lanvale Street, east to St. Paul Street and west to Maryland Avenue. Within that area, police records show at least 58 calls reporting "major crime" between Jan. 12, 2002, and June 15, 2003, during club operating hours.

The club opens at 9 p.m. and generally empties out by 5 a.m., with people lingering on the street until about 6. Nine calls reported aggravated assaults, and 28 reported car break-ins. Nearly three-quarters of the calls were made after midnight.

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In December, a man was stabbed in the stomach on the dance floor and survived.

Triplin said it is grossly unfair to blame him for all the neighborhood's problems. The area has several clubs, some of which have had troubles of their own. He singles out Club 1722, at 1722 N. Charles, another of the city's few all-night clubs, where an October 2001 raid resulted in 29 arrests, most on drug-possession charges.

Maj. John Skinner, the Police Department's new Central District commander, said an influx of calls on weekend nights "definitely seems related to Club Choices." He said most calls involve nuisances, not major crime. Police records show dozens of citations this year for loitering, drinking alcohol and urinating outdoors within a block of the club.

Neighbors say the police effort has been ineffective. In an April 8 letter to the commissioner, Charles Smith, acting executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District, wrote: "There have been several assaults outside the club and one knifing inside the club while off-duty police officers were working. Additionally, I have received many complaints regarding unruly behavior outside the club, and in clear view of the off-duty officers posted at or near the door. ... It reflects poorly to see identified Baltimore City Police Officers act as security guards doing little to protect the businesses and communities while lawless behavior continues inside and outside the club."

The police Department has since decided not to permit officers to work there off-duty, saying such an arrangement is inappropriate at a strip club. Skinner said he would start having at least one or two on-duty officers patrol around the club during its busiest hours.

Long history as a club

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Triplin's property had been a club for decades before he purchased it in 1983. With other clubs in the area, he said, anyone moving in nearby should expect late-night and early-morning activity. "I wouldn't move my family here," said Triplin, who according to records lives in North Baltimore.

Triplin is especially proud of his relationship with the president of the Charles North Community Association, the Rev. Dale Dusman, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

Dusman said he likes Triplin and has supported his right to have adult entertainment twice a week. Nevertheless, as a proponent for neighborhood progress, he said that "as long as the club is there, it's going to hold us back when you're bringing in that many people at that hour."

In late 2001, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced that the area bounded by Penn Station, Howard Street, Greenmount Avenue and 20th Street would be designated an arts and entertainment district.

The idea, in part, was to encourage investment in old buildings by using tax incentives. Paul Chicherin responded by making plans to open a coffee shop in the 1800 block of North Charles.

"When I heard about this entertainment area, I was very excited," Chicherin said. But after staying in the area on weekend nights, he changed his mind.

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"Until it's gone," he said of Choices, "I cannot open. It's too dangerous."

'It's a terrible thing'

James "Buzz" Cusack, co-owner of the Charles Theatre, agrees that Triplin can't control everything his patrons do in the street. That is why the club should move to an industrial area, he said.

"It's a terrible thing for the neighborhood," Cusack said. "Kids need someplace to go and have a party and act out like kids do, but it shouldn't be in the middle of a residential area."

The club isn't moving, and complaints continue.

Marc Durham, manager of the Zodiac restaurant at 1724 N. Charles St., said people in the street regularly throw bottles and rocks at him on his block-long walk home at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. One early morning last summer, he said, he asked people parked outside his house in the 1700 block of St. Paul Street to turn their car stereo down. Soon a bottle filled with human waste smashed on his balcony.

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Vander Pearson usually spends the night at his flower shop the three nights a week the club is open, a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the window. He has stood and watched while a crowd threw a trash can through the glass. Now he keeps three or four precut boards on hand to use when his windows are broken.

Vernadine Kimball, a special education classroom assistant, is working extra hours this summer in hopes of moving with her grandson to a quieter neighborhood.

And on Sunday mornings, members of a cleanup crew coordinated by Solid Rock congregant Howard Fields make two round trips to the church at 7 E. North Ave., on which graffiti has been spray-painted on Saturday nights.

Before services, McKinley Evans, chairman of the church's deacon ministry, goes home to Woodlawn to shower and change after sweeping the street, the sidewalk and the parking lot, and picking the trash out of the flowerpot on the corner. Sometimes, partygoers are lingering when the cleanup crew arrives.

"You just have to pray for them," Evans said. "That's all you can do."


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