Atlanta weighs earlier nightclub closing time


ATLANTA - Faced with a stagnating economy in this city's northern area two decades ago, local officials decided to jump-start commercial activity by relaxing rules that required bars and dance clubs to provide parking for customers.

The plan worked. A thriving nightlife emerged in the once-sedate Buckhead area of Atlanta. Dozens of bars and restaurants opened along and around Peachtree Road, attracting a multiracial crowd of young people and helping cement Atlanta's reputation as not only an intellectual center of the New South but a swinging place too.

Now, however, after a string of high-profile scandals and killings - a recent shooting left the former bodyguard of rap magnate Sean "P. Diddy" Combs dead in the street - the city is thinking seriously of reining in the Mardi Gras atmosphere.

"The public is incensed," said Sam Massell, a former mayor of Atlanta. In his position as president of the Buckhead Coalition, made up of businesses and residents from the surrounding community, he is trying to persuade officials to close the bars two hours earlier than the current 4 a.m. lights-out time.

Although the mayor and police chief, both of whom are black, support the proposal, some in town complain that the push to shut down the bars earlier is a thinly disguised effort to keep young black men out of the mostly white neighborhood at night. Bar owners argue that it won't stop people from drinking too much and causing trouble.

Some say the statistics don't make a convincing case for earlier closure. Buckhead, which surrounds the five-block neighborhood where most of the 50 or so dance clubs and bars are located, is part of what police call Zone Two. Police Sgt. John Quigley said the Zone Two area covers 40 square miles and averages 11 to 15 homicides a year.

"While [the figures] are concerning, it's not as if there's a rash in comparison to other parts of the city," Quigley said.

The problem is that tourism has become one of Atlanta's most important industries, and Buckhead is among the city's top tourist draws. A Web site called Nightlife Buckhead lists a range of entertainment options - piano bars, jazz clubs, Latin music venues - as well as such oddities as Dante's Down the Hatch, where you can drink or dine on what appears to be a ship floating on an indoor sea.

For city leaders, bad publicity in Buckhead is bad for Atlanta. And Buckhead has been getting more than its share of bad publicity in recent years.

The first major incident occurred outside a bar during a post-Super Bowl party almost four years ago. Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis was arrested and charged with murder and assault. Those charges were dropped, and he was later convicted of a misdemeanor.

Another Buckhead-area business, the Gold Club, gained notoriety in 2001 when famed athletes such as baseball player Andruw Jones and basketball player Patrick Ewing were called to testify about sexual favors they received there from exotic dancers. Midway through the trial, club owner Steve Kaplan pleaded guilty to racketeering and agreed to forfeit $5 million and serve 16 months in prison.

After the trial ended, an auction of Gold Club memorabilia brought in $29,000, including $1,750 for the gold-painted pole on which the dancers cavorted.

The recent slayings in Buckhead occurred around closing time Nov. 11 near Club Chaos, a dimly elegant bar where guests drink champagne on red velvet couches and can watch sports on large screens while hip-hop music booms in the background. Besides Combs' former bodyguard - Anthony "Wolf" Jones, 38 - also killed in a gunbattle was Lamont Girdy, 38. Both men were from New York.

Demetrius Flenory, 35, also from New York, was arrested after showing up at North Fulton Hospital with gunshot wounds. Police said the shootings were caused by a feud over a woman and had started earlier in the evening at another club.

The gunbattle was only two blocks from the scene of another fatal shooting a month earlier.

"[While] we may all desire a 24-hour city, we simply cannot afford to continue operating as we have," Mayor Shirley Franklin said in a letter to the City Council last week. "The costs have been too high, both in terms of dollars and lives."

Supporting the case for an earlier closing time, police released figures showing that in the past three years there have been nine deaths in the Buckhead area between 3:40 a.m. and 4:20 a.m.

Massell said there's no logical reason to keep the bars open so late. Pointing out that Los Angeles, Dallas and other major cities close their bars at 2 a.m., Massell said, "We're not a New York or Las Vegas."

In the aftermath of the case involving Ray Lewis, there was a similar hue and cry against the bars. The bar-closing proposal was defeated after critics said whites just didn't like seeing a lot of young, affluent blacks flooding into the area at night.

"I'm sure an element of [racism] exists" among those urging an earlier closing time for the bars, said Councilman H. Lamar Willis, who is black. But he added, "When you have more than a half-dozen murders in two or three years, that removes it from being a racial issue. It becomes a public safety issue."

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