Atlanta Revelers May Hear an Earlier Last Call

Times Staff Writer

Faced with a stagnating economy in this city's northern area, local officials two decades ago 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 on and around Peachtree Road, attracting a young, multiracial crowd and helping cement Atlanta's reputation not only as an intellectual center of the New South, but a swinging place as well.

However, following 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 in Buckhead.

"The public is incensed," said Sam Massell, a former mayor of Atlanta. In his position as president of the Buckhead Coalition, an organization of businesses and residents from the surrounding community, he is trying to convince officials to close the bars at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.

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

Some argue the statistics don't make a convincing case for closing bars earlier. The Buckhead district, 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. Sgt. John Quigley said Zone Two 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.

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

Another Buckhead business, the Gold Club, gained notoriety in 2001 when professional athletes such as baseball player Andruw Jones and basketball player Patrick Ewing testified 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, 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 bar where guests sip champagne on red velvet couches and watch sports on large screens while hip-hop music booms in the background. Besides Combs' ex-bodyguard -- Anthony "Wolf" Jones, 38 -- also killed in a gun battle was Lamont Girdy, 38. Both men were from the Bronx.

Demetrius Flenory, 35, also from the Bronx, was arrested after showing up at North Fulton Hospital with gunshot wounds in the buttocks. Police said the shootings occurred because of a feud over a woman, and had started earlier in the evening at another club.

Jones had been arrested in 1999 with Combs in connection with a shooting outside a New York nightclub that wounded three people. Both Jones and Combs were acquitted, but a third man was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The gun battle near Club Chaos was only two blocks from another fatal shooting a month earlier.

After the recent killings, the City Council began debate on imposing a 2 a.m. closing time on the bars. "[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 there had been nine deaths in the Buckhead area between 3:40 a.m. and 4:20 a.m. in the last three years.

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."

After the case involving football star Lewis, there was a similar hue and cry against the bars. The bar-closing proposal was defeated after critics said wealthy whites just didn't like seeing a lot of young, affluent blacks flooding into the area at night. Some of the same talk is being heard this time around.

"I'm sure an element of [racism] exists" among those urging an earlier closing time, said Councilman H. Lamar Willis, who is black.

But Willis, who has not taken a position on the proposal yet, 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. [There have been] too many stabbings and shootings."

Brian Alt, owner of Club Chaos, doesn't think closing the bars earlier would improve safety. Instead of heading home at 4:30 a.m., "when there's only bar people out," tipsy bar patrons would be mixing with other traffic, possibly adding to the danger to the public, he said.

Alt also said the problem isn't the bars but the failure of the city to hire enough police to keep up with the city's growth over the last two decades.

Atlanta police agree they don't have the resources to adequately patrol the Buckhead area. Quigley said 15 officers are deployed there, but 30 more are needed. "Police manpower is not at the level it should be yet."

Massell scoffed at the bar owners' arguments, saying they "will generate any excuse" to stay open late.

While the City Council debates, Massell and other members of the Buckhead Coalition have mounted their own campaign to make the area safer and cleaner. Besides spending money to hire security officers and to install trash receptacles, several investors have stepped forward to buy bar properties to take them off the market.

"The current effort is to reduce the number of clubs," Massell said. "It won't solve the problem, but it will help."

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