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Locating the source of Clematis Street's troubles is harder than finding the headwaters of the Amazon. Several suspected causes of this West Palm Beach malaise: Wild packs of black kids. The post 9/11 economy. The demonic, overcommercialized CityPlace. Or maybe former WPB Mayor Joel Daves, a downtown resident fond of siccing the cops on loud nightclubs.
"What kills me is when people say, 'Oh, man, it used to be packed,'" says Ray Carbone, owner of Ray's Downtown, a Clematis hangout currently facing some tough sleddin' (see last week's Bandwidth). "It was never packed. It was busier. Now it's pretty dead. Clematis Street has taken a really good kick in the crotch, it really has."
Newly shuttered are frat-rat hangout Dax and pool hall Lost Weekend. Part of the reason Lost Weekend closed, according to one of its owners, Scott Frielich, is the "thuggish" (read: black) crowds attracted by the place downstairs. The club will soon move four blocks west to the 500 block of Clematis Street.
"I think the general consensus is that the 500 block is the only safe block left to go," says Rodney Mayo, Frielich's business partner. "Downtown in general has suffered from the influx of the hip-hop generation -- probably what all the hippies said when disco came around. One of the many reasons we closed Lost Weekend was we loved the idea of moving it to the 500 block. It's refreshing to get out of that environment down there."
For now, few Clematis visionaries can remember seeing the street so lifeless. New Mayor Lois Frankel even had city employees canvass the street's shop owners and club mavens last month for ideas that could help turn the tide. The city sent someone into Ray's and asked Carbone what he would do to help the street return to its glory days. His ideas are simple and intelligent, which means West Palm Beach may well ignore them.
Among his suggestions: Bring back free parking downtown. "I'd rather pay $5 all night than run out and feed the meter," he says. "You know how much that kills me?" Another great idea: Knock down the library at Clematis' east end, at the bottom of the hill that the 500 block shares with the downtown cop shop. "The street ends at a building!" Carbone complains, adding how nice it would be if Clematis terminated at the Intracoastal. "That's what makes [Delray's] Atlantic Avenue so much better."
Actually, the city recently commissioned a study that advocated relocating the library to make for a more accessible waterfront -- along with new parking regulations and an earlier last call for bars. Perhaps West Palm Beach could train its bulldozers on CityPlace, just a few blocks southeast of Clematis, during, say, a busy Sunday afternoon in late November. That would be an apt punishment for a town with the short-sightedness to neglect, then raze its historic urban core to erect a cheesy, Styrofoam/stucco, faux-moderne mall. No matter how many Hard Rock Cafés they toss into its hungry maw, CityPlace will always suck.
"I was hanging out over at CityPlace recently," Carbone reports, "and I was like, 'God! It's Disney World here!' I didn't even realize how vacuous. It's got no soul! And it's really scary to me that that's becoming the new Clematis Street. CityPlace has not helped itself, nor has it helped Clematis Street." Of course, part of Clematis is infected with the same canker of the soul: the chi-chi dance clubs at the bottom of the hill that serve $10 cocktails, for instance. Carbone mimics the trendy types who spend money in these hellholes: "I'm, like, being seen," he mocks.
The 500 block could become its own little entity, a destination for folks searching for the coolest cluster of bars. Maybe Ray's should go back to hosting inexpensive blues bands rather than the current scattershot approach. But that's not what Carbone wants -- after all, this is the guy who champions the 20-somethings who make up Pygmy, a band whose complicated jazz-punk fusion and chaotic stage show is hardly typical bar fare.
"Ray's is anyone's guess," Mayo says. "There is a big identity crisis over there. I wish he stuck to blues." But even Clematis' 15-year veteran, Respectable Street, has seen better days. "As Respectables goes," Mayo continues, "we are slow, but in comparison to the few non-hip-hop clubs left on the street, we're OK. The Lounge is not busy but could be worse. O'Shea's, I think, is doing OK. I am more excited now that we are isolated from the other blocks."
Bandwidth has never been scared of anything on Clematis Street, but it is changing. And the 500 block could end up the oasis for anyone turned off by CityPlace's vanity or $10 drinks or black kids in basketball jerseys.
"There are changes afoot," says Steve Rullman, who books shows at Respectables and runs TheHoneyComb.com. "I'm optimistic about the future of the 500 block. There are also new apartments being built nearby."
"Maybe there'll be a resurgence on the 500 block," Carbone adds. "That's what I'm hoping for."
I hope so. I surely do. 'Cause my watch says it's beer-thirty-five, and I'm thirsty.
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