Some people might think Jim Crow died a long time ago. But the City of Plantation enacted laws a couple of years ago that were clearly designed to run black patrons out of town. And it has protected white-owned businesses, even when they break city ordinances. A group of political insiders controls this system of separate and unequal treatment. To really understand the hypocrisy, you have to go back in time to a country-and-western club with an all-white crowd and a name with more racist overtones than a Trent Lott birthday tribute.
The place was called Do Da's, and the name came from Stephen Foster's De Camptown Races, a favorite in early Bugs Bunny and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons (the most blatantly racist of which have since been censored). Long before Looney Tunes, the song was popular in 19th- and early 20th-century minstrel shows (think Eminem in blackface as produced by Jesse Helms).
Needless to say, blacks didn't go to Do Da's. But honkies sure filled the honky-tonk. Located south of Broward Boulevard on State Road 7, it was Plantation's most popular nightspot during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Noise was a problem and parking was a mess, since there were fewer than 175 spots for crowds that often surpassed 1,000. Neighbors complained, but city officials took little notice; it was a Plantation kind of place, after all.
In 1996, Do Da's went out of business. Two years later, a new nightclub, called the Brickhouse, opened in the same building. Like its predecessor, the club thrived, with large crowds of upwardly mobile patrons filling the place until the 4 a.m. closing time. Again, nearby residents complained.
This time, the patrons were predominantly black, and this time, the city acted with a vengeance. A few other black clubs had also opened on the city's east side, including Peppermints and Sensations. At the behest of the Plantation council, staff rewrote the ordinance book in 1998 and 1999 to help put the clubs out of business. The council even took the extraordinary action of banning all nightclubs.
The Brickhouse was grandfathered in, however, so the city had to find other ways to shut it down. The council passed a law to force existing clubs to hire city police officers as security rather than use cheaper firms and added stricter parking laws. Then code inspectors began hitting the club with nuisance violations and ticketing patrons' cars by the dozen.
Brickhouse lawyers, meanwhile, tried to fix the primary problem, which was parking. Club owners signed parking agreements with nearby businesses, but the city refused to allow them. A suggestion that the city buy land next door and build a potentially profitable parking lot was also shot down. By late last year, the club was closed for good, and the City of Plantation had won another battle in its race war.
George Allen, a prominent black attorney in Broward County who represented the Brickhouse in its battles with Plantation, said the city's different treatment of Do Da's proves racism drove the council's decisions. "The city really wanted [Brickhouse patrons] out because it was young blacks and they used parking as an excuse... and landscaping and other silly stuff," Allen said. "They didn't do that with anyone else. When it was a western place, it had more complaints and more customers, and the city didn't do anything. The city just killed the Brickhouse."
The council's refusal to cooperate with the black club starkly contrasted with the way it treats most white businesses, especially the ones that hire the politicians and influence peddlers who dominate city business.
Consider, for instance, City Hall's favorite watering hole, Webby's Pub and Grub. Located in a nice strip mall at Broward Boulevard and East Acre Drive just west of Florida's Turnpike, Webby's has long been the place where local politicians hold fundraisers and city officials eat lunch. Blacks rarely venture there, for good reason: Robert "Webby" Webster was a veritable lieutenant in Plantation's race war. In his place, there is a tangible air of white defiance. This is good-old-boy turf.
During the few times I went into the bar (which is just down the street from my house), I heard lots of racist talk. I once asked Webster what he recommended from the kitchen, and he said everything, since it was all made by "good white people." (I decided not to eat.) Dripping with hate, he called Jesse Jackson a nigger and told me he had decided not to bid for the Broward Sheriff's Office food concession because he would have to hire minorities. He spoke about keeping blacks in their place, east of the turnpike, away from central Plantation. One of his bartenders once summed it up: "Webby just hates blacks."
Last week, I called Webster and asked him whether he'd ever refused to serve a black person. "I don't think so," he answered vaguely. Then I reminded him of all the racist things I'd heard him and some of his patrons say. "I didn't say those things," he responded coyly. "I'm too nice a guy... The only color I really care about is green. Plantation is changing. Some blacks keep their houses up better than some whites I know."
Imagine that. So there are good blacks after all, huh? Webster, for all his hate, has been championed by the Miami Herald, which has occasionally quoted him on local political issues. In April 2001, Webby's won a Readers' Choice Award from the Herald, which raved that the place "offers a friendly ear and plenty of locals willing to gossip about Plantation pols and city scandals... And it can too easily become a second home. That's how comfortable you feel after just a visit."
In a 1998 Herald article, Webster revealed the secret of his success: "I started feeding one cop. You get one cop, then the next thing you know, he brings his buddy, and his buddy brings a few more." No wonder blacks don't go to Webby's -- as I reported last week, there aren't many black officers in Plantation, not nearly enough to sustain a bar-and-grill business.
Cause for hope came a few months ago: Webster sold the place. So I went in last week and spent a couple of hours there. Nobody behind the bar, which is still called Webby's, said anything racist. That was a record. I chatted with a friendly-faced man, who looked to be in his late 40s. The conversation turned briefly to Saddam Hussein. The man said thugs like Hussein can be successful because life has little value in Third World countries. "Why do you think people from India own all the convenience stores? Because they aren't afraid of the niggers, that's why," he answered himself. "Dot heads will shoot niggers without thinking twice about it because they won't take it."
Classic Webby's talk. It's not so much that the guy thinks this way; it's that he spouts his narrow and hateful musings to a complete stranger.
Webby's is certainly a unique place -- look around Plantation and you will find no other establishment quite like it. That's because it's illegal. The property is zoned B-1P, for neighborhood use, which forbids restaurant bars. In Plantation, restaurant bars must have at least 4,000 square feet and a minimum of 200 seats. Webby's isn't close to 4,000 square feet and has only 50 seats. City law dictates that it can sell beer and wine only in conjunction with food service.
Every evening, though, regulars drink beer from the taps behind Webby's horseshoe-shaped bar, which is walled off from the restaurant side. Monday Night Football draws a crowd. Televisions, sports posters, and beer signs line the walls. It's a bar, but Webster called it something else. "We called it a counter," he said. "The city didn't want us to call it a bar, so we didn't."
But what about the name on the shingle outside: Webby's Pub and Grub. I called City Planning Director Marcia Berkeley to find out why she wasn't enforcing the law. Berkeley contended that Webby's bar is allowed as a "nonconforming use" because it had been there before the area was zoned B-1P. But she's wrong. I obtained a copy of the building permit pulled for the partition built between the grub and pub sections. On it is not only the B-1P status but written in the upper right-hand corner is "no bar and lounge -- counter only."
The person who penned those words should have known the rules -- she's now the mayor of Plantation. Rae Carol Armstrong, then a councilwoman, built Webby's partition. Webster paid Armstrong's company, RCA Construction, $4,050 for its work. Her partner on the job was Ron Kall, a Plantation architect who routinely represents businesses before Armstrong's council and relies on politicians' approvals of building plans. Armstrong refused to comment for this column.
The conflicts of interest here are outrageous. But the existence of Webby's bar, more than anything else, proves that, in Plantation, it's not so much who you know as who you know to pay. If you go through the right channels, the city will usually cut you some slack. If you operate outside the all-white power clique, you lose.
Which brings us to a place called Boogie Nights. Located in the Holiday Inn on University Drive, Boogie Nights has a dance floor, a disco ball, a DJ, and a full-service bar. It advertises itself on the Internet as a "retro discotech." Boogie Nights, in layman's terms, is a nightclub -- and it opened after the city, its racist tendrils still inflamed by the Brickhouse, had banned them.
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At a City Council meeting this past January 30, officials noted that Boogie Nights seemed to be in violation of the nightclub ordinance and that there had been some noise complaints. But rather than shut down the club, the council decided to amend the law. While the city works on the amendments, Boogie Nights is up and running.
Suddenly, the city is cooperating with nightclubs again. Perhaps that is because Boogie Nights is located in central Plantation and, while its crowd is mixed, it's not predominantly black. Another reason is that it's represented by Bill Laystrom, a City Hall regular and partner of former Mayor Frank Veltri's old buddy, lobbyist Emerson Allsworth. Laystrom wields enormous power over the council, and he talked the dais-sitters into revisiting the ordinance. "We're waiting to see what the city comes up with," Laystrom told me. "They could go with us or against us... I think everyone agrees that the city needs more entertainment uses."
Amen to that. The city is not only fighting a simmering race war but it seems to be in a death match with the libido. I don't want to see Boogie Nights shut down -- I'd like to see more places where people can cut loose in Plantation. But if history shows us anything, it is that there won't be new places to dance unless the good old boys (and girls) get a piece of the action and most of the patrons, regardless of their green, aren't black.
Next week: The city invites kids to play ball. Unless they're black.