Our story begins the morning of Monday, December 17, when Duncan Cameron woke up pissed off. The night before, he'd been drinking a beer at his favorite downtown watering hole, the Poor House, when he got a taste of some behavior bordering on the offensive. So late that night, he sent an e-mail to his bandmates in Hashbrown and a few local reporters (including Bandwidth) detailing his gripe.
"For those of you who do not get out on Sunday nights, the Chili Pepper holds a hip-hop/bass music night that draws a significant Black audience to downtown," Cameron wrote. "Now some people, which I found out last night, may be offended by just that alone. I find the parade of fancy tricked out cars and big booties and hair entertaining. Unfortunately many do not share my opinion.... The people at the Poor House are my friends. I know most of them personally and work there from time to time. I understand that as a bar or restaurant owner the large scale influx of African-Americans may be daunting or even scary. Are they going to wreck my place? Will they tip? Will there be gun-play? These are all possibilities. WITH EVERYONE."
Cameron was also upset that the Poor House's outdoor patio was off-limits and that police were blocking off a section between the Poor House and the Chili Pepper with caution tape, in effect creating a "no standing" section. (The police were city cops working security detail for the Chili Pepper.) As Cameron noticed, "I can't seem to remember that happening on a Friday or Saturday night when there are three to four times the amount of people out. I guess the reason I'm venting is because I was hurt by what seemed to be thinly veiled racism from people that I like. When my bartender started playing the pronoun game ("these" people, "them" etc.) I wondered if she remembered that, even though I'm light-skinned and speak correct English, I'm still Black."
By mid-December, the Sunday-night hip-hop night at the Chili Pepper had been going strong for months, attracting hundreds of predominantly black patrons but in the process alienating many of the other establishments on the block -- in particular the Poor House, only a few yards south. And not without good reason: Labor Day weekend, a young woman was shot on the way to her parked car, the victim of gunfire originating from brawling Chili Pepper attendees. Other violent incidents (including at least one stabbing) in the adjacent parking lot or street made employees and customers understandably nervous, says Poor House manager Bob Pignone, who relates a story from a few Sundays ago when police pulled over a cruising SUV in front of his bar.
"I had seven cops standing on my patio with their guns drawn," he complains. "What does that do for my business?"
Apparently, it hasn't helped. Pignone understands that the Chili Pepper's ongoing tussle with the city's ban on under-21 clubgoers cost the club money, and it's making up for lost ducats. "So they're recouping, but it's to the detriment of the rest of the neighborhood," charges Pignone. "I used to do between $1500 to $2000 on a Sunday night. Last Sunday, we did $235. It's serious. That's $6000 to $8000 a month. Am I not supposed to be upset? I'm losing a ton of business over it."
Numerous calls to Chili Pepper management about these complaints were not returned by press time. For his part, Pignone seems to have a legitimate beef -- but does it excuse the "pronoun game" remaining part of the Sunday-night entertainment at the Poor House?
On the night of January 13, Bandwidth's stealth Escort creeps downtown to find it nearly deserted at 11:30 on a Sunday, with perhaps six patrons seated in and outside the Poor House. A uniformed officer strolls in and out, sucking on a cup of ice water. Pretty slow around here, Bandwidth remarks.
"Sunday nights have been dead ever since they started ghetto night next door," our bartender says cheerfully as Cameron's e-mail comes to life and a convertible Cadillac with black occupants saunters up the street. She mentions the shootings and stabbings as the reason the formerly busy night now sees customers voicing their insecurity with their feet. But is it the threat of violence or simply the presence of a black crowd that has the white folks so wary?