For years it's been perceived as the epicenter for a long-list of chronic criminal activities around the area of 20th Avenue East and East Madison Street. Both the neighborhood and the Seattle Police Department have long regarded Club Chocolate City - formerly and infamously known as Deano's Bar and Lounge - as a magnet for drugs and prostitution.
That reputation is likely to change. Last week, Club Chocolate City entered into a voluntary agreement with the city to stop serving alcohol. The last day of liquor service was first intended to be on March 31. Owing to additional liquor violations, the club's last day of alcohol service is scheduled to be Wednesday, Feb. 28.
Darnell Parker, who operates Club Chocolate City, did not return calls for comment. But it is difficult to imagine that the club would survive without the ability to serve liquor. Rumors about what might happen in the space are varied and include the possibility that it would turn into a billiard hall, or simply close. The status of Miss Helen's Soulfood Restaurant, which operates inside Chocolate City, is also subject to rumors that it will relocate.
Andrew Taylor, the longtime head of the Miller Park Neighborhood Association, said he welcomed the news but is hesitant to suggest that the club's loss of its liquor license will be a solution to the chronic crime issues that affect the street.
"As neighbors, we often see people loitering outside the bar - they go inside, come out quickly. You don't see the same sort of behavior across the street at Twilight Exit. So it will be a good thing if they don't do that in front of Chocolate City," he said.
That the owner voluntarily agreed to give up his liquor license comes after a lengthy series of discussions and appeals. Dan Okada, the East Precinct's liaison from the City Attorney's office, said when the club's license came up for renewal last fall, the city - encouraged by numerous letters and calls from the neighborhood - filed an objection.
Following a long period of negotiations, Parker agreed to stop serving liquor. Had he not done so, the city would have presented its case in front of a hearing examiner acting on behalf of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. By being prepared to go that route, Okada said, the city was confident it was on solid ground.
"We had a strong case against them, in regards to the liquor violations, crime concerns, community complaints. So we were pleased that we could reached an agreement that Chocolate City would give the license up in March," Okada said. He added that the process involved lengthy negotiations.
"This agreement proved to be in the best interests of all parties," Okada said. "Darnell Parker is a good guy, but these were chronic problems relating to Club Chocolate City and its liquor license."
Jon VandeMoortel, who lives close to Club Chocolate City and helped establish the MadCAP community group in response to neighborhood crime issues, sounded positive about the news the club would have to stop selling liquor.
"Given the date compiled by the police department and the anecdotal evidence provide by those who live in the neighborhood, Club Chocolate City has shown to not be one of those committed neighbors dedicated to making this a better place to live," he said. "Given that, it makes sense that some of the chronic issues allowed to exist in and around the lounge would begin to decrease when it closes."
"I think it's pretty telling that the liquor board decided they needed to suspend the liquor license even though Club Chocolate City had already agreed that it would voluntarily give it up only a month later," said Michael Clarke, another neighborhood resident.
Some on-line reactions (on Capitol Hill Seattle and in Slog, The Stranger's blog) to the club's losing its liquor license suggested that the business was targeted because it caters to a predominately African-American clientele. Taylor said he's well familiar with that point of view but counters with the simple fact that a high level of criminal activity has been taking place adjacent to the club for many years.
"I'm sure the owners made an effort, but it wasn't successful," he said. "So the next question was, 'What's to be done?' Many people in the neighborhood feel uncomfortable walking on this street. I don't see that there was another way to address this issue."
Regarding those chronic problems (some of which are regularly described in this paper's police blotter), Taylor said part of the issue has had to do with just who is responsible for reacting to them. Some bar owners maintain that their responsibility ends at their front door and thus are not responsible for things that happen on the sidewalk adjacent to their business. Taylor thinks that Parker was genuinely concerned about the club's public safety issues but was unable to solve them.
Taylor doesn't see Chocolate City's liquor license loss as a panacea to the 20th and Madison's crime issues. He pointed out that when the large, mixed-use Safeway development was built across the street a few years ago, the loitering issues at that property disappeared for roughly a week.
Everyone is speculating as to what will happen in and around the street," Taylor said. "We shall have to see."
As for what's next for the property, the neighborhood is more than curious about what could occupy the space next. However, if rumors that Deano's Grocery, located in the same building, is planning to relocate prove correct, the odds of the property being sold or redeveloped would seem to increase. A mixed-use project slated for the site went through the city's design review process more than a year ago and has not moved forward. It is also self-evident that the under used and arguable dilapidated property is attractive to developers. Dean Falls, who owns the property, was unable to be reached by press time.
"No past efforts have proved successful here," Taylor said. "The problems - the continuing presence of drugs and prostitution, as well as occasional shootings, do leave residents intimidated at night. It's clear there are issues related to the bar, but Club Chocolate City is not the only issue."
Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1308.