It's an outcome worthy of a Frank Capra film: troubled for years by the criminal activity orbiting around a notorious nightclub at 22nd Avenue East and East Madison Street, residents of the Miller Park community now say that once the club shut down for good, the problems stopped-some say overnight.
The nightspot in question, Club Chocolate City, finally closed its doors March 1 after the club's owner, Dean Falls, entered into a voluntary agreement with the city to stop serving alcohol. Perceived for years as a magnet for drug traffic and prostitution, the club-formerly and notoriously known as Deano's Bar and Lounge-had been the primary focus of neighborhood and police efforts to rid the area of crime.
According to Andrew Taylor, head of the Miller Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA), there is no doubt Chocolate City's closure had an immediate impact on the surrounding area.
"The answer would be, basically, it's had a dramatic overnight effect," Taylor said Friday by phone. "The bar closed, and all the drug dealers left. They literally vanished overnight."
Despite these dramatic changes, Taylor said he's always been careful about drawing hasty conclusions about the correlation between Club Chocolate City and the appearance-or disappearance, as the case may be-of criminal activity in the neighborhood. "We were trying to be fair," he said. "It was never clear to us quite how close the connection was between the bar and the drug dealing." Nonetheless, he added, "it's hard to escape the conclusion that there was a connection."
Michael Clarke, who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, appeared to confirm Taylor's observation about the changes stemming from the bar's closure. "The closure of CCC [Club Chocolate City] and then Deano's (the grocery store next door, which also has closed) appears to have been simultaneous with a major change to our daily lives in the neighborhood-in my observation, the street drug market... almost entirely disappeared on the very day that CCC closed," Clarke said via e-mail.
"Whereas in the past I had people trying to sell me drugs almost every time I went out," Clarke continued, "that doesn't happen anymore. We don't have addicts and dealers trespassing on our property. More children around the neighborhood are playing outside. I haven't called 911 for a gunshot in months, and I don't have to tell visitors to be careful how or where they park when they come over..."
Lt. John Hayes, a Seattle Police officer with the East Precinct, has been involved in the Miller Park neighborhood throughout the period of the closure and beyond; to this day he heads up GOTS (Get Off The Streets), an outreach program that helps drug addicts get on their feet. Much of his work with GOTS involves coordinating his efforts with neighborhood groups, Hayes said, adding that he's been impressed by the efforts of Taylor and his ilk in making the neighborhood a safer place.
"Needless to say, it's really different," Hayes said about life in the neighborhood after Chocolate City closed down. "It's a lot quieter."
Granting this success, Hayes nonetheless cautioned residents against feeling that the struggle for control over their neighborhood was over. "Sometimes when problem issues leave, people tend to take it easy," he said. In the case of the area around 22nd and Madison, Hayes said he's been pleased with the way residents as well as officers have stayed on top of things.
"Officers are still involved actively," he said, adding that so far neighborhood block watch programs have stayed intact and everyone in general has "kept footbeats going in and around 22nd and Madison."
In a sense, the closure of Club Chocolate City anticipated the current controversy surrounding what are perceived as problem venues-nightlife locations such as the former Mr Lucky in lower Queen Anne and Tommy's Bar & Grill in the University District, where a bouncer recently was shot during a late-night altercation with a would-be patron.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels last month proposed legislation that would require the licensing of certain venues, along with the creation of a nightclub advisory board that would review violations and, in the matter of enforcement, assess monetary fines or the suspension or revocation of liquor licenses.
Part of that proposed legislation includes budgeting for additional enforcement , and many have suggested that in order to combat endemic nightlife problems the city needs to boost its police force. Certainly the issue of manpower weighs heavily in any discussion of extra, "discretionary" patrols of nightclubs by SPD officers.
According to Michael Clarke, increased attention to the Miller Park area by SPD was at least partly responsible for the decrease in drug dealing in the area, even before the club closed. "I'm not sure that there is any magic law or regulation that can be created to solve the problems with nuisance establishments in the absence of a solid plan for devoting resources and a quick and clear enforcement mechanism," Clarke wrote.
Lt. Hayes said that, in the case of Chocolate City, what proved most effective was the way neighborhood groups like MPNA worked in conjunction with SPD in ridding the neighborhood of undesirable activities. "They have helped us pull off some remarkable things," Hayes said. "That's a big piece of what policing is really about. We've got to find ways to work together."
One of the issues that remains in the aftermath of Chocolate City's closure is whether drug traffic and other criminal activities simply were pushed from one area to another. "No doubt, some of the issues went to other areas," Hayes said, noting that the area around 23rd and Union has proven a hot spot right now for some of the same criminal activities that recently afflicted Miller Park.
Taylor also said he noticed a "significant increase of problems at 23rd and Union," and in particular at a nightclub called Thompsons Point of View. He does, however, offer a further insight that complicates the idea that there is a one-to-one correlation between his neighborhood and that of 23rd and Union. To wit, Taylor said that, as he became quite familiar over the years with the people hanging around outside Chocolate City, he noticed that those loitering around 23rd and Union tend to be of a younger crowd: "In the main part, they weren't the same people."
Despite this "puzzle," Taylor-who also maintains the Miller Park group's blog at http://millerparkseattle.blogspot.com-said he and others from the MPNA have been working with folks from the Union and 23rd area to aid in solving the ongoing crime problem. Lt. Hayes said such cooperation between neighborhood groups is not only encouraging but crucial when it comes to folks policing their own neighborhoods. "There's nothing better than communities working together and businesses coming working together to solve problems ," he said. "That's what it's about, right there. You have to be able to learn from each other."
The goal right now, he added, is to make the area around 23rd and Union "as strong as 22nd and Madison."
Another issue that remains is the fate of the now vacant property in the spot formerly occupied by Chocolate City and Deano's market. Vulcan developer James Mueller has purchased the building across the street from the Chocolate City site, and has plans to develop a six-story mixed-use building housing both retail and residential.
Mueller said by phone he doesn't have any plans for the Chocolate City site, which he points out is still owned by Dean Falls. King County records indeed indicate that the property is owned by Falls' company, DEF Inc., and that the account is active and currently subject to or in foreclosure due to an outstanding property tax balance.
Pacific Publishing associate editor Rick Levin can be reached by phone at email@example.com