Getting Past the Bouncer
Imani Rose is a seasoned party and event planner and general Houston nightlife veteran. She's worked as a personal assistant for famous people and lived in the "cool" parts of the United States.
Rose is young but not too young, trendy but not too trendy, thin but not too thin, successful but not too successful, and, most would say, attractive. Basically, she represents the ideal demographic for most upscale nightspots in town. Except for one thing — perhaps.
Rose is black. And when she goes out, sometimes this poses a problem.
She's hardly alone. Every few months or so, the simmering racial tension that goes hand-in-hand with nightclubs' right to decide who they do and don't let in boils over into another episode of hurt feelings, ugly allegations and hungry headlines. In the age of social media, this cycle can happen in a matter of hours.
And then, eventually, it dies down. Until it happens again.
Most recently, the focal point of this ongoing narrative has been Hudson Lounge, the posh Rice Village nightclub that opened last fall. The night of December 28, a large group of mostly African Americans — who had reserved the club in advance for their "Hydeout at Hudson" holiday party — were suddenly and unexpectedly told Hudson was closing at 11 p.m., well before its posted closing time of 2 a.m.
Hudson management says the reason the bar shut down early is that the number of people who showed up for the event was much more than the Hydeout organizers had initially told them, and the bar did not have enough employees on duty to properly accommodate the overflow. The Hydeout people didn't think so, maintaining someone there overheard the bar's owner saying he didn't like "the look" of the crowd, and said as much on Twitter and Facebook shortly afterward.
Over the next week, more traditional media jumped on the story, hard. One of the Hydeout organizers, Ray Odom, posted his account of the evening's events on CultureMap ("Where's the Secret Checklist When You're Black?"). KTRH afternoon radio personality Michael Berry discussed the story on his show, Houston rapper Bun B tweeted Houston Press music blog Rocks Off's report to his thousands of followers, and Fox 26's Emily Akin included the heated telephone shouting match she got into with Hudson owner Adam Kliebert in her report.
Houston nightlife's racial difficulties were back in the headlines, but what happened at Hudson Lounge — whatever happened at Hudson Lounge — wasn't news to Imani Rose.
One night, Rose took her friend and her friend's sister out to several Washington Avenue clubs. Everything was fine at Brixx and Rebels Honky Tonk, she says, but not so at nearby Roosevelt Lounge. Although Rose had been turned away from Roosevelt once before when out with three other women and three men (all African-American), she thought it would be different with an all-female group.
"No. The doorman told us we had to make reservations and that they didn't accept walk-ins," says Rose. "He then proceeded to tell the white man after us the same story, except he asked him if he had friends inside. The man said no. [The doorman] then whispered something to him, then said, 'Sorry.'
"We all walked away," she continues. "Then we see the refused white man walk around in a complete circle and enter the club. We kind of staked out on the sidewalk to make sure we weren't hallucinating. Sure enough, white person after white person entered. A black man with a group of his white friends was able to enter. It was awful and blatant discrimination. The only label for that is undeniably racism."
If what Rose recounts is true, it's unfortunate but hardly unfamiliar. When the Press's photographer went to take pictures at Roosevelt, he witnessed a Hispanic couple get turned away for not being on "the list," while the doorman let several white people in without so much as glancing at his clipboard. (At press time, messages left by the Press for Roosevelt's management via phone and e-mail had not been returned.)
In fact, when the Press reached out to club owners, managers, promoters and bouncers with reputations for fair and equal practices for their insight, their response was essentially uniform: Discrimination based on race is, if not a standard business practice, a sight less than out of the ordinary.
But breaking it down along strictly racial lines would not be entirely correct. Someone could just as easily be turned away because they look gay — which local "Guerilla Gay Bar" organizers claim happened en masse at Midtown's Union Bar in March 2009, although Union management said it was purely a capacity issue — or because the doorkeeper doesn't think they look like they have enough money to make it worth unlatching the velvet rope. People are also refused entry to nightclubs for any number of reasons that are perfectly legal, from being obviously intoxicated to not being dressed properly.
Clubs do this. They always will. Things happen, people hear about them, shake their heads, fire off some angry tweets and leave bad reviews on Yelp. Everyone will act appropriately appalled.
And then, no matter how many times someone complains about Hudson Lounge, or Sawyer Park or whichever other place has an alleged aversion to earth-toned skin, it will happen over and over again.
What rights do nightclub owners have in deciding who comes in and who stays out?
Although they are private businesses, in the eyes of the law — specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — bars and nightclubs are "public accommodations" like hotels, restaurants and movie theaters, and thus forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Private clubs, institutions such as country clubs that are selective in membership and only open to members, are generally exempt.
However, "Even if you have a doorman, a bar is more like a restaurant than a country club," says Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. "So, generally speaking, a bar that treats patrons differently on the basis of race is in violation of federal law."
Ho says someone who feels he has been discriminated against must prove three things to a jury: He is a member of a protected class, such as a racial minority (easy enough); he has been deprived in some way of access to an establishment's normal services (tougher); and he was deprived of said services because of race (much more difficult).
Allegations of discrimination at various Houston nightclubs have surfaced several times in the past couple of years. In July 2009, two men of West African descent, one of whom had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, were denied entry at Bronx Bar in Rice Village. After waiting outside while a number of white people were let into the club, one of the pair approached the bouncer, who said he was only doing what his manager told him to do. He asked to talk to the manager, who he was told was unavailable.
"Clearly the bouncer let me know that he had received instructions to not let any minorities in," the man, Lamine Faye, told our Hair Balls blog. The Bronx Group responded with a comment that the duo's allegations were "promptly and thoroughly investigated and lack merit and substance."
Andrew Dewalt, an award-winning teacher at Hartman Middle School, says he was turned away from a Midtown nightclub (he doesn't remember which one) because one of his friends was wearing lace-up shoes the doorman said violated the dress code, although he was letting others with similar footwear inside the club. A local Indian-American DJ, who asked that neither his name nor the club's be used, says he was turned away because of his baseball cap, even though he could see a "fratboy motherfucker with a torn-up baseball cap" already inside. He also happened to be that club's scheduled DJ for the evening.
In perhaps the ugliest example, one HPD officer was caught on camera using racial slurs following a fight at downtown nightclub Hush in 2009. In a meeting with the club's promoters that was later posted on YouTube, the officer (who is black) says, "Motherfucking niggas don't know how to act, that's the bottom line" and "You can get 2,000 white people out there and you won't have a fucking problem."
In the specific case of the Hydeout at Hudson party, Dale Ho says the bar's closing at 11 p.m. may qualify as depriving customers of its services. Hudson's posted closing time on Tuesdays is midnight; a spokesperson for the club said it was listed as 2 a.m. due to a mistake on the Web site. Adam Kliebert's alleged comment about not liking "the look" of the crowd the night of the incident "could certainly be interpreted in a racial manner," Ho adds.
That doesn't mean that it would be interpreted as a racial slur, though. "If the owner did in fact say that, then during the course of litigation he would, I am sure, be asked what he meant by it, which would shed further light on the situation," Ho says.
Thus far, no lawsuits have been filed and no legal action has been taken against Kliebert and Hudson Lounge in connection with the events of December 28.
Although they say they have been approached by representatives for the NAACP and activist Quanell X, Ray Odom and one of the other Hydeout organizers, Vonn Butler, have decided to let their case play out in the court of 21st-century public opinion — i.e., online — rather than the courts.
"The one thing people understand is money, and to me the only thing they will understand is bad press and something hurting their bottom line," Butler says. "To bring in the traditional civil rights strategies, I just thought that what we could do with social media was a better outlet.
"It got national legs. Hudson's Yelp and Foursquare pages are ruined."
Odom says he had been to Hudson two nights before the Hydeout party and walked in without incident. The reason he and the other organizers decided not to rent out the entire club was that Hudson wanted $9,000 to close for the evening. The number of people invited to the party changed several times, from 20 when Odom and Butler first met with Hudson staff to begin planning the event, then up to 90, and back down to 50 or 60.
The number of people eventually invited via Facebook was around 200, and estimates have about 150 people actually showing up for the party. Hudson's capacity is about 400, and Butler says that according to several of his and Odom's friends who were there, about that many showed up to a party thrown by Modern Luxury Houston a few days before the Hydeout.
But since Hudson was also open to the public December 28, the pair believes the trouble may have started when a regular came in, did not like what they saw, and decided to tell owner Adam Kliebert.
"I sat there at the door and saw some of his regulars come in, see black people, and turn around and leave," says Butler. "But then some regulars came in and had a drink with no problem."
In the aftermath of the incident, Hudson did not help its rapidly plummeting reputation by changing its reason for ejecting Butler, Odom and their guests several times. "If you look at how the story evolved, first it was that they were not staffed, then it went into a dress-code issue," Butler says. "Then when the pictures of the party came out and that obviously wasn't an issue, it became that we were being rowdy."
Amir Ansari, who has had to deal with his own allegations of racial profiling and discrimination as owner of Vintage Lounge and Antique Bar (formerly the Gallant Knight), agrees that Hudson more or less made all the wrong moves in trying to manage its public-relations disaster.
"I think the ownership handled it all wrong," Ansari says. "New bar owners have all these fears. You can't just turn the lights off and close if you get busy or have a pop. To make things right, they could have reached out and hosted a few charity functions, maybe even started a college fund supporting African Americans."
Hudson has also come under fire recently for unrelated reasons, mostly parking issues with its Upper Kirby/Rice Village neighbors, including longtime Houston blues club The Big Easy. The Houston Press spoke with Adam Kliebert by phone in late January. He was cordial, but resigned to the fact that the damage had been done and that the best thing would be to move on from the Hydeout incident.
Kliebert would not go on the record, but did send the following statement via Hudson's PR representatives at Studio Communications:
"Thanks for your interest in furthering the discussion regarding the incident that took place. At this time, we are focused on moving forward with building our business, and do not think revisiting last month's events will be productive. Again, we lament the misunderstanding between the parties involved, and reiterate that Hudson Lounge is open for business to all."
Just like grocery stores, car dealerships and banks, bars and nightclubs have a form of discrimination built into their fundamental business plans. It's called a dress code.
Dress codes are partially rooted in safety — mostly the part about shoes being mandatory; some honky-tonks in the area have banned sandals to help avoid crushed toes during two-stepping — and partially in the reality that a lot of people don't want to hang out and spend their money anywhere a lot of other people are dressed like slobs. It's bad for business.
Amir Ansari has a rather unorthodox, yet oddly precise, method of handling the crowds jockeying to get into his bars. It's his own brand of social engineering, as it were.
"A bar is like a prison, and we have to keep our population in check," he says. "We are outnumbered 100 to one — we have to prescreen. I'm not letting eight random guys come in in a group. They will usually start fights or bother the girls, which makes matters even worse.
"I want my customers, my regulars, to feel comfortable."
Ansari has structured the dress code at Vintage to encourage long-term business, or so he hopes. Patrons sporting designer labels such as Dolce & Gabbana or Armani will move on to the next trendy bar soon enough, while more casually clad customers in button-up shirts and khakis are more loyal, he says.
Beyond that, "We don't allow graphic printed shirts. No Affliction stuff — nothing you would see on Jersey Shore," Ansari adds. "No baggy hip-hop stuff, but even that style is dying off."
Most, but not all, of Houston's upscale bars have a dress code a bouncer enforces at the door. (Anvil on Westheimer, for example, does not have a perceptible dress code beyond the basic requirement that customers actually be wearing clothes.) Of the ones that do, it's more or less the same: Collared shirts, long pants and dress shoes or boots are mandatory, while sneakers, baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts are forbidden across the board.
Many people think that dress codes serve a more sinister purpose, that they are tailored to exclude minorities and "roughneck" types. To them, dress codes are a thinly veiled form of racism, and with examples such as Andrew Dewalt and the Indian-American DJ, it's not hard to see why. Comments like Ansari's about "hip-hop stuff" add even more racial overtones to the debate, although considering that hip-hop fashion has been embraced by as many races and cultures as rap music itself, that phrase is less racially loaded than it would have been 15 or 20 years ago.
After the Hudson Lounge incident, one other bar was cited more than any others by commenters on the various Houston Press blogs about the situation: Sawyer Park. The Washington Avenue sports bar, they claim, is both stricter and more racially suspect in applying its dress code, often excluding members of large parties who were not completely in compliance — and most of whom just happened to be African-American males.
Ray Odom, as it turns out, has a Sawyer Park story too: One of his friends was denied entry because his shoelaces were untied.
"We were dressed pretty preppy that night, wearing sweaters," says Odom, explaining that his party chose to take their business elsewhere rather than try to get back in once his friend's shoes were tied.
"My friend was wearing Timberlands, but they were the boot type, more like the Sperry-type slip-ons," he adds. "The bouncer swore up and down that it had nothing to do with an urban quota."
Sawyer's events manager, Erin Collins, contends the bar is just looking out for its customers, specifically the female ones.
"We had females in the bar who felt uncomfortable about men who were dressed a certain way," she says. "We don't want people to look like they just came from the gym or just got done running at Memorial Park. We are basically looking for upscale casual wear — no cutoff jean shorts, sleeveless shirts or tank tops. We do allow sandals and [hemmed] shorts, though."
The Houston Press talked to one man — a nightclub consultant, bouncer and doorman for the past 12 years who requested his name not be used — who told us flat-out that, especially at more upscale venues, club owners and managers will tell their door people to only let a certain number of a given race inside; and furthermore, that "everyone does it."
However, he said that cloaking discrimination inside a dress code is not the way to go about it, because too often it leads to situations like those encountered by Dewalt, the DJ who was denied entry into the club where he was supposed to be playing that night, and Ray Odom's friend: Someone who has been turned away inevitably sees someone else dressed exactly like them already inside and calls bullshit. Loudly and publicly.
Other doormen, like Anthony Gassnola, question the need for a dress code at all. Gassnola, who worked at Christian's Tailgate in Midtown and now checks IDs at Montrose hipster hub Poison Girl, says years of breaking up random fights have taught him that suit-clad investment bankers can be just as unruly and disagreeable as surly-looking indie-rockers sporting neck tattoos.
"I think the whole idea of a dress code is pretty dumb," Gassnola says. "Just because you dress nice, you are not necessarily a better person than those people in T-shirts. You can dress up a turd, but it's still a turd."
Two of the three Houston Press reporters assigned to this story, Craig Hlavaty and Shea Serrano, visited Hudson Lounge on separate nights the week of January 24. Their only instructions were to act like regular customers, observe their surroundings, and see if they could discern any evidence of discrimination, racial or otherwise.
Hlavaty, who is half Czech-American and half Hispanic, had never been to Hudson before. He wore jeans, dress shoes and a long-sleeve henley (a shirt with buttons and no collar) to cover his tattoos, and left his wallet chain and pocketknife in his car.
No doorman was on duty that night, and although small, the crowd was racially mixed. A Hispanic couple sat next to Hlavaty at the bar, while two African-American men relaxed over beers off to the side. A pair of tall, older white women came in giggling, while a few younger waitresses killed time talking about their vacation plans.
"It just felt like the Houston we all live in every day," Hlavaty says. "Whether or not something had changed in the past month and a half I can't rightfully say."
Serrano, who is Mexican-American, profiled Hudson Lounge in his Nightfly column about two weeks before the events of December 28 ("Sleek Chic," December 16, 2010). "Save one or two guys with haircuts like Christian Bale in American Psycho, Hudson actually feels warm and inviting," he wrote.
Serrano and his wife Larami drove by the bar early in the week, but didn't go inside because they didn't see a doorman. They returned after midnight on an evening the club was full. Dressed in a peacoat, undershirt, khakis and soft-soled shoes, Serrano was not allowed inside. He says the doorman, who was respectful, told him he could come in if he returned in a collared shirt and dress shoes in accordance with Hudson's "smart" dress code.
His wife, an African American dressed that night in a low-cut blouse, dressy blue jeans and brown boots, got into the club "with no problem," Serrano says. Inside, from what he could see, the crowd was mostly white with a few black and Hispanic-looking men scattered throughout.
"Most everyone was dressed nicely, but several men did have on soft-soled shoes and collarless shirts," Serrano says.
Someone else visited Hudson Lounge the same week, completely unbidden by the Press: None other than Imani Rose, who went with three African-American girlfriends.
While she and her friends were there, Rose says, they were the only black women in the club. They had no trouble getting in, but a security guard or off-duty police officer appeared to follow them from the bar to the outdoor patio, then "just turned around and walked away."
A group of white men offered to take Rose and her friends to an after-hours club where, they said, athletes and rappers from Houston's Rap-A-Lot records hang out. "I wanted to ask, 'Why, pray tell, do you assume I'm hunting for black guys if I'm at a white club?'" she says. A woman in the bathroom wanted to know if one of Rose's friends would like to be in a rap video.
Rose maintains she and her friends enjoyed themselves at Hudson Lounge that night, and seems to regard those rather stereotypical experiences from a perspective that is more bemused than bitter.
"Being black in 2011 [in] Houston, Texas, is a great comedic tragedy," she says. "It was fun, though, despite those thorns, but we expected that."
But would she go back?
"You know what, I would go back," Rose e-mailed a few days later. "Even though an officer did follow us for a while, the stares from management were bothersome and some of the guests did throw me off with their constant rap references (lol), some guests were really nice and we ended up having a great time overall.
"It won't, however, be a go-to place for me to frequent, though."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.