Wong's War on a Reggae Club
City Councilwoman Martha Wong put on an unusual show-and-tell session in her City Hall office two weeks ago, but the subjects of the show weren't allowed to attend. In an effort to pressure reggae nightclub Jamaica Jamaica to move from its strip shopping center on upper Kirby at Richmond in southwest Houston, Wong issued a written invitation summoning business operators from the area and the club landlord to view a tape that supposedly showed drug deals and weapon transfers in the vicinity of the club.
Wong claims she's just trying to resolve a neighborhood problem created by large crowds entering and leaving the club in the early-morning hours. Jamaica Jamaica owner Brenton Paul Beecher contends that the councilwoman, at the behest of the Upper Kirby District business association, wants to drive his black club out of a predominantly white commercial area.
Don't look for the video to vie for any Oscar as best documentary. Several Harris County deputy constables served as cinematographers from their perch on a rooftop near the club. Dark and fuzzy video images tracked club patrons walking into the parking lot and nearby streets at closing time.
The lens-toting lawmen provided running commentary later, as the video rolled in Wong's office. "That's a drug deal," said one lawman, as the screen showed one black man handing another something that was indistinguishable. Likewise, a constable identified what he said was a shotgun being transferred from one vehicle to another, although at least one audience member says it was impossible to tell whether the object was even a weapon. Then there was that shocking scene in which a solitary man urinates in a nearby Texaco station car wash. Despite the alleged illegalities, the constable filmmakers had not arrested or charged anyone with anything. Meanwhile, a healthy contingent of off-duty HPD officers serenely worked security at the club.
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Wong accepts the constables' contention that the video showed narcotics deals in progress. Others say the film showed no such thing. Attorney Gary Murphy represents Jamaica Jamaica landlord Menyu Wong (no relation to the councilwoman). Murphy found the claims that the club was endangering the neighborhood distinctly underwhelming.
"There was no evidence shown of any wrongdoing in the club or on the property," says the lawyer.
Upper Kirby executive director Jamie Brewster, also in the audience, concurred that the tape's contents were debatable. "It was not clear," she opines. "It was something that you wouldn't be able to have hold up in court." Of course, this was not in a court of law, but rather the court of Martha Wong, who had clearly judged that the club needed to go.
Wong invited no Houston police representatives to the meeting, either. Jamaica Jamaica attorney Jim DeFoyd finds that omission curious, since over the past year patrol officers have been enforcing a zero-tolerance zone around Jamaica Jamaica. They also provide the paid security on the club premises and the parking lot. "HPD has been really cooperative with us, and us with them," says DeFoyd. "This so-called videotape was done by contract deputies hired by the Upper Kirby District."
The piddling nature of the incidents captured on the video didn't deter Wong. She told the Insider she relied on the expertise of the deputy cameramen. According to a meeting attendee, she also expressed frustration that Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers made repeated checks but yielded no violations that could justify pulling the club's liquor license.
According to some of those at the meeting, the councilwoman asked how long Jamaica Jamaica's lease had to run and suggested that the landowner simply not renew the lease. A meeting attendee concluded that Wong was determined to force the club to move "because she does not like the type of people it is attracting, no doubt in my mind."
Wong denies that race figures in her effort but does contend that the only solution is the relocation of the club.
"There's not enough parking and too many people for the space available," says the councilwoman. She points out that she has been equally forceful with clubs on the Richmond strip, including establishments owned by Asians. As to the charge that the zero-tolerance enforcement targets black motorists outside the club, she retorts, "Have you been in there? Who was there when you were there?"
Beecher and attorney DeFoyd tried to attend Wong's meeting to present their side but were turned away by a Wong aide.
Beecher says his record doesn't justify Wong's strong-arm tactics.
"Martha Wong, for six years you have joined with the Upper Kirby District to ruin my business," declares Beecher. "We have been investigated by all city and state governmental agencies, and we have passed all these tests. Why won't you leave me alone?"
Jamaica Jamaica opened its doors 12 years ago and is primarily a recorded-music dance club that occasionally showcases big-name reggae touring acts, including Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, Third World and Michael Rose, the former lead singer for Black Uhuru. The club, nestled at the point of a V-shaped shopping center, has a bar and table area that wraps around a sunken dance floor fronted by a stage. Beecher, a native of Spanish Town, Jamaica, became partners a decade ago with the original owner, Patrick Gillies. Beecher, 47, is well known to local reggae aficionados for his stints as DJ Paul Mellotone on KPFT/90.1 FM Pacifica radio.
Beecher says Jamaica Jamaica is one of the few black-owned businesses on Kirby and had no problems with its neighbors until Beecher went to renew the club's liquor license in 1994. To his surprise, the Upper Kirby District, an alliance of business owners in the area, had filed a protest against the renewal, raising the issues of traffic congestion, lack of parking and loud music. In an attempt to iron out any problems, club owners met with representatives of the TABC, Upper Kirby and the city. Club attorney DeFoyd says they worked out an agreement, and Jamaica Jamaica hired ten to 12 off-duty officers to patrol the lot and direct traffic during the club's heavy business nights. For four years, that seemed to satisfy everyone.
Then early last year, again without prior notice, Beecher says, Upper Kirby District officials protested the club's liquor license to the TABC. The same complaints about traffic and parking were aired. Beecher contacted Upper Kirby executive director Jamie Brewster and met with city representatives and police at a nearby community center in June. Beecher says discussions ended on an amicable note, with a promise of further meetings to talk about solutions.
"Then the next thing we had was zero tolerance," says Beecher. On Sunday and Tuesday nights, more than a dozen HPD squad cars focused on the one-block area around the club. Police stopped black motorists and ticketed them for minor infractions such as expired inspection stickers and broken license-plate lights, and made occasional arrests for outstanding warrants.
Wong, claiming she's just representing her constituents' interests, had gotten the police department to launch the no-holds-barred enforcement program against the club. The sudden clampdown surprised Beecher because he had had no previous problems with HPD, perhaps because of the large number of off-duty officers employed by the club. If zero tolerance was designed to run off his customers, Beecher says, it succeeded. He estimates his business dropped off by 50 percent.
For a business owner who considers himself as responsible as his neighbors, Beecher believes the repeated police blitzes are provoked by less-laudable motives than simply keeping the streets clear and quiet at two in the morning.
"I've spoken with the Upper Kirby director almost every week," chuckles Beecher in exasperation. "I call her, talk to her trying to figure out what can be done, and most of the time she says, 'Nothing, everything's fine, Paul.' And then comes a protest to the TABC or a letter from Martha Wong. I think it's definitely a matter of race here."
While Beecher sees the Upper Kirby organization as a prime instigator of his problems, group executive director Jamie Brewster sounds remarkably sympathetic to his plight.
"There's not a problem, really, inside the club," she says soothingly. "We don't think they are doing anything illegal. They are really trying to do all they can do." Like Beecher, she quickly points out the club's off-duty HPD security and its clean record.
The real problem, says Brewster, is the people the club draws into the upper Kirby area.
"A lot of them cruise around, and they don't ever intend to come in the club," she observes. "It's how do you deal with a huge number of people leaving the club, and how you deal with that from a traffic control standpoint. How do you deal with a problem when everybody's following the rules?"
Beecher sees a racial bias in complaints about the club and says police stops aim exclusively at black motorists, although Brewster believes that's just a result of who's out and about.
"The only people that are out on the street that time of night are his customers on Sunday and Tuesday night. They are going to be the blacks driving in the area, because they don't get revved up until 10:30 or 11.
"And when they are going slowly with their boom boxes and all of that, that's who is going to be stopped," she says. "You can come on any other night in upper Kirby, including Saturday, and you are not going to find that many people out after 11 at night. It's deadsville here."
More law enforcement is not the solution, says Brewster, because the zero-tolerance campaign against Jamaica Jamaica ties down police, who ticket hapless motorists or haul them off for minor warrants. Officers have to take prisoners downtown and are occupied the rest of the night. Besides, admits Brewster, "I'm not a big proponent of stopping people just because they have a minor thing wrong with their car. I personally don't think that's right."
Asked what Upper Kirby wants as a solution, Brewster seems reluctant to spell it out. "You don't want to run a business out when they are not breaking the law," allows the executive director. Yet that is exactly what Councilwoman Wong and Upper Kirby's TABC challenges aim to achieve.
Beecher says he went public with his situation because he has done everything he can to satisfy Wong and Upper Kirby, and concluded they won't stop till they run him out. He recalls what happened to another reggae club where he once worked, the Caribana in the Rice Village. When it began attracting large numbers of blacks to the Village, it too came under police and civic association pressure.
"When I was at the Caribana in 1981, it was a full-fledged white business," says Beecher. "And then in less than a year and a half, there was a complete flip, and it was an 80 to 90 percent black business. And they were run out of there less than a year later."
Likewise, Beecher points out that a Richmond Avenue club, the Voodoo Lounge, didn't come under pressure until it began attracting a heavily black clientele.
As for Jamaica Jamaica, Beecher says he has no intention of acceding to Wong's demand that he relocate.
"For one, we don't have the money to move," he explains. "And moving a nightclub doesn't guarantee that the success you are having is going to follow you. You have to find an area or situation where you would not duplicate [the problems] you have right now." Wong once suggested that Beecher find a location downtown, but he says the costs there are too high.
The councilwoman says she's just representing her constituents, including nearby condo owners awakened at night by the music and noise from motorists.
Beecher responds he's a constituent too -- one who played by the rules and obeyed the law, only to find it is now being selectively used by an elected official to try to run him out of business.
"I have an 80-year-old mother in Jamaica and a three-year-old daughter in America," says Beecher, in a not-so-subtle reference to Wong's own heritage. "They both depend on my existence and what I do for a living. You take this away from me, you're taking everything away from them."
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