Conflicts of Interest By Baynard Woods

Conflicts of Interest: Culture wars come to Mount Vernon and The Drinkery

When it comes to alcohol, there is a strange puritanism that sometimes sweeps through the city like a witch-hunt fever as well-meaning people—usually progressives—attempt to shut down bars or liquor stores. Sometimes, as in the plan to eliminate the licenses of liquor stores in "impoverished" neighborhoods, it comes across as a paternalistic concern for the citizenry. At other times, it is driven by homeowners baldly concerned with their property values or from nearby residents irritated by the noise from bar patrons.

The efforts to shut down bars, though, have little to do with booze. They are about culture, class, and race. And Mount Vernon—59 percent white, 26 percent black, 9 percent Asian, according to the 2010 U.S. Census—is currently in the middle of a culture war about what the neighborhood should be.

This battle, which seems to roughly fall along class lines, found an incarnation a few months ago in The Drinkery, the long-time gay bar on Read Street about half a block from the place where Divine ate a piece of dog shit at the end of "Pink Flamingos" (and where there is currently an attempt to make a statue of the action).

The Liquor Board failed to renew the Drinkery's license on May 19. But then board members overturned their decision on June 2 because a member changed their vote, troubled by the testimony of Jason Curtis, long-time president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, whose name is on the liquor license at the nearby Indigo Hotel and its bar, Poets.

"He's not just a licensee, he's a competing licensee," Liquor Board Commissioner Dana Petersen Moore said at the hearing. "I feel it's only fair to grant the motion for reconsideration."

The whole thing was so remarkable, I wanted to see how it came about. I asked for copies of any emails sent by or to Councilman Eric T. Costello about The Drinkery. Filing a public information request—the law says citizens can request public records and agencies have one month to respond—I waited two months to receive the documents and I was chastised by Costello for not just asking him for a comment. Eventually, I received about 138 pages of emails, mainly centering around a small group of people who engineered the attempt to shut down the bar.

This is not the complete story, but it is the story as it goes through the emails and the Liquor Board hearing that they engendered. And on the surface, it's not super fascinating stuff—the players exchange an insane number of emails trying to decide where to meet one evening—but it does open a window into the way neighborhood fights can work.

As far as I can tell, the effort, as memorialized in email, began with Mark Henderson, a neighbor who sent out a petition to oppose the renewal of The Drinkery's liquor license following a stabbing that happened near the bar.

There is a note in that email that says "anyone who has any interest in an active competing business, such as a liquor store or bar, cannot sign this petition."

He went on to point out that, even if you cannot sign, you can still volunteer to help—and the following day, when he recommended that people stop by the Bun Shop to sign the petition, he noted that "Jason Curtis and I are here to welcome you."

A couple days after that, Eric Evans (a lawyer who works as the liquor chair for the MVBA) wrote to Henderson to see if he got enough signatures and offered advice on the process. "It is a typical tactic for the defense to shift the burden of proof on the community to prove the incident was started in the bar and/or patron's [sic] of the bar were involved."

Henderson responded that Curtis was "gathering all of the 911 calls and subsequent police reports within the past year, so we should have some non-partisan testimony."

They enlisted Becky Lundberg Witt, an attorney with the Community Law Center, to give advice. She advised: "You may want to warn your community members who come to testify, though, that they should remain calm and pleasant even when the licensee's attorney is being belligerent and doing things like accusing them of racism (which happens all the time)." Approached for comment recently, Witt said that the Community Law Center does not necessarily have an opinion on any of the issues it deals with when representing its clients.

Then the neighbors tried to bring in the Midtown Community Benefits District, but Brian Levy, who is on its board, said "they do not want to get involved in such community affairs."

To which Jason Curtis responded "MCBD SHOULD, at a minimum, provide a letter of support. If this affects one community, and that community wants MCBD's help, then Midtown can."

The biggest guns in the neighbors' arsenal were 311 and 911 calls—and they planned to present the numbers to the Liquor Board. According to one email by Henderson, Witt "said that in her years on the liquor board, she had not seen more 911 calls directly related to an establishment before now."

But Witt herself never made such a claim once she entered the email thread and, in fact, the group found the 911 and 311 calls to be less than helpful.

When the police department charged a fee for sharing the 911 records, Costello intervened, writing to Drew Vetter that "some community members in Mount Vernon are dealing with a problematic establishment. Part of the research going into the opposition of a liquor license renewal is to gather data on recent 911 calls in close proximity to the establishment." He then goes on to say, "this seems like something we should not be charging citizens for."

Henderson described 911 calls from 15 places he says are "locations around the Drinkery," although some were more than a block away.

When Vetter provided the information on March 29, Henderson asked him to send it in a different format and to filter out some addresses, conceding that "most of these calls are going to be a shot in the dark anyway, since there are no specific references to the Drinkery or the exact address of the Drinkery 205 West Read Street."

But Suzanne Fries, from the police department, noted that "the calls for the actual address, were called from the bar itself to report a disorderly customer refusing to leave and or causing trouble. That was on 5 occasions. The other calls were for prostitution which the caller stated a male prostitute keeps coming into the business and refusing to leave. Several calls [were] for individuals outside on the street being loud gathered around a vehicle."

The Chief Inspector for Baltimore City Liquor Board testified that he only got three 311 calls in the last year and none of the complaints were substantiated.

But in the email exchanges there were always excuses from proponents of shutting the bar down as to why there aren't more documented complaints against the bar and why so few people were speaking out against it.

"The thought is that we are dealing with seemingly irrational people, who are without reason, out-of-control," Henderson wrote. "If the Drinkery is closed, that might incite them to violence. As you see, we don't have a lot of neighbors who are attending the hearing, perhaps for this same reason."

In fact, only six people actually testified before the Liquor Board regarding the Drinkery—two cops, Curtis, and a couple neighbors. Henderson said in one email that "Jason Curtis has promised that the neighborhood police officers would attend the hearing to give their support and first-hand accounts of responses to the Drinkery's shenanigans." Councilman Costello and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young (who appointed Costello to his seat) wrote letters in support of not renewing the license. Curtis' testimony was rather short and not particularly informative and it seemed like a misstep to have brought him up to talk. (He did not respond to questions by press time, although he, like Henderson, sounded quite displeased that I was asking questions about this).

But it doesn't seem like the other members of the cabal ever thought that Curtis' involvement might derail their plans.

When the group most involved in this petition—which includes Henderson, Costello, Curtis, and Evans—was trying to set up a meeting, Curtis suggested his own hotel bar: "We can do the Indigo if that works," he wrote.

When I asked Costello if this seemed weird to him, he replied, via email, "As to Jason Curtis' role, he had been president of MVBA or in other roles of leadership in the community for over a decade. I would have absolutely no reason to know he was a license holder, but I did know he worked at Indigo. Meeting there made sense given he had access to free space—after all, it is a hotel."

In other words, he had access to free space at a competing establishment to plot the demise of another.

Curtis is one of the neighborhood's primary culture warriors. After leaving the MVBA as president, he now heads up its safety committee and runs the Mount Vernon Safety Facebook group.

One post from this summer read: "'When in Mount Vernon,' act like it. We are not in the slums, a race track, or in Hamsterdam. So that bad behavior should not and will not be accepted by the people who put our blood, sweat, and tears into restoring some of America's most beautiful architecture for us to call home.

If anyone wants to 'Fire up some weed, the barbecue, and blast some old school rap,' go do that in a part of the city where that IS THE CULTURE; Not in Mount Vernon!"

According to Curtis' guidelines, the forum is not the place "for people to rant and vent their frustrations with city government or the Baltimore Police Department. Keep information factual, informative and to the point." He lists the kinds of things the page is appropriate for as "real time incidents occurring in the neighborhood. Posting of videos, photos, suspicious people or activities. Do not rant about personal thoughts or opinions. Post factual things only."

And yet this post in no way addresses safety, unless weed, barbecue, and old school rap—three of the greatest things I can think of—are considered safety issues (for full disclosure, they may in fact have been referring to me hosting a party on my back porch in the comment).

But more troubling than the wet-blanket hoity-toity tea-doily dweebishness of this kind of post—I mean, actually, eating turds off the alleyway is among the most iconic neighborhood moments, so why don't you act like you're in the Vern and eat one?—is the racist language of "slums," "Hamsterdam," etc.

"And heavens to Betsy, they were listening to that dreadful Tone Loc! What will be next, Eric B. and Rakim? I do declare!"

It's not news that neighborhood watch groups and apps "are revealing an ugly truth about the biases of many concerned residents. The problem? They're enabling and further normalizing racial profiling and the surveillance of Black bodies, buttressing it through the powers of crowdsourcing and technology," as a Daily Dot story put it last year.

Anyone who has seen any of the neighborhood safety Facebook groups or list serves are all too aware of language that does precisely that, hysterically pointing out "AA youths" as they tend to call black kids in the neighborhood.

Curtis, as moderator, posted on June 30 about Lor Scoota's funeral and memorial celebrations that followed it. "It is anticipated that this will be a very large event and BPD has confirmed there will be increased police coverage, especially along the Pennsylvania Ave corridor. BPD anticipates a great deal of traffic. There will also be air support, likely helicopters. If you feel unsafe, or if you notice anything suspicious, do not hesitate to call 911, as you usually would."

Why add this last couple sentences? Does it do anything but make people think there might be something to fear in black grief?

This advice to call 911 turned dangerous. In one case over the summer a dude suggested "Next time tell 911 you think u saw one holding a weapon in his pocket."

When people challenged this, he doubled down he said it wouldn't be gambling with anyone else's life to lie like this because "cops are pretty well trained to deal with things like this."

Of course, this was before Baton Rouge police killed Alton Sterling after responding to a 911 call that said he was armed and before Tawon Boyd died after calling 911 in Baltimore County because he was feeling disoriented. But even then, after Freddie Gray and the Uprising, it should have been pretty clear that cops aren't always "pretty well trained" to deal with your lies.

But these comments were not removed by Curtis—although numerous people (including my wife; I've never been a member of the group) have been kicked off of it for questioning racist comments or Curtis' decisions. He rules the group with such autonomy that one neighborhood observer calls it "Curtistan."

One former member of the group was eventually kicked off after posting a comment that reads, in part:

"[T]he idea of being robbed or assaulted on my way to or from my home is a great concern as a young black queer that either walks bikes or use public transport. and a daughter of a mother who also is often coming and going alone at varied hours these are things that concern me. but I'm also just as concerned (in light of the recent happenings here and nationwide) for my brother a young black male often spending the majority of his days on foot or in a car working in this community and the surrounding ones and fearing that he may be perceived a certain way based on the anger and fear and frustration that is being often times fueled by ignorance. he might look 'suspicious or weird' or pose an imagined threat or just fit the description of a suspect in the area. for these reason I'm an active voyeur in this group while sometimes also trying to be an active voice. this is a safety concern and I'm sure not just for me."

She made it clear that the racism in the group was, in fact, a safety concern.

"Let's be clear there are more than a few racist homophobic and elitist people that post within the Mt Vernon groups. but if those words are so offensive to the sensitivities of some in this group I'll simplify it...the ignorance of some the silence of others is what is turning this particular group away from being what could be a useful tool in maintaining community awareness about safety issues. and perhaps and this is the second time I'm posing this perhaps we should define what that actually is...is being annoyed by the homeless or panhandlers a safety issue? if it is it needs to be discussed within the context of safety concerns. if it's to vent how bothersome it is how it disrupts ur day takes away from the 'beauty' or an exaggeration of what goes on well frankly that's something not needed in this forum."

This post perfectly articulates the bind—because we are all concerned with safety and yet different people perceive safety differently. Is a self-described "young black queer" going to feel more threatened by the black clientele of the Drinkery or drunken white football bros who may end up staying at Indigo for a football game or bachelor party? Is she less a part of the community than the wealthy white homeowners?

But Curtis' censorship, er, moderation, makes it seem—perhaps to council members and police officers who follow the group—that the neighborhood is unified in its fear of "AA youths" and "suspicious people," while we're all cool with the corporate types who get all loaded at the neighborhood bars.

We could define "community" as the arguments people have together about what community should look like. There is value in the arguments. But they must contain all the people. Mount Vernon is not and should not be a white neighborhood. This city is segregated enough and what we need are fewer rich white people slobbering over the value of their mansions and more people congregating on sidewalks. That is what it seems to boil down to—that people, and to be clear, many black people, smoke cigarettes outside of the Drinkery and make noise.

But it is hard to see how that threatens the safety of those who complained. No one complained of being robbed or beaten or vandalized (they complained about hearing other people fighting each other, etc). The people on the street might be annoying, but they might actually make you safer.

During the period the Drinkery was closed and the whole south side of Read Street from Tyson to Cathedral was dark and deserted and empty was the only time I ever felt threatened near there. From my perspective as a pedestrian, the anti-Drinkery crusaders made the street more dangerous because, despite all the Facebook surveillers, there were fewer actual eyes on the street.

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