City lawsuit says Odell's doesn't belong, due to street woes outside Owner defends inside controls at private club.

June 12, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

On party nights, the crowd of young people at North Avenue and Charles Street begins to swell before midnight, around the time the people inside Odell's are beginning to bust a few moves on the dance floor.

By the time the popular nightspot closes in the early morning hours, the streets outside the club are often thronged with more than a thousand people. Men in slow-moving cars cruise by, radios blaring, in an attempt to impress women. Others crowd the sidewalk, eyeing girls in spandex and slick hairdos.

However, police say, the action on the streets is not always peaceful.

Last July, a drive-by gunman fired shots into a crowd outside Odell's, injuring six people, including five teen-agers. In September, 17 people were arrested outside the club for loitering after refusing police orders to move on. In November, a club employee was arrested for disorderly conduct.

And last month, a police officer shot and killed a man armed with a 9mm handgun. The shooting occurred several blocks from the club, but witnesses told police they had seen the gunman earlier outside Odell's.

The trouble and neighborhood complaints have prompted the city to go to court in an effort to close Odell's, a club that has been one of Baltimore's most popular black-oriented nightclubs since the 1970s.

The city says Odell's is operating without a permit. The case is scheduled for a hearing later this month in Baltimore Circuit Court.

In its most recent incarnation, Odell's, at 21 E. North Ave., calls itself a private club. It has no liquor license and caters to a young crowd -- people in their late teens and early 20s -- by serving cookies and punch and pumping "house" music. It is open only on weekend nights.

"There is really nowhere else for these kids to go," said Milton Tillman, 35, president of the corporation that has owned Odell's since 1989. "Every place that becomes popular for young blacks, they close."

"Everybody is scared of these young people. But somewhere, somebody has to take a stand," he said. "I think that we can control the atmosphere up here and offer the kids something to do -- with a little police help."

Besides the violence, some neighbors don't like the rowdy atmosphere they say is sparked by Odell's. They complain about broken bottles littering sidewalks, strangers urinating in doorways, and of being awakened in early-morning hours by ruckuses on the street.

"The problem is that the club draws people who hang in the area and don't want to leave," said Sam Ringgold, city police spokesman. "That's when problems develop."

So, city officials want Odell's closed. Last year, the city revoked its private-club permit, charging that the club was violating the rules governing private clubs by admitting members of the general public.

In October, the city went to court seeking an injunction to close the club. But a judge issued a decree that, in effect, put Odell's on probation. He said he would grant the city's request if non-members were being allowed in or if more than 425 people were in the club at one time.

The city says Odell's violated those rules. Zoning officials say the club distributed fliers soliciting guests. And police say they once counted 688 patrons leaving the club.

Mr. Tillman denies that. Moreover, he said, he said he runs a club that has no problems inside and has 20 security guards on staff.

Community residents say Mr. Tillman attends meetings of local community groups and has been responsive to their demands and opens the club for community functions.

Despite those efforts, Mr. Tillman said, problems that occur on the street are out of his control. "When they learn to deal with crime all over the city, then it will probably slow down outside Odell's," he said.

Donald E. Jackson, who lives two blocks away, chairs a neighborhood advisory board established to work with Odell's. He thinks the club should be allowed to remain in business. He said the violence that has occurred is just a sad fact of urban life.

"People got shot last night. What are you going to do? Close Odell's?" he asked. "You've had a shooting and stabbing in McDonald's [up the street]. What are you going to do? Close McDonald's?"

Charles Lloyd, who also lives in the neighborhood, wants it to close, although he admits that the problems are not of the owner's making.

"They do what they can do to control inside," Mr. Lloyd said. "I have no quarrel with that. But they do let out too late. And unfortunately for them, they are in the middle of a residential-commercial mixed area."

Mr. Tillman said he hopes to work out a compromise before the case goes to court.

He said he would be willing to close the club by 2 a.m. if the city allows him to double his capacity by reopening an upstairs level the city ordered closed because it lacks a sprinkler system.

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