Supporters and opponents of Odell's, a private club on North Avenue, packed a hearing room at City Hall last night to testify on its request for a "dance hall" permit against a backdrop of recent violence outside its building.
"We have here a club which has been around for 20 years," said Elijah E. Cummings, the lawyer representing Odell's. "It's a club that has become an institution in the African-American community in Baltimore and in the white community to some degree."
Mr. Cummings, who also is a state delegate, argued that Odell's, which has no liquor license and is open only on weekends, provides a place for young people to gather and associate with their friends.
He said that violent incidents outside the club -- including a shooting early yesterday -- occurred despite the best efforts of his client to maintain tight security.
"Odell's is not enhancing the life of the community . . . there is no respect for the residents, the police are overwhelmed," said Kevin Bosworth, who lives on East Lafayette Avenue behind the club. "We beg the board, do not permit this anymore."
Melvin Knight, representing the neighborhood community association, said, "It's very difficult to live in a neighborhood where the noise keeps you up all night until daylight, where there are gunshots coming down the alley."
The hearing capped a long-running confrontation between Odell's and area residents, who complain of the noisy crowds that congregate near the nightclub on weekends and violent incidents.
The dance hall permit sought by Odell's could allow it to open a second floor and expand its capacity to nearly 1,000 patrons at the 21 E. North Ave. location.
But police said they now deploy up to 50 officers in the area to cope with problems after Odell's closes.
The board made no decision last night, but scheduled its vote on the Odell's permit for 12:30 p.m. next Tuesday.
There were plenty of supporters for the permit speaking at the hearing, among them Stephanie Jones, an East Baltimore mother of three teen-agers -- two of them Odell's patrons.
"Once they go inside Odell's, they are not going to get shot up or stabbed up," she said. "It's just a bunch of kids there to have a good time."
Nicole Harris, 16, told the board she is at Odell's almost every weekend: "It keeps young black children out of trouble and off the streets."
First opened in 1976 by the late Odell Brock, the club was shut down by the federal government in 1987 after the arrest and conviction on heroin charges of Philip A. Murray, then its owner.
It was purchased three years ago by Milton Tillman, who reopened it as a private dance club for teen-agers and young adults, currently operating on Friday and Sunday nights only and without a liquor permit.
Charging that the supposedly private club was opening doors to the general public, the city last year pulled Odell's private club permit.
The city followed up in October by seeking an injunction to close the club. But Odell's won a court order allowing it to stay open so long as the club kept out non-members and limited the crowd to a maximum of 425 at any one time. But zoning officials accused the club of violating that order by using fliers to solicit patrons, and police claimed that the club let in too many guests.
In June, the city reached an agreement with Odell's allowing it to remain open temporarily, pending zoning board approval for it to operate as a dance hall.
That order also required Odell's to hire private security guards to keep order inside and outside.