Closing Odell's will simply move the trouble elsewhere Why not consult those who use the club?

Traci A. Johnson

September 01, 1992|By Traci A. Johnson

I HAVEN'T been to Odell's nightclub since "the rock" was the latest dance and Curtis Blow was the King of Rap.

I was too young to get in at night, but the club had kiddie discos for people like me who couldn't go to Painters Mill skating rink on the weekend but wanted something to tell the kids at school who did.

By the time I could be admitted to Odell's at night, the club owner had been arrested on heroin charges, and it was closed. When current owner Milton Tillman reopened the club in 1989, I was away at college. By the time I returned, my interest in under-21 dance clubs had waned, but I figured I had really missed out on something.

I remember when my older sister and her friends would make the weekend rounds of the long-defunct Pascal's and Giovannci's nightclubs on Liberty Heights Avenue, and then they'd make their way to Odell's when they figured the party was in full swing.

As I grew up, other "hangouts" for African-American teen-agers -- like Rhythm Skate on Primrose Avenue and Shake-'n'-Bake on Pennsylvania Avenue -- surfaced, but they quickly became submerged in debt and disorganization and disappeared. But Odell's stayed afloat, braving the currents of change to represent entertainment for young blacks in the city.

Since weekend entertainment for black youths was -- and is -- so scare in Baltimore, Odell's became the backdrop for many scenes in the lives of urban young people. I got to dance with the first boy I had a crush on under its revolving strobe lights. But these are not the scenes Odell's neighbors and city officials see as they seek to close the club. They see the crowds and hear the gunshots outside. They see trouble and violence and death, and they want it to end. They are scared; so am I.

An inescapable fact is that the club has had a less-than-perfect past in its East Baltimore neighborhood. Five people were injured outside the club when a gunman opened fire into a crowd in June and a 16-year-old boy was shot outside the club a few weeks ago. There have been more than a few incidents of fights and other disturbances.

But saying that closing the club would lessen the amount of violence in that area is like saying removal of benches and basketball hoops from inner-city playgrounds will stop drug dealers from gathering on the courts to sell their wares. In both cases you deny the innocent an activity they enjoy without significantly deterring the guilty from actions you detest.

Violence is breaking out all over the city in places where people are doing innocent things, like walking through a mall or sitting on the steps outside their own homes. People weren't crowding outside a nightclub after hours on June 25 when a man shot into a crowd walking by him in Mondawmin Mall. No crowd of teens on a dance floor was involved when 3-year-old Andre Dorsey was fatally wounded by a stray bullet outside his home on June 24. Andre was the unintended casualty of a drug war no one is winning.

I am not trying to diminish the reality that violence has erupted around the club lately. But for every person who starts trouble outside the club, there are 50 teens inside who are there to have a good time. Don't they deserve to be considered when decisions are being made to eliminate one of the few places left to congregate in their own city? We can discover effective measures to deal with the problems surrounding the club without sending a message to the club's patrons that the city doesn't care about them. Many black teens already feel that way.

Controlling the crowd that gathers outside the nightclub could be one way to curb the violence in the area. Mr. Tillman has hired armed security guards for the 524 people inside the club, but residents have complained that as many as 1,000 people gather in the street when the club lets out. If police would enforce the city's loitering laws and clear the streets prior to the club's closing, teens would not be sitting on their car hoods blasting their stereos when Odell's patrons emerge. The club's guards could make sure the patrons went directly to their cars without loitering.

Odell's doesn't need to double its patronage until effective crowd control measures are in place, but eliminating it as a place for young people to gather will only shift the violence from one place to another.

Traci A. Johnson is a reporter for the Carroll Sun.

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