Abell residents seek to close noisy nightclub Petition to block renewal of liquor license is latest tactic

March 18, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

One noisy nightclub has kept the North Baltimore residents of Abell awake so often they are trying to shut it down on three fronts at the liquor board, in the courts and even in the legislature.

Residents say patrons from the New 32nd Street Plaza, in the 400 block of E. 32nd St., have awakened them after midnight each Monday morning for the past year and a half with roaring cars, shouting and occasional gunshots.

For many in the rowhouse community in the Northeast corner of Charles Village, the Feb. 5 shooting death of a nightclub security guard outside the club was the last straw.

They no longer want the city liquor board just to close the bar early on Sunday evenings, as residents requested last year. The Abell Improvement Association and more than 100 residents have petitioned the liquor board to revoke the nightclub's license, a case the board will hear March 28.

The community also is collecting signatures on a second petition to block annual renewal of the license, a separate procedure under board rules.

"People in our neighborhood have been awakened in the middle of the night every Sunday night by people yelling and screaming, horns, stereos, firecrackers, motorcycles, breaking bottles," said association president Grenville B. Whitman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.

Mr. Whitman has spent 18 Monday mornings documenting the noisy incidents outside the nightclub that often bring police cars to the community before dawn.

But bar owner James Scroggins said the people "causing the problems are not people in the nightclub." He blames the disturbances on "young people who ride around from place to place." Mr. Whitman disagrees. Although Mr. Scroggins holds the liquor license for the nightclub, he said he does not operate the bar and does not go there on Sunday nights.

He said it has been run by a hired staff, including Mr. Scroggins' son, Gregory Scroggins, who recently was convicted of money laundering in U.S. District Court and sentenced to 46 months in prison. The younger Scroggins declined to comment. A ruling by the liquor board last year to close the bar at 7 p.m. on Sundays was overturned in Circuit Court, which ruled that the liquor board does not have the power to limit a bar's hours because of acts committed by patrons outside.

The liquor board, with the neighborhood's support, is appealing the case.

After the court decision, community leaders turned to state legislators for help.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh introduced two bills that would give the liquor board more leeway in restricting a bar's hours of operation. The bills have passed both houses and are awaiting action by the governor.

Although the bar owners have hired security guards to control the crowds, residents say the disruption continues.

One of the guards, Laroy Keith Hopkins, 34, died Feb. 5 of a gunshot wound to the chest after he approached the driver of a blue Lexus that was double-parked in front of the bar's main entrance.

The dispute between residents and the bar's owners escalated when the owners' lawyer accused the community and the city's Police Department of racism.

The lawyer, George L. Russell Jr., in a Dec. 19 letter to Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, referred to "certain members of the white community" who sought the initial hearing to shut the nightclub early on Sunday nights.

Mr. Russell also wrote to the police commissioner, "it is unsettling to the black community to see the Police Department in apparent collusion with white community members and also apparently taking sides with these white individuals."

The nightclub owners and patrons are black. Mr. Russell, in his letter, characterized the Abell neighborhood as white.

But neighborhood residents point out that theirs is a racially integrated community with white and black residents opposing the bar.

"I'm an African-American," said Enechi Modu, who lives two blocks from the club. Black neighbors, she said, are "just as bothered by this."

"It's unbearable. Some Sundays I have left my home and spent the night somewhere else. I've heard gunshots. I have gotten out of my bed and moved to another place in my house that is more internal," she said.

The dispute with the bar, said neighbor Carol Elder, "has nothing to do with race, it has to do with getting a good night's sleep."

Mr. Russell did not return a reporter's calls.

In his letter, he also asked Mr. Frazier for an investigation by the Internal Affairs Department of police conduct during a search of the nightclub Dec. 17.

The lawyer accused police of disrupting the nightclub's business by searching the nightclub's offices, demanding that locked doors be opened and preventing patrons from leaving and entering the bar.

"Many of the allegations proved to be false," said police spokesman Sam Ringgold, noting that there was no evidence that police illegally searched back rooms or detained people.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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