Fells Point demands changes after killing

Residents at meeting draw petition calling Club 723 a `nuisance'

October 24, 2001|By Michael Scarcella | Michael Scarcella,SUN STAFF

Upset by a killing in their neighborhood last week, dozens of Fells Point residents met last night to demand action against clubs and bars they say have caused trouble for years.

Complaints about raucous crowds, trash, public urination and violence brought about 75 people to Lista's restaurant on Thames Street for a meeting called by Denise Whitman, vice president of the Fells Point Business Association. They demanded that city police and liquor board officials, who attended the meeting, take steps to end the problems.

For some, the biggest problem is Fells Point Cafe/Club 723, a popular restaurant-tavern in the 700 block of S. Broadway that draws large crowds many nights. The killing occurred about 2 a.m. Oct. 16 when Michael Lambirth, 32, of West Baltimore, was shot once in the head at the nearby corner of Aliceanna Street and Broadway after leaving the club.

As people arrived for the meeting, they were invited to sign a petition at the door that labeled Club 723 "a public nuisance" that "endangers people and businesses."

Thomas Hicks, who holds the liquor license for the club, attended the meeting, which he said was "more a public lynching than anything else." He indicated a willingness to heed suggestions for improvements, saying, "If I have to change my business, I will."

"I am not breaking any laws," he told one angry woman, prompting the crowd to boo and jeer.

Resident Susan Singer asked him: "What is your responsibility to the community?"

"I have to evaluate that," he said.

Police suggested last night that Lambirth's death had nothing to do with his presence at the club.

"The homicide was not a random act," said Southeast District Maj. Zeinab Rabold. "They were looking for him."

The investigation is continuing, Rabold said.

Nathan C. Irby Jr., executive secretary of the liquor board, said it was wrong to single out one club for failing to take responsibility for patrons' behavior.

"To pinpoint any one licensee would be wrong. This is a collective issue," Irby said.

The liquor board was criticized for allowing 18-year-olds into bars after 10 p.m., which officials said is permitted by state law. The teens are not allowed to drink alcohol.

Whitman said before the meeting that the killing galvanized the community.

"Everyone has an opinion, and we often don't share the same voice," she said. "But I have never seen the community more unanimously up at arms."

The homicide, Fells Point's first of the year, has brought together associations of residents and business owners. A line has been crossed, the associations contend, and something needs to be done immediately.

"Somewhere the system is breaking down," said Nicholas J. Filipidis, the owner of Jimmy's, a restaurant on the 800 block of S. Broadway. "Someone is sticking their head in the sand."

Fells Point residents said they have complained to the liquor board and police for years about crowds spilling out of Club 723. Letters on file with the board indicate residents' concerns about Club 723's operation as far back as 1993.

Jacqueline Sullavan, in an August letter, said her major concern is "safety, noise, traffic violations, loitering, public urination and sanitation. ... We want people to come down here and have a good time, but the community [expects] these people to behave in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately this is not happening."

Club 723 has been cited several times for underage drinking, most recently Friday night, said the liquor board's chief inspector, Samuel T. Daniels Jr.

Characterizing the general atmosphere of Fells Point, the president of the neighborhood homeowners association, Kay Hogan, said this week: "It's noisier, louder and people are beginning to feel uncomfortable. And it spills into the side streets."

Filipidis, who has owned Jimmy's for more than 20 years and grew up in the area, attributes the problems to irresponsible bar ownership.

"We aren't out to shut anyone down, to put people out of business," Filipidis said. "We just want the laws enforced."

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