Where the Cops Don’t Say “TGIF”

Oakland wanted a cabaret district. Oakland got a cabaret district. But not everyone is entirely happy about who is visiting it.

On a recent Friday night in March, Oakland police officer T.K. Lewis sits in his squad car watching several dozen people in their teens and twenties socialize at Jack London Square. Lewis and his partner get out of their car and slowly amble up to the front door of TGI Friday’s. Just as casually, the crowd melts away. But most of the young people just move over a block, and once Lewis leaves to patrol the rest of the square, the crowd returns. Up and down Broadway, a similar phenomenon is occurring. Drivers are cruising a loop that runs along the Embarcadero, then turns on Washington Street in front of Yoshi’s and Jack London Cinema. Hundreds of young pedestrians laugh and flirt.

In front of the On Broadway nightclub, two young men in black leather jackets begin to scuffle in the street. A ripple of energy flows down Broadway, and people run toward the spot where the fight might break out. Then another squad car happens by, and people head for side streets or stare pointedly at their shoes. The crowd contracts with each appearance by police and then expands with each new hint of a fight. Finally, the cops drive by just as fists start swinging. In a flash, officers are out of their car, and the combatants are soon splayed out in the center of Broadway and Second with handcuffs on their wrists. Four more squad cars appear as if from nowhere. A noisy crowd gathers, but people retreat to the sidewalks when officers move through the crush shaking tiny canisters of pepper spray as a warning.

Although it is well past one in the morning, there is no sign the evening is drawing to a close. Later that morning, in fact, somebody sends a trashcan lid hurtling through a plate glass window at Nation’s restaurant, nearly taking out an employee.

The security guards who work Jack London Square on weekends have a saying about the often-unruly crowd that gathers outside of TGI Friday’s: “Would you like some mayhem with your meal?” In fact, you could say that about all of Broadway. While the crowd initially gathers at Friday’s, it typically spreads up Broadway past the other restaurants and clubs. A delinquent handful of crowd members starts fights, breaks into cars, and destroys property, not to mention those who blast car stereos, dance suggestively on the sidewalks, or hang around outside clubs to pick up the women who emerge, a phenomenon known as “parking-lot pimping.” More worrisome to the Oakland Police Department, young people sometimes start spinning donuts with their cars and stopping in intersections, which could result in traffic jams, larger crowds, or injury to property or people.

To all those who ever have complained about the barrenness of Oakland’s downtown nightclub scene, take note: The crowd has arrived. But it may not be the crowd that everyone expected. Although the much-vaunted Jack London Square cabaret district features several upscale watering holes that charge a cover, enforce a dress code, and cater to a well-heeled and often out-of-town clientele, the most obvious visitors to the square on this Friday night are not patricians but pedestrians.

Jack London Square is undeniably the jewel in the city’s redevelopment crown. It’s an area the city has worked hard to develop into a cabaret district and has touted as a fun place to shop or rent a luxury loft. The shopping district attracts eight to ten thousand visitors a week, many of them from out of town. Rhonda Hirata, director of marketing for CAC Real Estate Management Company, which oversees much of the area, estimates that up to 40 percent of the square’s daytime visitors come from the island of Alameda, and another 15 percent from Contra Costa County, with the rest primarily from Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Leandro.

But police officers who work the square say that nighttime draws another crowd entirely, primarily kids in their teens and twenties who come from all over Alameda County just to hang out. Many of them, says OPD Lieutenant Ed Poulson, area commander for the downtown metro unit, are there simply to hang out, and have no intention of patronizing the local businesses. Poulson sees the crowd as both a blessing and a curse. “The good thing is you do have folks from outside coming into and enjoying the area,” he says. “But the bad part is, if it turns into a sideshow you’ve got folks with no vested interest in this community at all. They have no fear of peeing on a wall or starting a fight or breaking a window.”

What no one says but everyone understands is that this culture clash is one of both race and class. Most of the crowd consists of young African Americans without much spending money, while the patrons business owners are most afraid of losing are more racially diverse and affluent.

Merchants and the police agree that the majority of the square’s Friday visitors are simply well-meaning people out to see and be seen. “It’s just boy meets girl,” Poulson says. “It’s nothing different than you or I or anyone else has done over time.” Lewis, the square’s beat cop, agrees that most of the behavior he’s witnessed is more exuberant than criminal. “They’re outside, they’re being loud, some of them don’t know any better and they act the fool,” he says. “And then Ozzie and Harriet come down here and are not used to that, and they say ‘Oh my God!'”

Nowhere is this culture clash more evident than in front of TGI Friday’s. Its casual dress code and admission of underage patrons have made the restaurant and its entrance an extremely popular teenage hangout. But it’s also just a few yards from the tony Jack’s Bistro and the Waterfront Plaza Hotel, where guests pay as much as $200 a night for a room. Managers of these and other businesses say their guests are intimidated by walking past a crowd of noisy, roughhousing young people. “It’s a big problem,” says bistro manager Scott Tenney, who works the weekend night shift. “There’s been some times where individuals inside my establishment are afraid to go outside.”

Although most managers concede that their customers are rarely harassed by the crowd, they still worry about the patrons they are losing. “On Friday night we tend to fall off, to be honest with you,” says Scott Mandle, assistant manager at the Buttercup Kitchen, which is catercorner from On Broadway. “What I gather from a lot of our regular customers is that they don’t choose to come down to the square on those nights.” Managers also complain about loiterers trashing their parking lots and restrooms, and overbearing young men harassing female customers as they head for the parking lot. “If I was a woman, I think I’d only need that to happen once, and I’m never coming back here,” says Marshall Lamm, the publicist for Yoshi’s jazz club. “I’d think, ‘I just dropped $150 at Jack’s or Yoshi’s — I don’t need this. Why not sit at home and watch Joe Millionaire?'”

Potential customers don’t even have to make it to the square to be put off by the crowd or the official reaction to it. “Any little thing they see, lights, or sirens, or a crowd of people, they’ll say ‘Hey!’ and make a U-turn and get back on the freeway and go home,” says Henry Royal, general manager of Kimball’s Carnival, a dance club with a thirtysomething clientele. Most of these managers worry that Oakland’s tough reputation means that their businesses don’t get many second chances.

Johnny, a 25-year-old Oakland resident who declined to give his last name, watched the cops swoop in on those brawling young men, and then nailed the problem on the head: There’s nothing else for young people to do on Friday nights. “There’s no clubs for teenagers or people who like to wear tennis shoes and jeans,” he says. Johnny has been coming down to the square every other weekend since he was in high school, and he always begins his night with a stop at TGI Friday’s in order to scope out the scene, preferably on the cheap. “It’s just a place to be,” he says. “You can sit at the table and order your food, but some people who go in there don’t order nothing but a soda.”

Area business managers are quick to agree that the city needs more all-ages venues that cater to teenage tastes. “This market needs to be entertained,” says Tenney of Jack’s Bistro. “And their dollar’s just as green as anybody else’s.” But some of them worry that the more extreme problems caused by the crowd are not only scaring off the upscale clubgoers, but hurting the city’s ability to attract new businesses to the area. “Some of those people throw stuff, they turn donuts in the middle of the streets, there’s loud music,” Lamm says. “It’s hard to get momentum here in the square — like more businesses opening — when you have that stuff.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Poulson argues that the solution is more — not fewer — entertainment venues. “If you look at other major cities like San Francisco, they have a very successful cabaret district without much violence, and I think it’s because it’s such a large district,” the lieutenant says. “We need more business, not less.” A larger district would be spread out over a large enough space that the teens and the thirtysomethings wouldn’t have to constantly be tripping over one another.

But for now, things may get worse before they get better. Although TGI Friday’s employs three private guards inside the restaurant, it recently canceled a contract under which police stationed two officers outside its building. Oakland police do not know if the contract will be reinstated, or if Friday’s plans to hire additional private security. Company public relations officials did not return calls for this story.

There also are now fewer officers in the square. “We’ve cut way back because of the budget crunch,” Lewis says. “We used to be able to man, like, a good fifteen folks out here and make sure every corner’s clear, but we can’t do that now.” Instead, the typical weekend complement of officers now hovers between ten and as few as four. Since Friday’s axed its extra police detail, Lewis says he’s noticed a few more flare-ups around closing time. “I’ve got the whole square to worry about,” he says. “So if I’m stuck there, I can’t do what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Police say the best thing they can do is to stay highly visible and in motion, letting kids be kids but also heading off problems before they start. “It isn’t necessarily how many officers you put out there — it’s the officers you put out there and what they do, their tactics,” Poulson cautions. “You have a fine balance when you have a business district, because you don’t want it to look like a war zone.”

That, at least, is something everyone might agree about — the teenagers, the merchants, even Ozzie and Harriet.

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