El Tropical: Another shady nightclub ignored by Joe Santiago

Frankie Valli musical theater Through July 20 at the State Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

"Legally, you got my hands tied," says Reno Ventura, a man with the hairless, doughy enormousness of a carnival pipe-bender. "If I take matters into my own hands, I'm going to jail. If I have to buy a machine gun and take care of this problem for them . . ."

He nurses a Pepsi can. His wife, Rowena, a slight woman with a black shock of curly hair, watches him with big, wet eyes from across the picnic table that anchors their hunter-green living room.

"I've reached out for five or six years," Reno goes on. "Nobody's done nothing. We can't live like this no more."

The Venturas are the Clark-Fulton neighborhood's very own Brady Bunch, with 10 kids between them, none of whom they had together, and enough grandchildren to fill a basketball roster. These offspring sidle through the living room as Reno and Rowena talk — kids of all ages and races, grabbing pops from the fridge, giving the house the feeling of a busy bus depot.

It's a bright summer day outside, but in here it's like a closet. The boxy banana-colored house is fortified like a bunker. Light can't penetrate to the front porch. It's shielded by a chest-high, inches-thick wall of layered wood. More slabs of wood lean against walls throughout the house, added insurance against stray bullets. Outside the front door, a brass spittoon is stocked with metal baseball bats and crowbars — the Ventura's version of a home-security system.

The enemy lies just across the street, on the corner of Storer and 44th, although the menace is sleeping at the moment. All week, the little white one-story building — El Tropical nightclub, it's called — rests innocuously, its doors protected by heavy black bars. But in the wee weekend hours, the club attracts hundreds of clubbers — mostly young Puerto Ricans. From all appearances, El Tropical's clientele comes for the lax security and stays for the reggaeton. It's what you'd expect at a club run by a career criminal, in a neighborhood represented by a councilman known for his unwavering support of unruly bars.

The raucous crowd descends on the neighborhood every weekend, overflowing from the tiny building. They mill outside, screaming, smoking cigarettes, or, as they did on a recent night, unabashedly snorting from little baggies of cocaine. Music bangs from within the club, filling the streets of the West Side neighborhood, mashing together with the sound of stripped mufflers roaring. Storer, it turns out, makes a good street for drunken drag racing.

By night's end, the posturing inevitably turns to cursing. Then shoving. Then, eventually, rage-filled group melees. And sooner or later the guns come out, which explains the bunker-on-a-budget across the street.

The Venturas initiated their renovations around 2004, after hearing (and even watching) several shoot-outs outside El Tropical. Reno piled on more plywood in June 2007, after a man was shot through the head in Rowena's rose bushes on a Friday night. The family crouched, wide-eyed and screaming, behind the porch. When the popping stopped, Rowena charged into the living room and pawed two grandsons' flesh for embedded bullets.

"There's nothing they can do to me now," she says. "There's nothing that could be worse than that."

Reno Ventura first hulked across the street for a man-to-man in 2003, a year after El Tropical opened. He encountered a thick little man built like a fire hydrant, who smiled smugly, named friends in the police department, and chuckled away Ventura's complaints. "He was pretty much saying, 'Eff you, I got connections,'" recalls Ventura. "'There's nothing you can do about it.'"

It was the most cordial interaction he'd have with Carmelo Colon Jr., the veteran felon who runs El Tropical.

The Venturas responded to Colon's indifference by screwing a video camera to their house and pointing it at the club. Over the next four years, they captured hundreds of hours of the weekly chaos. Rowena formed a block club. She went door to door, collecting more than a hundred signatures calling for El Tropical to be shut down. She even led a protest march down Storer.

But Colon only grew more vicious. At community meetings so heated that the cops were dispatched to keep the peace, Colon used every hip-hop club owner's favorite tactic, the race card, despite the fact that many of the complaining residents were Puerto Rican, just like his clientele. And he lashed out against the Venturas, accusing them of running drugs, pointing at the heavy foot traffic in and out of the family's house — the couple's step-kids and friends.

Colon had reason to be defensive. He's the owner of a rap sheet long enough to deplete an inkjet, having served years for a gamut of charges: assault, petty theft, drug trafficking, weapons charges, even rape. Most recently, in 2004, he was busted at a house in Parma with several bags of crack, $4,700 in cash, and, for good measure, a shotgun. Not the picture of a responsible small-business owner.

As a felon, Colon's technically not allowed to run a bar. But circumventing liquor laws isn't espionage: El Tropical is registered in the name of his brother, Heriberto, who has no record. Heriberto hasn't been seen at any liquor hearings or community meetings. Whether he has any real stake in El Tropical is unclear, but there's no question Carmelo runs the club. And he's not interested in answering questions about mayhem it's causing — not from the Venturas and not from a reporter.

"I want my lawyer to handle all of the mess," Colon says when reached by Scene. "The more you say, the worse it gets."

The Venturas aren't the only neighbors who harbor violent fantasies involving El Tropical's end.

"I wish somebody would drop a bomb on it and blow it up," Tammy Swartz says wistfully, flying back and forth on her porch swing.

Swartz lives with her husband and two sons a block down 44th from the club. Like many of her neighbors, she's given up on sleeping during its hours of operation. The music, the screaming, the engine roars, the gunshots — not even the most elaborate homemade soundproofing could keep out the aural hell.

Instead, Swartz sits on her porch, cordless phone in hand, and watches the thugs frolic. Like Ventura, she's seen a cognac-fueled botched execution in front of her house. It was a Saturday night. She watched as a young kid — no more than 18, she says — bolted down her street, coming from the direction of the club, a gang of around 30 men chasing behind. They caught him, of course, and celebrated by pummeling him with a storm of hands and feet, and lodging a bullet in his thigh. They left him lying in a front yard across the street from Swartz, bleeding and crying. Swartz called 9-1-1 and waited for a "good 45 minutes" as the kid screamed, "My leg! Help me!" She was too terrified to leave her porch.

The weekly carnival stretches down 45th too, where residents watch their narrow street turn into a horn-jamming, Daddy Yankee-blasting thoroughfare each weekend night, as El Tropical patrons search for parking. They turn around or park in people's driveways, lounge in cars with doors flung open, guzzle liquor before hitting the club, and urinate in front yards. On Sunday mornings, residents find their front yards strewn with booze bottles and used condoms. They've taken to blocking their driveways with plastic chairs, but the clubbers seem to enjoy nonchalantly plowing through them.

Stephanie, another of the club's neighbors, who asked that her last name not be used, moved from the "mellow" 'burb of Santa Cruz, California, earlier this year and at the time was not yet fully acquainted with these weekly visitors. So one night, she asked a driver not to turn around in her driveway. In response, she says, the driver hit the gas hard, knocking his car into her legs. When she started screaming at him, threatening to call the cops, the driver opened his door, carefully set his liquor bottle on the pavement, and began pounding his fists into the petite 23-year-old mother. As husband Dave ran from the house, a guy from the car's passenger seat intercepted him. Then another car pulled up, emptying more thugs to aid in Dave's beatdown.

"The things that pop into your mind," recalls Stephanie now, with some embarrassment. "My baby was inside, screaming. I thought, 'What if we both die out in the front yard?' All my family's in California. There's nobody out here to help take care of the baby."

As it turns out, the thugs must have had pressing engagements elsewhere. They left the couple lying in their new front yard, a gash in Dave's right ear spouting blood.

A convicted felon running a bar that's received countless complaints — and, it seems, left a number of people with blood-gushing wounds — would seem doomed to a short-lived tyranny. Certainly, this wouldn't fly on West Sixth Street — or, for that matter, almost any street north of Tijuana. But El Tropical has been producing its particular brand of cojones-grabbing chaos for five years now. How it's survived is a study in bureaucratic inaction, a picture of how a councilman can fail his neighborhood.

It's never easy to revoke a liquor license. With three levels of appeals available to club owners, it's not rare for a case against a bar to drag on for years. But if the violence is extreme enough — and city officials committed enough — they can have a club's doors permanently closed before its next College ID Night.

The Warehouse District's Spy Bar and Downtown's Tin Fu Café both had licenses revoked, after July 4th murders on the streets nearby. And on the West Bank of the Flats, Mirage nightclub is on the ropes after residents accused it of attracting weekly mayhem to the neighborhood. Its owner is fighting back, but that club isn't likely to make it through this year.

El Tropical's unseemly byproducts appear to far outweigh those of the other clubs. But Clark-Fulton, unlike Downtown and the West Bank, has no million-dollar condo developers or indignant yuppie residents. It's a neighborhood that's tumbled precipitously since the days when Storer earned its name as a pocket of commerce lined with butcher shops, grocery stores, and auto-repair garages. Once firmly blue-collar, Clark-Fulton is now almost shirtless, with more than half of its residents surviving on welfare checks.

The residents are people like Bill Bosack, an ex-truck driver with chronic asthma, who bought his fire-damaged house on 45th for $10,000 and couldn't afford to finish repairs. Or Stephanie and Dave, who found their home on the internet for $39,000 and are raising a baby on his forklift-operator wages.

These are not the movers and shakers of the world. And no developer is in a rush to defend a neighborhood where property values are so low that people sometimes abandon paid-up homes, leaving them to be filled by drug mongers. Ventura has been able to rally only a dozen residents or so for her block club. It's tough, she's found, to get a cause going when about half the houses on your flier route are vacant or home to some kid selling blue tops.

Clearly you can't blame El Tropical for all of Clark-Fulton's crime. It's a neighborhood long ago surrendered to gangbanging corner boys. Until recently, one of Swartz's close neighbors was a dope house — now boarded over — that was home to teenagers who liked to shoot up their own parties. Another had a Honda-size hole smashed through it when a drunken drag racer — driving a car bought with crack, Swartz learned — lost control. Fearing stray bullets, Swartz allows her sons to walk no farther than a corner 50 feet away. After dark, she won't brave the one-block journey to the neighborhood corner store. "It's absolutely hopeless," she says.

In short, around here quality of life is an oxymoron. So who's to get riled up over a bar providing a few more shoot-outs?

Shockingly, there's an answer: the neighborhood's city councilman. The $70,000-a-year civil servants are nothing if not fist-pounders, and more than one have proved able to pound theirs loud enough to get bars boarded up. Tin Fu, Spy, and Mirage, for instance, are all in the ward of Joe Cimperman, a crusading councilman who seems to take a special glee in seeing liquor licenses revoked. He positioned himself in front of news cameras on the night of the shootings and indignantly demanded Spy's closing. And, while a club's case wafts through hearings, he cripples its owners financially by getting them cited and fined for any infraction he catches wind of.

"I believe I cost the owners of Spy $50,000 in legal fees," he brags. "There's no way they could keep going." Call it a TKO: Neither Spy nor Tin Fu could afford to take advantage of all their appeals.

Cimperman took some heat for his aggression; he's been called racist, accused of singling out clubs that attract black people downtown. But for the most part, the people who pay $800 a month to live in the Warehouse District — or who dropped a million to live in the Flats' Stonebridge condos — view him as the rare Cleveland politician who's doing his job.

Clark-Fulton's Ward 14, on the other hand, is run by Joe Santiago, who seems to view raucous nightclubs through a different lens. One of his first acts as councilman was to help a felon obtain a liquor license for La Copa, a small bar on Clark Avenue.

Santiago didn't speak out against El Tropical until after five years of violent incidents and steady complaints from residents, and even then, it was a reluctant condemnation. Though the club's license application was rejected last year, Colon is allowed to keep the business open throughout his appeal. If Santiago hadn't waited for residents to do all the legwork, says one person familiar with the club's licensing issues, El Tropical could've been closed a year ago.

So El Tropical's neighbors reserve their greatest ire for Santiago.

"He's a waste of life to me," says Swartz. "You can call him for three years; he'll never return your call."

Says Reno Ventura: "He's about the biggest asshole I've ever met. He doesn't do anything for his ward."

Down an alley a few blocks from El Tropical, three people meander from each other with feigned nonchalance as a teal Lincoln Town Car tools through. A tiny white woman licking a joint drops it on the ground. "You had better not be selling drugs!" scolds the driver of the Lincoln, a heavyset Hispanic man, speaking through braces and a Super Mario mustache.

As Joe Santiago drives on, the woman bends down to retrieve her joint. "They look at me like I'm crazy," he says, chuckling.

This is an unscheduled diversion in Santiago's Improbably Positive Ward Tour. He points out a new elementary school and car wash, the lack of gang graffiti, the garbage-free streets. "Businesses are open. Look at that — people are hanging out," he says, pointing at two shirtless, bedraggled white guys smoking cigarettes on a curb outside a convenience store.

He drives down 43rd, toward El Tropical. "This is a street where everyone hates me," he says, "but look at it. Everything's clean."

It's been a rough two years as councilman for Santiago. After ousting Nelson Cintron — a politician with problems of his own, who dodged accusations of domestic abuse and loan fraud, and owned a club known for drug activity — Santiago survived a recall following his first term. He's never been on firm ground in his ward and still blames predecessor Cintron for inherited problems. He's the type of ward leader who, when it's mentioned that Clark-Fulton's residents can cop dope on any block, but can't find a park within miles, responds perplexingly: "A lot of those residents have really large yards."

And his bar record has been trouble since he first attached a council pin to his trademark short-sleeve polo. In May, The Plain Dealer reported that he was under FBI investigation for his suspiciously undying allegiance to nightclub owners, including the convicted heroin dealer that runs La Copa. Santiago has consistently defended bars accused of attracting violence — Latin Touch and Envy Lounge among them. And he was unable to explain how a 3,000-pound statue that once graced Ohio City's coke-dealer-owned Club Moda ended up in his own back yard.

Santiago denies any shady dealings, angrily pointing out that the Plain Dealer story hinged on anonymous sources. "There was no investigation," he seethes. "I'm not under investigation, and I never was. That was a fake story."

But his treatment of El Tropical solidifies his status as Friend to Problem Bar Owners.

At community meetings about the bar, he's often absent or silent. He used to cite El Tropical as the sort of economic development he spurns — a boast scrapped when a Plain Dealer reporter, researching a story on the neighborhood, happened to witness the shooting in Rowena Ventura's rose bushes. Santiago tells Scene he hadn't heard about the bar's problems until they were raised at a loud City Hall meeting in February of last year. But that's contradicted by a formal letter Santiago addressed to the owner of El Tropical, dated two months earlier, that stated he's "receiving many complaints at my ward office" about the club.

And at El Tropical's license-renewal hearing last fall, he testified that he hadn't heard any complaints in the last few months. That might have something to do with the fact that he ignores their phone calls, say residents. "If he didn't hear the complaints," says one, "that's because Santiago and his people were busy trying to save his ass from another recall."

"Yes, I do believe that El Tropical should be shut," Santiago insists now. He even formally objected to the club's liquor license at the same renewal hearing. But after a reporter witnessed a shooting stemming from the club, to do otherwise would have been too audacious even for Santiago. And for El Tropical's neighbors, the gesture came five years, countless sleepless nights, and several wounds too late.

Besides, Swartz says, it's clear why Santiago has been ineffective against El Tropical — he's being paid off: "What's behind it? Money. Money's behind everything."

Whatever the reason, Santiago certainly hasn't led his residents' charge. And when it comes to shutting a bar, a proactive councilman is essential. "Councilpeople are, more than anything else, the tipping point in these cases," says Cimperman, who declined to comment on Santiago or El Tropical specifically. "If the councilperson's not behind it . . . that bar could be open indefinitely."

Councilman Mike Polensek agrees. He brags of shuttering an active-council record of 29 unruly bars in his 26 years leading Ward 11. He's become an expert at building damning paper trails using police reports. He circulates word among residents that when they call the cops to complain about a disturbance outside a club, give the exact address — which can then be used as evidence in liquor court.

"The councilman sets the tone," Polensek says. "If you're getting a few complaints, you have to go to the bar owner and let them know, 'You need to do this, this, and this; and if you don't, you're going to have a problem with me.' Sometimes they're very agreeable; sometimes they give you a line. Basically, it's easy to tell who's bullshitting you and who's not. And the ones who are bullshitting find out about me the hard way."

This is a far cry from Santiago's kid-gloves treatment of El Tropical. But Santiago insists that he's just a cog in a rusty bureaucratic machine. "People don't understand the process," he says. "They want instant gratification. We're doing all we can."

On July 9, Carmelo Colon will appeal for El Tropical's license at a hearing in Columbus. Even if he's turned away, he's allowed two more appeals. At best, it could be more than a year before the license is revoked. And it will be hard to credit Santiago, who refuses to shuttle the residents of Rowena Ventura's tiny block to Columbus for the hearing — a common practice for councilmen. "People have been fighting me for too long, and I'm out of money," he says.

He blames the recall campaign and the "media specialist" he had to employ after The Plain Dealer's La Copa story for depleting the funds he'd use to rent a van and driver. "I'll take as many people as can fit in my car," he says. "Other than that, they'll have to take themselves."

Near the end of his ward tour, Santiago drives down Storer, past El Tropical and the Venturas' house. He stares straight ahead, refusing to look at the porch that the Venturas had to fortify to protect themselves from stray bullets. As a flash of pink from somebody's T-shirt moves behind the bush, Santiago speeds up perceptibly and turns a quick corner, apparently not eager for an impromptu meeting with a constituent.

They have it all wrong anyway. It's the state's fault, he says, for not catching Colon's license trickery with his brother.

"The state of Ohio failed the residents in that precinct, and I'm catching all the heat," he says. "I'm just a councilman, the lowest on the totem pole."

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