The Deadly Sin

Did catering to a black crowd spell the end for LUST?

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"It's been slow ...," Kristin Carey says from behind the bar, dragging out each syllable, "... since the situation."

It's around 9 p.m. on a Friday, and the staff at Lust is prepping for the weekend rush. The house lights are up, bleaching the large room's stylish exposed brick and hardwood floors in clinical fluorescence. The staff flits about, sweeping floors and wiping down plush furniture. Kristin, whose father Joe owns the club, is busy stocking the bar. In a few hours a crowd will file in, small but substantial. The clientele — almost all black — will park themselves around tables, order rounds, and dance in small groups to the hip-hop blasting off the speakers.

Lust will likely pull in around $2,000 tonight, Kristin explains. But it's a far cry from the flush days of a year ago.

"Before all this," she says, gesturing past the curtained windows fronting the club to the street beyond: West Sixth.

In the world of Cleveland nightlife, West Sixth splits bragging rights with East Fourth as the most popular stop in the city. The heart of the Warehouse District is a row of bars and restaurants topped with hip lofts and attractive office space. Come sundown, the strip becomes a rowdier cousin to East Fourth's white-linen vibe, flocked with thousands of shitfaced twentysomethings ping-ponging between the sidewalks.

But tonight the street is dead — and that's the problem. It's October now, the cold has set in, and the trees along the sidewalk are hemorrhaging leaves; a few happy-hour stragglers zombie-creep toward cars, and a police cruiser idles curbside. As the night inches on, the street might remain this quiet — not due to the first signs of seasonal change, but because of what happened here over the summer. Or what was reported to have happened.

Since July, stories on the Warehouse District have played in seemingly endless rotation. The consistent theme: The city's premier entertainment area is a high-wire act without a net, a neighborhood one incident away from becoming — cue the shudders — the next Flats. The concern sweating the brows of stakeholders and politicos alike was whether a younger and rowdier "hip-hop" clientele would derail the entire neighborhood.

Or, as The Plain Dealer put it — with a dash of menace — that the area could "crash under the weight of excess and controversy."

No club has fielded as much flak as Lust. TV reports and front-page articles suggested the club played host to underage drinkers, violent episodes, and excessive noise — all claims Carey challenges. But once the West Sixth story started snowballing, there was no stopping it.

In reality, hype stole the spotlight from the main event this summer. The heart of the West Sixth debacle was a business dispute tricked out in racial unrest. Scrape away the layer of sensationalism, and you have a standoff between deep-pocketed white guys over who belongs in the Warehouse District, who doesn't, and who gets to call those shots.

"A lot of people underestimate me," Joe Carey says one afternoon behind the counter at his roofing business. "I don't think they ever thought I'd fight back. They thought I'd grumble a bit, but not this."

Carey's family business is tucked away on East 55th Street, in an industrial stretch of gray buildings and multi-lane roads that are choked to a standstill at rush hour but dead the rest of the day.

Like his club, Carey's gotten the funhouse-mirror treatment from the press lately. In person, he doesn't quite match the image that's been on the nightly news. For one, he's not your garden-variety club owner — no raffish air, no track suit, no pinky ring. At 61, he is of average height and stocky, today sporting a pair of dirty overalls.

A Cleveland native, Carey grabbed degrees in sociology and criminology from Northwestern in the 1960s, and spent his 20s studying prison systems. He eventually chucked geekdom to take over the family roofing gig; his stained hands serve as proof that he's not afraid to do the grunt work himself.

Carey talks in long paragraphs, answering four questions when asked one, all of it delivered in a rapid-fire clip. Since the summer, he's taken on the dogged air of someone fighting off an offensive on all fronts.

"These guys are still screwing with me," he says defiantly. "They want me out at any cost."

Roofing has long been Carey's main concern, but the idea of owning his own bar always squatted in the back of his mind. In 2005, he pulled the trigger: signing a lease in the Grand Arcade, a historic mixed-use building that featured condos and ground-floor restaurant space. He dubbed his creation Jac's, the letters representing his initials.

Carey's landlords weren't small change in their own right. West Sixth Associates was a collective of five businessmen anchored by Robert Rains and John Carney, men with significant ties to the downtown business establishment. Carney is the scion of one of the city's most powerful families and owner of numerous Warehouse District properties; at the time, he was also head of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a powerful nonprofit development group. Carney is also widely believed to be responsible for the closed-door chicanery that derailed development plans for Cleveland's port in order to suit his own interests (see "Port in a Storm," August 25, 2010).

Carey's restaurant struggled from the start. He cycled through three chefs in as many years. But he had no interest in bailing, in part because he'd developed a good relationship with the landlords. Carey says he always paid his rent on time, did roofing work for them, and had grown chummy with Rains, the partner with whom he primarily dealt. Their dealings were smooth enough that in the spring of 2009, the landlords chopped $1,000 off Carey's rent. But after bleeding cash for a handful of years, Jac's was due for retooling.

For inspiration, Carey looked around the neighborhood. Out on West Sixth, the district once anchored by top-dollar restaurants like Blue Point Grille and Johnny's now catered to a younger crowd. The emergence of East Fourth siphoned off a lot of the upscale, older traffic; as a result, West Sixth was focusing on the weekend waves of young suburbanites ready to burn up paychecks on dance and drink. Staples like Liquid Café and the Blind Pig churned out considerable business. A new watering hole — the Barley House — would soon replace Spy Bar, the club that gave the neighborhood a black eye in 2007 when a shooting there left one person dead. And at the Velvet Dog, the longtime hub of nightlife on the strip, Saturday nights meant long lines of revelers clamoring to get in.

"The neighborhood was changing," Carey says. "It wasn't a restaurant district. It was an entertainment district."

So in July 2009, Jac's was reborn as Lust. Carey says his landlords knew about the facelift, and they expressed no concerns at the time. Lust soon hooked up with local promoters, and a predominantly young and black crowd started walking through the door. It wasn't what Carey expected, he says, but the twentysomethings behaved. The new scene wasn't a hit from day one, but within two months, the crowds started flocking. Throughout the fall and winter of 2009, Lust became a go-to spot.

But problems followed. Only a month into the club's run, the association of condo owners that share the building with Lust filed a lawsuit against the club and its landlords. They claimed that Lust violated the residents' agreement with the landlords because its "noxious, offensive, annoying and nuisance activities" created "excessive noise."

According to Matt Miller, a local resident and treasurer of the condo board association, residents were guaranteed quiet hours — but some weren't getting them, thanks to Lust. The noise, Miller adds, is not audible throughout the complex, but affects the condos parked overhead.

"The residents right above have had tremendous difficulty just trying to get sleep and live in peace," Miller says.

The lawsuit didn't particularly bother Carey. Noise complaints had been common since day one: Jac's often had DJs and bands, and about once a month the landlords would ask Carey to keep it down, and he would comply. He'd even gone as far as soundproofing the space. Besides, the condo association already had a litigious history with its landlords, having sued some years earlier over a faulty roof.

Then there was the case for buyer beware.

"They're in the hottest entertainment area in Cleveland, and it's reasonable to expect that there would be lots of entertainment activity going on, and that's the nature of the condominium they have," says William Tabec, the attorney representing Lust and the landlords against the condo association. The two will fight the suit together in December, even as the events of summer continue to drive them apart.

For Carey, another growing concern has proved more controversial: According to Warehouse District business owners, local politicians, and police officers Scene spoke with, the main problem facing the district has always been an underage crowd — loiterers who scare off customers and cause problems. The arrival of Lust only fanned the flames, they claim.

Employees at other West Sixth clubs are also critical of Carey's business plan: Lust is one of few clubs on the strip to use outside promoters to lure crowds through the door. When you open your club to promoters, they argue, you can't control who comes in.

Things came to a head in February, when Carey told his landlords he planned to renew the first of two five-year options included in his original lease. In conversation, says Carey, Carney and Rains were non-committal. Then they told him in April that they didn't want to renew. Their reason: The original lease said Carey could operate a bar or restaurant, but not a nightclub. This was the first time the issue had been mentioned, Carey claims.

As a result, Carey offered to buy the space for $800,000, and the owners perked back up.

In conversation, Carney told Carey he would sell for $900,000, a figure Carey says he needed to consider. (Carney, Rains, and their legal representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

"I thought we were negotiating in good faith," Carey explains.

But while Carney and Carey were in a holding pattern, Lust's management began reporting a new problem in early summer. On the weekends, Cleveland police were parking a cruiser outside Lust's patio. Patrons complained about the extra attention; when club staff asked the cops why they were camped out, they answered they'd been told to do so.

"The thing that bothered me was that we didn't have any problem or police calls then," says Maggie Bourgault, Lust's manager. "It offended the customers."

On July 1, Carey beamed over another offer for the space: $865,000. There was only radio silence on the other end. Today, he says he should have taken that as a sign of what was coming.

A week after Carey again offered to open his checkbook, his staff arrived to work and found a letter from the landlords pinned on the door. The note, signed by Robert Rains, said the partners had decided to boot Lust. The original terms of the lease were cited as justification.

The letter also claimed the partners "had received numerous complaints from neighboring tenants and businesses as well as from city council and law enforcement regarding incidents of loud and unruly behavior late into the night. For the past several weekends it has been necessary for the Cleveland Police to come to the Property due to altercations and other inappropriate activity."

The letter was a shocker to Carey. He had assumed West Sixth Associates was serious about negotiating a sale to him. And contrary to the letter's claim, Lust hadn't had any serious police calls in the preceding weeks.

Carey knew they disagreed about the club's use, but he didn't understand why the partners were taking the hard line. Lust had been a reliable tenant, did good business, and hadn't caused a significant disturbance. As far as he could see, the only thing that separated his club from most others on the strip was the skin color of his guests. Soon, his 1960s sensibilities, long dormant, started awakening.

The problem, Carey claims, is that people were painting with too broad a brush, and the results were racist assumptions. The underage crowd loitering around the neighborhood was largely black; Carey's crowd was black. The landlords and other business owners suspiciously eyeing his club assumed they were one and the same. In reality, Carey says, his middle-class clientele is no more comfortable with rowdy underagers than anyone else on the street.

"The downtown white business establishment has always been uncomfortable with black people," he says. "This was a symptom of that problem. It goes to racism. If my clientele had been largely white, like a lot of the other places on the street, my issue with the landlord never would have come up or any of this other nonsense. They wouldn't have paid any attention to me."

The standoff went public when Carey took his concerns to local NAACP President George Forbes. But instead of keeping the attention fixed on Lust's plight, Forbes used the opportunity to megaphone charges that the entire Warehouse District was racist, and to blast Mayor Frank Jackson for his lukewarm response.

In a letter to Jackson dated July 20, Forbes said, "There appears to be an ongoing process by many Warehouse District business owners to actually discriminate against individuals of color," and that "The Barley House and the Velvet Dog have a reputation of harassing and discriminating against young black male and female patrons." Forbes told The Plain Dealer his own grandchildren had been denied entry into clubs in the district. Jackson reassured Forbes he would look into any claims of racism. Regardless, Forbes had picked his fight with the Warehouse District. (Forbes did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

The letter on the door lit the fuse. Hot for a story that mixed politics, nightlife, and race in one high-octane mess, the press pounced. Throughout July, The Plain Dealer and local television stations unleashed an onslaught that ultimately missed the point and distorted the story. They parked reporters on West Sixth at night for "embedded" fishbowl gazing. The resulting reports were hyperventilating sensationalism, making the drunken antics of the strip sound more like some debauched lower circle of hell.

According to Fox 8, the district was suffused with an atmosphere "hostile and in danger of destroying West Sixth."

The Plain Dealer trumpeted on about "raising tensions" in the district and called the street at closing time a "tense and forbidding place" of "late-night madness."

The same article — which splashed across the front page on July 29 with large photos — noted that today's Warehouse District "reminds many of another place and time. Stakeholders in the Warehouse District whisper 'Flats East Bank' and shiver."

To Carey, the shock and awe was naive.

"There has to be some understanding that when you have an entertainment area and you have younger people and they're drinking, of course they're not going to behave really nice all of the time," he says. "Who doesn't understand that?"

Area residents also echo that the reporting created a false impression that the Warehouse District is dangerous.

"I've never felt threatened or that the place has been a dangerous area," says Matt Miller, the condo association board member and a six-year resident of the district. "Relative to other cities in the U.S., we're probably one of the safer downtown areas."

Even more damning for Carey were later reports that peddled the perception that Lust was the street's hotbed of bad behavior. In late July, Channel 3's Tom Meyer dropped an "exclusive" report that "cops have responded 41 times to calls at Lust since February of last year."

Only days later, in a follow-up clip, did Meyer note that those calls were in response to tripped burglar alarms and not disturbances. Those 41 calls resulted in only one arrest; most of the time, police didn't even show up on the scene.

"Forty-one calls — it makes it sound like there's a fight every minute," Carey says.

By comparison, Panini Bar and Grille, one of Lust's West Sixth neighbors, had 45 calls to police over the same period, resulting in 23 arrests.

Even Miller — whose condo association is suing Lust and its landlords over noise — says the resulting impression was off-base.

"To think that a couple of clubs would topple everything, to me, is a little bit ridiculous," he says. "I don't think there was one club to be blamed. From the residents' point of view, more or less our concern was the underage drinking that was going on. We had teenagers coming down and sitting in parking lots drinking, and then flooding the streets and fighting. I don't think we can point a finger at a club there."

Regardless, coverage of West Sixth had painted a portrait of an entertainment district in the throes of hysteria. By then, Carey took a backseat to the big picture.

"This isn't just about Lust," Forbes told The PD in a July 22 article. "It's about racism that's been going on for a long time."

Today, Carey says he regrets bringing in Forbes. "I was not happy with the results. The publicity he generated was really nonsense, because it didn't address the issues."

On July 17, Carey faxed another purchase offer over to West Sixth Associates for the full $900,000 sticker price. No response came back.

It turned out West Sixth Associates had been busy behind the curtain. Without notifying the club that business talks were dead, the landlords went to housing court and asked a judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would force Lust to close by 1 a.m. — a full hour before anyone else on the street shut down. The judge agreed.

Once the order was issued, Cleveland police stepped in to enforce it. On a Saturday night in July, District 3 Commander Calvin Williams showed up at the club early in the night and told Carey he had to close down or the police would raid the club and force the crowd out. (Williams and Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask did not return calls for comment.)

Feeling outgunned, Carey ammoed up. He hired civil rights powerhouse Avery Friedman, and within days filed a lawsuit in federal court against West Sixth Associates and the city, alleging police had targeted the club because its patrons are black. The suit also asked the U.S. District Court to put the brakes on the municipal court order.

The two sides sat down for court-ordered negotiations. According to Patrick Kramer, one of Carey's attorneys, it was clear West Sixth wanted Lust ejected from the Grand Arcade at any cost. The cage match ended with each party pinned down to an agreement they were willing to accept — or so it seemed at the time. On July 23, Carey, Rains, and their legal reps stepped into Judge Kathleen O'Malley's courtroom and entered the terms into the official record.

Per the agreement, Lust would wave the white flag: Carey agreed to shut down the establishment, but only after the club was allowed to operate for an additional 13 months. In that time, the club agreed to up its security staff and use the extra personnel to clear loiterers. In return, West Sixth agreed to drop its municipal court injunction and change the lease to allow Carey to operate as a nightclub.

After the deal was inked, Judge O'Malley asked if everyone was happy.

"That's a different issue, your honor," Friedman answered.

"Well," O'Malley quipped, "the best settlement is when nobody is completely happy."

On a Friday night in October, Lust's business finally arrives after midnight. The soft-focus lighting bounces around the polished floor and marble bar, giving the place a warm glow. Colored strobe lights orbit around a disco ball floating above an empty dance floor.

The crowd of 50 or so is nearly all black, with women outnumbering men two to one. Ladies are decked head to toe in designer wear; they sail about the empty club squeezed into True Religion jeans and studded, clipped, and clasped with expensive jewelry. The guys are fashionably overmatched: Button-ups and polo shirts are the standard gear, most of them high-dollar brands.

The action mostly centers around the bar. Behind the countertop, five servers hang back, awaiting orders. The three flat screens mounted above run a repeating slideshow of photos from busier nights a year ago — a sober counterpoint to tonight's trickle. Soulja Boy is hammering through the speakers, but the mood for now is relaxed.

Since the events of the summer, most of Lust's weekend traffic has been this thin. Carey speculates business is down by 40 percent from last year. The dip proves to him that his clientele weren't the lowlife thugs the press suggested, but young professionals who steered clear once they heard Lust was trouble.

"My clients were middle-class people. Why would a regular person want to come down here if they think they're going to be hassled by the police? Ever since this bad publicity came out in July, I'm basically just paying the bills here."

The West Sixth storyline that saturated the press in summer gave way to a crash landing. In August, two black bank executives tangled with police outside of the Velvet Dog. Forbes and other city leaders pounced, calling it an instance of the Warehouse District racism they'd been talking about. When security camera footage later showed the two men antagonizing police, the outrage abruptly dissipated. Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett even penned a mea culpa column after waving an accusatory finger at police in an earlier installment.

But the damage seems to have been done, and Carey's not the only one feeling the hurt. Representatives of the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation tell Scene that owners throughout the district have reported slumping business ever since the coverage broke. Club employees add that traffic has fallen off to below seasonal levels. And almost all of them lay the blame with Lust.

"I'm a pariah now. They all blame me," Carey says. "I don't think [the landlords] meant to ruin everybody's business. I think they just wanted to ruin my business."

Carey agrees with his fellow club owners that underage revelers have no place on the street at nighttime. He'd like to see the city shut down traffic on the street on weekends and ID everyone entering West Sixth — an idea floated by councilmen and other business owners too.

"If the powers-that-be really wanted a solution, why wouldn't they do that? They did it permanently on East Fourth," he says. "I don't think any of the business owners would object to that."

Carey's story has fallen out of the headlines, but his battle with the landlords continues. The all-out assault of summer has been replaced with a legal chess match.

As part of the federal agreement, the parties sat down to hash out acceptable sound levels for the club. Both sides shipped in noise engineers to test Lust's music from the condos above; the data showed it was well within the decibel range accepted by major cities like Cincinnati and Columbus. (Cleveland's antique statutes do not include specific levels.) They agreed on a figure. The landlords asked for decibel meters to be installed in the condos to keep the club to its word, and Carey agreed. Then, as the agreement was about to be signed, the landlords walked away in silence.

Soon after, in mid-October, Carney's group filed another eviction suit against Carey in housing court, this time alleging that he hadn't paid his rent. Following the federal ruling, the landlords mailed Carey a letter claiming his rent was going up by 25 percent, effective immediately. Carey's lawyers counter that the federal agreement set the terms of the lease, with no mention of a rate hike.

Carey mailed his August check for the regular amount, and it was cashed. When the September rent came due, he sent another check; this time it was returned, and the new suit was filed. Friedman and Kramer are preparing to take the matter back before a federal judge.

Perched behind the counter at his roofing business, Joe Carey remains defiant. In many ways the game is already over; by next September, Lust will be out and the owners will be free to do what they want. But Carey says he won't ride off quietly if his landlords try to pry Lust loose from West Sixth early.

"When we won in federal court, Avery asked me why I didn't look happier," he recalls. "I told him because I knew it wasn't over yet. I knew these guys weren't going to let this go."

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