Cover Story

Night Moves

by R. Reese Fuller

Some downtown business owners and residents are concerned that the weekend party scene is approaching dangerous proportions.

Robert Mouton thought it would be nice to spend his retirement years in downtown Lafayette. Now after 18 months of sleepless nights, he's questioning his decision to move downtown. "What you see during the day, and what you see at night are completely different," he says.

The 64-year-old retired jeweler lived at the Peppertree Apartments off Ambassador Caffery for 17 years before moving to the Evangeline Apartments on the corner of Jefferson and Vine streets. His second floor apartment faces Vine, overlooking the bar on the corner, Rain. He says that every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, young people take to the street "like roaches," beginning around 10:30 p.m. That's also when the music at Rain usually kicks in and gets increasingly louder throughout the night ' sometimes until 3 a.m.

Mouton says he's tried to talk to Rain's management about the noise, but to no avail. Rain employee Heather Arnold says they're doing all they can to be a good neighbor. They no longer book live bands, and they keep the doors closed. "It's a bar," Arnold says, "so there's going to be some noise, but we always do what we can. We try to respect their wishes as much as possible without interfering with our business."

Mouton also says that Froggy's, across the street from the Evangeline, leaves its doors open on nights when it has live music, and the bands playing at Daiquiris Supreme on the corner of Garfield and Jefferson can also be heard in the night air. Every weekend night is a cacophony of carousing crowds, rumbling Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the blast of the train's air horn just down the block. But what frustrates him the most is the bass in the music.

"What you hear is boom, boom, boom, boom, boom ' constantly," he says. "The windows vibrate. This is abnormal noise. It feels like it's driving you crazy. You can't sleep. Sometimes you think you can go into the living room and sleep in the recliner, or you can go wash clothes until 3 a.m., but none of this works."

And those are just the sounds and sights from Mouton's corner.

In October, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control paid a visit to Stan's Downtown. According to Commissioner Murphy Painter, the Vermillion Street nightclub was charged with 12 counts of selling alcohol to people under 21. The club was also cited for selling alcohol to an intoxicated person and two counts of allowing minors on the premises. The club was fined $2,500, and business was suspended for two days.

A month later, while enjoying the nightlife in downtown Lafayette, a hockey player for the Louisiana IceGators was beaten so badly in a fight that he was hospitalized for two days with a concussion. An official with the team would not release the player's name but did state that the player was no longer a member of the team.

And just one month ago, 22-year-old Shamar Celestine and 19-year-old Howard Plumbar were both stabbed in the back while at a Breaux Bridge residence. The St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Office stated that both stabbings were the result of an altercation that began at NiteTown, in the 500 block of Jefferson Street.

Local officials say these incidents are isolated and that some unfortunate mishaps are to be expected in downtown's continuing revitalization efforts. But some downtown business owners and residents are concerned that the weekend party scene is approaching dangerous proportions.

Downtown isn't the same place it was a decade ago. In the mid-90s, the only retail shops and restaurants open for business were Gallagher's City News Stand, Dwyer's Café, Teche Drugs, Don's Seafood and T-Coon's. The Jefferson Streetscape beautification project was still in progress, and only a handful of bars existed downtown.

Rob Robison and his wife, Catherine, opened Jefferson Street Market in December 1996. "For the most part," Robison remembers, "there were a lot of empty and decrepit buildings."

A few years later, Amanda Scott's live music nightclub opened just a few doors down from Robison's location. "It was quite successful," he says. "It was a well-managed club. Other people started eyeing locations down here to open bars. I think the landlords saw that the bar money was quick money, so they just proliferated." (NiteTown now occupies the Amanda Scott's location.)

When Judd Kennedy opened Renaissance in October 2000, his only competition was five other bars ' Amanda Scott's, Grant Street Dancehall, The Sound Factory, Jules and The Sidebar. Kennedy's original idea for Renaissance Café and Night Club was to have a bar that also offered an extensive coffee menu. "But nobody went for it," he says. "So we were like, 'Screw it. Get it off the menu, and get more beer in here.'"

Today, along the five blocks of Jefferson Street, from Lee Avenue to Cypress Street, there are 22 different establishments that sell alcohol ' 13 bars and nine restaurants. They coexist with 23 shops, galleries, salons and stores.

Robison is now serving his fourth term as the president of downtown advocacy organization, Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, and has seen the ill effects of the growing nightlife. "The bars have been hoisted by their own petards," he says. "You have more people in the bars, but you also have more hangers-on in the street. Any situation where you have a lot of alcohol, a lot of testosterone and not a lot of regulation, there are going to be good nights and bad nights. At least that's what the police have told me; there are just sometimes these pockets of trouble. I don't think there are enough police officers around to handle that crowd. Their resources are just painfully thin at this point."

In June 2004, Lafayette Police added six officers to patrol downtown on foot during weekend nights, in addition to the two who already patrol the area in cars. Maj. Jim Craft, who also sits on DLU's board of directors, says that a year before the foot patrol began, an average of 1,500 people would visit downtown on a weekend night. Today, he says, "It's not unusual to have 5,000 to 6,000 people in that area on a weekend night."

Craft says problems with crowds of that size are inevitable. "Anytime you put a whole lot of people in a contained area with alcohol, you're going to have some people who aren't minding their own business and who are going to cause problems," he says. "We didn't want this area to become a Bourbon Street, so we decided to become proactive and to assign more people to that area. Those foot patrols are down there to make sure that things don't get out of hand, to make sure those minor problems don't turn into big ones. So far it's worked out well. It's been expensive because we have to pay overtime to do it, but our shift units would have to be there responding to calls if we didn't have these foot patrols."

Renaissance's Kennedy says the increased police presence is noticeable. "I've noticed more police stopping things on the street. After 2 a.m., there seems to be more problems. There are a lot of people who come downtown, but they can't get into the clubs because of their dress codes. So those people end up just walking back and forth and drinking just out on the street, hanging out. I've noticed that the more popular downtown gets, there are more people, not in the bars, just out on the streets and in the parking lots."

Craft says most of the problems that the foot officers deal with are loitering, public drunkenness, open glass containers and criminal damage to property. But the aftermath of the weekend nights is apparent on Sunday and Monday mornings, when the trash left behind makes Jefferson Street look like Lafayette's variation on Bourbon Street. Broken bottles, empty cups, fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts litter the sidewalk. Craft maintains that the problems are minimal considering the number of people who frequent the area.

Renaissance Café is open six nights a week and can hold up to 235 people. On an average night, 400 people come through the club, says Kennedy, but it's not unusual to have 800 people walk through his door in a single night. He has an altercation in his club once every couple of weeks; they are handled by him or his six bouncers. And if the police do have to be called into the situation, Kennedy says there's been nothing but cooperation. "We've always had really quick ' if not an immediate ' response to any problem we've had," he says.

Cathy Webre, the executive director of Downtown Development Authority, says any problems with downtown's nightlife are simply growing pains in an evolving area. "Having a nightlife as an element of downtown is part of the equation," she says.

Although downtown is thriving with retail shops, restaurants, bars, law firms, small businesses and arts and culture establishments, one major element is still missing ' residences. Webre estimates that in downtown ' aside from the Evangeline Apartments ' there are only three other buildings that offer about a dozen units for residences. The Evangeline alone has 86 units, with a 93 percent occupancy rate, mostly by elderly tenants.

"I think downtown has a good solid start," Webre says. "There's no doubt about it. There's been development in all of these areas. The key is to maintain that and to continue to fill in those missing pieces." Webre points to the proposed renovation of the old BellSouth building into apartments and the conversion of the La Parisienne building into a boutique hotel, both on Jefferson Street, as indicators of a plan that's progressing. "Hopefully, they can lead the way."

C.C. Adcock has lived downtown above Teche Drugs on Jefferson Street for the last 12 years. The musician has had one car stolen, another car wrecked by a driver in a vehicle fleeing policemen and had his apartment door kicked in during an attempted robbery.

Despite all that, he disagrees with Robert Mouton that things are getting out of hand downtown. "There are thousands of people down here from Thursday through Saturday," he says. "But one positive side effect is that less weird stuff can go down with more people around. It used to be that something could happen to you, and no one would be around for miles. There's more of a police force down here and more attention down here to keep this place cool."

From his perch, the biggest problem isn't the nightlife, but the homeless population. He sees the same people year after year. "It makes for a grifters' paradise," he says. "The rest of it is just alcohol-induced, frat-boy, you-looked-at-my-woman-wrong bulls--t.

"But overall, everyone seems like they're being respectful of one another. People are out on dates and looking to get dates. It's not a rumble mentality. It's basically young kids with different hairstyles and tastes. I guess it's the demographics of 18 to 35, most of that being on the younger end of the spectrum. All the clubs look and sound and feel about the same. And for me and my lifestyle, it's still better than living in Broadmoor."

The subdivision on the other side of Lafayette might sound like a good option to Mouton these days. He says he's been down to city hall about the noise and called the police on seven different occasions, but he can't get any results. "Older people have problems," he says, "and it's hard to fight these things all the time." Despite his calls to the Lafayette police and meetings with city-parish officials, Mouton doesn't think his point is getting across. He's considered more drastic measures ' like showing up at a City-Parish Council meeting with a boom box blaring. "But they would put me in jail in two seconds," he says. "If I went over to River Ranch, crossed that bridge and turned up that boom box, they'd pick me up in two seconds."

Tim Melancon, alcohol and noise control manager for Lafayette Consolidated Government, says he's met with Mouton and that to his knowledge, police have responded to every one of his phone calls. "Sometimes it's a cat and mouse game," Melancon says. "When the officers arrive, the bars may have already turned the music down. And unless you stick an officer on that exact corner, you can't catch everything it as it occurs. We've spoken to some of the other residents of the Evangeline, and some say it bothers them, and others say it doesn't."

Melancon says that after a business has been reported to the police a dozen times within a 12-month period, his office has the authority to suspend and even revoke that establishment's alcoholic beverage permit. However, the business must be convicted of each charge resulting from each call, and Melancon says he can't recall one bar that's been convicted of a charge, much less had its permit revoked.

"Sometimes it's really difficult to balance the direction that downtown is taking, with its night life, day businesses and residences," says Melancon. "We just need to find what that balance is so that they can coexist without problems."

Mouton still thinks there are some basic issues that need to be addressed downtown. "There's vomit, and nobody cleans it up," he says. "Downtown smells like urine. You see [people] so drunk that they can't walk, but they get in their cars and drive home. Someone's going to get hurt and they're going to sue the city of Lafayette. But until somebody's child gets killed, they're going to play ignorant."