On Sunday evening, the Emerald City Ultra Bar and Lounge is decidedly quieter than usual. Employees methodically lay out liquor bottles, set up the sound system, and tinker with the lighting. Each new person to walk through the door is greeted like an old friend; in most cases, they are.
Outside the walls of Emerald City, some residents of Durham's Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood, fed up with loud music and traffic, have a different view. After a fatal shooting outside the venue on January 28, they're asking the city council to do something about a club they describe as a nuisance. In an email to council members, one resident reported hearing thirty to forty gunshots early that Saturday morning. "I am at a loss as to what to do. I've lived on Lakewood Ave for 16 years, but I cannot take this anymore," she wrote. "Noise is one thing, but MURDER, gunshots, and dangerous driving are another."
Another neighbor said she called in noise complaints every weekend for about a year: "I feel as though I am endangering my children's lives when I put them to bed on a weekend night. The club must be closed."
While the club's backers argue that the black-owned business is a victim of gentrification, residents say their neighborhood was quiet before Emerald City came along.
Since the venue opened in September 2014, ninety-six noise complaints have been called in to Durham Police Department regarding the partly vacant Lakewood Shopping Center, which includes Emerald City as well as a Food Lion and The Scrap Exchange (data specific to the club was not available). There have been nine assaults and 104 fights or disturbances reported, eight instances of shots being fired, and thirty-five reports about intoxicated people or drivers. No other Lakewood Shopping Center business serves alcohol, and, besides a twenty-four-hour laundromat, Emerald City is the only storefront open after ten p.m. (The Scrap Exchange purchased the northern portion of the shopping center last summer. It plans to create an arts district there.)
The January 28 shooting that killed thirty-year-old Stacy Nichols Jr.—an Emerald City regular—is the only documented instance of a fatality at Lakewood Shopping Center since at least January 1, 2014.
Emerald City co-owner Roy Hubbert says he "can't make sense" of the shooting that killed Nichols and injured two others. Nichols, the father of a three-year-old girl, volunteered with a local Stop the Violence group and helped start a community garden nearby. Whoever fired the shots did not come in the club, says Barbara Meeks, who helps with security and maintenance at Emerald City. No arrests have been made.
The club stayed closed for a week "out of respect for the family," co-owner Derrick Bridges says, reopening Sunday evening. For its critics, that might not be good enough.
"In my opinion," city council member Don Moffitt wrote to a Lakewood resident last week, "the club has forfeited the right to operate by their practices which have now resulted (indirectly, yes, but resulted nonetheless) in bloodshed." (Later, Moffitt told the INDY that, in his ideal scenario, the residents and the club would talk things out.)
It appears DPD began gathering evidence that could be used to shutter Emerald City last year. In an email to a resident, Moffitt outlined two "initiatives to stop the violence originating from Emerald City": having its liquor license revoked by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission or having the club declared a nuisance and shut down by the Alcohol Law Enforcement agency. Both require evidence of violations of state law. In a December 20 email to city and DPD officials, Durham police corporal R.L. Paffel said he had "compiled 2+ years of documentation on this club," but the process has been drawn out because of a lack of cooperation from Emerald City.
Emerald City staffers, however, say their requests for officers to work security—paid by the club—have not been fulfilled, which is frustrating since Paffel is their point of contact at the DPD. This looks like it might be changing. On Thursday, club staff, DPD representatives, and local pastors met to discuss safety at the club. Kortnee McAdams, a club manager and Hubbert's fiancée, says police chief CJ Davis is lining up officers to work outside Emerald City.
"It is not the Durham Police Department's desire to force the closure of any business, nor is DPD pursuing closure at this time," the department said in a statement Friday. "Rather it is our preference to make reasonable attempts to support the property owners and managers in taking other steps to address public safety concerns that may be arising from the premises."
What's lost in crime statistics, the club's supporters say, are Emerald City's efforts to give back to the community.
Like most clubs, Emerald City has theme nights, some more risqué than others: Turn Up Tuesdays, Super Sexy Saturdays, and Grown and Sexy on Fridays. But Emerald City also hosts some events atypical of a strip mall nightclub: Black Excellence is a black-only business networking night, and Social Sundays offers a free buffet.
"I think the disconnect is they only see that it's a nightclub, it's an African-American club where young people come to party. It's not just a club, it's a movement," McAdams says.
Hubbert suspects the complaints against his business are part of an effort to squeeze out the black community to make way for new investors and higher property values. After all, while census data shows that its ratio of white to black residents hasn't significantly changed in the last fifteen years and its median home price is near the city average, Lakewood is a neighborhood clearly in transition. Lakewood Shopping Center, with empty storefronts and gaping potholes, seems out of place alongside bright, freshly painted bungalows. And that, Hubbert believes, is what these latest complaints are really about.
"These guys have a plan for this area, and they don't think we fit in," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shut the Club Down?"