Saloon Blues

Police say Lucy's--formerly Blues Saloon--is a magnet for gang fights and drug dealing
Tony Nelson

The fireworks started early at the Frogtown Festival this year. In the early morning hours of August 4, on the day of the St. Paul neighborhood's annual fete, gunfire erupted outside of Lucy's at the intersection of Thomas and Western avenues.

Robert Thompson, who lives on the same block as the bar, recalls hearing two explosions and thinking at first that it might just be firecrackers. But when the cadence quickened, Thompson realized that a gun battle had started outside his front door. Through his window the 60-year-old University of Minnesota bus driver could see people scattering in every direction. Bystanders scaled the fence across the street that seals off Jackson Elementary School. Thompson could hear bullets ricocheting off cars. "It was a Wild, Wild West show out there," he says wearily.

Thompson sank to the floor of the home he bought seven years ago and dialed 911.

By the time police arrived on the scene, Robert Jones, a 24-year-old Roseville resident, had been shot in the face, the bullet entering below his left eye and exiting through his left ear. Two more bullet casings were found on the sidewalk; a pair of bullet holes were left in a house next door to the bar.

The police officers dispatched to 601 Western Ave. needed no directions to Lucy's. Since the beginning of this year, St. Paul cops have visited the establishment more than 90 times, for everything from alleged drug dealing to loitering to barroom brawls. "They've become conspicuous users of police resources," says police spokesman Michael Jordan.

Since the beginning of the year, Frogtown residents and police say, Lucy's (formerly the legendary Blues Saloon) has become a menace (in 2000, the cops were summoned to the establishment on just 27 occasions). The bar advertises itself as gay-friendly; on weeknights it's an occasionally boisterous saloon where young lesbians and old neighborhood regulars drink cheap beer and shoot pool side by side. On weekend nights Lucy's is transformed into a two-story nightclub featuring hip-hop music and attracting a younger, more volatile crowd. On Friday and Saturday nights, patrons spill out onto the streets of the residential neighborhood, blasting music and drinking beer. K-9 units are occasionally summoned to chase off the post-closing-time crowds.

"It gets so thick out there you can't even drive your car," Thompson says.

"Some days, from my house all the way up to Lucy's, it looks just like a dump," adds George Mitchell, who has lived on the block for 40 years. "They urinate against our wall, against our steps, against our trees."

The crowds that have been gathering along Thomas Avenue on weekend nights are largely African American, but neighbors maintain that race has nothing to do with their reaction. "It wouldn't make any difference whether it was skinheads or whoever it was," says Thompson, who is black himself. "The bottom line is just because we don't live on Summit Avenue doesn't mean we can't get the same props over here. Race has nothing to do with it."

Western-district police Comdr. John Harrington argues that the problem is a crowd of young people with "too much liquor and too short of fuses." Harrington recounts that there have been brawls at the club that have left the upstairs in a shambles. "The people that are in the fights, a substantial number of them are known to us as gang members," he adds.

Even before the gunfight on August 4, neighborhood residents and police were trying to address the volatile situation. In June a neighborhood meeting was held at Jackson Elementary School to discuss potential solutions. According to people who were present, the owner of Lucy's, Areanna Coale, promised to bolster security in order to placate neighbors' concerns (she even brought along some recently hired security guards as evidence). The group drew up a list of 13 conditions that Coale could voluntarily agree to in order to avoid sanctions from the city; the stipulations included installing a metal detector and cleaning up litter from the surrounding area. But Coale later refused to sign the agreement.

City council member Jerry Blakey, noting that Coale is a respected criminal defense attorney, argues that responsibility for the bar's problems lie squarely on her shoulders. "We're not talking about someone who just fell off the turnip truck," says Blakey, whose First Ward includes Lucy's. "We're talking about someone who should know the laws." (Coale did not return three phone calls from City Pages seeking comment.)

The St. Paul City Attorney's Office and the police are now contemplating legal action against Lucy's. On April 4, police charge, an undercover cop walked into Lucy's, ordered a beer, and then walked out the door holding the alcoholic beverage in plain sight--a violation of the city's licensing laws that could result in a fine. No employee made any attempt to stop the officer. Lucy's is contesting the allegations and a hearing before an administrative law judge is slated for September 27.

According to Virginia Palmer, an assistant city attorney, this may not be the only punitive measure taken against Lucy's: "There's the possibility of other adverse action, but I'm not free to discuss it at this point because it has not been communicated to the licensee."

Many residents of the area immediately surrounding Lucy's believe that nothing short of closing the establishment will suffice. A petition calling for the bar to be shuttered has garnered about 100 signatures and will eventually be turned over to the City Attorney's Office. "To tell you the God's honest truth, I'd like to see 'em put her out of business," George Mitchell says. "I've traveled to a lot of bars in my life, I've drank with the best of 'em, and I've never in my life seen a crowd like they have today. Ever since it's been Lucy's, it's just been murder."

The modest brick building at the corner of Thomas and Western has a storied history. It has been a saloon of one form or another since the late 19th Century. Coale took over in the mid-Eighties and transformed the space into one of the premier blues clubs in the country. Legends such as John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Etta James passed through its doors. Blues singer James "Thunderbird" Davis died on its stage after suffering a heart attack.

"They had a bunch of people who enjoyed blues music, and the crowd was pretty decent," Mitchell remembers. Commander Harrington adds, "It was pretty quiet when it was Blues Saloon."

The bar's financial status, however, has always been precarious. In a 1995 Star Tribune article highlighting Blues Saloon's tenth anniversary, Coale lamented what she saw as excessive regulation and higher taxes. "It's squeezing the life blood out of live entertainment," she told the paper.

Blues Saloon finally closed its doors early last year. The club quickly resurfaced as Lucy's, and in an attempt to boost business began advertising its clientele as "GLBT & Friends" and featuring gay country dancing. Over time Lucy's added hip hop to the mix.

Lucy's is not the only bar in central St. Paul to run afoul of neighbors and the police. The area is dotted with corner bars wedged into otherwise residential neighborhoods. Willard's Liquors, at the intersection of Thomas Avenue and Grotto Street, for example, was a problem spot for years. But according to Harrington, since the bar took steps to curtail crime, such as installing video cameras and hiring security guards, it hasn't been a serious concern. "We have almost no calls at Willard's anymore," he notes. (Police records show that officers have been dispatched to the saloon 31 times this year.)

Harrington believes that if Lucy's took similar actions it could placate the neighbors. So far, though, the cops have received little cooperation from Coale. "We think that there is more that could and should be done by the owner to resolve the problems," Harrington says.

Robert Jones survived the August 4 shooting outside Lucy's, but is now blind in his left eye and deaf in his left ear. His alleged assailant was charged with attempted murder and has pleaded not guilty. For Lucy's, though, the wound may turn out to be fatal. "It's been there forever," Harrington concludes. "But it needs to make some major changes in the way it does business if it's going to continue to operate in that neighborhood."

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