I went to South Washington Square between Allegan and Washtenaw streets on two separate weekends around 1:30 a.m. The first night was a busy one. Around closing time at 2, a group of roughly 60 people formed outside of Club X-Cel. One drunk young man was shouting and strutting about the sidewalk as the group began to take notice of him. It was hard to tell if he was angry or just putting on an aggressive, alpha-male show for the gaggle of people. The situation had a “powder keg” vibe as people from other areas of the block flocked to check out the action.
That was when I took note of the situation as related to the number of bars in the area. There are six bars, Tavern on the Square, Club X-Cel, Brannigan Brothers, Wild Beaver Saloon (now Eden Rock), Kelly’s Downtown and The Firm, all on one block, all trying to get customers out at the same time. With potentially hundreds of drunk people all in the same area it only takes one overly boisterous person to draw attention.
A few minutes after the group formed, a bouncer took out a megaphone and began telling the crowd to clear the sidewalk. He even ran the horn siren for a minute or two intermittently. After about five to 10 minutes the crowd began to disperse down the sidewalk and into the street — which meant into traffic.
Around that time I noticed a police cruiser moving through the area, the only one I spotted during my time there. I noted at least eight people walk directly from the bars right into their cars.
Last year numerous storeowners on the block reported fights, property damage and vomit on the sidewalks.
Over the next week, I spoke with several shop owners, including, Nick Bonofiglio, brother of the owner and a manager at Lenny’s Sub Shop, and Sue Rantz, owner of Zoup, who lives above her shop.
Both Bonofiglio and Rantz said cleaning up the “aftermath” of vomit, was their biggest problem both this year and last. They’re aware of fights and property damage but haven’t experienced any.
“It’s wall-to-wall on the sidewalk at certain hours and the bar crowd spills out into the streets with the warm weather,” Rantz said. “We know not to go out then. We avoid it so we don’t have to witness too much.” She said because of a “good job in construction” they are not disturbed by noise in their apartment, which doesn’t face the street.
Rantz said last year things got rough at closing time.
Rantz said police presence was eventually ramped up, the block settled down and few other problems occurred. She and Bonofiglio are hopeful this summer police will be around more. They agreed that the influx of people has been good for business and that problems like the vomit come with the bar territory.
The owner of Insty-Prints, Mike Bruce, said he hasn’t had any problems since an incident last summer when he discovered a bloody and smashed front window at his print shop one morning, one of several broken shop windows of the season.
Stewart Powell, owner of Linn & Owen Jewelers, was adamant that the growth downtown has been a plus for his business but was just as concerned with problems associated with the bar crowds.
“Their concept is to build bars, restaurants and apartments to attract tenants which will ultimately lead to more retail openings,” he said. “It’s a good thing that has a bad side to it. There’s no excuse for people to get hurt or property to get damaged.”
More cops is not necessarily the answer, Powell said. He thinks the bars need to take responsibility for serving their patrons more seriously and was curious how far the bar’s responsibility stretched after their patrons exited their doors.
Michigan Liquor Control Commission has rules against serving alcoholic beverages to visibly intoxicated patrons. Bars are always responsible for dealing with issues on the premises but as for bar-goers after they’re on the sidewalk, responsibility is very much dependent on circumstances, said Barb Subastian, regional manager of the enforcement division for the Liquor Control Commission.
At least one recent crowd like the one I saw proved to be more dangerous — a large mob that moved like a school of fish as it followed an altercation back and forth across the street.
See for yourself: Jessica Decker, owner of Decker's coffee shop and a Washington Square resident, shot a video of the scene on early Friday morning, April 27, which she turned over the Lansing Police Department. City Pulse received an electronic copy of it after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. You can view it at: http://tinyurl.com/downtownvideo.
Last week, I went to the mayor’s office to tell him what I had seen, what the video depicted and to invite him to join me that night to check it out.
I spoke with Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief of staff, Randy Hannan, explained my story, and extended my invitation and request for an interview. The next day I ran into the mayor at his office. I introduced myself and asked him if he had talked to Hannan. He said that he had been told I was working on a story that he “probably wouldn’t like” and that he didn’t want our relationship to “get off on the wrong foot” so early on in my career. As we walked to the elevator, he expressed his concern about the “negative” angle of my article.
An interview didn't materialize, but Bernero sent me a message via Hannan midafternoon on Tuesday that said that “downtown Lansing continues to grow and thrive,” but that “time to time there will be problems,” which the police and Downtown Lansing Inc. are “doing an excellent job” addressing. He called downtown a “safe environment.”
(Editor's note: Bernero asked to see the video but declined to comment on it on the record, which City Pulse in turn declined after having informed him City Pulse had obtained the video from the Police Department — as could he.)
That night, May 25, closing time, I went back to Washington Square. At least one bar and popular food stop were closed for the holiday. I noticed three squad cars constantly patrolling the area. Again, a crowd gathered, smaller and more passive than the one I previously witnessed. The megaphone came out again and a police car pulled up across the street and the group disbanded quickly. I couldn’t help thinking my interactions with the mayor that day contributed to the stepped-up patrol.
Both city officials and store owners are optimistic about this summer because things have been relatively calm so far. But as Rantz put it, we're not in the "thick of summer" just yet, so conscious efforts to maintain a safe downtown nightlife must continue.
Police say response depends on situation
The Lansing Police Department is well aware of the problems that have occurred downtown both this year and last, said Capt. Mike Yankowski, patrol division captain.
He said the department tries to get extra officers to the area on peak bar nights like Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays but that it is very dependent on the situation in the rest of the city.
This year has been better than last year, he said, with only one major incident so far this summer — the large fight that was videotaped on April 27.
Beyond a more visible police presence, Yankowski said the key factor in lowering problems downtown has been the department’s relationship with bar owners and operators. He said there are quarterly meetings between the two groups to identify areas of improvement, outline responsibilities and open up communication. He said the bars “take ownership” of their patrons and for the “most part police themselves.” Practices included security staff having the main responsibility clearing sidewalks of customers after closing time and cleaning up any vomit or cigarette butts that might litter the ground as part of the “good neighbor” policy the department tries to advocate.
The most common violations that are handed out to bar-goers, Yankowski said, were “Public Disorder” write-ups that are related to public intoxication, excessive noise and fighting.