House Warming

The war against hip-hop moves to the zoning administrator's office

Kevin Newell was irate.
Halfway through an emotionally charged zoning administrator hearing to decide the fate of local hip-hop club House of Grooves, the head of the Whittier Neighborhood Association was on a roll as he recited a list of neighbors' complaints against the venue. Some of his points were undeniably valid, such as concerns about loud thumping music on weekend nights, or condoms and other trash (presumably from club patrons) being dumped in the neighborhood, or a shortage of club parking having resulted in patrons illegally parking in nearby residential areas.

But in building his case, Newell might have overplayed his hand. "What positive effect," he asked rhetorically, "does the House of Grooves bring to our central Phoenix community?"

The question itself said a lot about local attitudes toward hip-hop. To people like Newell, it's unimaginable that locals getting together at night and dancing to hip-hop music could have any socially redeeming facet. The implication is that people enjoying themselves doesn't qualify as a "positive effect" if you're not among the people who are enjoying themselves.

It's more than a little bizarre that in 1998, two decades after its birth, hip-hop is still treated in some places--like this one--as a kind of fringe music, or a disreputable cult attraction, like cockfighting or nude mud wrestling.

Even a cursory glance at the pop charts will tell you that hip-hop is the music of choice for young America. At least nine of the top 20 albums on the October 31 Billboard 200 fell into the hip-hop category, and several others, like Brandy or even teen-pop pretty boys like 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys, take considerable influence from it. If tens of millions of people are buying this music every year, how can level-headed people possibly reduce it to gang soundtrack fodder?

But the Valley's power brokers will only be dragged into the hip-hop age kicking and screaming. Just look at the evidence that's mounting against Scottsdale in the federal inquiry into the Club Tribeca case. House of Grooves' situation may be different from Club Tribeca's, but what it shares with that case is that the club in question is now being blamed by neighbors and police officers for every disruption that happens in the neighborhood, whether or not any conclusive connections can be made. The two cases are also alike in that opponents seem more determined to destroy the club than to help it solve its problems.

House of Grooves owner Marvin Walters didn't want to be in front of the zoning administrator in the first place. He and his attorney, Booker T. Evans, argued that the building has had a use permit for live entertainment and patron dancing since 1969. But because the club has expanded from approximately 3,000 to 6,000 square feet since it opened 13 months ago, the neighborhood was able to bring its case before the zoning administrator on the grounds that House of Grooves needed to apply for a new permit "to expand a use permitted by a use permit."

The meeting had been originally scheduled for October 6, but a continuance was issued in the hope that the neighbors and club reps could work out their differences. Instead, House of Grooves suffered a huge public relations blow when two men, Lloyd Dirkson and Louis Perkins, were murdered October 16 in the parking lot of the neighboring Gourmet House of Hong Kong, which has contracted to provide late-night parking for the club. Although it is believed that the assailant had not been in the club, and only one of the two victims had come from there, the specter of the double murder hovered over the zoning proceedings.

Opponents in the neighborhood continually referred to it, as though it was the final proof that House of Grooves was an irredeemable menace. The hypocrisy was clear. If a similar act of random violence had occurred in the parking lot of a local Circle K, it's hard to believe that anyone would want to shut the store down.

To be sure, House of Grooves was not without its allies at the hearing. Building owner Paul Levie said the location has experienced many problems in the past, such as graffiti, and at one time housed an adult bookstore. He contended that the problems have disappeared since House of Grooves opened. "As far as I'm concerned, they're good business people," Levie said.

Walters also tried to assure the neighbors that he was determined to solve his problems. He put up a wall between the club and the neighborhood to keep patrons away from residential areas. He was extending security beyond the club and its parking lot to include all adjacent lots used by patrons. He was also trying to reduce the problem of sound leakage by determining whether the biggest noise factor was the club itself or car stereos in the area. The day before the hearing, Walters told me that he still hoped to work constructively with neighbors.

"These aren't problems, these are challenges," Walters said. "They have a right to be there, we have a right to be there. If I lived there, I'd probably have concerns, too."

But nothing Walters could say would assuage neighbors, who compared living in the area to being held hostage. They said they were continually gripped by "terror and fear." One speaker said, "All the hard work we've put into the gentrification of the neighborhood has been ruined" by the House of Grooves.

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