Back before Jan. 20, 2007—before 17-year-old Taleshia Ford was shot there by a stray bullet—Smarta/Broadway was a lively spot. The beat of conga drums thumped from the nightclub’s open windows, shaking the floors of a neighbor’s apartment nearby, and inside, according to a witness, the scent of marijuana was pervasive.
“The weed [would] smack me in the face,” said Phyllis Pendleton at an April 4 Alcoholic Beverage Control Board hearing. Pendleton, who rented the club from owner Smart Aziken, hosted weekly events at Smarta/Broadway. Her Saturday-night parties featured numerous musical acts, including her son’s go-go band, Good Fellaz Band and Show. “They would smoke weed in there,” Pendleton recalled of the club’s patrons. “You could smell it all over.”
Marijuana might prove central to the District’s case against Smarta/Broadway. On Jan. 24, the board suspended the establishment’s liquor license, and the 9th Street NW nightclub has been shuttered ever since. Now, the board will decide whether to permanently revoke the club’s liquor license. It held the first of its hearings on the subject April 4 and will have a second hearing on May 22.
In her opening statement, Assistant Attorney General Amy Schmidt, representing the District of Columbia, accused Aziken of “blatant disregard” for alcohol regulations and patrons’ safety. Specifically, she said, the club was routinely overcrowded, served alcohol to minors, and—with the full knowledge of the owner—permitted patrons to smoke marijuana.
According to the attorney general’s office, the pot piece of this story is crucial. To make the case for revocation, the District must demonstrate that violent incidents were on the rise within 1,000 feet of Smarta/Broadway and that these incidents were directly linked to Aziken’s operation of the club—a subjective determination that would be handed down by the ABC Board at the conclusion of the hearings.
The District could also demonstrate that Aziken knowingly permitted patrons to smoke weed in the club. Under D.C. Code, the use of a controlled substance within an establishment, if done with the full knowledge of the owner, is grounds for mandatory revocation.
Flanked by his two attorneys, Gregory L. Lattimer and Ted J. Williams, Aziken sat quietly while Dave Smith, a security supervisor at Smarta/Broadway, described the club’s frequent “smoke parties” to the board. “The kids from Howard would come,” he said, “and they would smoke [pot]. It wouldn’t be a problem.” Promoters made fliers that were written “in code” advertising the parties, he said, and Aziken knew all about them. Smith said the club owner told him “not to worry about it, or occasionally, to put it out.”
Lattimer, however, says he and his co-counselor will show that formal smoke parties never took place at the club. “Our position is it’s far-fetched,” he says. “They did not happen. The man had no-smoking signs all over the place.” Lattimer doesn’t doubt that patrons occasionally smoked weed at the club. “That happens,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that Mr. Aziken condoned it or allowed it to happen.” And yet, Pendleton said she constantly complained to Aziken about pot’s presence at the club. “I said, ‘Smarta, you said the people can’t smoke weed here,’ ” she said, invoking Aziken’s nickname. “His favorite thing to say was, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ ”
But the attorney general’s office alleges that smoke parties represented only part of Aziken’s lax attitude toward rules and regulations. It was common practice to let customers without IDs enter the club, Smith said, as long as they paid more. If the regular cover was $20, Smith said, door security would charge $30 for someone without an ID. Meanwhile, the club was often crowded, he said. Noting the legal occupancy for the establishment was 50, alcohol board chair Charles Burger asked whether the club was ever packed past capacity. “Sometimes, not all the time,” Smith replied. Was underage drinking frequent at the club? Burger asked. “I would say it was frequent,” Smith said.
And who was handing out drinks to minors? “Primarily, Mr. Smarta tended that bar,” Pendleton said. She said she complained to the club owner “all the time” about the degree of underage drinking taking place at the club, particularly as the club neared closing time. “I told Mr. Smarta, ‘Would you please stop selling these kids liquor after 2:30 a.m. so they have time to calm down?’…I didn’t want a bunch of drunk kids around.” But Aziken was unresponsive. “[He] would just brush me off,” she said.
The board recessed after four hours of testimony. It will reconvene to consider the case on May 22. At that point, Aziken’s lawyers will depose their witnesses, although they have not decided whether the owner himself will testify.
Lattimer says Aziken is not a “danger to [the] safety of the community.” Furthermore, he says, he and Williams will show that the club owner went to great lengths to “provide adequate security” at the club. Lattimer calls his client, a Nigerian immigrant, “an easy target” in a “spectacle.”
In fact, he faults two D.C. police officers hired to patrol the busy strip of 9th Street in front of the club for not being on the block the night Ford was killed. “Those police officers weren’t there even though these business owners had paid for the police officers to be there,” Lattimer has said. “If those police officers were where they were supposed to be, this would never have happened.” But Inspector Patrick Burke of MPD’s Third District testified last week that the two officers hired to patrol that stretch of 9th Street were processing an assault with intent to kill at headquarters when Ford was shot.
Alcohol board member Audrey Thompson asked Burke to locate Smarta/Broadway on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being worst in terms of club security; he called Smarta a 1.
“Why?” Thompson asked.
“Because a 17-year-old girl was killed inside,” he said.
Marvin, a new tavern tentatively planned to open at 2007 14th Street NW this summer, is a tribute to one D.C. musician from another. The restaurant and music venue is the most recent establishment to emerge from the booze-business partnership created by one-half of Thievery Corporation, Eric Hilton, along with Farid Ali, Amanollah Ayoubi, and Yama Jewayni. The team also co-owns 18th Street Lounge, Dragonfly, and Local 16, all in or around Dupont Circle. Marvin, which will sit at the site of an old Subway sandwich shop at 14th and U Streets, is an homage to Hilton’s hero Marvin Gaye.
According to Hilton, the partners share stewardship of their establishments, but one businessman typically takes the reigns for each. Hilton will head up Marvin, he says. He envisions a first-floor restaurant offering a mix of soul food and Belgian fare, with a “music-oriented” spot on the second floor. Hilton’s stepson, James Claudio, will cater the food, he says.
Hilton has long counted Gaye among his musical role models, calling What’s Going On his desert-island disc. “What’s Going On is the best record ever made,” he says. “That’s the record that does it for me.”
He got the idea for Marvin while chatting with a friend, he says. The friend, who lives in Belgium, was talking about Gaye’s time in Ostend, a Belgian fishing town where Gaye went to escape disputes with his record label and turbulence in his personal life. Traveling around to small European cities with Thievery Corporation, Hilton says, he could identify with Gaye’s desire to decompress in a peaceful European town. “What’s not to love?” he asks. He hopes to open Marvin in July, pending the approval of the tavern-license application.
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