Mean Streets?

Back when I taught high school, passing period was the most volatile time--the time when girls who seemed perfectly lovely in my English class ended up on the ground with their fists in someone's hair, screaming about who poked whom with a loose-leaf binder. This actually happened once. It's so tense because there's no other time when kids are thrust together (even in the lunchroom, they self-segregate), all colors and brand names forced to compete for space. If I'd actually attended the high school where I taught, I would have been one of those scared white girls, clutching my books like a teddy bear, taking long, alternate routes to avoid any trouble. Every high school has trouble. And everyone knows where it lies.

That's what brought me to Nairobi Grill on Friday night. A restaurant and dance club catering to a black clientele, Nairobi has gained a reputation for trouble along the passing period that is the Main Street corridor, which timid kids all over town avoid these days as Deep Ellum's reputation for violence grows. Last week, some guy pulled out a gun in front of the club, and police swarmed the area. I wanted to know just how tough this place was and what stirred so much trouble inside. Drug deals? Gangs? Underage kids?

But when I arrived at 11:30 p.m., the club was all but empty. Maybe 30 people, six of whom were security. I struck up a conversation with a nice couple at the bar, who suggested I return at 1 a.m. when the place cooked up. They also offered to start a fight if it would improve the story.

I asked a security guard about the club's negative image. "Everything happens outside the club, so we get a bad rep," he said.

"Why outside this club?" I asked, but he didn't know. He thinks maybe it's the central location on Main Street, maybe the drunken foot traffic from some other venue. So I investigated the area. On one side, the plush Velvet Hookah. On the other, a tattoo parlor. Neither of those seemed plausible culprits, so I wandered farther down the block to find Club Hush. Now here we had a suspect: a dance club with a line outside and a name suggesting both scandal and cover-up. Except Club Hush was tame, too. In fact, it looked like a nice place, a mostly Latino club with a rooftop deck, an outdoor patio and some of the most palatial bathrooms in Deep Ellum. The owner, named Panama (and from Panama), repeatedly stressed his club's efforts to combat the area's reputation, pointing to security patting down people as they entered.

Panama thinks the real problem with Main Street is the blockades--which actually confine the trouble rather than curbing it, making people feel trapped, shoving them against one another on the streets. The blockades have been controversial since they were introduced to curb cruising, but a police officer I spoke with said the blockades had to be there for emergency purposes, too. After all, Main Street is Deep Ellum's central artery, and if someone needs an ambulance or if cops must be mobilized, getting through bumper-to-bumper traffic is something like shoving a bowling ball through your nose. So what's the solution? It's simple, really: good security inside, cops on the outside. Just like high school, where teachers must be responsible for their classroom and vice principals patrol the common hallways with a scowl and a stack of referrals. When that breaks down, trouble arises. Last Friday happened to be slow (owing to the Labor Day holiday), but cops were in abundance on Main Street--a cluster of them hovered outside Nairobi around midnight.

"So why are you in this spot exactly? Is it because of Nairobi?" I asked one cop.

"No," he politely told me (after a fellow officer walked away when I told him my Dallas Observer affiliation). "We're here because it's a central location. We can be dispatched anywhere from here."

"So you don't think Nairobi is a tough place?"

They looked at me like I'd just asked if the tooth fairy was real.

Of course, I had to see for myself. By 1:30 a.m., the Nairobi dance floor was full of bodies close and grinding. I heard Usher's "Yeah!" for approximately the 5,000th time that night, but otherwise, it was all good times. Nothing less, nothing more. That doesn't mean everything in Deep Ellum is great. Unsafe things happen in Deep Ellum every night, and that electricity has always been a part of its appeal; it shouldn't be a reason for its downfall. What we do need, however, is police to patrol the area when things on the street get out of hand. Friday night, they were there; I hope the next time you go to Deep Ellum, you can say the same.


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