On Dec. 22, 2008, Deputy City Attorney Jerry Threet sent a sternly worded letter to one of the owners of a strip club at 220 Jones Street in the Tenderloin. Operating under various names — first Club Vixen, then Pink Diamonds — the club had racked up a record of safety and permit violations over the past two years. It had done so in defiance of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, the seven-member board of political appointees tasked with regulating local nightclubs.
Overcrowding, fights, and gunplay had already led the city attorney's office to write no fewer than five letters to the same individual, warning that the club was endangering its neighbors and customers, and could soon be subject to a lawsuit and injunction governing its operations. Police had investigated at least four shootings linked to Pink Diamonds in 2007 and 2008, and had repeatedly asserted that it was operating illegally without required Entertainment Commission permits.
The recipient of these letters, oddly enough, was Entertainment Commissioner Terrance Alan.
The correspondence, provided by the city attorney's office in response to a public-records request from SF Weekly, reveals that Threet's patience with Alan at the end of last year was wearing thin. As owner of the property in which Pink Diamonds did business, Alan was ultimately responsible for his tenant's behavior. Yet Threet complained in a November 2008 e-mail to the entertainment commissioner that ongoing issues at the club "call into question whether the City can rely on your simple assurances in achieving code compliance."
The Dec. 22 letter marked a new stage in the Pink Diamonds controversy. Threet wrote that one of the strip club's other owners and its manager had recently informed him that Alan's ties to the venue were closer than the city attorney's office had believed. Pink Diamonds, it turned out, was not just paying rent to Alan for the use of his building. In addition to being the club's landlord, he was also its co-owner.
Threet requested that Alan immediately provide documents outlining the exact nature of his relationship with Pink Diamonds, threatening to seek such documents through litigation if he did not comply. Threet also voiced concern that the club, after voluntarily shutting its doors in November to address code violations and security problems, was preparing to reopen, setting the stage for yet more violence.
The club did reopen, and last January, the city attorney's office filed a lawsuit against Pink Diamonds for being a public nuisance. Alan, who had cooperated with Threet's request for lease and ownership records, was not named in the suit, although his co-owners were. That spared the commissioner no small degree of embarrassment, since the public agency he oversees was officially responsible for handling misbehaving nightclubs.
Where had the Entertainment Commission been? Despite all its problems, Pink Diamonds had never been called in for a disciplinary hearing. Bob Davis, the commission's executive director, says he had met with one of the club's operators (not Alan), but was powerless to do more than inform him of the rules. "We don't have any ability to do anything to them, because we can't issue a citation, and if they don't have a permit, we can't suspend it," Davis says.
It wasn't the first time that the Entertainment Commission had been ineffectual in taking on violent clubs on its own — or the first time the agency had found itself confronted by a potentially daunting conflict of interest.
The lax regulatory climate in which Pink Diamonds and other clubs have flouted the law is the subject of an increasing number of complaints from San Francisco's police officers, neighborhood activists, and politicians. More and more, these groups are laying the blame for an unchecked wave of club violence with the Entertainment Commission, which in the six years since it was established has never revoked a nightclub's operating permit, and has temporarily suspended permits just four times. (Davis says more than 400 venues hold either entertainment or late-night operation permits issued by the commission.)
Critics say the commission's mandate to crack down on misbehaving clubs is subverted by its other founding mission: promoting San Francisco's nightlife. And some question whether the commissioners are up to the task of regulation in the first place. The commission officially has two seats for nightlife industry representatives. In fact, five of the seven commissioners have direct financial ties to the entertainment industry. "It is an ethical minefield," says Jim Meko, one of two commissioners without such ties.
The L'Amour Night Club is marked by a yellow awning decorated with a martini glass at the corner of Jackson and Kearny streets, about a block from where Columbus Avenue climbs uphill from the Financial District toward North Beach. Squeezed between Thai and Chinese restaurants, L'Amour's unprepossessing entrance leads to a cavernous underground dancehall and karaoke bar dotted with large sofas. Last December, San Francisco police officers made a visit to the nightclub, which had begun hosting DJs who routinely drew hundreds of customers, leading to noise complaints.
According to police records, the inspection revealed an establishment operating at the edges of the law. The club's state permit to serve alcohol had expired nearly six months earlier. Those who identified themselves as promoters and security guards at the venue could not produce business cards or other credentials. A subsequent inspection in January revealed that the underground bar had no clearly marked emergency exits or sign stating its maximum occupancy.
These were not mere technicalities. The officers of the SFPD Central Station are well acquainted with how small mistakes — inadequate security, overcrowding, hiring the wrong promoter — can create big problems. North Beach is synonymous with this city's nightlife, and a number of its teeming nightclubs are now associated with violent crime.
Police records culled from July and August 2008 give the flavor of this neighborhood after hours. A young man was stabbed in the back while fighting outside Impala on Broadway; a club security guard was accused of assaulting a bystander with brass knuckles and pepper spray during a brawl linked to Suede, the Bay Street venue; and police reported hearing automatic-rifle fire during a gun battle on Francisco.