Last Black Owned Bar in Boise Neighborhood Closes
The closing of LV’s Twelve-22 has rekindled tensions over gentrification
By Bruce Poinsette Of The Skanner News
November 09, 2012Farewell Party
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays in the background as the crowd at LV’s Twelve-22 continues to fill in. Before breaking into the song, Norman Sylvester gives the crowd a quick history lesson.
“How many people remember Jones Tasty Donuts?” he asks. “Mr. Jones would have big old vat of grease. He’d drop them donuts in while we’d watch. Glazed donuts. We’d buy about a dozen. Before we’d walked the block, half a dozen was gone. All of us had to walk back and get more.”
Sylvester goes on to ask the crowd about The Cotton Club, Wonder Bread Bakery and Scotty’s Barbecue, eliciting more cheers. Not long before this performance, it was still uncertain whether LV’s, the last Black-owned bar in the Boise neighborhood, would become part of this lore.
Norman Sylvester (left) and his band play a farewell show for LV's Twelve-22
The bar was facing the prospect of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) not renewing its liquor license in response to a series of complaints. After deciding he no longer had the money to fight the OLCC, LV’s owner La Von Van chose to close the bar.
The closing of LV’s has rekindled tensions over gentrification. Despite efforts to clean up its image after drug and gang issues, some believe the bar was never given a fair chance to run as a successful business. Others say it’s a matter of Van not being a responsible business person and being proactive.
LV’s last day was Halloween. Formerly known as The Royal Esquire, and before that The Texan, the bar has been a Black gathering spot for half a century.
“My great grandmother used to come here,” says Van. “My grandma use to come here. I used to see this club as a kid.”
Everyone acknowledges that the neighborhood has a history of drug issues. As it has gotten whiter over the years, these problems have remained but new businesses have been able to set up shop and attain liquor licenses relatively easily.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of this transformation is the New Seasons being built across the street from LV’s. Sylvester points out that the vacant lot is where Wonder Bread Bakery used to stand. Looking at the bigger picture, he says the phasing out of Black businesses hurts unity in the Black community.
“Back in the day I would know everyone on the block,” says Sylvester. “That’s what’s missing with the gentrification of our community. It takes away the cohesiveness of the African American community. You see everybody at church on Sunday but as far as having relatives come in from, say Louisiana, what African American business would you take them to that’s big enough and thriving enough?”
Van finds it curious that another bar, Maui’s, moved in across the street from him around the same time the OLCC started placing restrictions on LV’s in 2009.
According to the OLCC, these restrictions were:
1. Licensee shall prohibit the sale, service, or consumption of alcoholic beverages between 1:30am and 2:30am.
2. Licensee shall limit each patron to possessing no more than one container of alcohol at a time.
3. Licensee shall limit the amount of alcohol in a container to no more than 16 ounces of malt beverage, 6 ounces of wine, or 2 ounces of distilled spirits.
4. Licensee shall have at least two DPSST-certified security staff on duty on the premises between 8 p.m. and closing on Friday and Saturday nights to monitor patrons inside the premises and in the immediate vicinity adjacent to the premises.
Before walking into LV’s customers are wanded and patted down (This reporter was asked to empty his pockets as well). Security cameras abound and there are rules in place that say patrons can’t wear gang colors or leave three times and be allowed back in.
Van says that these restrictions, specifically the early last call for drinks, didn’t just hurt his business, but gave Maui’s a clear advantage.
“My clientele here wants to party until 2:30 in the morning like everybody else,” he says. “If you make me stop selling liquor at 1:30 that means I have to stop serving at 1:10 so all the drinks will be up. All my clientele left.”
“From my heart I really did feel that when they moved Maui’s over there they were anticipating getting the Black crowd. How are they going to get me when my same clientele goes over to Maui’s?”
A History of Neighborhood Problems
Kay Newell has been a member of the Boise Neighborhood Association for 20 years and has been on the board for 18. Although she isn’t a fan of bars, she supports LV’s and thinks its closing will hurt the community and its sense of inclusiveness. Newell remembers when LV’s was The Texan and attests that the drug problems have been there long before Van took over.
She says that the location and the lack of other businesses being open at the same hours also contributed to the amount of attention the bar received from police.
“It’s really hard to run a business in isolation,” says Newell. “They (drug dealers stopped by the police) aren’t going to say, ‘I’m going to make a drug deal.’ They’re going to say, ‘I’m going to LVs.’”
“Unfortunately, LV is taking the brunt of it but the problems are still going to be in our community. We’re still going to have the same negative activities going on that have been happening forever.”
The OLCC refutes any claims that LV’s was unfairly targeted.
According to an email statement from public affairs specialist Christie Scott, “While it may be true that there are historical problems with drugs in the Boise neighborhood, the charges in this case stem from the activity occurring at the licensed premises. The neighborhood is changing, and that creates tensions. Nevertheless, neither the neighborhood history nor the neighborhood tensions were the basis for these charges.”
The most recent charges were compiled from a period between March and September where undercover police officers were observing the bar. Charges revolved around drug activity on the premise, including people smoking marijuana in the smoking area and an employee selling crack (For a copy of the OLCC’s charges, go here).
Van says he was already on probation in January and getting ready to fight those charges. At that time, he had gotten a letter from the OLCC, listing four charges, three of which he was at the bar for.
In one particular incident, he says he called the police about women doing drugs on the premise but they didn’t respond in a timely manner. He had one of the women kicked out but when the police came around later, they found the ladies behind the building and he was cited for it.
LV's is surrounded by vacant lots
In the case of the men smoking marijuana in the smoking area, he says he kicked them out as soon as he was alerted to it.
“How are you going to charge me for when someone does something and I kick them out?” Van asks.
He says that incidents of people buying drugs from the bar were actually cases where undercover officers went to people playing video poker and those people took them to areas away from the bar to buy drugs.
Van takes issue with the use of undercover police because he says there was no communication with him, even while he was making efforts to curb the bar’s problems.
“Why did you let a case build up secretly when I was trying to clean things up?” he asks. “Rather than take time to support me they wanted to see it shut down.”
He says that he was supposed to have a hearing in October about the charges from January but it turned into battle over his liquor license after the latest incidents. Van didn’t find it economically feasible to fight, considering he’d already lost 65 percent of his business and there was no sign of the OLCC easing restrictions.
Before the OLCC sent him a new letter in September, he thought things were looking up for the bar. He and his wife had gone around the neighborhood, introducing themselves to people and trying to show that LV’s could be a part of the new look Boise neighborhood. Their efforts were picked up in an article for The Oregonian.
“The whole community sees that it’s cleaned up,” says Van. “Would the Oregonian do an article like that if it weren’t? It felt like I was going to go to that hearing and win.”
Too Little, Too Late?
One local civil rights activist says this all could’ve been avoided six years ago.
A.L. “Skipper” Osborne of Truth and Justice for All, was part of a coalition that included two OLCC officials, Margaret Carter and The Skanner News publisher Bernie Foster that approached Van in 2006 about being proactive to avoid any troubles with the changing neighborhood.
“They were getting ready to build condos right there,” he says. “The price range would be around $260,000. Probably no Black folks will be going in there. The first thing they’re going to complain about is the noise. They’re going to complain about the music. That, in itself, will get a lot of police reports to shut them down. So we decided let’s be proactive.”
Osborne has been a part of other battles between clubs and the City, including advocating on behalf of the Greek Cusina and the Interstate Bar and Grill. He says he didn’t know Van but went to bat for him on the strength of knowing Foster and the fact that there weren’t that many Black clubs left in the neighborhood.
While acknowledging that there are outside problems in the neighborhood, Osborne says that’s not an excuse.
“I’ve been involved with clubs enough to know the culture of them,” he says. “Especially owners of color, you have to do your due diligence more so.
“We, as a race of people, can’t always keep blaming everything on the outside people. He knows what type of establishment he was running. He knew his clientele.
“A lot of times you don’t want to call the police. Call the police. Don’t wait until after something happens.”
Van says he did try to reach out to police initially but they weren’t taking his calls seriously.
A host of recently opened food carts sit across the
Osborne goes back to the timing and unwillingness to work with the coalition. He points to a meeting he was supposed to have with Van in July of 2006.
Osborne says Van had cancelled previous meetings and was a no-show, making Osborne wait for an hour and 20 minutes.
“I felt arrogance on his part for having me wait and not calling me back,” he says. “That shows disrespect. To this date I’ve never heard from him.”
Van admits that he probably made some mistakes as a young business person going into a new field. However, he questions Osborne’s motives in reaching out to him.
“A lot of people came at me from different angles and maybe I didn’t act on what he said or what somebody said but I was dealing with trying to decipher who was really trying to help me and who was just blowing out air,” he says.
Osborne doesn’t sympathize. He believes Van made a choice.
“I’m very disappointed in, I forgot his name, that he chose not to be proactive and that he’s coming along talking about he doesn’t have the money to fight,” he says. “But you had the money to do a little bit and you didn’t.
“I would like for the African American community to know that we need to be more proactive period. We cannot wait until the situation is so in the opposite corner that we’re TKO (technically knocked out) before we even come out for the first round.”
Now that LV’s has closed, Van plans to focus his energies on his foster care business. He’s been in the industry for 17 years and has been doing adult foster care for 12.
His company, Darzell Adult Care, serves clients with developmental disabilities with community challenging issues. Van also coaches 7th grade basketball and volunteers at Roosevelt High School.
Despite being a businessman, he talks extensively about spirituality and the importance of retaining history, especially in the Black community.
In many ways, Van sees the closing of the bar as a relief. Not just will his legal battles come to a close, but he won’t have to witness some of the more unpleasant sights of the bar business that often are at odds with his spirituality.
“This was nothing but a hobby to me,” says Van. “This was something that I got a chance to do. I let my career take a backseat so I could do this for the last 9 years.”
In addition to focusing on foster care, Van is also looking into the promotion business on the side. He says people should stay tuned as he and his partners hope to bring in entertainment acts such as Katt Williams and Tyrese for upcoming shows in Portland.
Although he says he’s closing this chapter in his life, Van thanks God that he got the opportunity to be a part of one of the last Black businesses standing in the area.
He says he had customers coming in up until the last day trying to fight to keep the bar open.
At this point, Sylvester says the fight is to preserve the history in people’s minds. He says people need to embrace the history of the area so they have a point of reference when making decisions about its future.
“If you remember the history of that area, share that history with your family and friends, anybody, so that history is saved in the minds of the community at large,” he says. “That history should be shared because it’s valuable.”