Another victory in the war on youth: The Speakeasy has been murdered.
The news this month that Belltown's Speakeasy Cafe soon would be closing its doors was about more than just another young business in the city failing to make it. In its almost four years of operation, the Speakeasy had become something of an institution, the closest thing that the rapidly gentrifying Belltown area had to a community center. And the reasons for the demise of a financially viable small business go to the heart of our local and state government's war on public space and youth.
The Speakeasy is particularly being mourned by Seattle's alternative arts community because of its adventurous booking policy. The cafe started out as one of the nation's first cybercafes, where people could come in, log on, and sip coffee while they checked e-mail or surfed the Web. But it rapidly became more: an avenue for poetry readings, video and film series, all-ages music shows, experimental opera, a gallery for progressive local artists, and generously donated space for events by local nonprofits. The Speakeasy hosted the sort of open, experimental, quality work that rapidly creates a valued institution.
The separation of the all-ages events from the Speakeasy's bar is what led to the trouble. Last summer, the club was banned from allowing minors to be present when music was played and alcohol available, even though the club was strict about not allowing the alcohol to be sold to minors. After that, business fell off by about 50 percent. The Speakeasy's owners also cited other reasons as contributing to their decision to close— particularly lease issues involving noise seeping upstairs to a pool hall— but the intolerable financial losses, incurred as a specific consequence of state intrusion, have to be considered key.
The net effect is that yet another attempt to create a semipublic space where people of all ages can mix, sponsor music and arts events, and, well, be, has been shot down by our vigilant enforcers of the war on youth. In Seattle, young folks wanting to attend all ages shows go to Redmond or Federal Way. Due to our archaic and we're-terrified-of-teenagers Teen Dance Ordinance (anyone remember Flashdance?), all-ages shows are virtually impossible to promote inside city limits. Meanwhile, Mark Sidran's relentless war on hip-hop clubs has had the effect of primarily targeting audiences that are both young and of color. Rhetoric about teen crime and teen curfews is accompanied by an intentional policy that both segregates youth from each other and from the adult population; teens become de facto criminals, because they have very few legal places to go. (People over 21 commit crimes, too, but we don't punish them as a class quite as readily. They vote.)
The politics of fear of youth intersect with the Speakeasy through the state's Liquor Control Board. To call the Liquor Board's policies arbitrary is too kind. Virtually without public scrutiny, the Liquor Board bureaucracy controls which venues serve alcohol, and what types of alcohol, to which clientele in what neighborhoods. That effectively controls the locations and operating parameters not just of bars and taverns but restaurants and clubs that make their profit margins through alcohol sales.
Those decisions are fraught with political and social baggage. The Liquor Board is one of the major reasons there are dozens of restaurants per square block in downtown Kirkland, but not very many in the Rainier Valley—and why the Rainier Valley outlets are more likely to sell 40-ouncers while Kirkland peddles wine and mixed drinks. The implication is that certain (read: non-white) neighborhoods are simply not to be trusted with too much alcohol. It's hard to tell which is worse: the racism, the social engineering, or that it's coming from a Wizard of Ozlike bureaucracy with great power and little visibility or accountability.
This brings us back to the Speakeasy, a cafe whose very name means illegal liquor sales (and conjures images of Prohibition and pointless alcohol enforcement efforts). Is it good or bad public policy to allow teens a place to play music, patronize the arts, and hang out in a safe Belltown space? I'd argue that it's good, but the point is that the decisions are being made without public argument or appeal. The Liquor Board is charged with enforcing the laws—but when the laws are open to interpretation, the power rests with the bureaucracy.
Word is that investors may try to preserve the Speakeasy space; the young entrepreneurs who started it plan to continue with the Internet portion of the business, which has blossomed on its own. But whether it's at the Speakeasy's space on Second Avenue or some other location, anyone wanting to tackle its all-too-unique blend of arts, music, and common space will have to face a nasty combination: the leftovers of this state's archaic blue laws, plus our all-too-modern fear and hatred of our youth.