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Club Blu's Blues

Is closing a violence-prone hip-hop joint going to solve downtown's problems?

By Adam Bulger

July 10, 2008

OParty people in Hartford looking for patriotic hip-hop-inflected good times over the July 4 weekend must have been disappointed when they learned they had one less option. Shortly before the weekend began, the city's health department sent a certified letter to Club Blu, ordering the Ann Street night club closed until it dealt with a violation.

That violation? Failing to have a concrete slab underneath its dumpster—a problem Blu owner Jerry Fornarelli said is commonplace in downtown clubs and restaurants.

"I'm clearly not the only violator, but I'm the only violator closed down for the weekend because of it," Fornarelli said.

A city spokesperson confirmed the health department sent out the order, but declined to release more information without a formal Freedom of Information request (the results of which would not be available by press time).

Fornarelli suspects Club Blu is being singled out by the city, but believes the club has a bright future in Hartford.

"Maybe they're trying to put Blu out of business, and I can't afford to play games with them," Fornarelli said.

If Fornarelli is right and the city is trying to shut down the club, the reasons are pretty obvious. Since 2003, a year after it opened, the Ann Street night club and the surrounding area have been the site of an alarming number of stabbings, shootings and other troubling incidents.

The most recent episode was the June shooting death of 20-year-old Hartford resident Joel Hightower. He was gunned down in a parking lot outside of Blu, some say following an argument in the club. Fornarelli argued there is no convincing proof Hightower was at Blu prior to the incident. But city leaders have clearly taken notice of the club's troubles.

"The mayor and city government officials are concerned about certain activities and incidents that appear connected with Club Blu," mayoral spokesperson Sarah Barr told the Advocate in an e-mail. "However, we are aggressively working citywide to make sure that the public's safety is of the highest priority at all establishments."

A variety of security measures were in place at Blu before the health department order. The club has what Fornarelli said is the city's only nightclub-based walkthrough metal detector, plus an extensive alarm system.

"It's like airport security here. To be honest with you, I own a couple of other places in town, and this is probably the safest place to walk into in the city," Fornarelli said. "I can guarantee there isn't any one inside with a gun or a knife."

In response to the violence, Hartford invoked city ordinance 29-17 in late June. Under the terms of the ordinance, the police chief can require a venue to hire a designated number of off-duty uniformed police officers as security at the venue's expense. Blu was the only business in the city singled out by the ordinance at that time, police officials said.

Even before the chief's application of the ordinance, Blu had regularly paid for off-duty cops; Fornarelli said there were two lieutenants on duty the night of the Hightower homicide. Under the terms of the 29-17 ordinance, the city requires Blu to have five officers on duty in addition to the club's other security.

"For each cop, it costs me $368," Fornarelli said. "Right now, they've made me put five cops on a night to be open, and I can't afford to be open on Thursdays and Sundays just because it's $2,100 in cops."

Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts emphasized the city was reacting to violence in downtown in general, and had no desire to single out Blu.

"Let me be clear. We don't want to run any businesses out of the city," Roberts told the Advocate. "We want businesses to come to the city; we want them to succeed."

Fornarelli, who also owns Up or On the Rocks and The Tavern in downtown Hartford, said he wanted to change the format of the multi-story Ann Street club, which is currently a dance club geared toward hip-hop, reggaeton and dance music.

The club owner said he was looking forward to rehabilitating the club's reputation, but said the changes he wanted to implement would take time and money.

"I want to bring back the Russian Lady," Fornarelli said, referring to the club that once occupied Blu's space. The bar, capped by an enormous bronze plated statue of a woman on a throne, was a beloved nightlife spot until it closed in the late '90s.

On Tuesday, July 1, representatives from about 25 different downtown businesses met with Hartford Police and city officials to discuss public safety and other issues in downtown. The closed-door meeting, organized by the Hartford Business Improvement District at the request of the mayor's office, was held in the back room of popular downtown bar and restaurant Agave.

"The specific purpose was to discuss the recent spike in violence, including two recent shootings that have taken place, to give the bar owners and managers a chance to share their opinions with Chief Roberts and his command staff," said Michael Zaleski, executive director of the Business Improvement District.

Michael O'Connell, an attorney with a downtown practice and a commissioner for Hartford's Business Improvement District, attended the meeting. He commended the dialogue fostered by the meeting, and emphasized that downtown is safe.

"The irony is that there is the reality and the perception," O'Connell said. "While I wouldn't diminish the importance of a couple of recent serious crimes, the fact is that Hartford—compared to many other urban centers—is a comparatively safe place. But we have to deal with the perception."

O'Connell and others praised the police department's work keeping downtown safe. The force has worked hard behind the scenes to make downtown safer and more enjoyable in ways that are easy to miss.

"Because it is done out of the public or media view, people don't realize how assertive city hall and the police have been," O'Connell said.

The meeting was sparked by the Blu incidents, but it quickly became a larger discussion about violence in downtown, and the perception of the city.

"The reality is that, yeah, Club Blu has had some serious issues over the years," Zaleski said. "It's been the site of stabbings and shootings. A lot of violence has been traced back to the club. But closing one club isn't going to necessarily solve all of downtown's issues. What we want to do at the meeting is get everything on the table and deal with it."

The downtown business owners reportedly agreed that shutting down Blu isn't the answer to downtown's problems. Unless the root causes are resolved, the violence and problems at Blu could simply migrate to other locations.

"All you're going to do is displace it. We don't want to displace it," said Roberts. "We want to eradicate the problem so people can come in to the city's entertainment district and feel safe." ¦

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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