Portland Officials Try to Place a 10pm Music Curfew on One of the City’s Last Jazz Clubs

Lawyers say city's actions against Solae's Lounge appear to fit pattern of racial bias against black-owned nightclubs.

(Henry Cromett)

City officials want to impose a 10 pm music curfew on one of Portland's few remaining jazz clubs, despite not citing the club for a single noise violation in the past year.

The owner of Northeast Alberta Street nightclub Solae's Lounge says the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement is unfairly targeting his club.

The claim by Solae's owner Yosief Embaye is the latest in a pattern of accusations that the city bureau overseeing nightclubs and noise complaints racially discriminates against black-owned clubs.

"I'm not going to call it racist," says Jo Ann Hardesty, president of the Portland branch of the NAACP, "but if it looks racist and acts racist, and the policy has supported racial outcomes, then I think it should be looked at very, very closely."

At a city hearing scheduled for Dec. 22, ONI will seek to impose a 10 pm curfew for Solae's live music. That's an unusual restriction: Fewer than 10 percent of 3,400 restaurants and bars with a liquor license operate with a city-imposed curfew on their music or hours, according to data provided by the agency. None of them is a music venue.

Related: With the impending closure of Jimmy Mak's, Portland jazz faces an uncertain future.

And Solae's, which opened less than two years ago, is the only bar this year that the city is bringing to an official administrative hearing as part of its effort to impose the curfew.

In fact, Solae's sits just two blocks from the white-owned Alberta Street punk bar the Know, which WW called the city's "premier bastion of noise." The Know operated for 11 years without a curfew or any other noise enforcement, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. (The Know closed in November after a rent increase. Its owner, Ryan Stowe, says the club voluntarily ended music at 11 pm for the past eight years.)

ONI officials say the city is taking the unusual step of forcing Solae's to stop playing music at 10 pm because the club's owner wouldn't amicably respond to the complaints of neighbors. City code prohibits making noises that disturb residential neighborhoods after 10 pm.

"Our office is usually able to problem solve nuisance activity at the [early] stage of enforcement," writes Theresa Marchetti, ONI's livability programs manager, in an email. She declined to comment on the specifics of the case because of pending litigation.

The attempt to enforce strict rules on Solae's is a notably aggressive move by a bureau already being criticized for how it treats the city's handful of black-owned clubs. It leaves ONI vulnerable to new allegations of racial bias, even as Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler must decide whether to leave the bureau under the leadership of City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. (The City Council doesn't directly vote on ONI curfews, and appeals are heard in Multnomah County Circuit Court.)

Fritz defends the bureau's record against charges of racial discrimination.

"It's an interesting question, given that the bureau has the only woman of color who's a director," says Fritz. She adds that the city also imposed multiple fines for noise against a previous bar in the same building, the Nest, whose owner was white. "Apparently, the building itself was just not capable of doing much structurally in the way of muffling noise."

Wheeler's spokesman, Michael Cox, says Wheeler is not ready to discuss bureau leadership.

Related: The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is nicknamed "Island of Misfit Toys" because it's so overwhelmed by unrelated tasks.

The city currently faces two federal civil rights lawsuits from former black-owned clubs that ONI and state officials took action against.

The Fontaine Bleau closed in 2013 after a shooting outside the Northeast Broadway club. Its owner, Rodney DeWalt, filed a $3 million lawsuit against the OLCC and the city of Portland, alleging "a campaign intended to thwart black-owned clubs or clubs that played hip-hop and catered to the black community."

The Exotica International Club for Men closed in 2015 after the city tried to restrict its hours of operation after a man denied entry into the club shot three people in the parking lot. Exotica's owner, Donna Thames, filed suit in U.S. District Court in August, alleging "unconscionable, illegal conduct creating insurmountable obstacles to success of black club owners catering to black people and clubs offering entertainment and playing music appealing to black people."

Both cases remain open in federal court. The attorney representing DeWalt and Thames in their lawsuits says the Solae's curfew fits a pattern.

"I understand that this is the only case the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is taking to a hearing all year—another black-owned club," says Tim Volpert. "It appears it's virtually the same pattern by [ONI]. We intend to prove in our case it's racially motivated."

Related: A $22 million federal lawsuit says Portland discriminated against a black nightclub owner.

Solae's Lounge, which opened in March 2015 on the northeast corner of Northeast 18th Avenue and Alberta Street, is one of very few jazz clubs still operating in Portland. The most iconic, Jimmy Mak's in the Pearl District, is hosting its final show Dec. 31.

Shortly after opening, Solae's was issued two noise fines by ONI, on June 30 and Nov. 23, 2015.

The two citations were among only 40 fines ONI imposed last year for noise-related offenses—a category that covers not just clubs but construction noise, Marchetti says.

Solae's was closed earlier this month because it failed to promptly pay a fine to the OLCC for last year's noise violations. It reopened Dec. 15. (The club has one other OLCC violation for failing to ensure a barkeep was properly licensed.)

Since last year, neighbors have continued to complain to ONI about Solae's music. The club sits at the edge of a residential block—as do most Alberta Street bars.

Neighbors of the club say, if anything, the city has moved too slowly to address their concerns. They say Solae's is unusually loud, and they associate the club with crime on their block.

"It's not a racial issue; it's a crime issue," says Iran Johnson, 48, who is black and lives in the house he grew up in, a block away from the bar. "I think if there were more bars that were black-owned, [the city] would feel more free to crack down on this one. This one is a token."

But the city found no new violations in 2016, and issued no fines.

Related: The tension between Portland hip-hop artists and police goes way back.

The case file for this week's hearing includes references to shootings in the Alberta neighborhood, including a December 2015 shooting of a man who was on his way to Solae's but never entered.

ONI officials declined to explain what relevance the shootings have to the music curfew they're seeking for the club.

Embaye, 46, is an Eritrean immigrant who moved to the Boise neighborhood at age 10. He says since the city issued fines, he brought in noise consultants and spent upward of $3,000 on soundproofing, including replacing the back door and covering a back window.

Embaye says the last year has been an education in the difference between how the city treats his bar and others.

"I feel like it is a little bit racial," he adds. "It seems like [the city] takes sides."

His attorney goes further.

"There's a pattern here," says lawyer Ashlee Albies, who is representing Solae's at the hearing. "It appears to me it's racially motivated, because they're targeting black-owned clubs. Why else are they doing this?"

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