During the 35 years that he owned the place, Lawrence Pierre didn't have to study the graffiti on nearby buildings to know that the surrounding area was a hotbed of gang and criminal activity. But he wanted to serve legislators and community leaders, not hoods and crooks, so he labored to keep trouble out and customers in.
"Pierre worked really, really hard at having a really clean operation," says Jim Wiseman, who's lived up the street for 25 years. "He maintained dress codes, and if there were problems, people were out the door. That was it."
But early last year, John Lewis bought the club from Pierre -- who, at 77, had tired of running it and wanted to concentrate on his hot-sauce business. Lewis promised to keep Pierre's much as it had been for generations: Catfish and collard greens would still fill out the menu at lunch; men and women in suits would still broker deals during happy hour.
"The only reason I bought it is because it's an establishment that's been around for years and years," says Lewis, a former car dealer. "I'd been going there for about 25 years. And I wanted to keep it exactly as it was. I knew I couldn't fill Pierre's shoes. I just wanted to do the best I could do, every day."
His best hasn't been good enough for some neighbors, though. Their complaints started soon after then-mayor Wellington Webb, a Pierre's regular, snipped the ribbon at the club's reopening ceremony last April. During the first ten months of Lewis's ownership, police investigated seven incidents at the club, many of them believed to be gang-related: fights, possession of deadly weapons, assault and drug possession. That was double the rate the place had averaged under Pierre. In the neighborhood surrounding the bar, calls to police are up, and residents link those to the club, too.
Pierre's had its problems before, including weapons-possession charges and a very high-profile brawl that involved one of Webb's bodyguards ("Sliced and Dicey," April 17, 1997). Still, neighbors generally regarded the club as more of an asset than a threat. "Things had been just fine up until the new ownership," says Frederic Lahey, who's lived nearby for a decade. "But since they took over, there's been a whole series of incidents: fights starting in the parking lot, shootings extending down the block. My daughter has gotten used to picking up shells in front of our house. You could call that a coincidence, I suppose, but that's not what I'd call it."
Last August, the family woke at 2 a.m. to the sound of gunfire. "It felt like Baghdad," Lahey says. "This was automatic gunfire; I've never heard automatic gunfire here before. We must have heard 25 shots. There was a guy who was exchanging shots with another group, running down street after them -- there was crossfire. It was pretty outrageous."
Although the San Rafael neighborhood that includes Pierre's is rapidly gentrifying, there are changes inside the club, too. Contemporary jazz and adult-contemporary R&B used to dominate the sound system; now popular DJ Al "Your Pal" Taylor spins Top 40 and R&B hits on Friday nights, oldies and soul on weekends. Some nights, the club packs in between 300 and 400 people, ranging from club-hoppers to young black professionals who've been coming to the place since they ate Sunday brunch there with their parents.
"I think the neighbors who are complaining are just getting things confused with what's really happening in the neighborhood," says Taylor. "They're smack in the middle of the 'hood, with people who have been there all their lives. What they're seeing now, it may be new to them, but I'm sure it's happened before.
"They wanted to fill the place up, and I've done that," the DJ adds. "It's sort of like you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. Because now the place is so hot, you also attract the undesirables."
Many club-goers hang out in the parking lot after Pierre's closes -- sometimes to drink and party, sometimes to do worse. "When we first moved here, it was more that you'd have drunks in the alley, guys getting high and saying, 'I'm going to stab your dog,'" Lahey says. "The activity now just dwarfs all that. I've never been scared of situations or neighborhoods or anything like that. My attitude has always been Œlive and let live.' But you get involved when things get bad, and they've gotten bad."
Things got bad for Jennifer Carter last June. A man fleeing a gunfight smashed into her boyfriend's car parked on Ogden Street, totaling it. "There were people yelling and screaming, running down the street," says Carter. "They were shooting at each other right in front of my house. It was 2:30 in the morning. Pierre's has just let out. There's nothing else going on in the neighborhood. You can't tell me that didn't have something to do with Pierre's."
As president of the San Rafael Neighborhood Association, Carter encourages residents to call the cops and keep a record of everything they see going down in and around Pierre's. "I know it's a landmark, but my feeling is that a lot of the people in the neighborhood think it would be better if it were gone," she says.
Two months ago, Carter shared her group's concerns with Denver City Council president Elbra Wedgeworth and police commander Deborah Dillie, who supervises the area around Pierre's. "I'm sure to the citizens who live there, it's very intense. It's very personal to them, because they're living it," Dillie says. "They'll say, 'I live four blocks away. There's trash being thrown on my lawn. I know it's coming from Pierre's.' But we don't know that. If someone was drinking earlier at Pierre's, let's say, and an hour later they go and stab someone, it's hard to say definitely it was someone from Pierre's."
After setting up a meeting between the group and Pierre's new owner, Dillie worked with Lewis on a safety strategy for the club. There'd be no colors, no athletic wear, no weapons. There'd be more security, with off-duty cops at the entrance to wand down the women and pat down the men. Lewis now employs three off-duty cops and five security guards on busy nights, and Dillie tries to post an officer by the parking lot at closing time.
"He shares the concerns and wants the neighbors to have a good quality, also," Dillie says of Lewis. "But he's also trying to do business. There has to be a balance between doing business and having a good neighborhood."
So while Dillie recommended limiting admission to those thirty and up, Lewis has kept the doors open to anyone 21 and over, as long as they're well-dressed and well-behaved. And when Dillie proposed a $10 cover on Friday nights, he set it at $5. But Lewis took another step on his own, meeting with a former gang leader. "I told him, 'Listen, I am tired of all the crap you guys are doing, and if you keep it up, you will never, ever be allowed in my establishment.' He listened to me, and I believe he'll now go spread the word. That's his job, to defuse what's going on," Lewis says.
"I can't be responsible for what happens six or seven blocks away," he adds. "But we've been patrolling, and we've been keeping things down. Before, there were a lot of fights. Now there aren't as many."
Keeping track of his clientele isn't Lewis's only problem. According to Darrell Nulan, Lawrence Pierre's attorney and stepson, Lewis is in default on a promissory note for more than $200,000. The lawyer says that he and Pierre are "exploring their options," which could include reclaiming the property and the liquor license that goes with it.
It's unlikely that Pierre will step back behind the bar, though. "He's 78," Nulan points out. "He's had enough."
Taylor says Lewis is just trying to keep Pierre's alive. "It's a landmark," he says. "It's been there sixty years. But now it's more of a club, and all clubs have their problems, whether it's fighting or whatever. They try to do a good job.
"John Lewis is a good-hearted guy, a community leader who goes to church every Sunday," he adds. "But you can't control what can't be controlled."