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Denied: Evril Clayton, owner of Clayton’s Caribbean and Spanish Cuisine.

photo:Alicia Solsman

Hold the Spice

Denial of zoning variance keeps Clayton’s quiet and its critics happy, but supporters say Albany should let the music play

At 11 PM on a Saturday night there’s a lot to hear on Spring Street. From the west, the chorus from Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” grows louder and then plateaus as a row of cars waits for the stoplight on Henry Johnson Avenue to change. The song, along with the 2Pac ditty that follows in its wake, fades into the distance as the vehicles enter Washington Park. A sign hung above the entrance to a nearby parking lot creaks back and forth in the wind, and a pair of dull, thumping rhythms compete for attention a city block north of here in the Washington Avenue traffic. A block to the east, a pair of Lark street restaurant employees kick a cardboard box back and forth on the sidewalk during their cigarette break.

There is something to hear in nearly every direction on this street that’s bordered on three sides by some of downtown Albany’s busiest travel routes. But there is no sound at all from Clayton’s Caribbean and Spanish Cuisine, a restaurant with its back to the street here and its entrance on Washington Avenue. Yes, tonight Clayton’s is quiet—no booming bass or reggae rhythms can be heard—and some local residents believe they’ve played a role in keeping it that way.

What’s become the subject of heated debate, however, is whether it’s the noise or the restaurant itself that Spring Street residents have set their sights set upon.

“To me, Albany is like a big pot of gumbo,” laughed one of the many speakers that showed up at last week’s Albany Common Council meeting to voice their support for Clayton’s. “Clayton’s is like the pepper—the spicy seasoning—in that gumbo. We need that spice to keep things from getting a bit bland around here.”

The speakers, a multicultural assembly of light and dark skin, college students and aged intellectuals, were there to protest the November 2004 ruling by the city’s zoning board to deny Clayton’s owner Evril Clayton a zoning variance that would allow him to have a DJ or karaoke-type entertainment after 11 PM. Current zoning regulations prevent him from doing so—a fact that, according to Clayton, has placed the future of his restaurant in jeopardy.

Since buying the restaurant in 1995, Clayton said, he often hosted reggae or techno music in the attached banquet hall without realizing that a variance was necessary. When police began showing up at his business several years ago in response to noise complaints (many of which, contended Clayton, were actually generated by cars on neighboring streets) and friends in the local neighborhood association informed him that his restaurant had become a frequent talking point at meetings, Clayton said he called an end to the events and began the process of making everything legal. It never occurred to him at that point that the shows would come to a permanent end, he said. Spinning an occasional reggae record on the weekends for his crowd of regulars and providing an alternative to the hiphop clubs around the region was important to both his restaurant’s cultural contributions and financial future, explained Clayton.

Some local residents, however, argued that Clayton’s contributions fall more along the lines of noise pollution and quality-of-life reduction. In their denial of the variance application, the city zoning board cited “a history of police calls for the premise,” with two neighbors testifying that they had “heard loud music in the night” originating from the area around the restaurant.

“We don’t have a problem with the people there,” said Bill Pettit, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, one of the most vocal opponents to Clayton’s variance application. “We have a problem with music coming out of the building at 4 AM.”

Opinions differed among local Common Council members, though, as Councilman Glen Casey (Ward 11), whose ward encompasses much of the Washington Park neighborhood, sided with his neighborhood association, but Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2) said she “can’t believe that all of the noise being complained about comes only from Clayton’s.”

And McLaughlin may have a point, as stories abound among Clayton’s regulars of police calls to the restaurant for noise complaints on nights when mic-less poetry provided the only sound in the building. While the findings of the zoning board make frequent mention of calls regarding noise complaints (nine calls total in 2004), assaults and “group/person annoying,” there is no mention of how many calls turned out to be either false alarms or not connected to the restaurant. This, along with the board’s dismissal of Clayton’s proposal to install whatever sound-proofing was necessary for the banquet hall—which already has the restaurant’s kitchen, a parking lot, a large garage, a six-foot attic space and the rest of the restaurant itself between it and the surrounding neighborhood—has caused Clayton to doubt that his proposal ever really had a chance.

Clayton’s experience certainly isn’t unique. Other local businesses that have attempted to establish themselves as music venues have met with similar quick resistance from the local neighborhood associations. A recent attempt by Bombers Burrito Bar to feature acoustic music on Sunday nights was squelched, and several other bars and restaurants around the Washington Park and Center Square neighborhoods have encountered such opposition in front of the zoning board.

“The pole was already greased before I gave them my application,” said Clayton. “I wanted to work with the neighborhood—because I know that if you’re in your home and you can hear noise from my business, that’s a problem for the whole community here.”

While Clayton insisted that he doesn’t view the restaurant’s problems as purely a race issue (and the local neighborhood association agrees), he believes that his business has become the focus of some unfair connections to negative events occurring around his lower Central Avenue neighborhood. There was even one resident who said to the board that she fears for her safety in the areas where Clayton’s customers travel on their way to the restaurant. Spring Street has its share of potential audio annoyances without his restaurant, said Clayton, from passing car radios that rival the Pepsi Arena’s sound system to drunken brawlers on their way home from Lark Street or Central Avenue bars.

For now, the small restaurant’s future remains uncertain. Clayton pushed his baseball cap back on his head and leaned an elbow on the bar when asked to predict how long his business will be able to stay afloat. He’s still trying to decide what his next step, if any, might be.

“I really don’t know, because it should have never gone this far,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead under the hopeful gaze of a painting of Nelson Mandela with raised fist. “This has been everything to me here, and I wish they’d have just given me a chance to work with them.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


What a Week

Homeland Security Over Home Rule?

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer recently called for some of the state’s 1,500 National Guard troops currently in Iraq to come home, as experts are predicting a massive number of wildfires for the drought-ravaged region. Nearly all of Montana’s helicopters used to carry firemen and water are also overseas. In 2000, wildfires burned nearly 950,000 acres, and a seven-year drought has made such blazes more frequent—and destructive—each year. Montana Republicans seem to have put aside the party line regarding states’ rights, however, saying Schweitzer’s request is political, and arguing that the war in Iraq trumps state necessity.

Hunting for Dummies

The Humane Society of the United States called for a ban on “Internet hunting” last week, after a Web site allowing users to kill penned animals using a remote-controlled rifle reported its first customer, a San Antonio man who shot a wild boar from his home computer. New York Assembly Bill A5213, which would make the operation or use of such Web sites illegal, has yet to be passed and has no counterpart in the state Senate.

Two Can Play the Faith Game

Several House Democrats recently reclaimed the Bushism “faith-based initiative” in service of trying to repeal a provision of the Higher Education Act that prevents people with drug convictions from receiving financial aid for college. In introducing the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education Act, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) stressed that forgiveness is a major tenet of many faiths and that the likelihood of relapse drops significantly for individuals engaged in post-high-school education. Preach it, brother.

We Were Looking for Something More Vague

Ashley Smith—the woman held hostage by rape suspect Brian Nichols after he stole a deputy’s gun and shot four people in an Atlanta courthouse—kept her cool, gained his trust, talked him into allowing her to leave to visit her daughter and then called 911. Nichols was recaptured. Nonetheless, the FBI, U.S. Marhsals, and Georgia Sheriff’s Association aren’t sure she deserves the rewards they offered for information leading to his capture. At least the state of Georgia is making good.



Mired in the Machines

New York may lose millions of federal dollars because it can’t agree on voting standards

 

Two hundred and fifty million dollars may be a lot of money. Ensuring that every citizen’s vote is counted may be a central principal of democracy. But New York state lawmakers don’t appear willing to let either fact get in the way of their party lines.

“That sounds like a nightmare,” laughed state Sen. John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) last week during the year’s first meeting of state legislators charged with bringing New York into compliance with the Help America Vote Act. Flanagan was responding to a proposal by Assembly Democrats regarding access to the statewide voter-registration system. Lawmakers need only reach an agreement on statewide voting standards in order to free up more than $250 million in federal funding; New York is the last state that has not yet reached an agreement, and is in danger of losing the money altogether.

After Flanagan’s co-chair, Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-New York City), pointed out that the proposal mocked by his Republican counterpart was worded in nearly the exact same way in the Senate’s legislation, Flanagan called for a quick huddle with fellow senators and aides, acknowledging a few minutes later that “we may be able to make some progress towards agreement there.”

And so, much like last year’s incarnation of the same joint conference committee on HAVA, partisanship once again became the stalling point. After meeting only three times in the two weeks allotted for the committee, co-chairs Flanagan and Wright called for an extension of the committee’s deadline yesterday (March 16), just days after Republican members claimed that great progress had been made and Democrats stated that the committee deserved the criticism heaped upon it by the media.

“The criticism we’re receiving here—it’s absolutely correct,” said Wright during a Monday meeting that had been rescheduled from the previous Wednesday. The committee’s members began arriving nearly 20 minutes after the scheduled starting time, only to mill around the room chatting for the next half-hour. One spectator compared the preconference socializing to that in a high-school cafeteria.

While committee members took every possible opportunity to trumpet the few agreements they had achieved—including a compromise on the voter complaint process, which had actually been fairly similar in each house’s initial legislation—negotiation remained divided along party lines regarding the issues that would have the greatest effect on New York’s voters.

Among these sticking points was the type of machine, if any, that would be put into statewide use. Democrats want to designate one type of machine to be used across the entire state, to ensure equal voting experiences, while Republicans want each local board of elections to choose a state-certified machine. Republicans argued that a statewide mandate for one type of machine would reduce competition for state contracts, despite the party’s own reluctance to mention any alternatives to Direct Recording Electronic machines (whose manufacturers have showered lawmakers with lobbying money). Most of the region’s voters’ rights groups said they’d prefer the more cost-efficient and reliable optical-scanning machines (which tally paper ballots electronically).

The committee was also unable to make headway on many of the same disagreements that stumped last year’s committee, including standards for voter identification, vote verification and polling-place accessibility. Committee Republicans indicated that they’re satisfied with the temporary standards put in place for last November’s election, which allowed the first $50 million of HAVA funding to be set aside for the state to use after achieving a final agreement.

“I’m just looking to comply with HAVA here,” said Flanagan when Assembly members attempted to outline reasons why a statewide standard involving optical-scanning machines would not narrow the competition, but instead increase competition among manufacturers of a less expensive and more secure product. “If we add anything on after that, we could do it later.”

Shaking his head, Wright expressed doubt that the Legislature would be able to find agreement in the future on something that was the subject of bitter disagreement now, even with millions of dollars as motivation. Changing the state’s standards later on isn’t likely, he remarked, “because you know how slow we can act.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Overheard

overheard:“Oh my God, look! We have these at home!”

—a woman responding to a Community Underground Arts installation involving several dozen models of dead babies.



Loose Ends

A San Francisco County Superior Court judge has fired an unambiguous opening salvo in what is sure to be a long series of appeals over the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriage in California [“First Comes Love, Then Comes . . .” April 8, 2004]. Judge Richard Kramer said the ban served no rational state purpose, and that separate but equal arrangements had long been rejected by the courts. . . . Facing unexpected opposition to an Albany County proposal to add active-duty military personnel, domestic violence victims and transgender people to the county human-rights ordinance [“Who Gets Rights?” Newsfront, Nov. 18, 2004], the bill’s supporters have regrouped, creating a Local Law B Coalition, which kicked off with a Town Hall Meeting at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany on March 10. People from all three groups covered by the bill spoke, encouraging those present to contact their legislators in support of the bill. . . . David Baker, whose wife died in December 2003 in Tory’s Samaritan Hospital after her blood sugar level dropped almost to zero, is suing the hospital, Northeast Health Inc., two doctors, and an unidentified member of the nursing staff [“Two Little Words,” Newsfront, Dec. 9, 2004]. Baker, who has accused the hospital of refusing to talk with him about what happened and the Times Union of not covering any complaints or lawsuits against Northeast Health, an advertiser, is seeking unspecified damages. . . . The Underground Railroad History Project received a $75,000 grant from the state on March 10 to help restore the Stephen and Harriet Myers residence on Livingston Avenue in Albany [“On Beyond Tubman,” June 3, 2004]. Project leaders hope to raise $15,000 in individual contributions by the end of the year, which help them qualify for matching grants on their way to a total of $354,000. . . . Although the Common Council has yet to approve the urban renewal plan for Albany’s Park South neighborhood, and residents are still raising concerns [“What Would You Do?” Newsfront, May 27, 2004], the Albany Local Development Corporation is taking proposals for developers, so they’ll be ready if the Common Council gives them the go-ahead. Apparently there has been a lot of interest, but planning commissioner Lori Harris said nothing is moving too fast. Once a developer has made a specific proposal that they’re ready to follow through on, she said, is when the real substance of public input is most crucial.



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