- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Some residents in D.C.'s Brookland neighborhood are challenging the liquor license renewal of Nate's Comfort Zone, saying the bar has turned their neighborhood into a "discomfort zone" where patrons fight, urinate, loiter, curse, park illegally and litter in yards and the street.
Bar supporters say Nate's is the victim of a gentrification campaign by white residents unhappy with the establishment's black clientele and black owner, Nathan Murray.
The neighborhood conflict will test the city's new liquor law, which took effect in March, and the law's impact on the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC), which for years has been seen as tilted in favor of business interests.
The seven-member Alchoholic Beverage Commission today at 1:30 p.m. will convene a hearing to sort out the matter. Board members are preparing for about two dozen witnesses, marathon testimony and "experts" on both sides of the debate.
Five years ago, Alexandria resident Mr. Murray bought and renamed Lefty's, a jazz and oldies bar catering to middle-class blacks and often hosting political parties. About a year ago, its Friday-night motif went hip-hop and featured rap music, bringing a younger and more boisterous crowd.
That's when the problems started.
Brookland resident Ed Gilbride says is awakened by the noise at Nate's and has a front-row seat to drunken bar fights, profanity and loitering bar patrons who urinate and discard their bottles in residents' yards.
"It's the visitation of the weekend nights by these people. It goes against the feel of our neighborhood," said Mr. Gilbride, who is white.
The rap music also draws younger crowds who some neighbors suspect are not 21.
So Mr. Gilbride and about a dozen other residents, including some blacks, are protesting the liquor license renewal.
Negotiations on a voluntary agreement between neighbors and the bar broke down, with each side blaming the other.
Mr. Murray's attorney, Michael S. Levy, said the complaints are "exaggerated, wrong or misplaced," adding that neighborhood problems didn't originate at the bar and that parking has been bad in the area for years.
Mr. Murray has ended hip-hop night, instituted a dress code, hired a security guard, makes hourly announcements to keep things orderly and has reduced the number of people allowed in the bar, Mr. Levy said.
But problems continue, and some neighbors have found narcotics paraphernalia near the bar and in their yards, said Darcy Flynn, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who will testify today against the license renewal.
Mr. Murray does not tolerate illegal drugs, said Mr. Levy, who is bringing an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration to testify that the bar is legitimate.
Mr. Levy said most opponents of the bar are white and just don't like too many blacks in their neighborhood.
"If there weren't black people there, this thing would have been settled and would be fine," he said.
"The concern that the neighbors have, and it's a diverse group, has absolutely nothing to do with the race of the owner or the patrons," Mr. Flynn said. "I haven't heard anybody say anything or suggest anything of a racial bias."
When the D.C. Council approved an overhaul of the city's liquor laws this year, legislators said it would level the playing field for community groups. Mayor Anthony A. Williams professed confidence that the ABC board is no longer beholden to business interests.
Mr. Flynn said there is some worry "the fix is in" for Nate's Comfort Zone, despite the confidence that opponents have in their case.
Mr. Levy, a former ABC member, told Mr. Flynn that at least three board members rarely vote against black-owned businesses.
Advisory neighborhood commissions, under the city's new liquor regulation law, are to be accorded "great weight" in hearings like today's, but the ABC board received the ANCs' letter too late.
Mr. Levy said an ABC investigator who frequents the bar will testify for Mr. Murray.
Gwynne Kostin has lived a few blocks from Nate's for 10 years. She said she has been awakened by fights, but knows that denying Mr. Murray a liquor license will force his business to close. "I'm not for anybody losing their business," she said. She said dislikes that Mr. Levy "has played the race card" but thinks residents should give Mr. Murray a chance to abide by an agreement.
"There's a lot of ways to resolve the problems short of, at this point, shutting [the bar] down. The polarization is unnecessary."
Miss Kostin, who seeks the middle ground, cannot testify today.
Robert Treadway contributed to this article.

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