Sweet Jimmie's sits on San Pablo Avenue at the fulcrum of a 45-degree swath of downtown commerce that starts next door with a bullet-shaped glass-and-steel Jetsons building containing a beauty parlor, and ends at the ice rink across the street. Other than that, the club is surrounded by a whole lotta nothing -- the same whole lotta nothing that has been in this part of downtown Oakland for years.
But Jimmie's is a destination for hundreds of folks, who show up nightly dressed to the nines in furs, hats, and sequins. It's an upscale nightspot for a largely older, black crowd -- a place some people would undoubtedly recognize from its Saturday-night lip-synching contests simulcast on Soul Beat. Lawyers, doctors, politicians, and longshoremen congregate inside the classy two-level nightclub along with local celebs and players from the Raiders, the Warriors, and the Athletics. Pictures of Jerry Brown hugging Jimmie flank the entryway. Everyone is welcome. Well, everyone but thugs. As of a few weeks ago, Jimmie's posted the following message on its door:
Due to a recent disturbance and pressure from the city of Oakland, we are forced to change our music format to Ole School & Up To Date R&B.
-- No baggy jeans
-- No tennis shoes
-- No tank tops
The sign is a bit misleading; the city itself hasn't told Jimmie's that it has to impose these rules, but the club is doing everything in its power to offset recent problems with the police. Besides, Jimmie's is frequented largely by middle-aged adults, not young people. The sign just underlines that fact.
"We wanted to nip in the bud the problems with police," says Howard Holland, the club's attorney, who spoke on behalf of its owner, Jimmie Ward. "Kids have rights, but Oakland gives them nowhere to go. That's why the sideshows developed, and that's why there have been problems outside of clubs. ... When you put a light out in the darkness, the kids will gravitate to the light. They have nothing to do."
Over the last year there have been four incidents outside Jimmie's -- the most recent was a broken window during the post-Super Bowl riots -- all of which the club's managers claim were due to nonpatrons. But police, they say, are trying to pin the neighborhoods problems on Sweet Jimmie's; as soon as you have black folks congregating, you have cops.
This is particularly a slap in the face to Ward, who has hobnobbed with police chiefs and mayors and celebrities throughout his forty years in the bar business. He prides himself in working with the city, not against it. When the police called for a hearing to review the club's cabaret license -- the document that allows music and dancing -- he was very offended.
Sweet Jimmie is, you guessed it, sweet. Imposing, but sweet. Walking into the club and asking for him is like requesting a meeting with Don Corleone. One person leads you to someone else, who then carefully takes you through the club, past the patrons sipping cognac in their Sunday best. On this night the crowd parted to reveal an immense but well-proportioned man sitting in the very center of the bar, dressed in well-tailored dark clothes and a ship captain's hat. Shaking his hand is like shaking a catcher's mitt, offered with the muted, confident smile of a powerful businessman.
When it comes to interviews with the press, though, Holland does the talking. "What it comes down to," he says, adjusting his tie and taking a sip of his drink, "is that we have been targeted because we are successful. Jimmie owns this building. There is no white club as big as this club." He's right. Besides Yoshi's, Jimmie's is the biggest live-music club in Oakland. "Because you have lots of black people leaving here at one o'clock at night, there's a problem."
The lawyer isn't the first to raise the issue of black bars being harassed by the cops. Quite a few have shut down -- Bluesville, the Oak Tree, and the Bird Kage, which, contrary to rumor, wasn't shut down by the city. Still, you gotta wonder, why isn't the Hotsy Totsy being targeted when someone there drinks a little too much Bud Lite and runs screaming down the street?
If it's true that cops target groups of black people, then the recent ordinance banning "loitering" will only make things more complicated. "What is loitering?" asks Holland. "When I was younger, we hung out outside. It was too small inside. We weren't getting in trouble, we just spent time together out front."
An activity common to urban black culture can now be tagged "loitering" by any police officer who deems it so. Not to mention the "loitering" by groups of people who stand around outside a bar in order to comply with another law -- the one banning smoking indoors. Despite introduction of the law by a black city councilman, the whole thing smacks of racism. In some vain attempt to quell drugs and crime in Oakland, the police have succeeded in further driving a wedge between themselves and the citizens. "Jimmie doesn't know how much more of this he can stand," says the lawyer with an earnest sadness. "He's thinking of selling the club ... the fact that he would be accused of being a bad club operator ... that offends him."
Neither Holland nor Ward would give a definitive answer regarding sale of the club, except to say that they were in negotiations. If it's true, than Oakland is in danger of losing one of its best and biggest clubs, and yet another venue for black entertainment.
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