Meet Downtown Oakland 

For years the city wanted downtown housing and downtown entertainment. Now it has both, but what if they aren't compatible?

It's 5:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in May, and a small crowd has gathered inside Oakland City Hall's Hearing Room 2. The attendees have already formed two balkanized territories. The first and second rows are half-filled with middle-aged people — journalists, city officials, a couple of cops, and residents of the live-work lofts that neighbor Mingles Martini & Champagne Lounge, a family-owned bar at the corner of 2nd Street and the Embarcadero. A smattering of Mingles regulars sits in the back two rows: twentysomethings with "Bay Life" slogans printed on their T-shirts; women with bejeweled sunglasses and stiletto heels; older drifters from the neighborhood. Two lawyers are conferring with Oakland Hearing Commission Officer Barbara Killey. She's fidgety, and she has reason to be: The neighbors will later kvetch about this turning into an "us-them thing" and a "black-white thing."

Three men in svelte designer suits — Italian shoes, wrinkle-free slacks, and pinstripe blazers — file into the second row, toting Mingles-issued business cards. These guys are the son and nephews of John Ivey, the Oakland nightclub mogul who opened Mingles in 2000, supposedly the last chapter in his long, scattered history. He and his brothers, Fred and Jay, are largely responsible for the used-to-be-really-happening nightlife in Jack London Square. The brothers launched their first club — a bang-up jazz joint called Ivey's Ribs and Spirits — three decades ago in what is now Rolanda's restaurant, right next door to Mingles. Since then, Ivey has run a series of profitable and not-so-profitable venues in the area, and has helped carve out a vibrant live music and dance club scene in the blocks between Old Oakland and the Embarcadero.

Now the neighborhood is putting him on trial.

The first person to get up and testify against Ivey at the hearing is Kathy Lemmon, who lives in the Portico Lofts on 4th and Harrison streets — "which leaves me about a block as the bullet or the bird flies from Mingles' back door," she says. Lemmon opens a garbage bag and pulls out Saturday night's debris from an impromptu party on 3rd Street, which flanks her parking lot: a Seagram's Gin bottle, a Hennessy bottle, a Snapple bottle, a few bottles with indistinguishable labels, and glass from a busted car window that was parked alongside what used to be a produce market. "I've seen my loft development peed on," she says. "I've been assaulted in my driveway. I've had menacing gestures made to me. I have a dog; I can't take my dog out because I can't walk there at night. I have to be in my car if I go out at all; I'm stuck inside my own place."

The city of Oakland called this hearing to assess these arguments against Mingles, and to consider revoking the club's cabaret license — which could put an end to the Ivey dynasty in Jack London Square. And that's no small thing. After all, Ivey is providing downtown Oakland with something it's wanted for a long time: a slammin' downtown entertainment district. But Ivey's neighbors represent the other element that downtown Oakland has struggled to attract: a trendy residential neighborhood to generate a solid taxpayer base for the city, and a reason for retail stores to move in.

Indeed, Ivey's detractors were lured into buying property in Jack London Square by developers who marketed the area as a baby SOMA district. Now they're paying $6,000 in annual property taxes to live cheek-by-jowl with the unsavory elements you wouldn't expect to find outside a half-million-dollar home: automobiles cruising around the block over and over, after-party detritus, and, occasionally, violent crime. Can Mingles coexist with the trendy residential lofts that have sprung up around it? Only, it seems, if Ivey and his neighbors agree on the right marketing message.

At first, Ivey's vision for Jack London Square — "like being in Harlem in its heyday," says Ralph Scott, a former Ivey's regular — largely coincided with the city's vision. Before the brothers signed their lease for Ivey's Ribs and Spirits in 1976, the place had been Chucks of Hawaii Steakhouse, so its interior looked like a lodge in the Gold Country — all inlaid redwood and varnished furniture. They turned it into a class act. Ivey's started out as a jazz club, featuring performers like Ricardo Scales and Eric Swinderman, and later on, such top kahunas as Stan Getz, Tito Puente, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Smith, Con Funk Shun, and Tony Toni Tone. (The most famous bit of Ivey lore is that Philippe Wynne of the Spinners died of a heart attack onstage.) The brothers served a midnight breakfast of chicken, waffles, grits, and snapper — an idea John Ivey brought over from New York (he'd spent a lot of time hanging out there while studying English literature at Rutgers). Pretty soon, as a result of a disco dance party called "Freaky Mondays," Ivey's had lines going around the block every week — which was phenomenal, given that Monday is traditionally a slow night in the club world. Jack London Square would never be the same.


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