Where the Cops Don't Say "TGIF" 

Oakland wanted a cabaret district. Oakland got a cabaret district. But not everyone is entirely happy about who is visiting it.

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Nowhere is this culture clash more evident than in front of TGI Friday's. Its casual dress code and admission of underage patrons have made the restaurant and its entrance an extremely popular teenage hangout. But it's also just a few yards from the tony Jack's Bistro and the Waterfront Plaza Hotel, where guests pay as much as $200 a night for a room. Managers of these and other businesses say their guests are intimidated by walking past a crowd of noisy, roughhousing young people. "It's a big problem," says bistro manager Scott Tenney, who works the weekend night shift. "There's been some times where individuals inside my establishment are afraid to go outside."

Although most managers concede that their customers are rarely harassed by the crowd, they still worry about the patrons they are losing. "On Friday night we tend to fall off, to be honest with you," says Scott Mandle, assistant manager at the Buttercup Kitchen, which is catercorner from On Broadway. "What I gather from a lot of our regular customers is that they don't choose to come down to the square on those nights." Managers also complain about loiterers trashing their parking lots and restrooms, and overbearing young men harassing female customers as they head for the parking lot. "If I was a woman, I think I'd only need that to happen once, and I'm never coming back here," says Marshall Lamm, the publicist for Yoshi's jazz club. "I'd think, 'I just dropped $150 at Jack's or Yoshi's -- I don't need this. Why not sit at home and watch Joe Millionaire?'"

Potential customers don't even have to make it to the square to be put off by the crowd or the official reaction to it. "Any little thing they see, lights, or sirens, or a crowd of people, they'll say 'Hey!' and make a U-turn and get back on the freeway and go home," says Henry Royal, general manager of Kimball's Carnival, a dance club with a thirtysomething clientele. Most of these managers worry that Oakland's tough reputation means that their businesses don't get many second chances.

Johnny, a 25-year-old Oakland resident who declined to give his last name, watched the cops swoop in on those brawling young men, and then nailed the problem on the head: There's nothing else for young people to do on Friday nights. "There's no clubs for teenagers or people who like to wear tennis shoes and jeans," he says. Johnny has been coming down to the square every other weekend since he was in high school, and he always begins his night with a stop at TGI Friday's in order to scope out the scene, preferably on the cheap. "It's just a place to be," he says. "You can sit at the table and order your food, but some people who go in there don't order nothing but a soda."

Area business managers are quick to agree that the city needs more all-ages venues that cater to teenage tastes. "This market needs to be entertained," says Tenney of Jack's Bistro. "And their dollar's just as green as anybody else's." But some of them worry that the more extreme problems caused by the crowd are not only scaring off the upscale clubgoers, but hurting the city's ability to attract new businesses to the area. "Some of those people throw stuff, they turn donuts in the middle of the streets, there's loud music," Lamm says. "It's hard to get momentum here in the square -- like more businesses opening -- when you have that stuff."

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Poulson argues that the solution is more -- not fewer -- entertainment venues. "If you look at other major cities like San Francisco, they have a very successful cabaret district without much violence, and I think it's because it's such a large district," the lieutenant says. "We need more business, not less." A larger district would be spread out over a large enough space that the teens and the thirtysomethings wouldn't have to constantly be tripping over one another.

But for now, things may get worse before they get better. Although TGI Friday's employs three private guards inside the restaurant, it recently canceled a contract under which police stationed two officers outside its building. Oakland police do not know if the contract will be reinstated, or if Friday's plans to hire additional private security. Company public relations officials did not return calls for this story.

There also are now fewer officers in the square. "We've cut way back because of the budget crunch," Lewis says. "We used to be able to man, like, a good fifteen folks out here and make sure every corner's clear, but we can't do that now." Instead, the typical weekend complement of officers now hovers between ten and as few as four. Since Friday's axed its extra police detail, Lewis says he's noticed a few more flare-ups around closing time. "I've got the whole square to worry about," he says. "So if I'm stuck there, I can't do what I'm supposed to be doing."

Police say the best thing they can do is to stay highly visible and in motion, letting kids be kids but also heading off problems before they start. "It isn't necessarily how many officers you put out there -- it's the officers you put out there and what they do, their tactics," Poulson cautions. "You have a fine balance when you have a business district, because you don't want it to look like a war zone."

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