There was a time when there were several nightclubs that served a predominantly Black sexual and gender minority (SGM) clientele in Baltimore. In fact, at one point there were a total of three such clubs on the block of Lexington St. where Club Bunns is, after thirty years, still located today.
Things on that block look very different today. Bunns, is all lit up in neon, making the block feel safer to walk down, while every other building on the block is boarded up, dilapidated and dark. “It’s been that way for at least five years or so,” said AD Walker, bartender at the nightclub. “We are the last Baltimore nightclub that serves a predominantly Black clientele, and we are the last remaining holdout business on this block, that hasn’t yet been bought out by the University of Maryland. They own all the rest of properties on the block.”
Numerous people Baltimore OUTloud spoke to, when made aware of the hearing, immediately asked, “Is it the University of Maryland?” The University’s stance toward the club is apparently common knowledge in the community. According to staff and others familiar with the history of Club Bunns, the university has been trying to purchase the property and made offers to do so numerous times in the past. “The University of Maryland is tired of waiting to get the property,” said Vernon Boone, club patron and event promoter.
While they deny that the current full court press they are leading to stop the renewal of Club Bunns liquor license has anything to do with real estate, the University of Maryland system is pulling out all the stops to try to force the clubs demise, framing the initiative as based around safety issues.
“People have been shot, stabbed, and otherwise assaulted,” said Alex Likowski, Director of Media Relations, Communications, and Public Affairs, for the University of Maryland. “They’ve been victims of robbery,” he continued. “Vandalism and public drunkenness are extremely common.” “Property vandalism, public inebriation, and unruly behavior outside and around the club have also been continuing issues.”
Likowski claims that they have “great concerns about the numerous violent crimes involving club patrons.”“If those things were happening around your neighbor’s house, you’d want it to stop. The university has a responsibility to its students and employees to try to make it stop and to make the neighborhood as safe as we can. Any suggestion that these concerns are generated by an interest in real estate is absurd.”
When questioned further by Baltimore OUTloud however, and asked if they could “categorically deny that they university has repeatedly attempted to purchase the property in the past,”Likowski sidestepped the question with the response that, “I’m saying our complaints are motivated by concerns over safety.” No response was received to further attempts to receive a direct response to the question.
The university includes an entire litany of highly generalized claims against Club Bunns as their basis for a petition to protest the renewal of the liquor license held by Mombee TLC doing business as Club Bunns. On such claim states that “patrons have been known to engage in violent altercations inside the establishment that spill out into the surrounding neighborhood,” citing “eight reported violent incidents in the last year including a double homicide April 2017.”
“Where are the police reports for all these incidents,” questioned AD Walker? “Where is the evidence of 911 calls?” “The only way they could prove connection to some alleged fight in the bar spilling into the street is for there to have been a police report.” AD Walker, another bartender, and several patrons denied awareness of fights taking place in the bar. “As for the murder, that had nothing to do with us. That happened next to a University of Maryland building, hours past the bars closing time. You don’t see me blaming it on patients from the University of Maryland hospital, simply because it happened near their building.”
“The university wants to blame everything that happens in this area on Club Bunns and its patrons, to make their case, so they can finally get the property,” said Boone. “Lexington Market is only a block or so away, and we all know what kind of trouble they have had. But somehow all the problems must be caused by us.”
In addition to all the safety issues in the petition, the University of Maryland also alleges that Club Bunns has had multiple violations of city zoning ordinances to include operating after hours lounge with no license; violations of Baltimore City Building, Fire, and Related Codes and Baltimore Housing Code; and serving alcohol after permitted hours of the Liquor License.
“At bar closing time,” explained AD Walker, “there are always police outside including University of Maryland police. There’s no way we could stay open or serve liquor after house as they would be right her to shut us down.”
The petition against Club Bunns, is signed almost entirely by entities of the University of Maryland systems, including the university president, Jay A. Perman, MD, and businesses and organizations who are heavily influenced by the university. Lexington Place Apartments, while not owned by the university, has changed their name to University Place Apartments, and promotes themselves as an apartment complex on the downtown campus of the University of Baltimore. Three members of the Board of the Market Center Merchants Association, another signatory, are university system staff members. Some signatories attempted to sign on behalf of large groups of other people, which anyone familiar with petitions of any kind knows is unacceptable. It’s apparent that little effort was made to include entities outside of the universities direct control or orbit.
“This is the latest chapter in the University of Maryland’s war against the last Black Gay owned nightclub in the entire city,” said Mark McLaurin, club patron and Political Director of SEIU 500. “The signatures on the petition of both the President of the University of Maryland and the Senior Vice President for External Affairs of the University of Maryland Medical System speaks volumes about the firepower being brought to bear!”
Patrons and community partners however, have a drastically different view of the role of Club Bunns in the community. “Club Bunns has had partnerships with organizations across the city to ensure that the Black SGL / LGBTQ communities needs are met,” said Lonnie Walker, club patron and Founder / CEO of Joy Baltimore. “They have worked with organizations including such as Johns Hopkins; AIDS Action Baltimore; Joy Baltimore; the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB); the Center for Black Equity – Baltimore; the Baltimore City Health Department; the Baltimore International Black Film Festival; and the Black Men’s Xchange.”
One community partner praised the role that the club has in the Black SGM community in partnering to help stop the spread of HIV. “Club Bunns has been an amazing supporter of AIDS Action Baltimore for the past year,” said Ali Moody, Peer Coordinator with AIDS Action Baltimore’s New Horizons program. “In the past two years Bunns has opened their doors for many organizations to do HIV prevention outreach.”
Another community member touted the long and important role the club and its owner played in the Black Same Gender Loving (SGL) Community. “Club Bunn has been a nostalgic place for many years to the SGL community,” said Carlton R. Smith, Co-Founder of Baltimore Black Pride Inc. “Dana Owens, one of my fellow co-founders of Baltimore Black Pride Inc., served as the proprietor alongside his business partner Jeff, and gave Club Bunn the atmosphere of that of Good Times, where people who didn’t have family, now were considered family. In fact, Club Bunns is the birthplace of Baltimore Black Gay Pride, where community embraces its “Blackness.“ This affirmation give SGL people an epic reason to celebrate who they are throughout the year. I appreciate Dana’s kindness and generosity as a leader within the Black SGL Community.”
“To some, Club Bunns is just an entertainment venue,” said L. Walker. “However to most, it’s home, and a safe space where Black SGL / LGBTQ people can go and be themselves. For the senior Black SGL / LGBTQ folks, it is a place to go like on Cheers, where everybody knows your name. For our homeless Black SGL / LGBTQ people, it’s a place to go when they need a meal. Many in the community have even considered owner Dana Owens their father. Club Bunns has worked with several families in the community to ensure that their loved ones were not only put away nice when they moved on, and even helped community members with no family, helping to pick up the expense when no one else could. Where in the city of Baltimore has any venue done so much community work, without bragging or talking about it?”
The Liquor License Renewal Hearing is scheduled for Apr. 19, 2018, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Baltimore City Hall, 100 Holliday St. in Baltimore, Room 215, and is open to the public. A valid government issued identification is required to enter City Hall.