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Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2001

Merchants seek to control crowded Westport streets

July 29, 2001

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— Business owners in the Westport entertainment district have asked the city to vacate its rights to two streets so that merchants can control who comes into the normally crowded area.

But some people fear the plan could ignite racial unrest. While merchants and bar patrons are predominantly white, most of the thousands of young adults who hang out in the streets on summer weekend nights are black.

The crowds, estimated as large as 4,000 people between midnight and 3 a.m. during the summer, are viewed as a public safety concern because of their numbers and the lines of traffic they create.

Under the Westport Merchants Assn.'s proposal, the city would vacate its rights to parts of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. The bars, clubs and restaurants would hire private security and off-duty police to control who is allowed into the area, checking identification and possibly charging an admission fee of $1 or $2, said Greg Lever, executive director of the Westport Merchants Assn.

In a letter opposing the plan, Kansas City Harmony, which runs diversity programs, said privatizing the streets "will significantly contribute to the racial polarizing of our city."

The Rev. Ralph Crabbe, president of the Concerned Clergy Coalition, worries the plan could upset the now peaceful crowds. He said the city is risking creating the perception that black people may be denied entry, while white people are being allowed.

"I am not calling people bigots," Crabbe said. "All I am saying is that race influences how you deal with things, and until you deal with that, we are not going to have any successful interventions."

On behalf of the merchants, Lever called the issue "a racist, unfounded attitude," but the reality is that many white patrons say they will not return to Westport because they do not want to pass through the black crowds.

Councilman Paul Danaher introduced the ordinance, which will be discussed at a planning and zoning committee meeting Aug. 15.

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