Sunday, April 01, 2001

Cleveland's Flats tries to alter unruly image

Drownings, crime served as wake-up call to city

By Thomas J. Sheeran
The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — Young people ran between stopped cars, broken glass littered the street, an ambulance headed off to the hospital and limousines unloaded more nightclub patrons.

        It was a raucous St. Patrick's Day in the Flats, but it could have been any busy weekend in the entertainment district, which is struggling to reverse an unruly image.

        “I've seen a lot of trouble. There were a couple of carjackings down there. There's fights all the time,” said Kevin Crown, 29, of Cleveland, who used to head to the Flats weekly, but now goes monthly at the most.

        “I've watched the police arrest people for disorderly conduct, a lot of underage drinking, too many young kids. It doesn't seem like they're enforcing those rules enough,” he said.

        College-age drinkers, twenty-something singles and families all can find a niche in the Flats, a winding, half-mile stretch of riverfront with bars and restaurants carved out of converted factories and warehouses. Flats backers say the area draws 7 million visitors each year and has helped the city's comeback from urban decline.

        The Cuyahoga River, heavily polluted by industrial dumping a few decades ago, is much cleaner and provides a scenic backdrop, but also a hazard to those partying along the docks.

        “The three drownings last year really served as a wake-up call to a lot of the owners in the Flats,” said Fred S. Szabo, assistant city safety director and head of a Flats safety task force.

        The task force created by Mayor Michael R. White brought together Flats owners, businesses and law enforcement agencies.

        Its key recommendations as the Flats prepares for its busy warm-weather season: better security inside and outside clubs, stricter enforcement of drinking laws and river safety improvements, including railings along waterfront patios and life rings for rescue attempts.

        The recommendations sent to a receptive city council have been accompanied by a series of off-season city inspections and police raids on rowdy clubs to crack down on underage drinking.

        “The city intends to continue its enforcement actions to protect the safety of all those who live in, work in, or visit the Flats,” Mr. White said after the city won a court fight to shut down one club.

        The crackdown may be working, according to Patricia Forcey, whose office as executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers overlooks the Flats district.

        A year ago the area was unsafe, according to Ms. Forcey. “Now, the city of Cleveland has finally enforced all the laws that they needed to a long time ago,” she said.

        By Ms. Forcey's count, 10 of the 30 Flats establishments with liquor licenses were breaking laws, such as serving underage drinkers or drunks last year.


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