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Footloose in Westwood 

Doyennes diss dancing

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
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Westwood still can’t dance — not legally anyhow. And prospects for ending the dancing ban dimmed last week when Councilman Mike Feuer came out against an application by Duet Nightclub and Restaurant for the neighborhood’s first dance permit in years.

For longtime residents Duet’s nightclub operation evoked fears that the village could slip back to what it had been 10 years ago — a magnet for nighttime revelers from across the Southland, a beacon for the "wrong element."

Feuer tacitly endorsed those fears in his testimony at a zoning-board hearing last week on Duet’s application. Given Westwood’s "exceptional history," Feuer said, the village was still "too fragile" to withstand the "volatile combination of crowds, alcohol and dancing."

To the nightclub’s supporters, who packed the hearing at the West L.A. municipal building last week, these were so many code words to mask the racial fears of longtime residents who see their village on the brink of a long-sought revitalization. While the zoning administrator won’t issue a final ruling on Duet’s application until early May, Feuer’s opposition, Duet’s supporters conceded, will be hard to overcome.

The political spin on Feuer’s decision is that he used the nightclub issue as a bone to throw Westwood homeowner groups, led by Sandy Brown of the Holmby-Westwood Homeowners Association, who were outraged by the councilman’s support of a large mixed-use mall that developer Ira Smedra has proposed for the village. "The thought has crossed our mind," acknowledged one Feuer aide. "That is something we think about and talk about when we make these decisions." But, the aide insisted, it "wasn’t the decisive factor."

Duet’s owners — Chris Mallick and actor Larry Manetti — had taken care of that for Feuer themselves. Only two weeks before the hearing, the nightclub racked up its fourth citation in as many months for operating a dancehall without a permit — an apparently willful violation that also cost Duet the support of the area Vice Sergeant Abney. That was all the cover Feuer needed to oppose the application — notwithstanding the fact that Feuer recently voted in support of a dance permit for the Hollywood nightspot Moguls, which has 120-odd citations for violations of various sorts, including dancing without a permit.

But Westwood is different — "exceptional," as Feuer put it. And that is in large part due to the efforts of Sandy Brown. In the 1980s, Brown was at the forefront of a five-year battle to develop the Westwood Specific Plan, a model for community involvement in land-use decisions. While that plan calls for a "balanced mix" of development, and identifies three core constituencies of the village — local residents, office workers and UCLA students — Brown and her supporters made it clear that they are still first among equals.

As Terry Tippit, a member of the Westwood Village Design Review Board, told the hearing, "We had a vision . . . of what we wanted for Westwood." A nightclub, she said, "is not something we see as our vision — not what we perceived as members of the community entrusted with this vision."

What Tippit and her coterie really want is a return to the "carriage trade" Westwood sported some 30 years ago — a Larchmont Village or Beverly Hills, with boutique shopping and upscale eateries such as EuroChow, Michael Chow’s new Asian fusion showcase, set to open across the street from Duet later this summer. And if that vision doesn’t include Duet’s clientele — well, as Brown herself told one woman at the hearing, "These people aren’t from Westwood."

Caught in the middle of all this are the vice cops who enforce the dancing ban in Westwood. After the hearing, three vice detectives — all in their 30s, two white, one black — talk about the controversy.

They are split on the question of whether Duet should get the permit. One agrees with Vice Sergeant Abney that the club’s repeated violations showed a basic contempt for the law, grounds enough to oppose. On the other hand, if Duet were granted the permit, another detective observes, the problem of violations would go away.

But they still aren’t sure why the whole ruckus got started in the first place. "Hey, we get a call, there’s illegal dancing at such-and-such, we check it out. That’s our job," says one. "But . . . dancing?"

Another cop jumps in. "I remember as a kid driving up here on the weekends with friends to hang out," he says, his colleagues nodding along. "You should have seen it. The streets were just packed." Today he sees empty streets and dark storefronts. "Right," says the first cop. "Why would anyone want to come to Westwood now? Westwood is dead." Which is why they are having a hard time understanding why residents are so bent on closing down an apparently thriving business that attracts a very upscale clientele — Tyra Banks and Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, are two celebrities who make the scene at Duet. "I mean, what kind of businesses do they want here?" asks one.

What the local homeowner groups don’t want is the Westwood of the vice cops’ youths — the weekend and nighttime mecca, drawing crowds of young people from all over the city. Like a mantra, residents recite the litany of violent incidents that hit the village between 1987 and 1991: the Karen Toshima murder, the New Jack City and Mo’ Better Blues riots, the Mardi Gras riots. To this line of thinking, it was the movies, the crowds, the teenagers, and, yes, though it is rarely spoken out loud in the polite company Sandy Brown keeps, the blacks, that killed Westwood in the first place.

Which puts the cops in a funny spot. By doing their job — responding to the complaints, writing the citations — they are, in effect, enforcing a "vision" of Westwood that implicitly excludes themselves — or at least the teenage revelers they once were. What Westwood doesn’t want, in a sense, is them.

This seems to dawn on one of the cops as he stands squinting in the sunlight. For a long minute he is quiet, chewing on his lip. Then he turns away, muttering under his breath. "Fuck Westwood," he says.

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