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Backstreet - No longer 24 hours


Backstreet - Atlanta

Backstreet - Atlanta

Backstreet Atlanta has been open as a 24-hour dance club since 1975, but that era ended on January 1st, 2004, when the city began enforcing an ordinance that severely restricted requirements for private club licenses. At 2:45 a.m. on New Years Eve, 2003, I let my last track end, and got on the mic telling the crowd that for the first time they would have to leave Backstreet before sunrise. The look of shock and disbelief was immediately apparent as the houselights came on. Once again I had to get on the mic and remind the confused, inebriated people that Backstreet was really closing.

Since that infamous evening Backstreet has cut half of its staff, including all of its floor crew, half the bartenders and all late night afterhours DJs. Club owners Henry Vara and Vicki Vara, siblings, removed all alcohol from the premises, and obtained a dancehall permit allowing the club to stay open until dawn, although not around the clock. The change in hours has also meant less hours for the remaining staff. The city council has obviously not taken into account the far-reaching effect that the early bar closings will have, both on the public and city economies.

There seems to be some confusion as to why Backstreet and the other 24-hour clubs in Atlanta have had to make these changes. It started in the winter of 2000 when the city council passed legislation requiring all private clubs selling alcohol to be non-profit. One exemption however, known as the “grandfather clause,” allowed all clubs in existence prior to the law to continue pouring. Then, in 2001, the city council withdrew the “grandfather clause," in effect outlawing private clubs. This decision was appealed by the clubs (Backstreet, The Riviera, and Club 112), which dragged out for nearly two years. The appeal was finally denied on November 26, 2003, by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This ruling was not enforced however, until New Years Eve 2003, the same day a separate ruling requiring all clubs in the city of Atlanta to close at 3am took effect.

The overwhelming cause for this apparent crackdown seems to be the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood over the past several years. According to Randal Lautzenheiser, chairman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit covering Riviera and Backstreet, “When those two clubs opened in the 70s, midtown was pretty blighted, but now they're a lot more residential. I’m not opposed to 24-hour clubs, but perhaps they should be in a warehouse district where they are not bothering people.” It is ironic that these clubs' very existence was a selling point in encouraging this rapid growth in midtown living, but to our surprise this growth is now being used against us to encourage, or rather force, our removal from this midtown setting.

I don’t think that what all of this could eventually mean has quite sunk in yet. I didn’t really start to get it until the following Saturday, when we had to close at 3 a.m. which is normally our peak time. It was completely disorienting to stand out in the desolate parking lot after we closed, watching the constant flow of cars and cabs, answering the same repeated question, “Are you really closed?” It seems the whole city is affected by the turn of events, with Backstreet being a prime topic of conversation.

The legality of all this hasn’t been ironed out yet, and the loss of tax revenue from this fallout has not yet been felt by the city. Hopefully in the future the City Council will weigh out the repercussions and ripple effect this will have on the Dance Scene, and the city itself. There does seem to be overwhelming support for us. Apparently Backstreet has meant a lot to many people. You can do your part by going by checking out the links on the rights and emailing your opinion to Atlanta City Council member.

Written with help from Michael Harrison with sources including Southern Voice, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta City Council website.

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