Culture clash: Nightclub owner needs a spot for his Joint
If Trey Brady is seething with bitterness inside-and it would be hard to blame him if he is-he's doing a fine job of hiding it. He's looking for glimmers of light in an otherwise dark situation. And, really, he doesn't have a choice-he's lost control of his circumstance, so handling it any other way would be rather pointless.
The Juke Joint Cafe, Brady's nearly 5-year-old pride and joy, will close its doors on Oct. 26, the unfortunate result of a year's worth of battling with his residential Gaslamp Quarter neighbors over the nighttime noise emanating from the dinner-and-music club. Brady, who turned 45 on Monday, is confident he'll find a new spot for the Juke Joint in Hillcrest, North Park or Golden Hill, and, noting his loyal clientele, a solid menu of soul food, good reputation and an increasing amount of know-how, says he's better off than he was when he first opened.
Sharply attired and sitting in the club's front room last Friday evening, Brady recalled how he was so focused on the restaurant operation just before he opened in 1998 that he forgot to book any music for the week. Fortunately, he had a close family member who knew a little something about music. His dad, Leon Brady, whom Trey says is a jazz “legend” in his hometown of Kansas City, offered to play a full week of shows, and the club was up and running.
Ever since, Brady, a former corporate marketing man who claims to be the only African American nightclub owner in downtown San Diego, has provided an eclectic menu of jazz, blues, world beat and hip-hip music for his patrons. Top jazz talent has played the Juke Joint, including Gerald Wilson, Greg Osby, Donald Harrison and Neena Freelon. One of the highlights was a packed-house performance by Alicia Keys just before she became a superstar.
But running a nightclub is tough business, and the Juke Joint has not been profitable for Brady, who couldn't wait for construction of the baseball stadium and expansion of the convention center-not to mention the upcoming Super Bowl, with it's “NFL Experience” festivities occurring downtown-developments that were sure to make his address at the southern end of Fourth Avenue a prime entertainment location.
The question, Brady said, is “could we hold out long enough for those things to happen.”
Brady started offering bass-heavy, late-night dance music, which was squarely at odds with some residential neighbors in the Pioneer Warehouse Lofts next door who wanted peace and quiet. Complaints about noise snowballed into a nasty legal battle. A temporary restraining order forced Brady to redirect the line of clubgoers waiting to get in, eliminate much of the bass from the music and make sure groups of patrons smoking outside numbered no more than two people. He has spent roughly $75,000 on lawyers, private investigators and sound engineers.
Now, Brady believes, his landlord is in cahoots with the angry neighbors. He says he came to realize that his landlord, whom Brady thinks found an opportunity in the noise dispute to replace the Juke Joint with a new tenant that perhaps will bring in double the rent, had no intention to honor an option to extend his lease beyond November. Since he'd rather not have an eviction on his business record, Brady chose to settle the lawsuit filed by his neighbors. Part of the settlement, the components of which were supposed to be kept secret, was that the Juke Joint would close down.
But news of the impending closure leaked, and Brady started getting calls from people who had heard the club had already locked its doors. So he felt compelled to hold a press conference last week to let his customers know that, for now, the club is still open and to make sure people understood his side of the story-and to troll for leads on a new spot in another part of town.
Brady isn't outwardly angry with his victorious opponents-in truth, he's much more irked by the stance his landlord has taken, because he believes he would have ultimately prevailed in the noise dispute. He understands his neighbors' position. And he's not bothered that he had to share his block with residents-it's the only way for an entertainment district to thrive. But as more and more residential buildings are built, he's sure downtown San Diego is in for more of these clashes unless the city sets guidelines that ensure everyone knows what they're getting into when they sign on the dotted line.
Brady said he would have never opened the Juke Joint if he couldn't secure a location in the Gaslamp Quarter, and although he's now willing to operate the nightclub somewhere else, he's terribly disappointed. “We wanted to be in the Gaslamp,” Brady said. But he's not about to second guess any of his business moves-everything he did, he said, he had to in order to stay competitive.
“If I had to do it over again,” he said without hesitation, “I'd do it all the same way.”
Activist's corner Judy Forman serves up food for thought
There's a bumper sticker up on the wall of Judy Forman's Big Kitchen restaurant in Golden Hill. “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” it reads, and it fits Forman perfectly.
Forman is uninhibited, a bit of a loudmouth and an activist in the most vigorous sense of the word. A couple weeks ago, for instance, she attended a City Council meeting with a friend battling breast cancer who has found marijuana to be the only thing that gets her through chemotherapy. Forman went along to be supportive, and before she knew it, she was up at the podium addressing the council on the efficacy of medical marijuana. It happens over and over-she goes to City Council meetings to check out the issues and before you know it-“I get so upset, I end up speaking,” she said.
And then there was her push to drive the Miss California Pageant out of San Diego when it landed here in 1986.
“I hate it when women are exploited,” she says bluntly. “Life is so much bigger than breasts.” A bumper sticker-worthy sentiment, indeed.
Forman wears many hats, both literally and figuratively (she acknowledges her wardrobe is exceedingly diverse to fit her mood of the day). At her restaurant she's known as “Judy the Beauty.” In her community she's the self-appointed mayor of Golden Hill. In her private life, she's simply Judy Forman, a licensed social worker who in the '70s worked with troubled kids in Detroit, in the '80s moved to San Diego in the midst of the AIDS crisis and nursed 30 friends through the final stages. She's helped build schools in Southern Mexico, Nicaragua and the Philippines.
Her primary focus, however, is local. The diverse, multiethnic Golden Hill she moved into more than 20 years ago isn't quite the same. Back then, she says, “we had the problems of the world, but we had the glory of the world.” But when talking about how things are now, she doesn't mince words.
“I think my neighborhood is getting raped,” she said. “Houses are selling for 30 to 40 percent more than what they're worth. Those who wanted to live in the suburbs are coming back and making it into their own suburbs.
“We're losing our balance here,” she adds; “it's white, on white, on white.” The people moving in to Golden Hill don't know the area's history, she says.
On one particular Wednesday morning, normally her day off, Forman is bustling around the front dining room of the Big Kitchen. “It got a little busy,” she confides as she sashays around the room. On the restaurant's music system is a Dr. John CD Forman picked out herself, and she knows the words by heart. “This is a good one,” she'll say to customers, urging them to pay a little closer attention to the lyrics.
Forman's been in charge of the Big Kitchen since she and her former husband bought what was then, in 1980, known as The Best Café. Ask the crowds that fill the Big Kitchen's wide sidewalk on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and they'll tell you the restaurant's former name is an adequate descriptor for it now. The food is eclectic, comforting and wonderfully tasty and if you're lucky, Forman will sing your party's name when she calls you to your table.
On this weekday morning there's no one waiting outside, and inside the counter is mostly full of regulars. The customer load would have been manageable except that the South Park Business Group-a low-key bunch of local small-business owners-is taking up the second dining room for their meeting.
Some members of the group drift over to ask Forman's advice. There's this property renting for such-and-such amount; wouldn't it make a lovely children's clothing shop? Forman gasps at the price and tells the would-be tenant not to pay more than half that amount. Forman is clearly friendly with the group, but she worries that the area's sudden influx of money is exposing capitalism's version of Social Darwinism-she who can pay the most rent outlasts those who can't.
That the group has attached “South Park” to their name is significant, Forman explains. The name “South Park” was real estate developers' way to partition off Golden Hill; to block out the fact that the area was home to a multiethnic, often low-income population. She teases the group that one day they'll understand why the Big Kitchen is located in “Golden Hill” despite the “South Park” flags adorning the light posts near the restaurant.
Her opinion, after all, holds a lot of power in the community not only because she's assertive and smart but also because she serves the best damn coffee cake around.
“People listen to you when you feed them,” says Forman. “Food is a wonderful way to get people's attention.”