On a couple of occasions recently, I've ventured into downtown Modesto to see what is taking up so much of the City Council's time and energy, not to mention the Police Department's.
One such visit happened to be on a night when Sin City Nights, a club on 10th Street, had go-go dancers in the windows. It was eye-opening, not only because of the shaking derriéres behind the glass, but because this just isn't the kind of thing you normally see while window shopping anywhere in Modesto.
A moment later, as I walked along 10th, two young women stood against the front of a sandwich shop. As I passed by, one of them said quietly, "Special tonight: $5."
It caught me by surprise, and one of them laughed. Hookers? At 10th and J? No. They were just having some fun at the expense of an out-of-his-element, balding 50-year-old guy wearing a buttoned-down plaid, short-sleeved shirt, nonbaggy jeans and sneakers. The downtown club world clearly belongs to a younger crowd -- twentysomethings who like to dance, drink and congregate. It entices locals, but also lures people from Stockton, San Jose, Fresno, Tracy, the East Bay and elsewhere.
How to manage the downtown is a work in progress for the city, its police and the Downtown Entertainment District. A committee is writing an entertainment code for the entire city.
That night a month or so ago, the downtown reminded me of the scene in "It's a Wonderful Life," when George Bailey gets to see how his beloved Rockwellian town of Bedford Falls would have become decadent, chaotic Pottersville had he not been born. Maybe it seemed that way because it's so completely different from the downtown Modesto I see every day.
In fact, there are three completely different downtowns, depending upon the time of day.
Walk J Street, in the area of 10th and 11th, during the lunch hour and you'll find people who work in 0the city or county government buildings, do business there or work in the private sector. Safety is never an issue. If you see police officers or sheriff's deputies, they're eating lunch, too.
After 5 p.m., it's the dinner and cocktails crowd. They have a drink after work and dinner at any one of the finer eateries. Perhaps now they'll catch a show at the Gallo Center for the Arts. Otherwise, they generally are out of there before streets are closed off and the small army of police officers forms as the downtown makes the transition into its third phase.
That's when the night-clubbers begin to arrive in earnest about 10 p.m. About that time, you'll see officers on horseback working the area.
For decades, young adults complained there was nothing to do in Modesto. Then, as the once downtrodden downtown began its resurgence, a number of dance clubs popped up, 13 at its peak. Consequently, roughly 5,000 people materialize in the downtown on the party nights (Thursdays through Saturdays).
Modesto police traditionally have been proactive and even aggressive in managing crowds, dating back to the problems they encountered with cruising in the late 1990s. Shootings compelled the city to ban cruising, and police began patrolling lower McHenry Avenue and J Street on Friday and Saturday nights.
Then, as the club scene developed, the emphasis shifted to J Street, from 11th to Ninth streets, three nights a week. Some younger people I know say they don't feel safe at night downtown, and they feel as if the crowds could turn ugly at any moment.
Others criticize the heavy police presence, saying it creates tension. They claim the police overreacted during last year's hyphy event. Central Catholic football star Louis Bland Jr. recently filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging he was the victim of unnecessary roughness by officers that night in September 2006.
When the City Council revoked Sin City's dance permit a week ago, a club employee claimed the action reeked of racial profiling, because the club's owner is black, as are many of its customers.
The same guy suggested that if Modesto ever wants to shed its reputation of being a cow town, it needs to end the horse patrols.
Who is he kidding?
I've been to many cities, much bigger than Modesto, that have similar entertainment concentrations. They didn't use the same level of police coverage as Modesto, but did use horse patrols as a means of crowd control. In fact, I've seen women approach Modesto police downtown to ask if they can pet the horses. As a result, they had conversations with officers that otherwise wouldn't have taken place. More often than not, the horses are greater public relations tools than they are intimidators.
Mostly, clubs in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C., had really big bouncers. These goons looked like poster boys for a steroids lab. If someone caused problems or harassed their customers, they stood ready to send the offender flying out into the street.
The clubs here have bouncers, but police do periodic walk-throughs, too -- to the tune of $500,000 in overtime in 2006.
The future of the downtown entertainment scene depends on the city, the police and the business owners getting it right as they create the rules.
But ultimately, it comes down to the behavior of young people who finally have something to do in Modesto.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.