The Town WeAnd OthersDrink In

Patricia Hart was a stranger in her own town. When city officials and vinegary residents told her that downtown Fullerton was like the welcome mat to hell—that the place had become the epicenter of fights, theft and assaults—Hart, a city planning commissioner and 25-year resident, asked police if she could ride along one night to see for herself.

“It was an eye-opening experience to say the least,” said Hart. “I didn't have any clue that there were so many young people who were so active at that time.”

By “active,” Hart meant drinking, wandering the streets, listening to music and hanging out in parking lots.

“It didn't give me a pleasant feeling,” she said. “I didn't exactly feel proud of my city. I didn't realize we”—and here she meant good, old Fullerton—”were so popular with that age group, and I made a point of asking everyone I could where they were from: Long Beach, Moreno Valley, Anaheim. I did not meet one person who actually lived in Fullerton.”

Now, some towns would be delighted they'd become a magnet for thirsty out-of-towners—tourism boards spend billions in the pursuit of that dream each year. But this is Fullerton. During the day, the antique stores, pawn shops and restaurants still make it feel like a place your grandmother might shop for doilies and then eat finger sandwiches with the crusts removed, washed down with an Arnold Palmer. But on many nights, the area girded by Wilshire, Santa Fe, Malden and Pomona looks more like Chicago's Rush and Division streets—or Bourbon Street without the humidity, beads and boobs.

In that small area—really no bigger than a few football fields—hundreds of people, most in their 20s, crowd some 30 bars, restaurants, clubs and cafes that serve alcohol. There's ambient blues, jazz, disco, industrial, techno and lounge; you can find filet mignon and barbecued chicken. By the end of the year, six new businesses and the expansion of an existing one will put the number of places you can get your drink on in downtown Fullerton to more than 40. A beauty salon has applied for a license to sell beer and wine.

The frenetic nightlife is drawing other businesses—a live theater, a comic-book store, a vegetarian restaurant. A group of citizens is trying to save the venerable Fox Fullerton movie theater from the wrecker's ball and turn it into a multidisciplinary arts forum. And though parking is already nightmarish, the City Council earlier this month okayed a tentative proposal to turn two parking lots on Amerige Avenue into an upscale condo and retail development.

Not everyone is happy with the change. Besides the parking shortage, older residents and some police complain about public drunkenness, underage drinking and bars maxed beyond capacity. Police claim gangsters from La Mirada, Moreno Valley and other cities cruise into the area, drawn by advertising on radio stations that “appeal to gang members.” True enough, spend a few hours downtown on a busy night and you're bound to see a fight.

The City Council reacted graciously to the challenges of life in a boomtown—perhaps because one cent of every dollar spent on every Coors Light and Stoli and cranberry flows into the city's coffers via sales tax. The police were a different matter. Surprised by the sudden explosion downtown, some say, the police overreacted—though no one's alleging they've ever Rodney Kinged anyone.

“It was overkill,” said one downtown bar owner. “Some bars wouldn't even call the police because one phone call about a drunk customer who refused to leave would result in six cars and 12 cops coming down and lining up in front of your business.”

The problem peaked last April when a barroom brawl spilled into a parking lot and soon involved some 120 combatants. When the vomit and blood were washed away, the police did something surprising: they thought about how they might handle boomtown growth so that people could have fun without all the unnecessary rioting.

Fullerton's kinder, gentler police department debuted during a June meeting of the city's planning commission. The subject was the Back Alley Bar and Grill, a venue some officials said was the source of downtown's problems. Assistant Planner Heather Sowers claimed that five criminal incidents over the past year, along with overcrowding on the patio, showed that the bar was “detrimental to public health, safety and general welfare.” It was the staff's opinion, she said, that “these infractions were done knowingly or with reckless disregard of the requirements for compliance.”

A score of people spoke out on behalf of the bar, and the bar's owners submitted a petition signed by 1,000 patrons supporting the bar. But the weightiest comments came from police Sergeant Craig Brower. Brower, who worked graveyard during the week, said the Back Alley was being punished for doing the right thing: reporting fights anywhere in the parking lot it shares with four other bars.

In late July, undercover police officers working the bar scene discovered that while booze flowed, it didn't flow freely: they found no after-hours or underage drinking and just 10 incidents (mostly fights). Nine of those stemmed from just one bar: Revolucion.

Revolucion is a Mexican restaurant that turns into a DJ club at night, with crowds of up to 200. On one night alone, Aug. 8, police arrested a Revolucion bouncer and the bar's owner for allegedly interfering with the arrest of an assault suspect. Shortly after that, a fight broke out near the bar, and police arrested six suspects who allegedly beat two men.

A week later, police reported their findings to the City Council. They might have used the April craziness to beg for more weapons and greater freedom to crack skulls. They might have pointed to Revolucion's alleged problems as symptomatic of all downtown bars. Instead, they asked the council to consider helping cops and bar owners create what they called “open lines of communication.” The council agreed and asked the planning commission to review a few police-recommended guidelines—ban alcohol sales a half-hour before closing time, restrict alcohol sales on outdoor patios after 10 p.m., and stagger the closing time of bars to prevent all the drunks from pouring into the streets at the same time, a booze-fueled running of the bulls without the bulls.

The sun does not yet shine from every orifice in Fullerton; city officials and residents will continue to wrestle with their collective future. A few nights ago, four squad cars—lights blazing, sirens shrieking—sped into downtown. They were called to stop a fight between two women. Over at Mulberry Street Ristorante, one of the few businesses downtown that attracts an older, more genteel crowd, I stood with a couple of longtime Fullerton residents and watched as a squad car blazed down Harbor Boulevard, called to deal with yet another disturbance. One guy, a longtime fixture in Fullerton, said it's great so many people are downtown. “But I'm afraid the cops are going to turn into assholes,” he said. “Like Brea.”

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