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Mayor Orders Crackdown on Illegal Clubs

March 26, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Inspectors this morning visited more than 200 social clubs in a crackdown ordered by Mayor David Dinkins following the deadliest city fire in 79 years. Only a fraction of them were found to be open, but 52 safety violations were cited, authorities said.

″I will tell you it will not be an endless battle,″ Dinkins said Sunday after touring the charred Happy Land social club in the Bronx. ″Anybody that had an opportunity to view those 87 bodies knows that we’re not going to tolerate this.″

Previous mayors have waged a long and unsuccessful battle to close clubs that are operating illegally. The dancing and drinking nightspots are popular among immigrants because they are cheap.

A task force put together by then-Mayor Edward Koch after a 1988 Bronx social club fire that killed seven people will be beefed up, Dinkins said. Before Sunday’s fire, only one team remained from the 10-team task force.

A sweep of social clubs was conducted between midnight and 7 a.m., police said.

Officers and task force inspectors went to 241 suspected illegal clubs citywide and posted vacate orders at 187 of them, said Sgt. Dick Vreeland, a police spokesman. In most cases, the orders were posted on closed doors, because just 23 of the clubs were found to be open for business. Fifty-two safety violations and 30 summonses were issued.

During the sweep, five people were arrested for weapons possession, 11 loaded firearms recovered, cars were towed and parking tickets issued.

Sunday morning, in raids unrelated to the fire, a police task force raided several social clubs in Brooklyn and arrested five people for weapons possession, said Sgt. Tina Mohrmann, a police spokeswoman.

Albert Scardino, the mayor’s press secretary, said police list about 1,220 clubs without liquor licenses, with about 1,000 considered inactive. The Happy Land was considered inactive.

″They range from a group of elderly men who get together to play cards and watch a ballgame on a Sunday afternoon to full-fledged nightclub operations,″ said Richard Chernela, a state Liquor Authority spokesman.

The number of clubs citywide is hard to pin down since they can spring up overnight, often in a dank basement or abandoned building.

A review of city records Sunday turned up 173 social clubs that had been ordered vacated. Inspectors were told to make sure the 173 are closed. There was no immediate explanation of how other clubs visited today were selected.

If the illegal clubs are not shut immediately, Dinkins had said, ″we’ll see to it that they certainly aren’t open come the next weekend.″

Sunday’s fire occurred 79 years to the day after a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York City that claimed 145 lives, many of them immigrant garment workers. That blaze led to reforms around the nation in workplace safety.

Just about anyone can go to a social club, despite the term’s implication of exclusivity. The Happy Land charged $5 for admission.

Despite periodic campaigns to close them, many of the clubs have become centers of urban problems, from noise and double-parking to gambling, prostitution and drug dealing.

The clubs often are rife with building, health and fire code violations that can lead to tragedy. Five people died in a Brooklyn club fire in 1985, and 25 people were killed in a Bronx fire in 1976.

″People are literally taking their lives in their hands at these clubs,″ Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer said.

Dinkins said a vacate order was issued in November 1988 against the Happy Land because the club did not have a proper sprinkler system, exits, emergency lighting and signs.

City records show an arrest was made there on July 24 and the club was closed again on Nov. 1, he said.

City officials said the building was sold last year to Karl Rubman, but Dinkins said it was unclear who owns the property now. Residents said the manager of the club was Elias Colon. The Daily News reported that Colon’s wife, Elena, was one of the survivors of the fire.

Some said it may be impossible to close the social clubs completely.

″Our experience in the city in the last 20 years demonstrates that clearly,″ said William Kornblum, director of the Center for Social Research at the City University of New York Graduate School.

Many people, especially those from poor neighborhoods where affordable alternatives are scarce, go to the clubs looking for a place to socialize where they feel welcome.

Some clubs are closed under the city’s 1984 padlock law, which allows police to shutter a location for a year if two crimes are committed on the site within a 12-month period.

But the owners, if they can be located, are rarely convicted.

Even when the clubs are shuttered, an owner may reopen around the corner or down the street, attracting the same crowd.

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