Montreal and Bar Louie: Y’all come and y’all stay away

Old_Montreal_CA_in_eveninglightI’ve been thinking about how a community signals who is welcome in what spaces, prompted by a recent trip to Montreal and news reports that a Bar Louie franchise in Minneapolis posted a racist dress code similar to the one posted by Bar Louie here.

First, Montreal. I am smitten with this place. The main reason? Efficient mass transit. The Metro gets you close to most places I’d want to go and everyone is encouraged to walk the rest of the way. My Fitbit saw higher step counts last week than it has all year. When taking the train is faster/cheaper than a cab, you’re #winning.

The streets are clean, the sidewalks well maintained, the parks plentiful, the Jean Talon farmer’s market amazing and the public art everywhere. I stayed mainly in Old Montreal and the Plateau, but nowhere did I feel unsafe. There’s so much foot traffic that I never found myself on a street alone.

As a tourist, I was blissfully unaware of the social ills that I’m sure plague any urban environment, but the TV news had virtually no crime news. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single “breaking news alert” for any violent incident. (Canada’s strict gun laws work.)

montreal metro mapWe encountered a few rude store clerks, but I attribute that to my complete lack of French vocabulary, aside from that phrase in “Lady Marmalade” that was not appropriate for any of the circumstances I found myself in.

The relative homogeneity of the city’s population (read: very few black and brown people) probably shapes the cultural dynamics there. But simply put, I didn’t feel unwelcome anywhere.

At home, in Memphis, where the city’s baggage is all too familiar, I don’t enjoy that feeling as often as I like.  Efficient mass transit is non-existent. The environment caters to cars and discourages pedestrians. The population is racially diverse but often divided.

bar louie dress code memphis yelp postAnd that gets me back to who is welcome in what space and Bar Louie. According to KMSP-TV in Minneapolis, Bar Louie has a dress code that on the weekends bars patrons with baggy clothing, long white T-shirts, flat-billed hats, large chains, etc.

Sean Tierney told Fox 9 News he believes it’s “totally racial profiling,” and Imani Vincent said the real message is clear.

“If you do not want African Americans to frequent your establishment, then maybe you should just say that and not just break it down to the dress code,” Vincent said.

Folks rightly found this offensive (NPR Code Switch’s Gene Demby went in on this here.) When the Memphis location posted a similar dress code last year, Garrett McQueen, a black man, also took offense. From my August 2013 column:

No super baggy clothing, no big chains worn outside of shirts, no large plain white T-shirts, no hats turned to the back.

The dress code posted last week at Bar Louie wasn’t as disturbing as segregation-era “No Colored Allowed” signs, but for Garrett McQueen, it felt much the same.

McQueen, a 26-year-old bassoonist with the Detroit Symphony, saw the policy as racial profiling. It was a way for management to signal what the uninvited look like, who belongs and who does not, all without saying a word.

Why did Bar Louie adopt the dress code?

 “I don’t want the thug element,” said the bar’s owner, Tony De Salvo. “I don’t want someone who is going to cause trouble.”

De Salvo decided to ditch the dress code. I was encouraged by his response – but discouraged to learn about an April incident involving Tal Frankfurt, an Israeli-American who believes his ethnicity led to his mistreatment there.

After receiving what he says was poor service, he complained to management and ended up getting tossed from the restaurant in newly redeveloped Overton Square. An employee accused him of making “terrorist” threats – a reference, Frankfurt suspects, to his ethnicity.

Frankfurt wrote on Facebook in mid-April:

As a Memphian and someone who owns a business in Overton Square, I am really concerned about leaving in a place where your skin color and accent put your freedom and liberty at risk at any time. This kind of discrimination should not be tolerated.

His post about the encounter was shared 738 times on Facebook and drew hundreds of posts, some from people vowing never to eat there again. What was the restaurant’s response? Frankfurt wrote on Facebook later in April:

 Unfortunately, the local franchisee‘s owners were not willing to engage in such constructive conversation to resolve the issue to date. To be honest, I don’t think that they even understand that there is an issue. I have asked for basic and simple acknowledgement as well as corrective action; they said that they are “not prepared to do that.”

I followed up with Frankfurt a few weeks ago and still, the restaurant has done nothing. The worst part: It’s proven that it doesn’t have to. Every time I’ve passed the restaurant, it seems to be doing a brisk business, despite the hundreds of people who vowed to never darken its doorway after the flaps over the dress code and Frankfurt’s treatment.

Bar Louie won. It’s making money and it gets what it wants. A certain population knows it’s not welcome and those who would complain about profiling/prejudice against that population stay away too.

An added bonus: This fuels the perception that Overton Square is, as I’ve heard it called, “the white Beale Street.” (In a racial draft I missed, the real Beale Street downtown apparently has been ceded to black folks.) The demographics at Beale Street West and Beale Street East are stunningly different. I don’t know if that was the developer’s intent, but I’m not sure how much intent matters, if the impact is the same.

Just a block away from Bar Louie sits the new Hattiloo Theatre, which just opened. Its audience includes a sizable share of black people, some of whom might wander down to Bar Louie for a post-show drink. It will be interesting to see whether the restaurant turns over a new leaf and takes steps to atone for past mistakes, or if it comes up with new ways to turn certain people off – and away.

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