When you walk into the Third Street Café, your first reaction may well be: This is what all the fuss is about?
The bar is basic, unimposing, a snug space that clocks in at no more than 700 square feet, most of it occupied by a long bar with maybe a dozen seats.
It seems an odd place to generate so much passion, one tiny business in a city dense with them.
As a Midtown resident who’s witnessed all manner of human dysfunction near the bar at the corner of N. 3rd and Calder, I have no great affection for the Third Street Café. But, as someone who writes often on urban subjects—and about Harrisburg specifically—I find the issue fascinating.
The case of the Third Street Café is something of a microcosm of so many issues facing cities today, particularly in changing neighborhoods. It’s a battle between private interests and public welfare; it’s a complex story involving class, race and community.
Legal Case: It’s been nearly a year since Harrisburg first notified the Third Street Café that it was revoking its business license. Nonetheless, the bar remains open, which may indicate that the city’s pure legal case is not that strong. That’s certainly what the bar’s attorney, Chris Wilson, believes—and he has let me know his position in no uncertain terms. The thing is: he has a point. The city cited nine alleged criminal incidents in or near the bar to support its contention that it should be closed. Several, however, were not linked to bar patrons, others were relatively minor and the most serious one, an alleged drug deal, involved a Harrisburg police operation. Since then, a December shooting just outside the bar, which included two men who had been briefly inside, may have given the city additional support for its position. Still, to me, the city’s legal case is hardly a slam-dunk, which, to the bar and its attorney, is what matters most.
Business/Property Rights: In this country, denying someone the right to legally run a business is serious stuff, something acknowledged by all sides in the conflict. That’s clearly a principal concern of the Republican county judge, Andrew Dowling, who, last September, allowed the bar to remain open pending a decision because of the “irreparable injury” the bar’s owner, Tony Paliometros, would suffer. Dowling later barred the city from fining Paliometros until the city’s License and Tax Appeal Board issues a verdict on the city’s refusal to issue a 2016 license.
Community Impact: The bar has acknowledged problems near it, but has absolved itself of blame, saying that it has the simple bad luck of operating in a high-crime area. Moreover, Wilson has said the bar has acted in good faith by increasing its vigilance, installing exterior cameras and offering to share camera footage with the police. Nonetheless, the city believes that the bar still attracts people who engage in undesirable behavior—that it acts as a magnet for trouble. On this point, I have to side with the city. I’m on that block almost every day and can attest that, while the December shooting may have been an anomaly, problems near the bar—including vagrancy, public intoxication, littering, loitering, panhandling and loud, drunken arguments—are practically daily occurrences.
Municipal Prerogative: In its business license handbook, Harrisburg explicitly states that it reserves the right to revoke a license for criminal behavior, “gross negligence” or allowing a “public nuisance.” To date, that clause, a potentially powerful governmental tool, has proven difficult for the city to enforce. So, is this the right way for Harrisburg to close down the bar? Wilson says no, that the PA Liquor Control Board is the place to go to seek redress, that the PLCB has an established process to yank the liquor licenses of so-called nuisance bars (a Section 611 action). He told me that closing a bar can be a “quick procedure” and, for proof, linked me to a 25-year-old case against a Harrisburg bar called Vanity that was closed after just 2½ months. I found his example to be selective since, more typically, that process can continue for years (in fact, even the Vanity case took three years to fully adjudicate). To that point, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story in December how most Section 611 actions in that city drag on and on, allowing troubled and crime-ridden bars to remain open indefinitely.
Race/Gentrification: The 3rd Street Café’s patrons are mostly—though not exclusively—African American and working class, leading some to claim that Mayor Eric Papenfuse wants to clear the area for more upscale (and whiter) projects. And, whenever this issue comes up, someone points to the mayor’s own business interests in the neighborhood. Papenfuse has countered that he also targeted the Taproom next door, a bar with a more diverse clientele, and the Royal Pub, a bar located Uptown (both have since closed). This may be the thorniest issue in the debate. Closing the bar indeed would shut down a business that caters mostly to black customers (though its owner is a white guy from the suburbs). But several developers have told me that they believe the bar (and what goes on outside it) is holding back revitalization of the critical, centrally located 1400-block of N. 3rd Street.
So, there it is, fascinating complexity in one tiny bar. If you’re the bar’s attorney, the legal case probably matters most; if you’re the judge, it may be the rights of the business owner; if you’re the mayor, it may be the general improvement of Midtown and even Harrisburg itself.
My focus is on community impact. No business has the right to detrimentally affect a community, creating concerns about safety and retarding its development. In my view, that’s what’s happening at the corner of 3rd and Calder.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.