It is 1:45 a.m. on a Saturday night, and the bars along 1st Avenue N. in downtown Minneapolis are erupting like alcohol-fueled volcanos.

At least 10,000 people spill onto the streets from 30 bars and clubs in a five-block hub that's the epicenter of nightlife in the metro. Guards hired by one popular club line the sidewalk in a show of force. Police cars barricade the street to traffic, and officers have tear gas at the ready. Cops on horseback push through the surging crowd. A few partiers get maced. Outside a pizza joint, one guy suddenly sucker-punches another in the face as witnesses shriek.

Unruly scenes have become common as the city's jammed club district exhales its boozy humanity late on weekend nights. But the atmosphere has been moving rapidly beyond chaotic to tense and dangerous, and city officials have had enough.

Early last Monday, in the span of 10 minutes as bars let out in the swarming entertainment district, three men were shot, two in the head and one in the upper body.

Police are "dealing with people who are coming downtown to pick a fight," said City Council Member Lisa Goodman. "You mix that with alcohol and the late night, and you can have an explosive situation. I worry about the safety of the police, to be honest."

To control the inebriated crowds, Minneapolis police are pouring in resources -- at least $15,000 each weekend night.

But city officials say that might not be enough to tame the scene and are beginning to employ other means to crack down. On Friday, they took the unusual step of recommending that the club Karma, which they had already declared a "public nuisance," close immediately for 90 days and come up with a plan for better security.

Police also have long suggested that the city restrict the popular 18-plus nights, when many downtown clubs admit those who otherwise would be underage, either by setting a 10 p.m. curfew on those nights, phasing out the special nights or segregating the underage from the 21-and-older crowd. But the clubs have stridently objected, and the matter has never come before the City Council.

A racial issue?

The city administration's view is that the problems in downtown Minneapolis are the work of a handful of bad actors.

And the city has reason to not push for too harsh a crackdown: The club district pulls in significant sales tax revenue.

"We're looking very closely at it," said Mayor R.T. Rybak. "Most of these bars are doing a very good job managing, but a couple of problematic ones aren't."

For the entire downtown area, statistics indicate a 12 percent drop in violent crimes so far this year compared with last, said Police Chief Tim Dolan.

But in a tighter area, it's been a different picture of late.

Three of last month's most violent incidents happened inside or in close proximity to Karma, near the corner of 1st Avenue and 3rd Street N. Earlier this year, city regulators put new conditions on the liquor license of the two-level club, owned by real-estate mogul Ned Abdul and former Brooklyn Center police officer John Barlow. Critics say the club's hip-hop nights, particularly on Sundays, create problems.

"Clearly these establishments know that some of their programming draws a crowd that has a propensity to seek vengeance on other people in that crowd," said Goodman, who represents the downtown ward. "No one is forcing them to play certain music and bring in certain acts that will possibly incite violence."

Karma's Barlow said blaming the music is tantamount to stereotyping. "What are they trying to say, that they don't want any black people downtown?" he said. "Then come out and say it. This is nothing more than a racial issue. Read between the lines."

Barlow said he recognizes that there is a problem, but he said the shootings near Karma should not be blamed on his club.

"My patrons don't have guns on them, because we hand-pat everyone that comes into the club," he said. "We have metal detectors. We wand them. The problem is these young guys on the street running around unsupervised. There's not enough police presence. I can't patrol the city streets along with my own club."

'They're getting blasted'

That's the problem, said downtown resident Barbara Lickness.

"I don't think it's right," she said of the 18-plus nights. "They are getting the booze. Somebody is buying it for them. Or they're getting blasted before they go in there."

Lickness, a neighborhood specialist with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, lamented the city's decision to strip some of that program's money from neighborhood associations last December,   including $456,583.50 from the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association. That money was used in part to support police bike patrols, horse patrols and video cameras. Rybak, when asked about the NRP funds, characterized them as a small portion of the city's public safety budget.

The city has also had extra help for crime prevention from the two-year-old Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, the group that pays for the yellow-vested ambassadors who give directions to lost visitors, pick up garbage and help police when they can.

"It's great; we love them," said Police Lt. Derrick Barnes, who works in the downtown precinct.

That's in addition to regular patrols by officers such as Sgt. David Mathes, a veteran with 12 years of experience in the First Precinct. "You used to never see anybody down here on Sundays," said Mathes.

Now he spends those nights and others breaking up clusters of people standing along the sidewalks with a booming "Let's move along, people!" sometimes flashing a handheld strobe light at them.

People get so annoyed with the light that they'd rather leave, he said. "If we keep people moving, they're less apt to have words with someone," he said.

'Fight all night'

Clearing the streets of bar-goers can take as long as two hours, depending on the day of the week.

Some bars hire uniformed off-duty police to help out. Officer Grant Johnson said the Sunday crowds "fight all night" after closing time, as they head toward Pizza Lucé for food.

He said he sometimes feels like he spends the better part of the night macing rowdy bar-goers just to keep the peace.

After clearing a fight, Johnson reflected on the dozen years he's spent working off-duty on weekend nights in front of Pizza Lucé.

On this night, he ended one fight and nearly arrested a man for starting a different confrontation. In other words, it was quiet. He seemed relieved:

"It's always a good night when I don't have to mace anybody." • 612-673-7909 • 612-217-1747