On a day late last week, Harry “Dutch” Erkenbrack sat inside his darkened El Alamo bar as workers removed pieces of his livelihood and lamented the city shutting him down.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said of the St. Paul City Council vote last Wednesday to revoke El Alamo’s liquor license. “This has really shocked me.”
But neighbors of the bar on the city’s West Side, alarmed by area shootings involving bar customers over the past year, aren’t mourning the loss. Monica Bravo, executive director of the West Side Community Organization, said residents were terrified and angry with an escalation of problems associated with El Alamo.
After two community meetings with Erkenbrack, Bravo said, neighboring businesses and residents had “lost expectations that anything would be remedied by the bar” and united in calling for its closure.
City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the West Side, said recent incidents “were just beyond belief,” including a September gun battle that broke out in the bar parking lot. No one was hurt, but bullets struck cars and a house. Police found 45 shell casings from at least three guns, according to reports.
A shooting inside the bar in late January convinced Noecker that more needed to be done.
“I was really concerned about the public safety threat,” she said.
For his part, Erkenbrack acknowledged that “a bad element” had started coming into the bar over the past year as longtime customers died off or moved away. But the city, by revoking his license and ensuring that another bar cannot operate on the site for 15 years, went too far and hurt his chances to sell, he said.
“Whenever there’s a shooting and we’re the only business operating, well, it’s the bar’s fault,” he said, shaking his head.
He and his attorney said they are exploring legal options, including challenging the City Council’s action as an overreach. The council’s vote was an upward departure from a proposed fine of $2,000 and a 10-day suspension of the bar’s license.
“It’s scorched earth,” said Jeff O’Brien, Erkenbrack’s lawyer. “They’ve really limited what can go in there in the future.”
For most of his nearly nine years owning El Alamo, at 429 S. Robert St., Erkenbrack said, his bar has been a popular — and safe — part of the neighborhood. Over the years, he’s hosted numerous fundraisers for area causes and organizations. The lone smudge on El Alamo’s record, Erkenbrack said, was serving an underage person several years ago.
The past year has been different.
From Feb. 16, 2017, to Feb. 15, 2018, records show St. Paul Police going to El Alamo 322 times. While the vast majority of those were drop-ins characterized as “police visit — proactive,” several other incidents listed include drunkenness, disturbances, discharge of a firearm, assaults, theft and robbery.
A Jan. 8 report by Administrative Law Judge Eric L. Lipman detailed 33 police calls to the bar, including six for use of a weapon and five for aggravated assault. The report noted that city officials “concluded that lapses by El Alamo’s security staff had contributed to the outbreak of violence” in September.
Erkenbrack said a shooting in April was six blocks away; the September shootout happened when customers took a disagreement outside. And the January shooting involved a man he had previously “86-ed” from coming inside, but entered anyway. O’Brien said such incidents have more to do with a changing neighborhood than El Alamo.
“There’s only so much a bar owner can do when people go outside and get their guns,” O’Brien said of the September incident.
Erkenbrack said he added outdoor lighting and a chain to the parking lot to discourage loitering after hours and has met with city officials to address problems as they arose. “It just kept snowballing,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘We want you to do this, we want you to do that.’ ”
Closing his bar, Erkenbrack said, isn’t going to make problems go away.
“If they think there aren’t going to be more shootings in the neighborhood, they’re goofy,” he said.
Noecker acknowledged receiving several positive letters from El Alamo customers and said she is sensitive to the challenges that small business owners face. But, she said, “there is a responsibility as business owners to keep the neighborhood safe.”
Earlier last year, Bravo said, area residents tried to work with the bar.
On March 18, the West Side Community Organization held a rally outside El Alamo, where residents shared their frustrations and fears, Bravo said. On April 20, they held a community meeting that included Erkenbrack, bar employees, police and city officials, and a follow-up meeting Sept. 14. Bravo said Erkenbrack continued to blame the community and refused “acknowledging the role this location has contributed to the violence.”
So the neighbors mobilized. Representatives of the nearby Neighborhood House, the Girl Scout Council, the Torre de San Miguel homes, El Burrito Mercado and Boca Chica wrote letters of concern to the City Council. So, too, did a nearby neighbor who said her house had been hit by four bullets in three incidents — most recently in October. The woman, who asked not to be named to protect her family, has a 2-year-old son and has lived in her home from a little more than three years.
“It’s scary for my son. He shouldn’t have to go through that,” she said.
She and her husband had been planning to move, she said, “but maybe it will get better now that the bar’s closed and we can stay.”
Bravo said the neighborhood is not standing pat with the closing of El Alamo, but is actively working to reclaim its quality of life. As part of a community wide theme called West Side Rising, area residents will gather Feb. 27 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for an event called “Our Streets, Our Stories” — one of three upcoming events to celebrate the neighborhood.