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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Party Hardly

As staid desert resort sees a resurgence of night life, police crack down on jaywalkers and rowdy youths. Critics say the welcome mat is out for upscale guests only.

September 03, 2000|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALM SPRINGS — The out-of-town visitor can't resist commenting on the quaintness of the scene, the almost Mayberry-like sweetness.

True, police officers are citing four young men in baggy pants as part of a crackdown demanded by local merchants and residents. But consider: The police are six in number; two of them on bicycles, two on horses. The young men's infraction is jaywalking.

Palm Springs, determined to protect a wave of casino-fortified tourism, is running its downtown with the ethos of a Disneyland dance floor--enforce all rules to maintain a wholesome image. Police have put teeth into a 10 p.m. curfew for teenagers, and rigorously issue tickets for such infractions as loud car stereos, loitering and crossing the street against a red light.

After a period of recession and empty storefronts during the late 1980s and much of the '90s, Palm Springs' downtown now has increasingly bustling clubs, bistros and street life on the weekends. Music spills out of nightclubs. Teenagers roam. Even when it's muggy and 100 degrees half an hour after curfew.

The party's back. Now, people are complaining about the noise and worried that things are out of control.

This is, after all, a town that in the 1980s fought raucous spring break crowds by outlawing thong swimming suits and giving tickets to anyone who stuck a toe off a curb into the street. When defiant youths wore their tickets around their necks like Mardi Gras beads, the city stepped up the assault and drove spring breakers away by filling the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, with clowns in stilts, singers belting out show tunes and other family fun.

Frank Tyson, proprietor of Casa Cody, a quiet, upscale inn that attracts quiet, upscale people, said Palm Springs' plan to revitalize the downtown area as an art and entertainment district has turned into a "runaway situation."

"It was supposed to be galleries, sidewalk cafes, someplace to eat, even dance--not a nonstop rock festival," he said. "It's out of hand. There's a honky-tonk atmosphere that's attracting a bad element."

He is thinking of his recent trip to Capri. It was lively. People were walking, shopping, nicely dressed. "It was civilized," he said. "Palm Springs has to find a way to create a festive atmosphere without all this craziness."

Tyson and a group of other business owners want downtown toned down. The police are doing a fine job, they say, but owners of upscale businesses want measures taken to spoil Palm Springs' appeal to the cruising crowd. They will take it up with the City Council just as soon as the council returns from its traditional late summer vacation.

Jerry Ogburn, director of downtown development, said the city has pulled off what it set out to do.

"We are open for business to a full spectrum of age groups," Ogburn said. "We're not exclusive. We're eclectic, and we always have been. . . . We're making changes, but we're not about to move in a vastly different direction."

Some residents sense a long-standing snob factor at play in the outcry.

"Palm Springs wants tourists, but the right kind of tourists. What they really want are signs at both ends of Palm Canyon Drive, saying 'Your bank account must be this high to enter,' " said Charles Bohannan, a 14-year resident.

Kal David, a long-legged guitar player who owns the jazz club Blue Guitar on Palm Canyon, said the situation is serious.

"There's trouble brewing," he said. "I remember what happened in Westwood. I used to play a club there and after one racially motivated killing it turned into a ghost town. Palm Springs is about to be a boomtown. There's new businesses, a new casino. I'm finally in the right place at the right time, and I don't want to see that blow up."

The tickling fear is that the congregating, the hormone-driven machismo of youth, the power of a lively scene to attract troublemakers, could lead to violence. In these times, no one says, "It couldn't happen here."

Already there's been one shooting. Last week in the parking lot behind a Starbucks, a favored hangout, 21-year-old David Kendall was hit in his abdomen and arm. Police arrested three suspects, ages 20, 19 and 16.

Roula Talala, co-owner of the popular Village Pub where the well-muscled Kendall works as a bouncer, spoke to him after the shooting.

"He said these guys he didn't know pulled up and asked, 'Where's the party?' He told them 'This is Palm Springs, there are no after hours. We're just going home,' and that's when the shooting started. Luckily, he blocked one of the shots with his arm. He's fine," she said.

For a popular club on a downtown strip, the Village Pub operates in a manner peculiar to Palm Springs.

"We close the doors and keep the music down. We have to be considerate of the older people who live nearby and stay in the hotels," said Talala, 33.

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