My first impression passing by Waid’s Bar and Lounge late on a weekend night was “that the place is hoppin’!”
As people spilled out the door, music combined with the sizzle of late-night food cooking.
That throng of people talking loudly in the courtyard may be the only impression some will ever get of the place. Waid’s has a longstanding reputation for being noisy and unruly. And the future of the club, which is beloved by regulars, but seen as a nuisance by some neighbors, is now in doubt.
Located at 12th and Jefferson, between Capitol Hill, Seattle U, the upper International District, and the Central District, it’s a controversial business in the midst of a changing neighborhood.
Waid’s had been around for eight years. It started with Haitian food and quickly formed a following around its reggae night. Hip-hop, dancehall, a wide variety of African music, and even a Russian karaoke night soon followed.
“It’s the longest-running reggae night in Seattle,” boasts owner Waid Sainvil. “A lot of Caribbeans and a lot of Africans are moving to Seattle right now, and they don’t have a place they can consider theirs. Here, they feel like it’s their home.”
Sainvil grew up in Haiti, leaving after high school at 17. He headed to NYC and Paris for college. He was a teacher in New York before making his way to Seattle.
“I’ve been in Seattle for 20 years,” Sainvil says “I love it, it’s my home.”
He also loves his club: “Waid’s is the best, it’s the coolest spot ever!”
I first meet Sainvil early Saturday night, before things really get going at the club.
A group of young people are gathered around him as he explains his side of the current complaints being leveled against his business. You get the idea he’s told this story many times before.
Waid’s is on the verge of losing its liquor license, based on a series of violations dating back several years. Below you can see the full text of a letter from Seattle Police Department urging the Liquor Control Board not to renew the license. It cites incidents of underage drinking, a series of sting operations where police purchased small amounts of unspecified controlled substances from Waid’s patrons… and a whole lot of noise complaints from neighbors.
Sainvil insists the charges against his business are based on overly-aggressive sting operations. He describes police sending in underage women with fake IDs, and undercover officers coming in and asking why no one was smoking weed on Reggae Night. The most recent drug incident cited in the SPD letter was in October of 2012, less than a month before Washington voted to legalize marijuana.
He’s a likable guy, and he clearly has a large group of friends and regulars who don’t want to see anything happen to what he’s built up. It’s easy to see why.
It’s Saturday, the African Sensations night. The DJs will be spinning Zouk, Caribbean, African, reggae & hip-hop. They expect it will get busy.
While the DJs set up, they eat Cameroonian food, and offer it up to share with the staff. I get to try some chicken, plantain, and a puff-puff — a fried round doughnut hole that’s delicious.
Speaking of food, I talk to Bob Antolin, who hosts the “Comfort Food” show 7-10pm Sundays, featuring jazz that incorporates what he calls “West African flavors.”
“It’s a family feel when I get there. Waid is like a brother to me,” Antolin says. “The people we bring out are from the ‘70s. A couple weeks ago there were parents who brought their kids and had dinner. As a musician playing world music and jazz, it’s all about connecting. With that connection it’s all about the positive energy.”
As the music and dancing gets started, it gets louder inside. But it’s nowhere near as loud as some rock shows I’ve been to just up the street at Neumos or Barboza. We’re still able to talk, and Waid emphasizes the soundproofing that’s been put in to keep the noise inside.
Promotion for the club has been focused on the African immigrant community — mostly via text messages.
“This is the headquarters for all of the black immigrants in Seattle, and it’s a growing group. That’s the only place where they can come and see one another,” Sainvil says. “So when you close it down, where are they going to go?”
A woman in a red sparkly dress who says her name is Zaina is waiting for the dancing to start. Waid comes over to greet her. This is part of the magic of the place — Sainvil is supremely good at making people feel comfortable. After only being at Waid’s once before, she already knows the owner and says feels at home here.
Despite the concerns about safety outside on Jefferson Street, patrons I talk to cite safety and comfort over and over as reasons they keep coming back to Waid’s.
Gena Aytch has been coming here for five years. She first came here to eat with her family, but came back for the reggae nights.
“As a single woman in my 40s, Waid made me feel safe here,” she says.
After I finish with interviews, I look over my notes and watch the dance floor start to fill. Usually one to jump right in and dance, I’m not quite sure what to do. After all, I realize, looking around, I’m the only white guy in the room.
It dawns on me that this must be how immigrants and people of color feel at most other venues in Seattle all the time.
Sensing my hesitation, Sainvil comes over and very expertly nudges me out onto the dance floor.
I’m not much for clubs… but I do like the music here! I recognize some songs, though they are mixed and have new Afro-Caribbean rhythms. There are couples dancing. Many are quite dressed up. There is a woman with glowing earrings, people in short shorts, and that one guy who refuses to remove his overcoat.
Clearly, there are cultural differences that make this different from other nightspots nearby. At one point, a group of African men form a circle and dance together. This isn’t something you’d see very often at other dance clubs in Seattle, but they look happy and comfortable here.
Before I know it, it’s two o’clock — Waid’s is closing.
The club used to be open later, but now Sainvil is wary of the noise complaints.
“My thinking was, at 2:00 people were not ready to go. People could hang out and dance, drink water, sober up and then go home,” he says. “Now I’m closing at 2:00, exactly at 2:00. That will help with the complaints, I think.”
As I make my way outside, the dissipating crowd fills the air with shouted plans for the rest of the night, and honking cars pick up stragglers.
The noise complaints are understandable. But for a Saturday night, it doesn’t seem out of hand. I notice one person who seems drunk, but they’re not causing problems.
New construction on the block, including a brand new 40 unit apartment building right next door, has put more people living in close proximity to this street noise.
“I grew up in this area, lived in Japan in the 80s, and came back,” says Bob Antolin. “A major change [to the area] is that condo. It just sticks out. It’s not part of the neighborhood… That’s the trend of the block, unfortunately.”
Regulars insist Waid’s has done a lot for the community beyond just hosting genres of music that are hard to find elsewhere. They’ve offered space for community meetings, fundraisers and even free HIV testing.
Sainvil insists that what happens outside isn’t his responsibility.
“When people leave here they can be a little bit loud and rowdy, but I cannot follow them one by one and say ‘be quiet.’ And you still have the old gangsters in the neighborhood.” He pleads his case. “How come all those cops are on Pike? The street is packed with people, and it’s also packed with cops, too… When there’s fights there, do you blame the club owners?”
It’s true that this same scene repeats itself at 2am every weekend on Pike/Pine, in Fremont, Pioneer Square, Belltown and on the Ave. Is the difference that here on Jefferson, there are no other bars or clubs around? Is Waid’s particularly negligent in keeping the last call ruckus under control?
Or is it actually about the color of the people making noise, as Sainvil insists?
“Obviously, I don’t believe in racist bullshit. I believe we are all one.” he says. “Your fear of black people — it’s not my problem.”