The brief and troublesome life of Club 51

Here’s a combination that’s guaranteed to sow chaos: teens, nightclubs and suburban Pennsylvania.

Club 51, Brentwood, February, 1994. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)

Believe it or not, this nightmare trio assembled in two Pittsburgh-area suburbs about 25 years ago. What started as a wholesome enterprise at a Brentwood shopping center turned into a three-year saga of parental hand-wringing: This is the story of Club 51.        

Maybe the teen hotspot, a non-alcoholic nightclub designed for the under-21 crowd, was fated for a downfall. In the months leading up to the opening of Club 51 at the Brentwood Whitehall Shopping Center, residents circulated petitions and flooded local council meetings to protest. Mayor James Joyce denied the club its license and building permit because it would operate less than 500 feet from a residential area.

But a decision from an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court changed everything. Judge James McLean overturned the mayor’s decision to withhold the license and permit because the borough had not proven that the that Club 51 would pose a danger to the community.

So Club 51 opened its doors in May 1993 — and more than 200 adolescents showed up.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Club 51 action shots will feel familiar to anyone who has attended a high school dance. Teenage girls awkwardly dance in groups; teenage boys awkwardly stand around watching them. Sweat-slicked hair and oily faces flash in the spotlight. And a lot of attendees are wearing vests, for some reason.

The club opened without inspection for fire hazards, as Vanessa Knotter, a worried Whitehall parent, emphasized in the Post-Gazette’s opinion pages.

“Teens need a supervised place to hang out, and for many Club 51 is the answer,” Ms. Knotter wrote. “My daughters will not be going there, however. I am concerned for their safety.”

The complaints piled up: noise, criminal mischief, public urination. In a rebuttal to Club 51’s detractors, Jennifer Wine, a loyal patron of the establishment, argued that the club kept kids from getting in more serious trouble.

“Why do they want us back on the streets?” asked the 16-year-old from Carrick. “I feel that if there was no such thing as Club 51, many people would be hanging on street corners and committing more severe crimes than making a little noise.”

Brentwood Council shuttered the beloved hangout within two years. And like a phoenix that rose from the ashes and promptly collapsed into flames again, Club 51 attempted to reopen in June 1995, this time at the Towne Fair family recreation center in Mt. Lebanon.

Local parents were concerned, to say the least.

The township obtained an injunction that required Donald Palmieri, owner of the Towne Fair facility, to apply for a new occupancy permit. The Post-Gazette documented the thwarted opening of Club 51 on June 9, 1995. Policemen stood by the door. One teenage patron from Carrick, whose mother dropped her and two friends at Towne Fair, peeked into the window to find the club dark and empty.    

Responding to some residents’ concerns that youths from the “inner city” would come dance at Club 51, Palmieri argued that the controversy was

Young women enjoying a night at an under-21 club, 1995. (Annie O’Neill/Post-Gazette)

“Mt. Lebanon’s racial issue.” He called his opponents “a lynch mob.”

While the new permit application was pending, Mr. Palmieri held smaller-scale under-21 dances on the second floor of the building, dubbing this alternative spot “Club Grind.”

In true “Footloose” fashion, township officials decided that these dances violated the original conditional permit issued to Towne Fair in 1993. Mr. Palmieri hosted his last dance on April 6, 1996.

“We never did anything wrong,” Mr. Palmieri told the Post-Gazette after a two-day contempt hearing. To the chagrin of Mt. Lebanon officials, Judge Maclean refused to hold him in contempt of court for hosting the parties. “In fact, we did a lot right for the benefit of the kids.”

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.

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