Topeka to Lawrence: it’s not us, it’s you

Leah Sewell

Several Lawrence bar owners have labeled Topeka patrons thugs. Yes, that’s right, not only does Topeka look foolish for our lack of centralized entertainment that pushes our college-aged youth to spend their dollars in livelier Lawrence, but also we have now been accused of sending our city’s problems with our youths down I-70.

Here is why I am so huffy: An article by Ric Anderson appeared in last Wednesday’s issue of the Topeka Capital-Journal called “Owner of bar blames Topeka.” In the article, Mike Elwell, the owner of downtown Lawrence bar Abe & Jake’s Landing, voiced his intent to keep Topekans away from his establishment because they are generally a violent bunch as opposed to “the nice crowd” (a.k.a. Lawrence college students) who frequent the place.

One aspect of Elwell’s effort to ward off Topeka youths might be presented to even the most stellar of Washburn students in the following scenario: At the entrance to Abe & Jake’s on a “college night” you are asked for your driver’s license and your student ID. Whoops, you’re a student at Washburn? Nope, you can’t come in. You might turn violent. You might have a gun. If you have a 3.9 GPA, if you have no criminal record, if you are a member of numerous student organizations or if you frequently help old ladies cross the street, it doesn’t matter. You are from a city with a higher crime rate. You are a potential thug. Period.

Is this sort of discrimination grounded? Elwell shared his venomous comments about Topekans after the shooting and death of a 46-year-old Topeka man at a hip-hop show at the Granada Theatre Sunday Feb. 5. The police have not identified the shooter. Elwell did not blatantly state that he believed the criminal was a Topekan, but he did estimate arbitrarily that visiting Topekans cause 65 percent of violent incidents that happen in Lawrence nightspots (a figure the Lawrence Police Department cannot validate). The other 35 percent? According to Elwell, those are probably people from Leavenworth and Kansas City. Lawrence youths are perfect angels.

I beg to differ. For the brief time that I lived in Lawrence in 2001, I recall the constant warning to refrain from walking in parks or dimly-lit streets by myself late at night because the incidence of rape was quite high in that town. I recall hearing of the hit-and-run death of a homeless Native American man, and I personally witnessed the battery of a young man by two other college-aged men in a place unofficially known as “Peace Park.”

Every city has crime. Topeka is a larger city. Topeka is also not as wealthy as Lawrence. But, mostly, Topekans are a bunch of good people – just working stiffs trying to get by, or college students trying to make futures for themselves.

As a writer and then editor for the entertainment section of the Washburn Review for a little over a year, I have visited and covered events at many nightspots in Topeka. Beyond the occasional and easily diffused barroom tiff that is common in both Topeka and Lawrence, I haven’t encountered violence here. And how is this possible, since Elwell claims that Topekans are causing so much trouble in Lawrence? Why wouldn’t the criminal tendencies of Topekans be blaringly evident here, in the place that is simply crawling with Topekans?

Anderson’s article contained quotes from Mayor Bunten and members of the Topeka City Council suggesting that Topekans refrain from going where they are not wanted. I wholeheartedly agree when it comes to Abe & Jake’s and other establishments that require Lawrence-student-only IDs for entrance. However, I firmly believe that Elwell’s comments do not reflect the majority of Lawrence club owners’ opinions of us so-called rough Topeka types. The Lawrence city manager has expressed as much in response to Elwell’s statements.

I feel that sometimes it’s nice to get out of town and lay eyes upon a place that has successfully cultivated arts and entertainment. But let’s think twice about routinely spending our dollars in a town where a proprietor forfeits our patronage based on completely unfounded accusations. Instead, let us more often put our money into Topeka establishments. After all, Topekans are always welcome here.