Sangillo’s Tavern is caught between Donald Sussman and the cops

The Portland Police Department’s call to close Sangillo’s Tavern, the beloved neighborhood bar at the foot of Munjoy Hill, is as predictable as it is troubling. Instead of improving public safety and the cops’ relationships with bar owners and patrons, this antagonism toward alcohol makes Portland a more dangerous place to live and drink.

Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck’s views toward booze verge on being Prohibitionist. As I wrote in a column last month, the chief sent a letter to state liquor-licensing authorities last fall urging them to reject all five applications by retail stores in Portland seeking permission to sell hard stuff. His basic premise is that the availability of alcohol causes crime, especially in “low income areas whose residents are statistically more likely to be victims of crime.”

Sauschuck noted in his letter that the Hannaford near Back Cove sells most of the liquor in the city, and “[t]he location of the store, which requires some mode of transportation, provides somewhat of a deterrent to the easy procurement of alcohol.” That sounds to me like another way of saying it’s a good thing the supermarket’s location makes it harder for people who don’t have cars to buy booze. The chief would apparently prefer that people be compelled to get behind the wheel to make a vodka run? (The state liquor board decided to grant a license to only one of the stores, but it made a point of saying the police department’s analysis was bogus.)

Sangillo’s is a blue-collar bar in a “low-income area” (most of the peninsula is a “low-income area”), but it’s also a part of town frequented by the wealthy, who are drawn there at night by several fine-dining establishments. In recent years, the construction of a high-end hotel and new condos and apartments nearby has increased development pressure on the sliver that remains of what was once a working-class neighborhood. Sangillo’s is the soul of that sliver.

Many of the incidents over the past year that police cite as reasons to close the tavern took place “in the vicinity” of the bar, not inside it. One person largely responsible for the blight in the bar’s vicinity is billionaire financier, Maine media mogul, and occasional Sangillo’s patron S. Donald Sussman, who has a residence nearby. Sussman has allowed numerous apartment buildings he owns in the neighborhood to remain vacant and dumpy for over half a decade. He recently had a few demolished after they became magnets for squatters.

Sussman is in no hurry to improve his investments. Plans to build a six-story condo complex near Sangillo’s stalled last year when the architect who drew up the plans sued Sussman for nixing the project and allegedly stiffing him and other contractors for over half a million bucks’ worth of work. Sussman now seems content to wait until plans for the redesign of Franklin Street are completed before moving forward with any development — a redesign process that’s taken about a decade so far and won’t be completed any time soon.

The neighborhood’s advocates have long said it’s crucial to bring more residents into this area. The presence of more eyes and feet on the street is the most effective deterrent to crime. Vacant lots and empty buildings are more attractive to criminals than a legal drinking establishment with lights and witnesses and 16 video cameras, which Sangillo’s recently installed in response to the cops’ concerns.

The logic of using “calls for service” as justification to close Sangillo’s is exactly backward. The tavern and its customers should be commended, not condemned, for helping police catch bad actors causing trouble inside or outside the business. Bar staff and loyal patrons are less likely to call for help if they know such calls will be used as ammunition to shut their bar down. The alternative is for bouncers to mete out justice with their fists or for crimes to remain unreported. Is that what the chief would prefer?

The police department’s main problem with Sangillo’s is the mere fact that it exists. Bar owners are limited in their ability to control patrons’ behavior, especially outside the premises, but this tavern’s owner and staff have taken significant (and expensive) steps to address the recent uptick in incidents requiring police attention. When the city council reconvenes next month, it should unanimously support renewal of the tavern’s license, then adjourn and walk down there for a drink to express their appreciation.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.