Hookah bar, source of many 911 calls, opposed by Rhawnhurst Civic

Police responded to 166 calls over the past year at Friends Cafe on Castor Avenue, community relations officer says.

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill speaks Thursday at the Rhawnhurst Civic Association during a discussion of Friends Cafe, a Castor Avenue hookah bar. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Another month, another hookah bar.

The Rhawnhurst Civic Association has repeatedly considered zoning applications for various hookah lounges in recent months, and each one has been overwhelmingly opposed by residents in attendance.

Thursday’s meeting was no different, though some say this establishment has been the source of major disturbance to the neighborhood. 

Police have been called to Friends Cafe, 7632 Castor Ave., 166 times in the past year, according to 2nd District Community Relations Officer Mark Mroz. That’s an average of about once every two to three days.

Friends Cafe, which has been operating as a hookah bar for years, is applying for a special exemption that would allow it to stay open.

“They call themselves Friends Cafe,” Mroz said. “They are not a friend of this community.”

Of the 166 calls, more than 100 have been for loud music, he said. There have been several incidents where police have had to break up a disorderly crowd or fight, and, in one case, officers responded for a report of a person with a gun, Mroz said. 

Mroz said he receives complaints about the property constantly, and he said police have even fielded calls in the week prior to the meeting, even though the lounge is supposed to be closed.

“There’s businesses on both sides that have invested a lot of money into their properties, and they go out there, and we got beer bottles,” he said. “We got trash. We got drug paraphernalia.”

Harry Cook, an attorney representing Friends Cafe, said he has not seen the police reports but has no reason to dispute what Mroz said.

He offered to put conditions, called zoning provisos, on the application that would limit the hookah bar’s hours and activities.

“Anything you want,” Cook said as he was leaving the meeting room.

Residents who attended opted to vote against Friends Cafe, by a margin of 50-3.

One of those who supported the application was a woman who identified herself as the mother of the lounge’s operator, Mazin Mukhtar. She questioned whether the opposition to the business was because her son is black.

“He was raised to be respectful,” she said, adding that she would not support her son if the complaints about the business were true.

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill, who attended the meeting, and Mroz both urged neighbors to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing, which is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 3:30 p.m. at 1515 Arch St. 

“This place has been a nuisance for a long time,” O’Neill said. “This is a stigma on the entire community and all those businesses that are trying to do things right in that strip center.” 

“After you stop this, Rhawnhurst is a great neighborhood,” he added.

O’Neill offered to reimburse any residents who go down to the hearing for their travel expenses.

Though Rhawnhurst Civic members have roundly opposed hookah bars, the ZBA hasn’t always followed suit.

In April, the board approved an application that allowed Ali Baba Cafe & Hookah Bar, 7704 Castor Ave., to reopen after it was shut down by the Department of Licenses & Inspections. It was later closed again for lacking a certificate of occupancy but has since obtained one, according to property records.

All 47 residents who attended a Rhawnhurst Civic meeting about Ali Baba voted to oppose the hookah bar. Cook also represented the owner of that business. 

In July, the ZBA denied a permit for a hookah bar that hoped to open at 8012 Castor Ave. 

In other news from Thursday’s Rhawnhurst Civic meeting:

Rhawnhurst Cafe, a bar at 8002 Castor Ave., received approval for a special exemption for live entertainment, the same permit applied for by Friends Cafe. 

The bar needs permission to have a DJ and karaoke night, both of which are considered live entertainment. Betty Mon, representing the owner of the business, said the bar does not intend to alter its operations and had previously had a DJ.

Neighbors at the meeting voted unanimously in favor of the zoning application.

The Rhawnhurst Civic Association will hold its next scheduled meeting Thursday, Oct. 17, at Rhawnhurst Presbyterian Church, 7701 Loretto Ave. There will be a demonstration of the new voting machines, which will be rolled out in November. ••