The past is always present at Toad’s Place, a popular destination in New Haven, Connecticut, near Yale University that has been a mainstay on the East Coast college music circuit for almost 40 years.
The interior of the two-story building is littered with aging black-and-white glamor shots and events posters alongside the stenciled names of performers, from the obscure to legends such as the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen.
Toad’s is now locked in a fight with Yale that threatens the future of the venerated rock club. What started as a town-gown dispute over right-of-way access has put Toad’s at the center of a debate about a crackdown on student drinking. Yale wants to restrict Toad’s access to an adjoining alleyway, saying patrons have used it to drink, smoke and litter.
“If Toad’s wasn’t there people would be missing out on a big part of what college is about,” said Steven Mendoza, a 21-year-old Yale senior from San Diego. “Toad’s gets people together. It teaches them how to socialize.”
While Yale says the disagreement is over property, a lawsuit against the club comes amid pressure from parents and regulators to combat binge drinking and other dangerous behavior. In the past two years, Yale has canceled an annual 1980s-themed event known as the Safety Dance after eight drunk students were hospitalized, instituted off-campus party regulations, curtailed tailgating at football games and stepped up citations for underage alcohol violations.
“Alcohol and other drugs are harming Yale students,” Marichal Gentry, an associate dean, wrote students in 2012 as new regulations took effect. “Pre-gaming and binge drinking are sending students to the emergency room.”
Yale, founded in 1701, is not alone among Ivy League schools in targeting alcohol. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put more restrictions on private parties and banned drinking games. Dartmouth College has stepped up scrutiny of Greek houses, which dominate the social life on the campus in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Yale emphasizes “safety, education and collaboration” with students when it comes to rules around drinking and social life, Mary Miller, dean of Yale’s undergraduate college, said in an e-mail. The university formed two committees to review alcohol and drug policies in 2012 and implemented recommendations such as enhanced freshman counselor training last year, she said.
“I don’t feel comfortable as a student leader having a conversation with administrators at Yale because I feel like they’re on the attack,” said Michael Wolner, a senior who wrote a column in the student newspaper last year criticizing the school’s alcohol policy as vague and arbitrary.
Off-campus bars like Toad’s complicate university efforts to crack down on alcohol, as they fall outside the range of campus police. Bar owners say they provide an important role in enhancing student social life.
“We’re good for the kids,” said Brian Phelps, who owns Toad’s. “Yale and all colleges have to put barriers between themselves and alcohol. They have to appear to be doing everything they can to keep alcohol abuse to a minimum. It’s a no-win situation there.”
Toad’s has been busted for selling alcohol to minors at least four times since 2002. It was forced to close for three months and pay a fine of $90,000 in 2007 after an inspection turned up 45 underage drinkers, according to state records.
In response, Toad’s replaced barriers on the main floor that segregated the underage crowd with walled-in bars where patrons queue up with identification to buy drinks. Connecticut state law permits clubs to admit minors as long as they aren’t served alcohol.
For better or worse, Toad’s is central to the social life at Yale. The club is as well known for catching former President George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara trying to use a fake ID in 2000 as it is for staging unannounced, pre-tour warm-up shows for the Rolling Stones in 1989 and Bob Dylan in 1990.
Toad’s is located in a brick storefront, surrounded by university property, around the corner from the Broadway shopping district that Yale has helped redevelop. Its green and white awning, stamped with a strutting, bespoke amphibian, stands in contrast with the Gothic architecture of the school’s Sterling Memorial Library across the street.
The nightclub, one of New Haven’s largest with a capacity of almost 1,000 people, targets Yale students, offering an exclusive dance party on Wednesdays that requires university ID for admittance and features 1-cent well drinks. It ends Saturday evenings with a disc jockey spinning records, attracting students from throughout central Connecticut.
“It has a grungy vibe but it’s lovable,” said Cleo O’Brien-Udry, a 21-year-old student at Stanford University who grew up in New Haven and recently attended a hip-hop show at Toad’s. “Everybody goes here no matter where they’re from in Connecticut.”
The dispute with Yale centers on a 20-foot walkway that connects part of the campus to a main thoroughfare and separates Toad’s from Mory’s, the private university club founded in 1849 that features a cappella groups such as the Whiffenpoofs. In 1978, Yale signed an agreement giving Toad’s the right to use the alley as an emergency exit.
In 2000, Yale told Phelps, who has owned Toad’s since 1995, that it wanted to make the easement renewable every 10 years and for him to agree he had no claim to any of the land he had been accessing. Yale terminated the contract in 2008 after Phelps declined and two years later filed a trespassing complaint, saying people from Toad’s were using the emergency exits “for improper purposes.”
“Yale is still willing to enter into a licensing agreement affording Toad’s access for emergency purposes while at the same time preventing the improper and disruptive use of Yale’s property,” Tom Conroy, a spokesman for the university, said in a statement. “There is no desire by Yale to have a negative effect on Toad’s business.”
While the university has said it has no designs on Toad’s property, Phelps said that the lawsuit could endanger his business. While he filed counterclaims saying he had a right to a permanent easement to at least part of the alley, a state judge in New Haven threw out most of them in November, permitting the original trespassing complaint to move to trial.
Phelps, 59, is reluctant to discuss the lawsuit or the future, preferring to talk about the past. The walls and ceiling were literally shaking from a hip hop show as he sat in a basement office late one recent evening, paging through spreadsheets detailing almost every performance since the club opened.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing to records on his computer screen from three shows by the Irish band U2 when it first toured the U.S. in the early 1980s, attracting an audience that grew from 59 paid attendees at the first performance to 650 by the last.
“I remember Bono got into a fight with the other lead singer,” Phelps said laughing, referring to a fracas between U2’s lead singer and a long-forgotten Detroit-based band called Barooga that shared the billing at the first of three shows. “That was crazy.”
The youthful crowd upstairs is more forthcoming.
“If Toad’s were to close down it would make the city as a whole feel less special to me,” said Rahni Lawrence, a 19-year-old student at Southern Connecticut State University who was roped in at the front of the building with other smokers. “It’d almost feel as if nothing was left.”
The case is Yale University v. S.K.M Restaurants Inc., NNH-CV-10-6013795-S, Connecticut Superior Court (New Haven).