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'I feel like we're being harassed': Eastown business owners say discrimination forced them to shut down

The owners of Eastown Hookah Lounge say their landlord and neighboring business owners blamed them for late night violence because of their race.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The owners of Eastown Hookah Lounge in Grand Rapids closed their doors and moved out of the building at the corner of Wealthy and Lake and Norwood Ave on July 29. After taking over the business just 14 months ago, they say shutting down was not their choice.

Gigi Rgabi believes she and her husband were discriminated against because of their race, religion, and the nature of their business. She said their landlord told them to change their business to a cigar lounge rather than hookah, and and said nearby business owners blamed them for violence in the area.

"There is no legal documents that say we had shooting, fighting or that police showed up because someone did something in the hookah lounge," she said. The city of Grand Rapids has received multiple complaints about the lounge, but told us they had no part in forcing the business to close. Rgabi told us they had been staying open late, at some points until 4 a.m., but says the stopped that after being given a violation by the city.

"They said we can apply for special land use, but if we do apply for special land use, the people who are going to approve that is the neighbors that don’t like us already," Rgabi said. She showed us social media posts accusing them of attracting violent people to the area, some from nearby business owners. Some people said drunk people would come out of the lounge and cause trouble, but the lounge did not serve alcohol due to Rgabi's Muslim beliefs. 

One dispute between Rgabi and nearby business owners is their ability to play live music. The city told them they don't possess a license to host live entertainment, but Rgabi says they were grandfathered in at that location. They are currently in the process of an appeal, and says they continued to host DJ's under the advice of their lawyer who said the grandfathering would stand.

The lounge staff announced the closure on Facebook Sunday, and the response in the comments has been very supportive. Hundreds of people shared and commented, and Rgabi says that kind of showing from the community gives her inspiration.

"That shows me that there’s hope. Basically that shows me that we were doing something right," she said. "We’re looking for another location, hopefully soon we’ll find another one and hopefully we’ll move to it. We’re not trying to close the hookah lounge, we’re not turning into a cigar lounge because everyone has the right to have fun and do what they like."

13 On Your Side did reach out to Rgabi's landlord for comment, but has not gotten a response. 

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