Joe Kopera points across the street to EZ Pawn, 2138 N. Milwaukee Ave., a new pawn shop about to join the block, as its neighbor, The Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. prepares for a “Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing” scheduled for Tues. April 17th at 11:30AM in the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Chambers of City Hall.
Though Kopera, a 50-plus year resident of Logan Square recently honored with a parkway in his name by 1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, can’t speak for the two other city wards where the Austin, Texas- based EZ Pawn is opening storefronts, he shared with The Pipeline that EZ Pawn made its entry into Logan Square’s 1st Ward after considerable resistance from residents and an 81% vote against the pawn shop by members of the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association (GGNA).
The GGNA, which serves residents of Southeast Logan Square, is again involved in a dialogue about a business on their block, albeit one with a much greater impact than the green-lighted pawn shop.
In advance of The Congress Theater’s Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearing, Ronda Locke, director of Community Outreach for Ald. Moreno, posted a message on the association’s Listserve, indicating,”We need community representatives to attend the meeting and be willing to express the issues and the impact that the patrons of Congress has had on their quality of life. The city’s corporate council will mediate and if commitments are not honored Congress could possibly lose their liquor license.”
Locke’s post elicited a flood of concern and confusion from at least one dozen neighbors. The first to respond to Ronda, Kopera wrote, “Get real people work with them and stop this unnecessary action.”
The local buzz on the Listserve and in the pipeline has been very different than in the traditional media, which has long depicted Ald. Moreno as Chicago’s ‘hipster’ alderman, on the pulse of our city’s music scene. Tipped off by The Pipeline, WBEZ’s Sound Opinions music blogger Jim DeRogatis elaborated on recent events this past Friday, headlining his post, “City to Congress Theater: Clean Up Your Act” In the WBEZ piece, Ald. Moreno tells DeRogatis that he’s tired of “lip service” from Congress Management.
“Moreno was getting upset by what he called lip service [by Congress management], but he’s building his whole case on some phone calls to his office. I find this to be disturbing,” Kopera said,
Kopera is requesting that the Alderman put the hearing on hold since he does not see enough evidence to justify it.
One resident, K., suggested that if the community did not seem to ask for the hearing, the community should have the right to request to cancel it too.
Doug VanderHoof, who lives one half mile from the Congress, responded to The Pipeline’s request for a comment on the hearing. “Just watching the conversation on neighborhood listserves, it seems the neighbors think hearing about deleterious impact is not the way to help the situation at these clubs. People have real concerns, but they’re not calling for closing V-Live or the Congress in response.”
In a telephone conversation with The Pipeline, Locke said that the Alderman did not feel that the Congress was moving fast enough after a Jan. 4, 2012 meeting following a a NYE rape at City Hall between Carranza, Homero Tristan, the theater’s legal counsel, and Ald. Moreno. According to Locke, lighting, signage, reflective orange vests, and security cameras were discussed as immediate measures to improve safety and security in and around the Congress.
Eddie Carranza, owner of the theater, wrote a message on the Listserve on Friday, March 16, 2012 noting that the Congress had met all of the commitments established during the meeting, save for the cameras. On Monday, March 19th, the cameras were installed along the building’s perimeters.
Interested in learning more about the ordinance, Kopera went to the city’s website and printed out the Deleterious Impact Public Nuisance Ordinance.
“There are four requirements that must be met, and the one at the very bottom is a significant number of arrests made within 500 -ft. over a two year period. And I don’t see that,” he said.
If anyone outside of the Chicago Police Dept. is qualified to speak about arrests, it’s Kopera. A volunteer court advocate living just one-half block from the venue, he meets with fellow advocates and the 14th District Police on the second Tuesday of every month. The advocates discuss cases and arrests in all of the 14th District beats, including Beat 1431 which encompasses the Congress Theater, Ultra Lounge (previously the Tiny Martini Lounge), Congress Pizzeria, and V Live.
To create a balanced comparison among the four neighboring establishments, The Pipeline is currently gathering arrest data on all four businesses, however, we wanted to first share Kopera’s Arrest Data reports on the Congress Theater, Congress Pizzeria, and V-Live, as the latter venue has entered into the discussion due to a fatal shooting that occurred on the club’s premises in 2009.
Over a four month period from Dec. 13, 2011 to March 13, 2012 involving non felony, first time misdemeanors (not ongoing cases), there were 23 non felony arrests made within 500 ft. of V Live and Congress Pizzeria and zero arrests made within 500 ft. of the Congress Theater, per Kopera’s CAPS arrest reports of which he supplied documentation. Over a 16 month period from Sept. 3, 2010 through January 22, 2012, and reflecting approx. 75% attendance at monthly meetings on Kopera’s part, there was one felony arrest within 500-ft. of V Live and Congress Pizzeria and nine felony arrests reported within 500 ft. of the Congress Theater.
Considering that two major crimes, a murder and a rape, have occurred in or within 500-ft. of both venues, residents on the GGNA Listserve along with Kopera are posing the question of why have responses to these different events which share equal brutality been handled in different ways? Why, when a murder happened at V Live, wasn’t similar action such as a BACP Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance taken? It could be different aldermanic styles of leadership. Kopera believes that Manny Flores, Moreno’s predecessor, likely wanted to avoid avoid an extreme measure like a hearing. Instead, Flores facilitated a meeting after the shooting, which was hosted by V Live and included foods and drinks. Kopera recalls being among the approx. 35-50 community residents at V Live during the gathering.
Tristan, and Carranza would like to engage the community in a similar fashion. “I believe that this is a conversation that the community and the Congress need to have in the community and with the alderman’s office involved in all steps,” Tristan said. He added, “The Deleterious Impact process makes it a downtown problem and takes away the community’s voice. A hearing would be applying downtown standards to community concerns that we’ve addressed. We are complying and we want to keep it in the community.”
Locke assured The Pipeline that she’d check to see if V-Live ever faced a DI/PN hearing at City Hall and get back to us, though no word has been received. The Pipeline reached out to Sally Hamann, chairwoman of the GGNA, to find out if the GGNA conducts a similar voting process among its members on Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance matters as it does for zoning changes and special use permits like it did with the EZ Pawn vote. We have not received a response from Hamann, either.
Meanwhile, Carranza has issued an invitation to the Community on the GGNA Listserve titled “Meet the Congress Forum” inviting Logan Square neighbors to stop by the Congress this Sunday, April 1st at 2PM.
“It is my wish that through a mature adult conversation we can cancel what The Congress Theater feels is an unnecessary hearing…. and close any unresolved issues with open community dialogue. I believe The Congress Theater is good for the community and encourage you all to come out and show your support and bring to us your ideas you have that might make us better,” Carranza wrote.
In a private email exchange that Carranza shared with The Pipeline, Locke warmly thanked Carranza for reaching out to the community and indicated that while the Alderman has a schedule conflict on Sunday, she plans to attend the forum.
Of Locke’s role in the pre-hearing process, Kopera is quick, like many locals, to say that he respects the work that she does and that he’s worked closely with her on many community programs, as well as with Ald. Moreno. “But I don’t understand her backing on this particular issue. Perhaps she knows something that I don’t?” he speculated.
According to the city’s ordinance, “During the hearing, the burden of proof is on the community to bring evidence proving that the business is a public nuisance.” In effect this would make it difficult for Locke or the Alderman to offer up new information unknown to the community, since the community must provide the burden of proof. In the WBEZ story, the Alderman refers to added security from the community that were hired by Carranza after the NYE incident.
“They did agree to pay a couple of community people to walk around with orange vests to keep the patrons out of people’s front yards. Those guys are friends of mine and they come back to me and they have a bag full of Whip-It canisters that were dropped all over the place,” Ald. Moreno told DeRogatis.
What Moreno doesn’t say about the hired community people is that he strongly urged Carranza to hire them, and according to Carranza, when they came on board, the four workers did not cooperate with the rest of the security team and refused radios to communicate with the team. Instead, as Carranza says, “they went off on their own.” Carranza paid each of the alderman’s appointed community workers $130 per concert night.
While Moreno claims he doesn’t want to shut the Congress down, just, as he emphasizes in the WBEZ interview with DeRogatis, “make the Congress better,” there’s a lot at stake at a BACP Hearing, including the possible loss of a liquor license, which, for a place like the Congress, or any venue, could mean its business, too.
Though independently owned, The Congress Theater is no small business. Over the past eight years, since he purchased the building from his landlord in 2005, Carranza says he’s been approached by “churches, real estate developers, bowling alleys, national grocery chains, movie theater chains, pawn shops, and other music promoters,” all wanting to buy or buy into the Congress.
In 2007, Live Nation wanted to purchase it. Executives offered to buy Carranza out, and give him a corporate job, but around the same time this was occurring, Eddie arranged a loan of $200,000 with Arne Granat of Jam Productions, so that he could remain independent. Half of the loan has been paid off, and the relationship, as Carranza describes it, “is a little weird.” At the time of the loan, Eddie says that Jam never thought he would still be kicking, perhaps thinking he was a bright light that would burn out too soon and eventually give Jam the keys to the theater. In sharp contrast, Carranza, whose been described as having a “mercurial” personality by DeRogatis, has gradually developed The Congress into a formidable player in our city’s music scene, bringing on many acts commanding sold-out houses.
Recently, electronic music shows have been immense draws, causing the Congress to program more of them, but not everyone is liking the change. The genre is under scrutiny from the theater’s neighbors, who’ve reported that they’ve seen “spaced out kids” walking around the neighborhood on nights of certain shows, perhaps indicating usage of MDMA, or Ecstasy, a drug that has been associated with electronic music. Within the industry, electronic music is causing cutthroat competition among large scale promoters like Jam and Live Nation who’re now competing to book the same shows that Carranza and a growing team of independent promoters have managed to get a head start with capitalizing on because the independents not only have their ear to the ground, but can underbid because they don’t have the bloated operational structures that the bigger players do.
This past Sunday, The Pipeline chatted with Paul Levin, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, who was breaking down the tables on the occasion of the final Logan Square Indoor Farmers Market of the season. For the third consecutive winter, Carranza has loaned out use of the venue to some two dozen farmers at no cost to the farmers or the chamber, a generosity noted in the market’s season end newsletter.
Aware of recent events, and in response to The Pipeline’s inquiry of whether or not he supports the existence of the hearing, Levin replied, “I don’t think whether or not I do or do not support this hearing is the right question. I think it’s always nice if you can avoid a hearing, but if circumstances result where it’s necessary to have a hearing, it’s important to know that a hearing is an open process carried out by impartial parties where the nub of the process is that it brings all parties together to evaluate the situation and everybody is forced to listen to everyone’s side.”
Levin continued, “I’ve seen Eddie as doing good for the farmers market, for us. But right now it’s 2PM in the afternoon. It’s not 2AM. I don’t know what it’s like at 2AM here. Eddie does good things, and he’ll have an opportunity to figure out what needs to be done and his progress toward that can be monitored. Yes, it will likely be an imposition for [Eddie] perhaps, but it will be done in a way where everyone is involved.”
During Levin’s tenure as chamber director he’s been involved in proceedings for two Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearings, he says, “there was good evidence for bad things going on.” In the experience closest to the proximity of the Congress Theater, about two years ago, neighbors living near Congress Pizzeria had witnessed its pizza delivery drivers selling drugs in the restaurant’s parking lot. “It wasn’t the management, it was the behavior of its employees, the going-ons in the parking lot, the drivers,” Levin said. He noted Congress Pizzeria is still in operation and has made “dramatic improvement.”
Is it improvement too that Ald. Moreno seeks from Carranza, or something else? While Moreno’s quick to tell DeRogatis in one breath that “I love Eddie,” in the other breath he is fast to criticize the Congress’s business model and operational structure, so it’s difficult to get a steady read on what’s really going on.
For Carranza’s part, it’s all pretty clear. “The alderman went to the city and then to the community. It is supposed to be the other way around. I never got the chance to talk with the community first and now it’s the city, so I want that chance, and for the community to meet our entire staff personally so we can all work together in harmonious ways in the future. The problem has been the broken missing link between us and the community. We want to fix that, to move forward.”
”Meet the Congress Forum” is Sunday, April 1st at 2PM in the lobby of the theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee. A panel of Congress team members including Carranza will be present. Congri (rice) tastings from Paladar (a new Cuban restaurant opening soon in the former El Cid #1 space near the Congress) will be provided along with other snacks like cookies from Sterling Goss. Please send any questions about the Congress that you want answered during the panel discussion to email@example.com and RSVP to 630-550-9934 or via email.