In an impassioned phone interview with Chicago Pipeline Monday, embattled Congress Theater owner Eddie Carranza spoke about his reasons for filing a lawsuit against the city last week.
Carranza, who is seeking no monetary damages in the suit, said he is being discriminated by the municipality based on a broad reading of a law regulating alcohol consumption in theaters.
City ordinance 4-60-130(b) states “the operator of a theater presenting live stage performances” may sell liquor in their lobby one hour before the start of a performance, and during intermission.
Carranza said because his venue at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a theater, albeit one primarily staging live music, authorities came to his venue enforcing a law that doesn’t apply to his business.
“We have the same, exact type of music theater liquor license as [The Congress’s competitors] do,” Carranza said, naming venues like the Vic Theatre, the Riviera Theatre, and the Aragon Ballroom.
“If you apply that law to us, you have to apply that law to every single theater in the city. That’s the basis of the complaint,” Carranza said. “If you crack down on us, you have to crack down on everyone else. It would kill live music in Chicago.”
Carranza also alleges police intimidation of Congress Theater staff, most notably in the treatment of general manager Ahmad Mahidi, who was taken into police custody and charged with violating city ordinances.
Mahidi was charged with failure to cooperate with police regarding illegal activity in a licensed premise and with violation of hours of operation. Mahidi was taken into custody two-and-a-half hours before one ordinance he was charged with violating went into effect. No arrest was made, and Mahidi was released. On Friday April 13th, during a Meek Mill hip hop show, over 20 officers appeared after a fight among two patrons, where no arrest was made. The situation caused long-time theater neighbor Joe Kopera and eyewitness of the events to resign from his duties as a volunteer CAPS court advocate the following day.
The Chicago Building Code defines a “theater” as a building that presenting primarily theatrical performances, such as plays—not music concerts, as are the Congress’s specialties.
Carranza alleges the law was enforced at the behest of Ald. Proco ‘Joe’ Moreno (1st), who recently put the Congress in a Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearing, the first of which was in April. A minimum of three hearings are required when a business is placed into the deleterious impact process. The Deleterious Impact Public Nuisance Ordinance was established by former Mayor Richard Daley and went into effect April 11, 2007. The ordinance was amended on March 13, 2012.
“[Moreno] found a loophole, he dastardly found a loophole to try to interfere with our business,” Carranza said. “Everything else he’s tried has failed. I don’t know why he applied this law on us. This is another attempt by the aldermen to screw us. He says he doesn’t want to shut us down, but his actions say otherwise.”
Carranza also says the Alderman is “very good friends with my competition,” insinuating they were also behind the increased attention.
“Our competition had a lot to do with initiating this,” Carranza said. “They spread the rumors to my alderman, and my alderman believed them. He didn’t find that loophole himself. My competition gave him that loophole to pursue.
“I can’t prove that that conversation took place, but only my competition would know about something that detailed,” Carranza said, regarding the law.
The Congress Theater has faced profound criticism in the face of a sexual assault of a suburban woman who tried to attend a New Year’s Eve concert, but was turned away because she did not have identification for an age-restricted show.
In the wake of the public outcry about the assault, direct criticisms of the venue, long held in disregard by many Chicago music fans, became much sharper.
“There is a difference between rock ’n’ roll seedy and downright disgusting. The Congress is the latter,” WBEZ music critic Jim DeRogotis said to Carranza.
DeRogatis cited his personal experiences as reporter at the Congress, as well as numerous conversations with “many of your neighbors and customers” for his questions to Carranza.
Users on Yelp, a consumer review-based social network, are particularly withering, criticizing the venue for a lack of sound quality, unsanitary bathrooms and for brutish nature of its security guards. Of the reviews on Yelp, 82—one-third of the 265 total user-submitted reviews—are one-star ratings.
Carranza acknowledged the criticism of his venue, but stridently defended it as well.
“No venue is perfect—nobody, not even the Chicago Theater,” Carranza said. “These shows are very complicated, and they’re a thousand moving pieces. Even with Morrissey, we had gay guys fighting. You know what I mean? No show is ever perfect.”
Regarding Yelp reviews, Carranza deflected additional criticism as the complaints of bitter patrons who’ve been thrown out by security.
“Yelp is a terrible place to rate us. We kick people out for a variety of reasons. Those are the ones that are Yelp’in,” Carranza said. “The ones that complain, I guarantee you they’re getting kicked out.”
Carranza said he is confident the city will rule in his favor, and that the Congress is just as well run as every other venue in the city.
“Put this down, I’ll say this, and I’ll say it again: We are no worse, or no better, than every other professional venue out there,” Carranza said. “No worse, no better. The way we operate our venue is just as professional as [competitors] operate their venues.”
UPDATE: According to documentation the Pipeline has received, the City will not charge the Congress Theater with violating the 4-60-130(b) ordinance.
By Jon Graef