UPDATE There was a license commission hearing Tuesday for Big Chick's. The hearing officer accepted a request for a continuance, and the next status hearing is Jan. 13. Meanwhile, state officials will also be working to amend a law that covers the proximity between religious buildings and bars. The bar will be allowed to stay open during that delay.
A rally was held outside Big Chick's bar in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood Monday night to show support of the long-time community nightlife institution. More than one hundred people participated and most major media were there to cover the event.
Owner Michelle Fire has been facing increasing battles with the city over her establishment's liquor license. There has been a bar in the same location, 5024 N. Sheridan, since 1944.
A critical liquor commission hearing was scheduled for Tuesday morning, after Windy City Times went to press, to decide the bar's future.
The internet has been buzzing with letters of support for Fire and her bar, one of the few GLBT clubs in Chicago which is welcoming to both men and women. Fire has a long history of supporting charitable causes and sporting organizations and teams. She has given a great deal of money and time to AIDS and other fundraising causes, and her deep roots in the community means her support from customers is also deep and strong.
Ald. Mary Osterman and Ald. Helen Shiller, and Smith's Chief of Staff Greg Harris, are all working on the issue. But liquor licenses in Chicago are mainly controlled by one man, Winston Mardis of the Liquor License Control Commission, and even the most politically connected business owners have trouble getting around him.
Contacted several weeks ago, Fire told WCT she did not want to fight the issue in the media. Now, however, the bar's very existence is in peril.
"I have been pursuing the beer garden license ever since the City of Chicago shut it down in July of 2002," Fire told her customers in an e-mail. "It has been a long and arduous process, but I felt that the patio was an important part of the life of Big Chicks. In that process I needed the approval of the whole community, organizations, aldermen, neighbors. We got all of it. At the same time Tweet the restaurant [also owned by Fire] was conceived, assembled and opened in May of 2003. I also applied for a license for Tweet so I could serve drinks in the restaurant. There has been a continuous liquor license and tavern at the Big Chicks site since 1944. (Just ask Miss Elizabeth on the corner bar stool; she has been coming in since it opened as the Sheridan Lounge in 1944!)
"The City of Chicago has decided to NOT issue the patio or restaurant license and in fact has decided to CLOSE Big Chicks THIS TUESDAY [Nov. 25]! They served me with the papers 30 days ago, quite unexpectedly! They have all of a sudden decided that Big Chicks doesn't belong there! That it falls under a State law from 1936."
Greg Harris said there are two Liquor License Control Commission actions involving Big Chicks and Tweet. "Both actions stem from the application by Tweet for an incidental liquor license to serve drinks along with food. During the license application process, the Police Department determined that the Tweet space was less than 100 feet from a house of worship (the Agudas Achim Synagogue on Kenmore). Under State law, a liquor license cannot be issued when a licensee is closer than 100 feet. This also has caused the License Commission to begin revocation proceedings against Big Chicks," Harris said.
"Both Ald. Smith and Ald. Shiller ... are outraged at this action, and feel that both establishments are entitled to liquor licenses ... . Big Chicks and Tweet are some of the finest establishments in the area, are excellent neighbors, caring community partners and exemplify just the kind of investment Uptown is trying to attract," Harris said. "The fact that the License Commission has taken it upon themselves to start this action is, in the opinion of the aldermen, wrong and uncalled for."
While Harris believes the license application is what triggered the city response, Fire also thinks a developer is behind this.
"Coincidentally a developer has bought the adjacent laundromat and plans on tearing it down to put up a huge high rise," she wrote. "I think Chicks is in the way. Needless to say, I am sick to my stomach; it is like an Orwellian nightmare! ... If you can, please write a supportive letter. ... Be aware however that this is the beginning of the actual legal proceedings. I love the City of Chicago, as a business owner of 18 years at this location I want to stay here, run a business with integrity and compassion and fun! All I want is to be allowed to continue to do so ... .
"Ironic isn't it that after all those years fighting gang bangers, drug addicts, street hoodlums, hookers, pimps, panhandlers, and psychos, it's the actual City of Chicago that wants to put me out of business!" Fire said.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for the outpouring of care, concern and heartfelt words," Fire wrote her customers this weekend. "I sat at my computer crying Friday reading your responses ... believe me, we are all totally devastated at this unreal turn of events! Big Chickers from as far as Europe and Israel have reached out."
Letters to: Winston Mardis, Liquor License Control Commission, 65 W. Washington, CL95, Chicago IL 60602. Fax letters to Greg Harris at (312) 744-0804.
Also, there is an online petition at: www.petitiononline.com/JRamone/petition.html.