Though it can be admired for filling a void in the local music scene by booking underground sounds and hosting independent concerts that might not otherwise find a home in Chicago, the Congress Theater is notorious among local music fans as a bad-sounding, poorly maintained and horribly managed dump.
Now, frustrated in what he says have been countless attempts to work with owner Eddie Carranza to address problems at the 86-year-old, 4,690-capacity venue on Milwaukee Avenue near Western, Proco Joe Moreno, the First Ward alderman hailed by many as the elected official most supportive of the local music scene and most sympathetic to the challenges its businesses face, has scheduled a Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing at City Hall to force the Congress to clean up its act.
“We’ve been working for a long time to come up with a plan they can implement, and I just don’t feel it’s moving fast enough,” Moreno says. “We continue to have people drunk in people’s front lawns, and people urinating and defecating on those lawns… They haven’t put any money into sound reduction. I have senior citizens who live next door who can’t sleep. [Carranza] said, ‘We can’t afford to do it to the Congress, but we’ll do it to the [neighboring] houses.’ That hasn’t happened… It’s a known fact on blogs and what-not that if you go there and you’re underage, you can drink and do drugs… I could go on and on and on.
“I just have lost my patience. These requests for security, for additional cameras, for additional lighting and for community clean-up patrols are serious, and now, unfortunately, they’re going to have to be addressed. What I hope comes out of this is: ‘Look, Eddie, get on the ball here, man!’ But he’s hard to talk to. He’s talked to me and to previous aldermen about the development he wants to do. Well, get serious about that. Run it right, Eddie! I’m tired of the lip service.”
Carranza did not respond to requests for comment.
The Congress made headlines early this year when an 18-year-old Highland Park woman was sexually assaulted and brutally beaten by several teens after she was turned away from a dubstep concert at the venue on New Year’s Eve. It prompted a “Boycott Congress Theater” online campaign with more than 700 supporters. Moreno emphasized that the horrible incident had nothing to do with the Congress or the persistent problems there. But it is not the first time the venue has been linked to troubling events or been criticized by patrons and the press.
The previous New Year’s, rock legend Chuck Berry collapsed onstage at the theater, leaving the crowd disgruntled and frustrated in getting refunds, and prompting veteran Sun-Times culture reporter Dave Hoekstra to excoriate the venue in a piece headlined “The funkiest hall of them all.”
“Today the Congress has surpassed the Aragon as the dumpiest large venue for seeing music in Chicago,” Hoekstra wrote. “Could Berry have been brought down by a stinky infrastructure and a throng of fans? Some stood three rows deep in the first balcony, blocking aisles. On March 18, 2010, the Congress was cited by the City of Chicago for seven building code violations that included an order to ‘stop noxious odors from permeating dwelling or premises.’ That’s just Congross.” (Carranza also declined to comment for that article.)
This blogger has made similar criticisms of conditions at the theater over the years, and they sometimes prompted defensive phone calls from Carranza, a gregarious fellow who is fiercely proud of the building he owns. Yet while he has talked for more than a decade about improving it, few problems have been rectified, and he has frustrated several partners with deep pockets who soon ended or dramatically curtailed their working relationships with him.
The Congress is a valuable venue because it occupies the “sweet spot” among local theaters in terms of its capacity (not too big and not too small) and the ability for promoters working there to turn a considerable profit. Similarly sized venues such as the Riviera and Vic theaters and the Aragon Ballroom are exclusively controlled by Jam Productions, while downtown theaters often are booked with plays or are cost-prohibitive for concerts. As a result, numerous music promoters have turned to the Congress as an option, especially given its location spanning arts-friendly Logan Square and Wicker Park.
Over the last decade, two of Jam’s archrivals, Live Nation/House of Blues and C3 Presents, the Austin, Texas-based promoters of Lollapalooza, have attempted to forge long-term relationships with Carranza and use the building as a home base from which to compete. But talk of big improvements never panned out because of what sources say were the frustrations of dealing with Carranza. That has left the mercurial venue owner hosting a procession of independent companies such as the electronic-dance promoters React Presents (which is partnering with the Congress to host a major dance concert on June 16 and 17 at Soldier Field) and Michael Petryshyn of the punk-oriented RiotFest.
“The Brooklyn Bowl, which I’ve visited in Brooklyn, wanted to put $10 million into the place and run their booking out of there, and [Carranza] said no,” Moreno says. “Look, I’m a D.I.Y. guy. I love the fact that he wants to do things and not quote-unquote ‘work with the corporate powers that be.’ But then you have to be able to manage it and have a serious security company. I love Eddie, but he’s trying to do too much with too little staff.”
Why does the Congress get the bookings it gets? “They get good shows by underbidding because their cost structure is so much less because they have an inferior security company which they don’t pay a competitive wage and they don’t have a managerial staff that’s serious,” Moreno says. (Those opinions are seconded by many promoters and booking agents in the Chicago scene.)
“If you take a look at the Aragon or the Vic or the Metro or the Riviera, all places that I love to go to, talk to the aldermen in those areas, and they have few or none of these incidents on a consistent basis that we have. I have the Empty Bottle in my ward, and Double Door and Subterranean. They’re not as big venues as the Congress, obviously, but they put on similar shows, and I don’t have one-tenth of one percent of the problems that I have at the Congress.”
Threatened with demolition in 2000, the Congress was saved by neighborhood activists and preservationists. It won landmark status in 2002, and it is not without defenders who laud Carranza as a good neighbor and praise him for community-oriented activities such as hosting a winter farmer’s market. On her blog Chicago Pipeline (“We give good press”), Alisa Hauser quoted several residents and community leaders who support the venue, including the principal of the Sabin Magnet School. And Hauser floated an elaborate conspiracy theory that Moreno is targeting the Congress to benefit a rival Milwaukee Avenue venue, V-Live, where the alderman held his election night victory celebration.
Moreno dismisses Hauser’s allegations as spurious. “I’ve had events at V-Live; I’ve had events at the Congress. Eddie has supported me financially; so has V-Live. But when I met with V-Live about similar issues, the head of security was there, the head of their valet company was there, two managers were there and the owner was there. The community also was there, and we all sat together at V-Live and came up with a plan, and they implemented that plan.
“That would have been the same thing that happened with the Congress if they would have implemented their plans. But their security company I think is a joke. For any of the DJ shows that are extremely popular—and that I like and that are all-ages—you’re getting kids in there, 16, 17, 18, that are experiencing drugs and alcohol, unfortunately, for the first time in their lives, and they don’t know how to handle it. They have an ambulance there that they pay for because of the overdoses or the near-overdoses. 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.”
Cracking open and inhaling “Whip-Its,” or canisters of nitrous oxide/laughing gas meant to power whipped-cream dispensers, produces a short, giddy high that some attendees at raves use to enhance the much longer MDMA or Ecstasy trip.
Scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on April 17 on the eighth floor of City Hall, the Public Nuisance Hearing is no laughing matter. City ordnance describes it as the first step toward revoking an establishment’s liquor license and a last chance for a venue owner to correct “deleterious impacts” on the neighborhood such as “an adverse effect on the value of any property, an increased risk of violations of law, a substantial increase in noise, litter or vehicular congestion… [and] a substantial number of arrests [that] have occurred within 500 feet of the premises within the previous two years.”
“This is not to shut the Congress down,” Moreno emphasizes. “This is to make the Congress better. That’s what I hope comes out of this. It’s a gem, but it needs to be polished. The place is a dump.
“We’re not asking for unreasonable things. We’re not asking for a $10 million camera system. We’re not asking for metal detectors before people go into the bathrooms. We’re not asking for anything that isn’t what a reasonable venue of their size should be doing anyway.”