During an 11-week period since mid-August, Chicago Police received 30 service calls for the troubled Congress Theater—a number that ranks with Soldier Field and the United Center, and which is several times greater than the calls from comparable or larger music venues.
Those statistics were the most significant evidence of continuing problems at the 86-year-old venue on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square when its embattled owner, Erineo “Eddie” Carranza, appeared at his fourth Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing at City Hall on Wednesday.
Cook County Sheriffs served the current Portage film management team with eviction notices on Tuesday, the last step before proceedings to toss them out wind up in court.
Six Corners neighborhood groups and 45th Ward Alderman John Arena strongly object to the ouster of the current Portage managers and fear that the venue will begin hosting the sort of electronic dance music and hip-hop concerts causing trouble at the Congress. Owen Brugh, Arena’s chief of staff, sat through the Congress Theater hearing carefully taking notes.
Arena and Logan Square/1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno both were attending a City Council meeting, but Moreno was represented by staffer Jerry Gabrielatos. He said the Ward office has received fewer complaints about the Congress in recent weeks and the alderman has noticed some progress. “But we still have some concerns,” he added.
The Congress hearing process began last March, initiated by neighbors and Moreno, who said they were frustrated by Carranza’s slow progress in correcting problems with security, noise control and the physical state of the theater. After Wednesday’s hour-long hearing, mediator Barbara Gressel, assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, set a longer time before the next session, scheduled for 10 a.m. on May 7, after indicating that she was pleased with Carranza’s progress.
“I appreciate the work that the Congress Theater has done, and I think neighbors will say the same,” Gressel said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. But what do they say? ‘There is no nirvana here on earth.’”
The number of police calls to the Congress do indeed seem like a far cry from nirvana. Joe Giambrone, a police sergeant from the 14th District, cited the arrest of a dealer selling LSD across the street when DJ Justice performed on Oct. 24 and an arrest for battery of a Congress employee by a patron during the punk-rock Riot Fest on Sept. 14 among those stemming from the calls between Aug. 16 and Oct. 30.
Then Giambrone tried to put those 30 calls at the 3,500-seat Congress in perspective by comparing them to arenas and stadiums 10 times or more the size of the Congress. During the same period, he said, there were 57 calls to Wrigley Field (capacity 41,159), 36 calls to U.S. Cellular Field (40,615), 32 calls to Soldier Field (61,500), 31 calls to United Center (20,500). In a striking contrast, he said, there were 17 calls to the House of Blues (1,500), nine calls to Metro (1,150), seven calls to the Chicago Theatre (3,600) and six calls to the Aragon Ballroom (4,500).
Other troubling events raised during the hearing by the moderator included a letter from a mother who said her daughter, who has medical problems, was denied help by security who thought she was intoxicated (“I would hope they could tell the difference,” Gressel said) and complaints from several patrons that the now overly-zealous security was intruding upon them in curtained-off bathroom stalls fearing drug use (“Some people may just have to use the facilities and they may not be in there to do drugs,” Gressel noted).
Congress security also reported that one show, a concert by rapper Lil Durk on Oct. 19, was canceled in advance of the event to forestall trouble. The artist is part of the controversial Chicago “drill music” scene of extremely violent hip-hop best known for its most famous proponent Chief Keef, who has played the Congress in the past.
Thomas Raines, the high-powered attorney representing Carranza at the hearings, tried to downplay the number of Congress police calls as “relative to our area.” He added, “We’re on the right track, though there have been some setbacks.”
Among the areas of improvement cited by Raines in his comments and included in a handout to those attending the meeting: maintaining better communications with police, neighbors and the alderman’s office; a zero tolerance policy for admitting drunk or stoned concertgoers; patrolling the alleys and streets around the venue; working to improve the parking situation and continuing to beef up soundproofing in the venue.
Since August, security at the venue has been handled by a newly formed firm, BluCorp Security Consultants, which at earlier hearings has stressed that many of its yellow-vested workers are former or current police officers. However, a recent employment ad for the firm offering to pay $15 to $25 an hour for “event security in Logan Square” sought as qualifications only “quality individuals who can work as a team for music events [and who have] a PERC [Permanent Employee Registration Card], a positive attitude and enjoy (or tolerate) different kinds of music.”
As for the situation at the Portage, 45th Ward Chief of Staff Brugh was unaware that sheriffs had delivered eviction notices to David Dziedzic and his team until informed after the Congress hearing by this reporter. He said Ald. Arena was under the impression that Carranza had been negotiating with the current film operators and that the alderman’s office has not been in contact with the new owner since a controversial meeting several weeks ago.
Asked about the state of the eviction after the Congress hearing, Raines said, “Everybody tries to paint him [Carranza] as a bad guy, but if you don’t pay your rent, you’re out, it’s as simple as that.”
The Portage team has admitted that it owes more than $100,000 in back rent, but it has claimed that it made urgently needed repairs to the building for that amount. Raines however said the team has not been paying its current rent, either.
Voice mail for the Portage operators was full and not accepting messages Wednesday. They previously have not responded to requests for comment.
Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage: