Your NPR news source

Chicago's segregated nightlife: Why don't we play together?

SHARE Chicago's segregated nightlife: Why don't we play together?
(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

When we think of segregation in Chicago, schools and housing are the most obvious examples. But racial divisions also are apparent when it comes to partying in the greater downtown area.

On a recent Friday night, women in stilettos and groups of men enjoying a guy’s night out jam Rush Street. Bars and nightclubs overflow with patrons. This strip is hot for locals and tourists alike. But there’s just a sprinkling of black and brown faces. Those faces certainly belie Chicago’s diverse population. Then again, given that Chicagoans live so separately, this segregation probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

But we’re not talking neighborhoods. I’m in the thick of one of the most vibrant nightclub scenes in the city.  And the separation has led to sparks, complaints and lawsuits.

I stop in front of the club Proof. Earlier this year the owner here fired a bartender for her racist Facebook rants against black customers. Race-tinged incidents are hard to quantify - but they are hardly isolated. Last summer a white general manager was fired from Fuze in Lincoln Park. She sued the owner in federal court, claiming the club used illegal tactics to limit the number of black male customers. According to the attorney for that manager, the lawsuit was settled. The agreement doesn’t allow either party to comment.

GILMORE: When that went public, I was like, I’ve been telling you all that for years. It just takes somebody in the inside to say it.

Teddy Gilmore is a black party promoter who caters to the African-American, under 30, college-educated set. He cheekily refers to himself as the expert in race and nightlife in Chicago.

GILMORE: The black male has the toughest time. I see a lot of people go to a place called Underground here. I watch them outside. They can’t get in and they don’t understand why. But other people are walking straight in. I’ve been in the nightlife for 17 years for me. Doesn’t matter if I’m in the industry, doesn’t matter. It’s not a racial thing, but they have a ratio of how many black people they actually want to come in the club.

I can’t tell you what club owners like Billy Dec of the Underground and others think. They never returned my phone calls. In fact, it’s a sensitive subject for anyone in the industry.

Chicagoans can tell you about can visitors.

In 2009, the owners of Original Mother's nightclub reached a settlement with six out-of-town black college students. The students said the club used a dress code against baggy pants to racially profile them -- when they switched pants with their white friends, the white guys--in those same baggy pants--got in.

Baggy attire was also a problem for a black male customer at the upscale sports bar Market in the West Loop. He said he wasn’t admitted because his pants were too baggy. He protested that bouncers allowed white patrons with the same attire in without pause. He took his grievance to the city. According to documents from the Commission on Human Relations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, there was enough evidence to proceed with a case.

But the patron and Market settled this year and, again, neither party can comment.

Kenneth Gunn is first deputy commissioner with the city human relations commission.

GUNN:  If it looks like the rules are targeting one group of people, then that’s what we have trouble with.

He says he’s noticed an uptick in club complaints over race matters. Six cases between 2009-10. More than ever before, and those are just the ones with a resolution. 

GUNN: One of the complainants was denied entry because he had braids. The way the hearing officer looked at the case and our board ultimately decided, who’s going to have braids? Who wears their hair in that style? Primarily African Americans. By having a no-braid rule, you’re going to exclude a group of people. So it has a disparate impact on African Americans.

The commission does have the authority to fine establishments if they’re found to discriminate.  But Gunn says the commission decided to hand out a flier to nightclubs, reminding them that things like dress codes and admittance policies must be applied in a non-discriminatory manner.


A waiter at NoMi, a rooftop bar on Michigan Avenue explains the summer craft cocktail list. I’m with Audarshia Townsend, known as the 312 Dining Diva. She covers nightlife and hears many complaints. 

TOWNSEND: Mostly African American, Latin and even Indian promoters have the biggest complaints. They cannot get their own groups into these places, these mainstream places, especially when they’re hot and they’re fresh and they’re brand new. Say five, six years down the line when the club isn’t the hottest thing in the city anymore, that’s when they’ll let them in, basically when the club is on its way out.

Townsend insists a downtown club that embraces diversity--is possible and it happened here. 

TOWNSEND: One of the best places, it was at the forefront of trying to change the diversity and nightlife in Chicago was Funky Buddha Lounge and that was in the late 90s.
RUSSO: It was bliss really. I had this idea of creating an upscale environment and being able to play music that was before Funky Buddha was being played in underground spots.

Joe Russo, who is white, owned Funky Buddha until 1998. Today he owns The Shrine, a club and live music venue in the South Loop. Its name is homage to late Afro-pop superstar Fela’s Nigerian club. On this Tuesday afternoon, Shrine employees move furniture to prepare for hip-hop group Dead Prez.

On many nights, The Shrine boasts a diverse crowd. Russo says other nightclub owners don’t always see the value of diversity.

RUSSO: The biggest obstacle in creating a diverse venue is conquering the fears that have been sort of set up in society to keep people divided. A lot of times people, if they don’t know what something’s like, they go on the typical stereotypical opinion of what things should be.

Fortunately, again, with The Shrine live music helps conquer those fears.

Across town, Joel Barnes is the general manager of Lumen, a nightclub off of west Fulton Street. It’s the middle of the day, lights on, slate-colored couches in full view. They’ll be danced on later. Barnes has worked in the club scene in Chicago for years and says there’s a troubling undercurrent to the racial profiling he’s seen.

BARNES: I know that there are racist owners. I know there are racist managers, racist bartenders, racist servers, racist people in Chicago period. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately. Unfortunately, what people don’t understand is that people that are put into the power in these businesses sometimes are just doing what the population of people want.

Barnes says he works hard to maintain a coolness factor at Lumen and that brings diversity.

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Teddy Gilmore, the longtime black promoter, has had his share of run-ins with law enforcement and skittish venue owners. He once picketed a downtown Chicago hotel that reneged on a contract because he says management feared so-called gang activity.

Gilmore says he has an easier time when he throws parties across the country and overseas.

GILMORE: I’d be a millionaire ten times over if Chicago wasn’t the way it was.

But the issue is bigger than money for Gilmore.

GILMORE: People say ‘oh, it’s just a party.’ And while that may well be true, there’s more to it than that. Because you have to also be able to see the different things that are going on. How the people are actually looking at you, how people are judging you.

Gilmore says some club owners really believe their business will be undermined by having too many African Americans inside.  That, he says, is a messed up state of mind.

More From This Show