It’s a Thursday morning, and Alessandra Rios is balancing on a barstool, pulling handmade clouds down from the rafters one by one.
We’re at Wings Firehouse, a sports bar in Pilsen that — until it indefinitely closed last fall — served up chicken wings in paper baskets and Modelos in cans. But for one night each month, this unassuming sports bar magically transformed into a lesbian party known for its intimate atmosphere and pounding reggaetón.
The party was called Eden, and in a city full of parties, it was special. Rios, who DJs as jenniferfauxxpez, drew a specific cross section of people, many of them queer and Latine, into a fog-soaked universe that existed nowhere else on Chicago’s Southwest Side. For many, the sense of safety and familiarity it provided became the reason they counted down the days until it happened each month.
That is, until the city shut Eden down last October, citing ordinance violations on the part of the bar.
With that swift action, the party could have become another in a legacy of Chicago queer spaces that are precious, necessary and all too ephemeral. But motivated by a desire to revive the oasis-like gathering she’d created, Rios worked tirelessly — on top of her day job as a restaurant server — to bring Eden back.
While the city has long had spaces for cis gay men, there’s always been a dearth of other kinds of queer spaces, including lesbian-centered ones — particularly for people of color. “I created Eden because it was a party that I wanted to go to,” Rios explained. “I want to be gay. I want to dance to reggaetón. I want to see my friends. I want to flirt, I want to dance, I want to drink. And I don’t want anyone to judge me.”
An event unlike any other
Growing up in Hermosa, Rios remembers hanging out with her cousins in her living room, sitting around a boombox. It was an older cousin, a DJ who went by DJ Chiquito and passed out mix CDs at clubs, who first introduced her to reggaetón.
“You really feel it in your body,” Rios said of the genre. “It’s also very culturally significant to me, as someone that didn’t grow up in Puerto Rico but did grow up very culturally Puerto Rican. It was a way for me to connect to who I am and to maintain a sense of pride.”
When she was in her late teens, Rios came out as bisexual and started going to queer parties around the city. But there weren’t many venues that played the music she liked to listen to and also attracted people she wanted to meet. The few places she found — certain nights at La Cueva in Little Village, or a weekly event for Black and Brown lesbians called Dollhouse — served as her North Star when she eventually started throwing events of her own.
In 2021, Rios convinced her boss to let her curate a Halloween party at the former Ace Hotel rooftop bar Little Wild, where she was a bartender. “That party was a little legendary,” Rios said. “We had that place vibrating.” Little Wild permanently closed a few months later, and after that she started daydreaming about a space where she could more consistently bring those parts of herself together.
Then, the owner of Wings Firehouse asked if she wanted to do a residency at the Pilsen sports bar. Rios was nervous, but it seemed too good to pass up. She threw the first official Eden last March. Rios was the opening DJ, followed by local DJs Bonita Appleblunt and Cedeño. She hired go-go dancers to perform.
From the start, the place was packed with people sitting close on the couches and winding their waists on the dance floor through the fog. “I was hoping for a good turnout,” Rios said. “But for people to show up the way they did, even at the first one — people were dancing and vibing, it was sweaty and sexy in there. The next day, I had chills. It felt different. It felt like a release.”
Dulce Davalos, who lives in Bridgeport, attended Eden and remembers immediately being struck by little details, like drinks served with tajín or Bad Bunny coming on and people singing along in Spanish. “Not only being able to be in a queer-friendly space, but also a space where everybody looks like you and sings the same songs as you, and you’re able to hear Spanish in the background, and bachata comes on and people know the steps and we’ll all be dancing,” she said. “It just felt so safe, so affirming.”
In Chicago, about one-third of residents are Latine and an estimated 8% of adults identify as LGBTQ, though that second percentage is likely higher. Rios had tapped into something there was an appetite for, and people rushed in to get their fill.
“To me, it’s important that Eden is centered towards lesbians, dykes, but isn’t exclusionary either,” said partygoer Frankie Sopeña. “It feels really good to me to see other trans people there. I remember the first time I went, seeing two people making out who were clearly not, like, cis lesbians. They were both wearing chains and having a great time. That’s beautiful to see and is not always true of other queer spaces.”
“Pa’ los Latinos!” said Kendra Jamaica, another Eden regular, about what made the party special. “You go there to be Latino and queer and loud and proud. It’s very mi casa, su casa.”
Rios’s mom and cousin collected tickets at the door, and friends helped with decorations — like clouds made from paper lanterns and craft store fluff.
Though it was closely associated with reggaetón, Eden wasn’t beholden to any one genre of music. DJ Phreaky Bionick, who’s played at several of Rios’s events, said the energy she got from the crowd at Eden allowed her to move from house to reggaetón to dancehall. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience.”
The party grew more popular with each month that went by. Rios began making the events themed, and eventually brought in a BDSM professional to run a spanking booth.
By the time fall of 2022 arrived, presale tickets were consistently selling out, and Rios was bringing in her first out-of-town DJ, Colombia’s Ynfynyt Scroll.
“I remember he played ‘Y Dime’ by Ms Nina and Tomasa del Real, and when the beat drops that goes ‘Y dime,’ I looked at [my friend] Karen and we both grabbed each other’s hands and we were screaming the lyrics in the middle of the dance floor,” Rios recalled. “And I felt like, wow, I’ve really come full circle.”
On the night of Eden’s blood and leather-themed Halloween party on Oct. 29, Rios created a special backdrop for the DJ booth and worked with Nix Campbell, who designed lighting at venues including Smartbar and Podlasie Club, to create lighting inspired by the blood rave scene from the movie Blade.
“I put so much work into that party,” Rios said. “We transformed the place.”
For the first time, she worried there might be more people showing up than she had tickets to sell.
“It was gonna be the night, the best party to be at,” Jamaica said. “I was so excited to witness it and be part of it.”
A shutdown with consequences
The October event took a turn just after midnight, when police officers and city officials came in shouting for the person in charge.
Rios said police told her the bar was missing licenses, and she could either ask everyone to leave or the officials there would make them. It was a confusing scene: Minutes before, people had been drinking and dancing, and now the lights suddenly came on and everyone was told it was time to go.
The shutdown had consequences. After being forced to leave the event Halloween weekend, Davalos and her partner ended up waiting in line outside a North Side bar, where they were harassed on the street. The experience was so unsettling they decided to call it a night. “There was so much disappointment, and just kind of the reality of, like, these safe spaces are unfortunately not guaranteed,” she said. “And when they’re not there, our safety is also not guaranteed.”
Rios herself was heartbroken. A big part of that came from the sense of responsibility she had for the community she’d brought together. “I would never have put people in that situation if I had known that was going to be the outcome,” she said. “I remember waking up Sunday morning and being inconsolable.”
She was also confused. Did someone call and complain about the party? Rios said the police officers who arrived that night told her someone from inside the party had called.
City records show there were no 911 or 311 calls made about the party on the night of the closure, or any night that Eden was active between March and October. (The only 311 complaint about Wings Firehouse during those months came the following Monday, Oct. 31, according to city documents.)
The city officials that showed up that night were part of the Business Compliance Task Force, a group that involves the Chicago Department of Buildings, Police Department and Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP), according to a spokesperson for the BACP. Established in 2020 to shut down unlicensed venues during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the task force’s goal, according to the city website, is to “prevent egregious and dangerous violations of the municipal code.”
The BACP spokesperson, Elisa Sledzinska, said city officials’ appearance at Wings Firehouse during Eden’s October event was part of “routine proactive operations.”
Budget documents suggest such visits may become more commonplace. According to the 2023 city budget overview, the BACP recently set a goal of expanding the Nights and Weekends enforcement team in collaboration with the Business Compliance Task Force, as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s broader public safety push.
Rios had assumed the bar’s owner, who invited her to do a residency in the space, had everything in order to throw events like hers. But the venue, it turned out, was missing several business licenses, including a Public Place of Amusement license, which is required for Chicago venues that host DJs and have a building capacity of more than 100 people. The bar’s owner would receive ordinance violation notices and fines totaling $24,000 for not having these licenses.
It took time for Rios to regroup. With only two lesbian bars in the city, people who throw sapphic events in Chicago usually have to look for venue owners who are willing to take a chance on them. And such venue owners generally aren’t long-toothed business people who know the ins and outs of city licensing requirements.
“A lot of places simply won’t throw a lesbian night or will not see it as having value,” said Irregular Girl, co-host of “Strapped,” Berlin Nightclub’s popular lesbian night. “And so you find these nontraditional spaces, but then we don’t have all the permits, we don’t have all the whatever-the-f***. And then that s*** gets shut down.”
But the reality is these gatherings are needed, said Berlin general manager Ren McConville. “There are people who are aching for these spaces.”
This past winter, Rios started a new residency called Globethotter at the California Clipper and a monthly show on local Internet radio station Beloved. And she plotted Eden’s comeback. She brought on Eden’s photographer, Olivia Wolf, to be a creative partner and help with logistics.
For Rios, it was important to find a permanent venue for the party on the city’s Southwest Side. She looked at several bars and nightclubs in the area. One of them, Los Globos in Little Village, seemed like it could be a good fit. The owner of the historically Mexican nightclub was looking for new kinds of events to bring to the venue, Rios said, even if he had questions about what a BDSM section was.
A new “garden of earthly delights”
At the Leather Archives and Museum recently I read about Clit Club, a weekly party in New York City popular among Black and Brown lesbians in the 1990s. Like Eden it had go-go dancers, pool tables and lots of dark corners. The museum exhibit quoted David Velasco, editor in chief of Artforum, who described it as a “legendary safe house along the path of a malevolent journey.”
Eden also felt like a safe house, in part because Wings Firehouse is on a stretch of Western Avenue that doesn’t get a ton of foot traffic. It wasn’t the kind of place that flush-faced bros wandered into after too many beers. To partygoers, it felt like a protected space.
“At other venues, people won’t always know it’s a queer event and dudes will invade your space and harass you,” Sopeña said. “But I’ve never had an issue with people being weird at Eden.”
After leaving Wings Firehouse on a winter morning, clouds in hand, Rios closed the door on the sports bar for what may be the last time. Its time as Eden’s home had come and gone. And, besides, the party had outgrown the space.
Back at her Little Village apartment, Rios’s cats, Benito and Giuseppe, were roaming, and there was a bowl of gold hoop earrings on the kitchen counter. Two of them, a pair, spelled out “Jenny” and “Fauxx” across their centers.
Rios was buzzing with excitement about Eden’s comeback. The “homecoming” party, as Rios calls it, will take place April 22 at Metro, which can stay open later than most venues in the city on weekends. “It’s a big anniversary party,” Rios said, “so I really want to do a 5 AM-er.”
After that, Eden will return to a monthly schedule at its new home at Los Globos.
The lineup for the April event includes Toronto-based DJ LITNEY and Ynfynyt Scroll, back from Bogotá, along with Chicago-based DJ Karennoid. Rios has been working with the venue on lighting and images to project on the walls. The theme is “the garden of earthly delights.”
“I can’t wait to see what it turns into,” said Jamaica. “Because I just know it’s going to keep going up from here.” Jamaica isn’t the only Eden regular enthusiastic about the party’s return. The first 100 tickets sold out in a day.
Maggie Sivit is the digital and engagement producer for WBEZ’s Curious City. Follow her @magisiv