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The Nightclub Next Door

Some new Boys Town condo owners want Circuit shut down because it's too loud. Their neighbors Mike Swingler, Steven heintz, and Ben Scheie say the noise comes with the territory.



Two nasty wars are under way at the Dakota, the boxy 56-unit condominium that went up a couple of years ago on North Halsted next to Circuit, the city's largest gay dance club. One is an ongoing battle between some residents of the building and Circuit over the noise it generates; the other is a newer struggle between those residents and a contingent of their neighbors in the Dakota who've stepped forward to support the nightclub. Steven Heintz, who lives on the third floor of the building, located at 3631 N. Halsted, says he and a majority of Dakota residents sat back over the last two years while a smaller group complained to authorities that noise levels in their units were intolerable. As a result of their complaints the club spent $200,000 to upgrade its soundproofing system, but the affected residents say the problem persists. When they escalated their campaign this summer and began collecting signatures on a petition for a referendum to vote the precinct dry, Heintz and his partner, Mike Swingler, decided it was time to step in. The threat to put Circuit out of business had turned the Dakota into a target of wrath in the gay community and sparked fear that other sections of Halsted, Boys Town's celebrated Main Street, might also go dry and die. "People would walk by and spit on the building," Heintz says. "I wanted to counter that."

On the other side of the building--and the issue--are Evelyn and Tom DiLisio. Their second-floor unit is cheek by jowl with the club, and they say the deep bass beat, an incessant thump that reaches a crescendo between 2 and 4 AM, travels directly up to their windows. (Circuit is open until 5 AM Saturdays and 4 every other night.) Even after the recent sound-control improvements, the DiLisios say their decibel meter is clocking noise above the city's limit of 55 decibels from any one source. The DiLisios bought their unit before the Dakota was completed--they were already living in the neighborhood just two blocks away--but say they were unaware of noise problems. At street level, Circuit seemed quiet, Evelyn DiLisio says: "No one knew this club had caused a problem since '96." It wasn't until they filed a Freedom of Information request with the city's Department of the Environment that they learned about complaints from buildings as far away as 707 W. Waveland and the New York, at 3660 N. Lake Shore Drive. Maggie Rice, deputy commissioner of the department, says Circuit's been inspected 21 times since 1998, and "we've never found a violation we could prosecute."

The Dakota is the newcomer on the block. Circuit owner Mike Macharello opened his business at 3641 N. Halsted ten years ago; 18 months later he got a liquor license and a co-owner, Patrick Harms. Zoning on the street is commercial: another gay club, Vortex, and a pool hall stood where the Dakota is now. The Dakota's developers, Tom Drake and Gregory Greif, got a zoning variance that allowed the residential building to go up. In March 2002 the Department of the Environment measured noise coming from the club between midnight and 4 AM on Saturday and found "marginal" readings of 59 decibels, but it wasn't until residents moved in and began calling police, Alderman Helen Shiller, and other city authorities that serious changes were made. In 2003 Circuit's owners thickened and reinforced the roof, wrapped the club in a double insulating wall, and added absorbers to the inside ceiling. They also parked microphones on the roof near the Dakota to monitor the sound being emitted there. Their acoustics consultant, Columbia College professor Douglas Jones, says that as a result "noise levels have come down." But, he cautions, you can't really soundproof anything: if DJs turn the volume up, it'll leak out. And, he says, there's a big subjective factor--sound can be within legal limits and still be a problem for some people.

According to the DiLisios, residents waited a year to see if Circuit's construction would solve their problem; when it didn't they resorted to the more drastic step of circulating the go-dry petition. They needed only 177 signatures--25 percent of the precinct's 706 registered voters--to get it on the ballot in November, and they collected 242, though only 11 of the Dakota's units are represented. (The rest of the signatures were from buildings farther away.) Circuit, with the precinct's only liquor license, is the sole business that currently would be affected, but a dry-vote victory would preclude any new licenses, and some in the gay community worry that it could set off a wave of similar votes. Rumors spread that the DiLisios and other petition supporters want to change the character of the community (which will soon be home to a new GLBT community center, across the street from the Dakota). A photograph of the DiLisios is posted on Circuit's Web site, where they're identified as the "Dakota culprits." DiLisio says these "rumors and lies" and the "slant demonstrated by the gay press" are evidence that "heterophobia is alive and well in Boys Town."

Jason Jaquet, who moved into the building a year ago, agrees that the only issue is noise: "If I played my music as loud as Circuit, my neighbors would call the police," he says. "All we want them to do is turn the music down a little bit." Jaquet says he and his partner cased the building before buying and were prepared for a certain level of sound. But now, he says, the problem's "getting worse, and we don't understand why. It's not every night, but it wakes us up." (Another resident, Craig Kelker, speculates that the number of bodies inside the club has something to do with the variable noise levels, along with weather conditions: "On a crisp night, it rocks.") When Jaquet and his partner hung a vote us dry sign in their window during Gay Pride weekend, they got a rude response from crowds on the street: "People were yelling 'Fuck you' and 'Move.'" Now, Jaquet says, "only a few people in this building speak to us. We tried to leave, but nobody wants to buy into this drama. And people in the building are scared to say anything. They don't want to be harassed."

DiLisio says the petition has been filed but could be subject to challenges; it may be October before they know if it'll be on the ballot. Meanwhile, Heintz, Swingler, and residents like Ben Scheie--who says he moved to the Dakota because he wanted to be part of Circuit's environment and that the noise level is "what you get when you live next to a dance club"--are organizing to fight it. They orchestrated a display of I SUPPORT CIRCUIT banners on Dakota balconies during the recent North Halsted Street Market Days festival. The Department of the Environment will conduct an unannounced round of sound testing this month, and the city's liquor commission will hold a community meeting on the situation September 1.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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