There are about a dozen bars and restaurants on the bustling stretch of Clark Street just south of Wrigley Field. But only one is in court for making too much noise--the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary, 3530 N. Clark. The club's owners say that 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen and a handful of neighbors are harassing them for racial reasons: the club books reggae acts and its patrons include blacks and dreadlocked Rastafarians as well as whites.
"Most people in this neighborhood are great, but there are a few who don't like racial mixing and don't think that black people belong here," says Zeleke Gessesse, a musician and part-owner of the club. "It's disturbing to think that these attitudes persist."
Nonsense, counters Hansen, who prides himself on his record of vigilance in cracking down on troublesome night spots. "It's ridiculous to say that race has anything to do with this," he says. "I have gone after many noisy bars--country, youth, you name it--not just the Wild Hare."
Other critics accuse the club's owners of using race to divert attention from their noisy transgressions. "The only issue here is noise," says Peter Gapinski, who lives near the club and is its most vocal critic. "We should not have to defend ourselves on any other matter; we're not making noise that keeps people up. The other bars on Clark Street are not an issue because they are not making the noise. The Wild Hare is."
The club is owned by a consortium of eight Ethiopian immigrants and Michael Murray, a professor of law and management. The owners see their enterprise as the fulfillment of the American dream. They describe themselves as peaceful, hardworking, law-abiding immigrants, forced to flee their homeland after Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled in a 1974 military coup. "It became impossible for artistic expression in our home country," says Gessesse. "We could not play our music without being censored." Once in America, the various owners made their living driving cabs, washing dishes, programming computers, or playing in reggae bands. Their larger ambition was to open a reggae club.
In 1986 they rented the nightclub from the federal government, which had seized it after a series of drug raids. "My partners and I have nothing to do with the old owners," says Murray. "Yes, it was a reggae bar called the Wild Hare. But that's where the similarities end. We approached the federal marshal and offered to reopen the club with a promise to keep it drug free and problem free. We went through a probation period of one year. We were under intense surveillance by the feds, who did not cite us for any violations. We bought the club in 1987, and we have had very few problems with most of our neighbors."
Their opponents do not agree. "There have been noise complaints about the Wild Hare almost since the new owners took over," says Terri Hanley, president of Hawthorne Neighbors, a local community group. "They are not the only bar in the area that is loud. But they are one of the few that remain noisy even after we ask them to turn down the sound."
To prove her point, Hanley notes that more than 100 residents signed a petition protesting the club's 1990 expansion. Gapinski contends that the club relies on loud music to attract patrons. "They throw open music to the street and hope that people will hear it and come in," says Gapinski. "It's like selling popcorn by opening your window and letting the smell attract customers."
Gapinski adds that the loud music encourages loitering. "People can hear the music from the street, so why come in and pay the cover?" says Gapinski. "In the summer residents are afraid to even go into their homes because they have Wild Hare patrons sitting on their porches drinking. There was one woman who was scared to death because she couldn't get into her house. She had to call the police. I've had people use my lawn chair and sit on my porch. One neighbor caught a guy defecating in his backyard. How do I know these are Wild Hare patrons? Because they were Rastafarians. That doesn't make me a racist to say that. It's upsetting that I even have to defend myself against that charge. Many of the Rastafarians who go to the Wild Hare are very nice, very cordial, probably the most well mannered of all the people who use the Clark Street clubs. But others are not so nice."
Gessesse contends that Gapinski's comments are insulting.
"We have the most integrated crowd on the north side, but Mr. Gapinski concentrates on the black people who come here--why is that?" says Gessesse. "Anyone will tell you that fans coming out of Wrigley Field after a night game are more abusive than our customers. Why doesn't Mr. Gapinski protest against the Cubs? On hot nights, it's true, some of our patrons go out on the street for fresh air. But they don't harass anybody. We have no reports of them saying nasty things to women. What is he trying to suggest when he says that black people are talking to women that way? The way he talks to us is so insulting. Like we're filthy animals who don't know how to run a business."
As for the petition protesting the expansion, Murray calls it "old history. When we expanded, we organized two meetings with residents. We listened to their complaints and made adjustments. They aren't complaining anymore. It's really only two people who are against us--Terri Hanley and Peter Gapinski. For the life of me I don't know why Alderman Hansen would listen to them when we clearly get along with all the other neighbors."
Hansen insists that his office has received complaints from many other residents. Yet Hanley doesn't live in the immediate area, and Gapinski remains one of the only neighbors publicly pressing the case against the club. Gapinski says most of his neighbors support him, but he has agreed to protect their identity. "We knew [the club owners] would raise unrelated issues," says Gapinski. "I am willing to step forward so others won't be exposed to mudslinging."
Over the summer the Wild Hare was visited by police who said they had received complaints from Gapinski and other residents. In September the club's owners held a meeting with residents. "We wanted to know how we could be better neighbors," says Murray. "We don't want to fight. We want to survive; this club is our lifetime investment."
At the meeting Murray told the residents that he would have soundproofing insulation installed. After the meeting at least one neighbor, Norma McLennon, who lives around the corner from the club, even praised the Wild Hare's owners. "Overall, they have been good," she says. "They gave out their home numbers so we could call them anytime. And after people complained about the alley, they cleaned it up. They must have the cleanest Dumpsters on the north side."
Gapinski was unpersuaded. On October 2 he sent a letter to the local police commander "on behalf of 49 residents," complaining about "excessive noise levels" and "loitering of patrons . . . who do their drinking, smoking, defecating, dancing and singing in the streets, in our yards or sitting on our front porches or walkways." The letter was signed only by Gapinski and named none of the 49 residents.
A few days later the Wild Hare's owners were asked to attend a City Hall meeting on the matter with Hansen, Gapinski, and Winston Mardis, director of the Mayor's License and Local Liquor Control Commission. "The meeting was set for October 7, but we were only notified on October 6," says Murray. "The city sent our notice to the Wild Onion, a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. I was livid; I said this is not fair, we had no notice. Mardis said, 'Don't worry, this is an informal meeting; we just want to work things out.' I settled down, but I felt we were being set up."
On October 27 there was another meeting in Mardis's office. By then the club had installed a light in the alley, moved its entrance so it would be farther away from nearby houses, and ordered insulation. "We said it would take time to get and install the insulation, but we showed receipts to prove we had ordered it," says Murray. "I told them I would be out of the country for a few weeks, but that our intentions were good."
But Gapinski says that the noise got louder despite Murray's assurances. He called the police. By the time Murray returned to Chicago in December, the club had been issued five citations for excessive noise. The owners faced $100 fines and the loss of their liquor license. "They said the noise could be heard 600 feet away, which violates the noise pollution law, but how do they know the noise comes from our club?" says Murray. "It could come from any bar or boom box in a passing car on Clark Street. It's so arbitrary. What bothered me is they kept harassing us even after we had promised to make changes. I feel my initial reaction was right; we had been set up."
Hansen contends the problem will be resolved once the insulation is installed. He points out that this is not the first time he has taken on a noisy club. He led the fight against Medusa's, a juice bar formerly on North Sheffield, and Mr. Kiley's, a country bar. In each instance Hansen says the bar's management complained that he was biased against them. "I don't take these things personally," he says. "When the noise goes down, I'm sure there won't be any problems. And I will be happy to have them in the ward." Gapinski is not so sure. "They have been quiet for the last three weeks because the case is in court," he says. "Once it's not in court, they'll crank the noise back up. It's how they run their business."
As for the club owners, they have brought their case to the attention of Senator Paul Simon and the city's Commission on Human Relations, and last week they picketed a Hansen fund-raiser at the Cubby Bear. They have also asked for separate jury trials on each of the five counts. They vow to produce witnesses to show that the case against them is racially based. "We fit in well with this neighborhood; we make it a melting pot," says Gessesse. "We don't want to leave."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.