The fight of the Phoenix: is New Town too old for rock 'n' roll? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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The fight of the Phoenix: is New Town too old for rock 'n' roll?

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The first thing the Lakeview neighbors hear is the boom boxes in the cars lined up and down Broadway. Then a noisy line forms outside the front door, and the party begins. From the nightclub come the sounds of shooting guns, shattering glass, and young men fighting. At four in the morning, the partygoers stumble home drunk.

So it goes at the Phoenix Niteclub, whose heavy-metal fans turn the surrounding north-side neighborhood into a jungle every Friday and Saturday night.

Or so say residents, who are so angry they've threatened to close the Phoenix by voting it dry. The club's owner, Perry Orr, says he sympathizes with the residents, though their complaints are wildly exaggerated.

"I'm not an ogre," says Orr. "I'm in the entertainment business, I'm not a beast."

Still, the dispute has incited residents to make the first test of a new state law that gives them the upper hand in the age-old struggle with noisy taverns.

"We're organized, we're educated, we're determined, and most of all, we know our rights," says Leonard Webster, a Lakeview home owner who, with his wife, Sue, has taken a leading role in the protests. "We've sent a message to Mr. Orr, and if he wants to keep his club, he knows he has to respond."

The Phoenix, at 2848 N. Broadway, is part of a stretch of New Town long known as an entertainment hot spot. Over the years, at least a half-dozen nightclubs have operated on Broadway between Belmont and Diversey. The Phoenix is the largest.

"This is one of the last of the great dance clubs," says Orr. The Phoenix has a balcony, bar, and dance floor, and enough room for almost 2,000 people. "I'm an old-time hippie. I remember this club from the old days. It was the Thumbs Up, then it became the Phoenix. Some of the greatest acts in the world played here--B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Baby Huey, Chicago."

Orr, who operates several nightclubs and restaurants in Chicago, bought it in the spring of '89 and rechristened it the Phoenix. For a few years before that, it was a disco called Club Paradise.

"I had big plans for bringing back the Phoenix," says Orr. "Call me nostalgic--I have a thing about old clubs. I know how to run a club. Pull up the seats, pour the drinks, let them dance--entertain them! I would love for everyone in the neighborhood to come to my club."

Unfortunately for Orr, the neighborhood has changed. Many of the longtime residents are pushing middle age. They have children. They work long hours. They don't dance anymore. They go to bed early. Orr figured that, to make money, he would have to draw the under-25 crowd--he'd have to bring in the kids.

So he settled on a two-pronged strategy to appeal to two different types of young people. Striking a deal with former DePaul University basketball coach Ray Meyer, Orr opened Ray Meyer's Ultimate Sports Bar & Grill in a restaurant that fronts the nightclub. In the back, he reopened the Phoenix as a haven for heavy-metal enthusiasts.

There were problems almost from the start, say residents.

"I've lived here for 11 years so I'm used to nightclubs, but I noticed the difference as soon as the Phoenix opened," says Webster. "The clientele was more unruly. [Orr] would have 'youth nights,' where they'd close down the bar and open the place to teenagers. The kids would come out loud and spray graffiti on our walls. They'd urinate on the streets. They'd hassle residents. They'd honk their horns and play their radios really loud. The club had a valet service whose drivers illegally parked in alleys or vacant lots and sped down the residential streets. But the biggest problem was the noise from the club. They turned their speakers up full blast. That kept us up all night."

Last September some of the residents, Orr, and 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen got together to talk about the problems.

"The Phoenix was drawing people who don't live in the neighborhood," says Hansen. "They let holy hell break loose, and they couldn't care less about the neighborhood. I told Perry, 'I'm with the residents; if you don't do a better job, you're gone.'"

At the September meeting, Orr promised to insulate the club for sound, hire a new valet service, cut out youth nights, cut back the nights the Phoenix was open (from four to two), and institute a $5 cover charge in an effort to cut down on alcohol consumption by leaving patrons less money for drinks.

But the residents say the problems only got worse.

"We started seeing a hard character in the neighborhood we never saw before," says Webster. "People with knives and guns. It was scary--very scary."

A second meeting was scheduled for May 21, this one at a church in Lakeview. Orr brought his lawyer, Barry Holt, and they sat at a table before more than 100 angry residents who had come to air their complaints.

One by one the residents rose, and for more than an hour they complained of gunshots, vandalism, graffiti, fistfights, patrons urinating in the alleys, and valet parkers who sped through the side streets.

More than one referred to a recent Saturday night-Sunday morning brawl. According to police, 29 Phoenix patrons were arrested--5 on charges of criminal assault with a bottle--and 12 were hospitalized. Police sirens at 4 AM had awakened many residents.

"The only way you're going to solve this problem is to get rid of the club," said one resident. "I've seen this kind of thing too many times before in other neighborhoods. I never thought I would see it in my own."

Almost all the residents agreed that the situation had gotten worse, despite Orr's promises at the meeting last fall.

"Whatever you have done," one resident said to rousing cheers, "has not been enough."

And then the residents dropped the big bomb. Last fall the state legislature passed a law enabling precinct residents to vote a single establishment dry. So residents no longer have to vote an entire precinct dry to rid themselves of one or two bad operators--as Webster says, "punishing the good bars with the bad." In this case, they could target the Phoenix. They were already circulating petitions to have a resolution on voting the Phoenix dry placed on November's ballot.

Orr tried to defend himself, but mostly he hemmed and hawed. The presence of his lawyer seemed to make matters worse.

"Frankly I resent the fact that [Orr] brought a lawyer," said one resident after Holt rose to speak. "I don't want to hear his lawyer; I want to hear him."

"Fortunately for everyone, this is America," countered Holt, his voice rising. "We have the right to speak."

At that point, several residents started talking at once, inducing Webster, who was acting as moderator, to call for everyone's attention.

"People, watch out," Webster warned. "They're setting us up. They want you to get really angry so they can walk out. Don't fall for it."

After that, the hubbub subsided. Hansen, perturbed by one resident's suggestion that he had sided with Orr, told the crowd: "[Orr] has no clout with me. Nobody has more clout with me than the citizens."

Trying to be conciliatory, Orr promised to fire the valet service he'd hired the last time the residents complained and hire a new one. But after the meeting he expressed his frustration.

"I try to be reasonable--I really do," says Orr. "They complained about youth night. So I killed youth night. The kids were making too much noise.

"They complain about the sound my guys make when they're emptying the garbage. So I had them move the garbage cans into the back of the club. They complained about overserving, so I brought in the cover charge.

"They think I'm in bed with [Hansen]. I wish I was in bed with Bernie. If I was in bed with Bernie, would I be here? Huh? Would I? If I had clout, why am I burning at the stake?

"They say our stereo's powerful. Sure it's powerful. But it's powerful for clarity, not loud. Let me tell you something, I didn't buy this stereo system. I inherited it from Club Paradise. But for Club Paradise it didn't make noise, right?

"I don't have anything against these people. I love this neighborhood. I studied architecture in college, why would I want to do anything to these houses? I've worked with these people.

"On the noise--we had guys with sound meters out here. Sound meters! We turned the stereo on full blast and went into this one guy's apartment to take a reading. You know something? There was no reading. The guy said, "Your meter's broken.' I said, "Maybe you have hearing that's better than these meters.' He gave me a dirty look and says, "You turned the stereo down before you did this test.' I say, "OK, I tell you what. You go down to the club, and have your wife stay here to watch the guys reading the sound meter, and I'll show you how loud that sound system is turned.' But he didn't want to do it.

"What am I gonna do? I would love these people to come to my club. I would love for them to spend their money here. But face it, people over 30, they just don't dance. Someone told me, 'Bring in an orchestra and play Glenn Miller music.' Right. I'll be out of business in two weeks. How many 50-year-olds do you know who go out dancing?

"I'll make changes. I'll do just about anything they want. They got me, baby. They got me right where they want. I got this big, beautiful dance hall. And there's not a thing I can do with it if they vote me dry. Don't think I don't know that."

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

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