When Kelly Richardson heard that 21 people had been crushed to death in the stairwell of the E2 nightclub, she wept. When she heard city officials trying to explain how the club had managed to stay open even though a judge had ordered it closed, she rolled her eyes. "I cried over those kids like they were mine," she says. "But when I heard those city officials talking about how there was nothing they could do to keep that club closed--man, what a joke. Take it from me, the city knows how to shut someone down."
If anyone knows how vigilant the city can be when it comes to closing clubs--particularly on the near south side--it's Richardson. (I wrote about her here on June 23, 2000.) From the spring of 1999 to the fall of 2000 she ran Some Like It Black Coffee Club and Gallery, a restaurant, juice bar, art gallery, and performance space at 1904 S. Michigan--just a few blocks from E2, at 2347 S. Michigan. Her club had poetry readings, dance shows, art openings, and jazz. Occasionally Richardson, using her stage name, Kelli Rich, would sing.
The club didn't serve liquor, and it drew a mild-mannered, ethnically diverse crowd--an eclectic blend of college kids and aging hipsters. "We never had any trouble," says Richardson. "We never had any major complaints. We were basically a local coffeehouse that promoted black culture."
To help make ends meet, Richardson and her business partner, Bobbie Johnson, began offering memberships shortly after the club opened. For about $15 a year patrons would get reduced admission at the door. But charging admission requires a special-use permit from the city, and city officials wouldn't give her one, saying there wasn't adequate parking for her patrons within 500 feet of the business. For several weeks Richardson called city officials, including her alderman, Madeline Haithcock, asking them to waive the parking requirement. The officials turned her down, and Haithcock didn't call back. Then in the summer of 1999 the police started coming in.
"They came at me like Miami Vice," says Richardson. "Sometimes it was the same cops, sometimes it was different ones. They'd say, 'Where's your license?'"
She'd show them her restaurant license, which allowed her to sell food, as well as her limited-business license, which allowed her to remain open while she appealed her case to the city. "They started issuing tickets," she says. "All kinds of tickets." They cited her for making too much noise and for having live music. Each ticket meant an appearance before a city hearing officer. "Most of the tickets were thrown out," she says, "but it was a big hassle going down there."
In March 2000 Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote about the club's tribulations. For several weeks afterward, says Richardson, the police stopped coming. When they returned on April 29 she was hosting a poetry reading. "The police came in and said, 'We have a complaint about noise,'" she says. "I said, 'What noise? There isn't any noise.' It was a poetry reading! How much noise does a poetry reading make?" She wound up with another ticket.
The next month two undercover employees of the city's revenue department stopped by and asked to buy memberships. Richardson sold them two, for $15 each, even though she didn't yet have the proper permit. About ten minutes later a crowd of police officers burst through the door shouting "Raid!" Richardson says, "There were more police than customers, because there were only about ten customers in the place at the time. It was absurd. They said we were operating without a license, and they said that the money those undercover agents gave us was marked, so they had proof. It was ridiculous overkill. They had all these cops and paddy wagons and undercover agents--for what? A coffeehouse? They were coming after me like we're running some sort of crime ring."
The police eventually arrested Johnson along with Richardson's 20-year-old son, Coby. Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct. Coby was charged with operating a business without a proper license--even though it's not his club. Both were held for several hours in a jail cell, then released. Eventually the charges were dropped.
That June I wrote my story about Richardson. A spokesman for the revenue department told me that there was nothing personal about the city's investigation of her coffeehouse. "Trust me, our department's not picking on this place--there's no conspiracy to keep them from opening," he said. "But they cannot throw functions without [the proper license]. We're not treating them any differently than anyone else. Whether we get a tip or we do routine license checks, we are going to enforce the law."
After my story ran, the police raids let up for a few weeks. "But by the end of the summer they were coming in again," says Richardson. "The harassment never really stopped. They kept coming out. I never knew why. I always felt that someone just didn't want a place in that gentrifying part of South Michigan where young black people with dreadlocks felt at home."
That September, Richardson gave up. "I fought the city for as long as I could," she says. "But they were always taking me to court, and I had to pay legal fees. The bottom line was I was losing money instead of making money. And that's a shame, 'cause when I first got there--before the city came after me--I was making money. I'd still be there to this day if they hadn't come after me."
She moved her club to the third floor of a mansion at 4500 S. Michigan. "I lost a lot of customers because a lot of my people who lived north didn't want to come that far south," she says. "I turned my club into a not-for-profit organization, and I did some events. I did my one-woman show there--Chocolate Diva--where I go through the musical lives of Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Ethel Waters. But business was kind of slow."
Last April she moved again, to a storefront on 75th Street near Indiana Avenue. "I thought a storefront might bring in more people, but that didn't work," she says. "The problem was I lost 90 percent of my customers. My club just caters to a different class of people. I hate to sound elitist, but 75th Street is a different environment. It's a lounge area. I was next to a liquor store. It was just a different clientele. It didn't work for me."
In November she closed the 75th Street club and started moving back into the mansion. She was there on Monday, February 17, when a friend called to tell her about the deaths at E2.
"I just cried and cried when I saw the news," she says. "I know that club. There wasn't anything horrible going on there. These were just young people going out to have a good time, like any group of young people anywhere. My son, Coby, went to E2 on a regular basis. Matter of fact, he went there the night of the accident. He'd have been there when the tragedy happened, but he'd stopped somewhere else. By the time he got there everything had happened. He has bad asthma, too. Had he been in there he might have been in terrible trouble. I don't even want to think about it."
Then she read in the papers that circuit court judge Daniel Lynch had ordered the club closed over the summer, citing numerous violations of the city's building code. She read in the Sun-Times that police superintendent Terry Hillard told reporters that "his office never knew the club had been ordered closed--even though his officers responded to no fewer than 80 incidents in and around the club since 2000." She read that the Reverend Jesse Jackson had lobbied city officials on behalf of club owner Dwain Kyles. She read that officials said they'd sent inspectors to the club during the day, when it was closed, so they didn't know it was open for business at night. And she read in the Tribune that city corporation counsel Mara Georges said there was nothing more the city could have done to enforce Lynch's order: "If the city had padlocked the club's door, 'they would have cut a padlock. If the city had put a sign on the door, they would have cut down the sign. Obviously, these people were intent on breaking the law.'" According to the Sun-Times, Georges also said, "Absent the city being at this property 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is no way to ensure that the people are going to follow the law. There is nothing the city could have done."
Richardson read these statements with mounting disbelief. "I thought, give me a break!" she says. "I mean, please--how can they not know that this club was open? Everyone else knew. There were large crowds. And then to have that lady [Georges] go on the news and say there was nothing they could do, if they locked the doors he'd have just cut the lock. Come on. Please. This man's not going to take off the lock. They lock up stores in neighborhoods all the time. And even if he does unlock the lock, aren't you going to know? Aren't you going to see the crowds?"
The irony was bitter. "I remember how they came after me--policemen and squad cars to shut down a little coffee shop," she says. "Then to see them saying they're helpless. Please. Look, I don't know what happened with E2. There's so much blame, there's so many people at fault. But don't tell me the city's helpless--'cause I know when it came to closing my little old coffee club the city wasn't helpless. They knew how to get things done. They couldn't be vigilant enough."
Richardson plans to reopen her club at 4500 S. Michigan on March 8. "We'll have an open mike for poets and musicians--anyone who's interested should call me at 773-297-1843," she says. "I miss the old space. Everyone tells me, 'When you were up there that was the spot.' They still have a For Rent sign up in that window. Nobody's rented it yet. I always go by there and think about what might have been. But for whatever reason the city didn't want me there. And when the city wants you out, they have ways of getting you out."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.