The tragic night in 2003 made Chicago clubs safer—but are they safe enough?
1/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsSince E2, the city has increased the frequency of capacity checks at clubs like the Shrine in the South Loop.
2/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsJoe Russo, shown here at his club the Shrine, closed his former club Sinibar shortly after E2.
3/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsA packed night at the Shrine
4/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsA packed night at the Shrine
5/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsA packed night at the Shrine
6/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsA packed night at the Shrine
7/7Photograph: Allison WilliamsGuests leave the Shrine.
By Lauren Viera|
Earlier this month, police responded to a 1am tip that West Side club Brick’s Sports Bar and Grill was overcrowded. The official police headcount found more than 270 people in the building—nearly three times its legal capacity of 99—and in the chaotic aftermath, fights broke out, guns were fired, parked cars and a pedestrian were hit, and fires erupted.
While there’s no scientific formula that connects overcrowded nightlife venues with violence and bodily harm, Chicago has plenty of anecdotal evidence. “All I can say is that obviously with overcrowding/overcapacity, we consider it a serious violation,” says Gregory Steadman, commissioner of the city’s Local Liquor Control commission, which revokes licenses of clubs in violation of capacity regulations, including Brick’s. “It can cause tremendous public safety problems.”
In the aftermath of the E2 tragedy (see page 8), which put the city on red alert for capacity violations, it’s surprising that a club would so flagrantly overcrowd its space. Or is it? Many club owners we talked to acknowledge they take capacity much more seriously now than they did before E2, but the incident at Brick’s is a startling reminder that clubs still do get packed, and that a crowded venue can quickly turn dangerous.
On February 17, 2003, Joe Russo was farther from E2 than most Chicago nightlife proprietors: He was vacationing in the West Indies, a world away from the bleak Chicago winter and the night’s awful incident.
“I remember getting a call from a manager at the time,” says Russo, who now owns South Loop club the Shrine. In 2003 he owned Sinibar, a popular lounge in the thick of Wicker Park’s burgeoning nightlife niche. “Within three days,” he says, “our business completely changed.”
Russo, along with other club owners who spoke off the record, admits that prior to E2, city-issued capacity placards, which dictate how many bodies are legally allowed in a room, were treated more like guidelines than the law. One North Side venue owner says that decades ago, the rule of thumb for calculating occupancy was to take a room’s official capacity and double it. Another says that prior to E2, her bouncers only loosely counted patrons. The E2 building, counting the restaurant on the first floor, had a legal capacity of approximately 1,300, says former co-owner Calvin Hollins Jr., but he admits the space often hosted between 1,500 and 2,000 people at once.
On that February night, 21 of those patrons died in a matter of hours—and instantly, owners of venues citywide were tasked with keeping occupancy at strict capacity. Russo says that immediately following the tragedy, fire department officials visited Sinibar four days a week—a drastic increase from the random monthly or bimonthly checks prior. After E2, the fire, police and building departments teamed up to put employees from all three organizations on inspection duty, says Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.
The crackdown on capacity violations has undoubtedly changed clubbing for patrons: Who hasn’t huddled on the sidewalk, suffering freezing temps as bouncers abide by the “one out, one in” rule? But ultimately, the stricter capacity checks—and, for some owners, closer attention to exit paths when building new clubs and bars—has created a nightlife scene that’s safer, as long as owners are adhering to the rules.
In the months and years following E2, building codes for nightclubs underwent no major revisions. Today, clubs are required to have a minimum of two exit doors, just as before the tragedy. The Building Department’s formula for calculating capacity, based on a room’s square footage and the volume of stationary furniture and equipment, hasn’t gotten stricter. Instead, the city created what it called the E2 panel, a handful of local attorneys and one judge tasked with recommending ways nightlife inspections could improve. Among their rulings: Venues must undergo inspections each time their licenses expire. But, as Russo says, inspections after E2 were much more frequent than that, with city officials continuing to drop into Sinibar at least weekly until it closed, less than a year later. Russo says strict adherence to the club’s capacity didn’t jibe with his business model—the club looked empty even though there was a line snaked around the block.
“It wasn’t financial hardship as much as not being able to operate with long lines outside of the venue and constantly being worried that we could go over occupancy on a given night, especially on the weekends,” he says. Still, with more frequent inspections, club owners do have financial outcomes to consider. Though a capacity violation doesn’t automatically result in the loss of a venue’s liquor license, the owner can be fined or the club can be temporarily shut down, Steadman says.
Similar to speed limits, a venue with a 300-person capacity caught with a 600-patron occupancy is in much worse violation than a venue with a 300-person capacity that lets in 325 people, Steadman says. Fines for any liquor license violation, capacity or otherwise, start at $500, and Steadman says in severe cases of violation—if occupancy greatly exceeds capacity or if there is clearly a public-safety issue—clubs are often forced to shut down for a minimum of three days.
Joey Vartanian, who owned Crobar before it closed in 2010 for reasons unrelated to E2, doesn’t remember as many post-E2 inspections as Russo. But in November 2003, a fire department inspection tallied 1,400 patrons in the club, and then a second count of 951 later that night. Crobar’s capacity: around 850. The club was temporarily shut down—a punishment most clubs would find more costly than a $500 fine.
The result for club patrons: bouncers carefully counting heads, slowing entry and creating long lines out in the cold. After E2, strictly enforced ID checks also became more frequent. And despite what patrons presumed—that IDs were checked primarily to deter underage drinking—one North Side bar owner said fire marshals advised her to check IDs strictly in case of a disaster: All those bodies would have to be identified somehow.
The question lingers: Could E2 happen again? With the city paying closer attention to capacity, it seems unlikely, but this month’s incident at Brick’s calls that sense of security into question. CFD spokesman Langford, whose department staffs drop-in inspections, says that prior to E2, inspections occurred chiefly on a response basis. Today, the inspection shift is a constant, cutting off at 2 or 3am when clubs are closing. And thanks to the post-E2 task force, he adds, other departments are at the ready: “If someone calls 311 and says a place looks crowded, the police and fire departments respond immediately, and the buildings department will show up if necessary.” In 90 percent of cases, Langford says, inspectors are able to resolve a capacity situation with cooperation from the venue’s operators. “Only if we run into a problem [with the venue] or can’t find a solution, the fire department or police department will close the venue down. It’s a rare occurrence, and we don’t like to do that. But safety is primary.”
And that’s a fact all nightlife owners can agree on—even those of small venues. The Whistler, a Logan Square cocktail bar that often has a line down the sidewalk, clocks in at less than 1,200 square feet, but co-owner Billy Helmkamp says he was especially mindful of patrons’ safety when laying out the bar’s floor plan in 2006, when E2 was “still fresh on everyone’s minds.” He cites a wide, well-lit front entrance with no stairs, no obstacles between the seats and the exits, and a bar positioned so that the staff can view the entire room as factors that could prevent tragedy. “Whether they know it or not, our patrons are safer,” he says.
“Let’s be realistic. Whenever you have an intense crowd, it is very difficult to control that crowd. Any little thing could resonate in deep, deep problems,” says Yvon Nazon of Cotton Club, a South Loop venue that closed a few years after E2. “[But] I don’t think [a tragedy on the scale of E2] would happen again. At E2, they overcrowded the place, and the security was not that good.”
However, that doesn’t mean the city (and clubgoers) should let down their guard. Former E2 owner Hollins says if a crowd of people rushes for a door at any venue, even a coffee shop, tragedy could strike again. “Right now,” Hollins says, “if we ran out of Starbucks, all going for the door, and one person trips and another person falls…it could happen.”