Clint Williams heads to River North from his South Side home in Chatham for the nightlife.
“The clubs, the people, the vibes — the nightlife is different here,” says Williams, 25, a rapper who sells his mixtapes to people on the sidewalk.
It’s easy to meet people, Williams says. “They’re so drunk that they’re just talking, and they want to get to know you.”
But the nightlife scene can get crazy at times, says his friend, Jonathon Williams, 28.
“The fights — there are a lot of fights,” he says, pointing to an incident in which “somebody got they a— messed up. But, at the same time, the vibes are there.”
While revelers like the growing nightlife scene, a spate of violent incidents in the past month near the area’s bars and clubs and a fatal crash following a night out there have put a glaring spotlight on the neighborhood north of downtown. Among the incidents:
• A fiery fatal crash in the early-morning hours of June 26 followed a night out at Bottled Blonde, 504 N Wells St. — which now faces license-revocation proceedings after a rash of complaints.
• A fight involving two off-duty cops June 23 came after the men had just left a nightclub near La Salle Street and Hubbard Street.
• A 23-year-old man attacked a female security guard on May 14 after drinks at Concrete Cowboy, 646 N. Franklin St.
Overall, even though reported crime in the neighborhood isn’t much higher than it was a decade ago, the number of crimes reported around places that serve alcohol — though still a relatively small number — has more than tripled, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found.
A total of about 100 more crimes were reported in the past year in what the police call Beat No. 1831 — the team of cops covering the area including River North — than in the same 12-month period from 2006 to 2007, the Sun-Times analysis of Chicago Police Department data found.
Along West Hubbard Street alone — home to a stretch of River North’s most popular bars, nightclubs and restaurants — there were 47 crimes reported at a bar, tavern, restaurant or liquor store in that span a decade ago, according to city data, leading to 10 arrests. But in the past year, the number of reported crimes was up to 150, with 23 arrests, the Sun-Times found. Thirty-two of the 150 were violent crimes, up from 16 a decade ago.
Reported crimes just at bars rose from 28 a decade ago to 115 in the past year.
At the same time, the number of violent crimes overall at any location in River North — such as assaults, aggravated assaults and aggravated batteries — dropped over the past decade. And the number of crimes involving weapons fell even in just the past year.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) says part of the problem is that there are too few officers on the streets in the area overnight — between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. He says he’s working with the police to add more.
A police spokesman says an unspecified number of cops have been added to control the “post-bar scene,” particularly along Hubbard Street.
“There’s been very close dialogue between the alderman and the district,” the spokesman says.
Reilly says he’s trying to deal with the source of the problems by targeting establishments linked to trouble. Concrete Cowboy — identified by Reilly as the last place to serve drinks to 23-year-old Matthew De Leon before the police say he punched the guard in the face on May 14 — is one of the establishments, along with Bottled Blonde, that the alderman says could be shut down as a result.
Reilly has begun proceedings to revoke the license of Bottled Blonde and says Concrete Cowboy could face the same action if it doesn’t make changes within a month to meet ground rules for the bar established at a recent community meeting — including taking steps to limit late-night noise and to be accountable for violence nearby.
Reilly says he’s targeting establishments that are licensed as restaurants — with only an “incidental liquor” license, allowing them to sell alcohol along with food — but basically operate as a bar or nightclub, serving more liquor than food.
He points to Concrete Cowboy, which has an incidental liquor license but also is licensed to stay open and serve until 4 a.m.
“Incidental liquor license, 4 a.m. bar?” Reilly says. “How does that work? We’ve got lots of issues.”
Representatives of Bottled Blonde and Concrete Cowboy declined to comment.
Reilly, who’s in his 10th year as alderman, says undercover officers can go into a restaurant to see if it’s inappropriately operating as a bar. That involves taking videos and auditing books and has led to two closings, he says — including that of Nouveau Tavern, 358 W. Ontario St., shut down for good in April 2015 for operating as a nightclub under a restaurant license.
“Within a month of being open, the menu basically went out the window, and half their tables were gone,” Reilly says of Nouveau Tavern.
Some business owners have tried to get around the rules that way, Reilly says, because they’re not allowed to get liquor licenses to operate as a bar. Moratoriums on new liquor licenses have stopped the introduction of new bars and clubs to the neighborhood, he says.
Despite that, the number of places in River North that are allowed to serve alcohol has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. And Reilly says there are about 40 late-night licenses in the ward. Just along Hubbard Street, the number of establishments with various types of liquor licenses — including bars and restaurants — is up to 23 from 13 in 2007.
“Places like Hubbard Street are filling in with a lot of bars,” Reilly says, “which wasn’t like that 10 years ago.”
That scene, new to River North, is how many used to describe life in Wrigleyville. But in the same 10 years that saw an increase in bars and restaurants in River North serving alcohol, the number of places on North Clark Street around Wrigley Field — the North Side neighborhood’s version of Hubbard Street — with some type of liquor license fell from 52 to 45, according to city records. During the same period, crime in that stretch of Clark Street rose slightly — from 114 reported incidents annually a decade ago to 129, but the number of arrests fell from 40 to 18.
Despite having double the number of places to drink in that stretch, crime is lower in Wrigleyville than in River North.
Dan Kelly, 57, remembers a very different River North. He used to live in Lincoln Park before moving to New York City for over two decades. Now, he lives at Clark and Hubbard in River North. He says the neighborhood, unrecognizable when he returned three years ago, is safe enough for him and his family.
“When we came back — we’d been away for 21 years — it was extraordinary how much change had taken place in the city and in particular River North,” Kelly says while out walking his dogs. “When we left 21 years earlier, this was not a nice area.”
Reilly says a small number of nightspots in River North are the source of an outsize portion of the problems in the neighborhood.
“The vast majority of the players do a really good job and aren’t a problem,” the alderman says. “We have a handful of irresponsible liquor license-holders that can turn a neighborhood upside-down.