Rodney Johnson at the site on 75th Street of past gatherings that erupted in violence. He’s part of a neighborhood group fighting to get bars to keep the large gatherings under control.

Rodney Johnson at the site on 75th Street of past gatherings that erupted in violence. He’s part of a neighborhood group fighting to get bars to keep the large gatherings under control.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Bar owners, Greater Grand Crossing residents at odds over crowds, violence on East 75th Street

The battle over the historic Black business district provides a window into street-level democracy, Chicago-style. In the middle of the fray, City Hall is the referee.

Concerned about a mass shooting and spontaneous block parties at which hundreds of people have gathered on East 75th Street, a group of Greater Grand Crossing residents is waging a campaign against bars and other businesses in the iconic Black business district.

They’re demanding that the business owners and the Chicago Police Department do more to control unruly crowds on the street in the summer. For a year, they’ve been gathering petitions and filing complaints with City Hall about businesses in the six blocks east of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Along that stretch last year, at least four people were shot, one fatally; two people were carjacked; and one person was robbed at gunpoint. The residents say the businesses have contributed to the violence by turning a blind eye to rowdy customers and lawlessness on the street.

They want building owners to fence off parking lots to help keep drunken revelers from congregating overnight, especially after bars close. They say security guards at the bars should help shoo away crowds gathered outside and that they’re just trying to make the area safe for everyone to visit — and not the kind of place where 10 people were shot in the street on a summer morning in 2021.

Bar owners say the residents don’t represent the views of the community and that their expectations are unreasonable. They say they’re spending too much on lawyers to defend them against what they say are frivolous complaints. And they caution that things would get worse if they’re pushed out of business, leaving vacant properties that might lead even more businesses to close.

“We’re providing the tax base in the area,” says Njeri Baker Clark, whose husband Artrice Clark owns 606 The Lounge, 606 E. 75th St., one of the targets of the residents’ campaign.

Revelers gathered for an impromptu party in 2021 in the 300 block of East 75th Street. Longtime neighborhood resident Rodney Johnson included this photo in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, asking for a larger police presence on East 75th Street.

Revelers gathered for an impromptu party in 2021 in the 300 block of East 75th Street. Longtime neighborhood resident Rodney Johnson included this photo in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, asking for a larger police presence on East 75th Street.

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A battle with City Hall the referee

The battle over East 75th Street offers a window into street-level democracy, Chicago-style.

In the middle of the fray, City Hall is the referee. The city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department holds community meetings to hear the complaints and let businesses respond. The city’s liquor commission disciplines bars found to have violated city codes. And police officials meet with both sides to come up with plans to address the disorder along 75th Street, especially in the summer.

CeCe Edwards says she and other residents formed 75th Street Neighbors/Homeowners last year to tackle what they see as rampant crime and chaos associated with a string of bars.

“It’s open season on homeowners and residents,” Edwards says. “And that is not fair.”

Group member Rodney Johnson, 61, says he’s lived in the area, near 74th Street and Indiana Avenue, for most of his life.

“75th used to have more bars than we have now, more than twice as many, but we never had the issues we are currently having coming out of these establishments,” Johnson says.

He points to the 2021 mass shooting as the epitome of what’s gone wrong.

On June 10 that year, Johnson says, he arranged for the commanders of the police department’s Gresham and Grand Crossing districts, which patrol the area, to meet with him and other residents on his front lawn to hear their concerns.

“People were having sex in between the houses, defecating in people’s lawns, parking in the alley blocking us in our garages,” Johnson says. “Motorcycles going up and down the sidewalk. It was like just a lot of mayhem that was going on.”

He says the police commanders outlined a plan to control that mayhem on East 75th Street.

“Lo and behold, the next night, a Friday night, the crowds came out again,” Johnson says.

The officers kept a lid on things until after midnight, but then a shift change left few cops in the area, Johnson says.

Other elements of the plan also disintegrated,” says Erin Miller, another member of 75th Street Neighbors/Homeowners. “There were supposed to be tow trucks. On my block, we have permit parking. I think there was one tow truck that was circulating in my area that disappeared by midnight. That was all meant to help with this crowd-control piece. After that shift change, everything just went to chaos.”

Around 2 a.m. that Saturday, two masked gunmen stepped out of an alley near Lem’s Bar-B-Q at 311 E. 75th St., which was closed, and fired shots into a crowd of hundreds gathered for an impromptu party in a parking lot, according to police.

Kimfier Miles, 29, who was killed June 12, 2021, in a mass shooting near East 75th Street and South Prairie Avenue.

Kimfier Miles, 29, who was killed June 12, 2021, in a mass shooting near East 75th Street and South Prairie Avenue.

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Kimfier Miles, 29, who was out with a group of girlfriends, was killed. Nine other people were wounded.

“Due to the police not following the plan, that woman got killed,” Johnson says.

A big police response that’s faded

The rest of that summer, police reacted with a “shock-and-awe” mobilization of officers on East 75th Street, Johnson says, “but they have refused to do that since.”

The neighborhood’s residents say rowdy, alcohol-fueled crowds returned last summer to East 75th Street.

“We reported people parking on the corners and blasting loud music, and those calls [went] unresponded to, and it snowballs and snowballs over the course of four or five hours, and all of a sudden, there’s 100 people in the middle of the street with lawn chairs and drink umbrellas,” Miller says.

“We had party buses pulling up, all those people piling out,” Edwards says.

She says her group wants to make the East 75th Street strip “family-friendly.” In 2005, Edwards says, she was one of the community members involved in a $200,000 renovation of a playground about three blocks southeast of the block where the mass shooting happened.

Now, she says, she supports city investment in businesses like an egg roll caterer that plans to move to the strip.

“No one is against the taverns, but they must become good business neighbors,” Edwards says. “At present, they are not.”

The residents also say they’re worried about the political fallout from “flash mobs” involved in shootings two weekends ago in downtown Chicago and near 31st Street Beach. Because of those high-profile incidents, police have promised to maintain a strong presence downtown this summer.

The Greater Grand Crossing residents say they worry that some cops from the Gresham and Grand Crossing districts, who patrol East 75th Street, will be sent downtown and that that would be an inequitable use of police resources.

“We need more police officers,” says Johnson, who says that the police response to 911 calls is too slow in the two districts. “With the police officers that we do have, we need to have more action.”

‘Weapons of war on the streets’

Ameena Matthews, a former “violence interrupter” with CeaseFire who now helps run a re-entry program, in her garden in Greater Grand Crossing. She’s trying to shut down the 606 The Lounge — seen in the background — over public safety concerns.

Ameena Matthews, a former “violence interrupter” with CeaseFire who now helps run a reentry program, sits in her garden in Greater Grand Crossing. She’s trying to shut down 606 The Lounge — seen in the background — over public safety concerns.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Ameena Matthews, who belongs to a mosque across the street from 606 The Lounge, says she’s alarmed about violence she believes is associated with bars along East 75th Street.

Last summer, she says, children were visiting the mosque when a customer exited 606 The Lounge, stood on a street corner and fired shots at another patron but fortunately didn’t hit anyone.

The intended victim later came up to her and apologized for what happened, says Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, the imprisoned founder of the El Rukns gang. She knows the people who hang out on East 75th Street, including the gang members.

“It’s bad,” says Matthews, who runs an anti-violence group, Pause for Peace, and once worked for CeaseFire as a “violence interrupter.” “There’s alcohol, young kids with egos, thinking that they are adults, carrying weapons of war on the street.”

On Feb. 3, Chicago’s city liquor commissioner Shannon Trotter suspended the city licenses for 606 The Lounge, 606 E. 75th St., for 10 days, from Feb. 10 to Feb. 20, requiring the bar to close and not sell alcohol.

On Feb. 3, Chicago’s liquor commissioner, Shannon Trotter, suspended the city licenses of 606 The Lounge, 606 E. 75th St., for 10 days, from Feb. 10 to Feb. 20, requiring the bar to close and not sell alcohol.

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In February, the city’s liquor control commissioner, Shannon Trotter, suspended operations of 606 The Lounge for 10 days for city code violations from September 2021. The bar had failed to prevent excessive noise from exiting patrons, call the police about fighting outside its premises and make security videos available to the police, according to Trotter’s commission.

Owner Artrice Clark, who calls the violations petty, says he’s willing to work with the community to keep East 75th Street safe and supports having City Hall institute a late-night parking ban.

“That is one of the solutions I suggested,” Clark says.

But he says he and his wife don’t think that requiring businesses to fence off their parking lots “is realistic.”

He also questions Matthews’ story about a shooter coming out of his bar, asking, “Where’s the video?”

Melvin Brooks, owner of President’s Lounge, 653 E. 75th St., says he gets along with groups like Park Manor Neighbors and the Chatham Business Association but says Edwards and her allies have formed a radical “splinter group.”

“She has forgotten the fact that 75th Street is a business corridor that has been known to be a food and beverage hospitality strip,” Brooks says.

President’s Lounge, 653 E. 75th St.

President’s Lounge, 653 E. 75th St.

Google Street View

Brooks says the police have asked him to call when people are loitering outside the bar — and that he does.

“One thing the city is not asking us to do is to [be] police,” he says, noting that officers are regularly parked outside, monitoring the street near the bar.

“I’ve seen incidents happen all over with the police right there,” he says. “I saw a young men pull out a gun right in front of the police. Sometimes, the community has to take responsibility for what community members are doing. You can’t blame the businesses or police.”

As for vehicle traffic and crowds on East 75th Street, Brooks says, “That has existed for 30 years.” In the summer, when downtown parks and the beaches close, people have always funneled into the East 75th Street corridor to stay out late, he says.

In February alone, neighbors filed at least five complaints with the city against A&S liquor store at 308 E. 75th St., Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the same block and owners of three other buildings they say were failing to secure their parking lots to prevent “excessive loitering.”

Brooks says he’s paid lawyers lots of money to defend his bar against complaints from Edwards and her group. His bar was part of an organization that provided tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarships, according to public records.

“The money that we have to allocate to these lawyers could be going toward our charities,” Brooks says.

Asked about the late-night crowds and violence on East 75th Street, City Hall’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department says, “The city of Chicago is committed to the highest level of public safety and buildings throughout the city.”

It says the Business Compliance Task Force, led by the city agency, works with the police and the Buildings Department to “prevent dangerous and egregious” violations of city codes, holding meetings at which people can air complaints about noise, trash, loitering and public intoxication.

Bars and other businesses that are the subject of such complaints typically agree to a legally binding “plan of corrective action” that might limit operating hours and require extra security workers and security cameras. 606 The Lounge, the 50 Yard Line and Frances are among bars in the area that have agreed to such plans.

A business that rejects such a plan might be referred to the city’s Law Department for disciplinary action involving its city license, according to the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department.

The Chicago Police Department says it’s “working to strengthen safety in every neighborhood, including the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood” and that that has included a meeting over the last week of police leadership from the Bureau of Patrol, Area 1 and Area 2, with community leaders “to listen and discuss ways to further safeguard the neighborhood.”

The department didn’t respond, though, when asked about police staffing on East 75th Street the morning of the June 12, 2021, mass shooting.

Aiming to make things ‘neighborly’

William Hall, elected in April to fill the vacant 6th Ward seat on the Chicago City Council.

William Hall was elected in April to fill the vacant 6th Ward seat on the Chicago City Council.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Sixth Ward Ald. William Hall, who represents that part of East 75th Street, says: “There are issues with crowd control, cleanliness and communication with residents, disrespect of property and vandalism. There’s been incidents in which the neighbors wake up in the morning, and it looks like Lollapalooza without it being cleaned.

“Not every bar has been a bad bar, right?” says Hall, who is pastor of St. James Community Church in Chatham. “But there’s been specific incidents when the bar has been the problem, inside and out.”

He says he plans to make good on his campaign promise to improve lighting along East 75th Street.

“When I go down 75th Street at night, it’s dark, and there is not a consistent police presence,” Hall says. “That is part of my safety plan: infrastructure to improve lighting. The 6th Ward is in the dark, literally.

“There has to be a conversation with beat officers and the commanders to work with neighborhood establishments.

“The end goal is quality entertainment, quality crowd control and neighbors who are not terrified with what’s happening on their blocks as well as in the alleys. The end goal is to be neighborly.”

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