Game Over for the Fireside
On most nights the lanes at the Fireside Bowl are silent, but the shabby bowling alley at 2646 W. Fullerton is anything but quiet. Since it first started hosting shows, in the summer of 1994, the Fireside has become a destination for punk, pop, ska, metal, and experimental music from all over the city and all over the world. Its sometimes hectic schedule is one of the most diverse in the country, with room for both up-and-coming bands like the Promise Ring and resolutely underground acts like the now defunct Los Crudos. And it’s the only such venue in the city whose primary goal is to present this sort of music to fans of all ages: for many area teenagers, the Fireside is a bustling alternative to a night at the video arcade or worse.
A rumor has been circulating recently that the Fireside will be closing–and unfortunately, though it probably won’t happen immediately, it’s true. The Chicago Park District is using eminent domain, which allows for the purchase of private property for public use, to acquire the bowling alley, along with a neighboring muffler shop and a tavern. The buildings will be torn down to make way for the expansion of Haas Park, a wedge of playground that occupies just under an acre of land one block west on Fullerton.
“It’s either the kids who are coming from everywhere else and leaving a mess when they go or it’s the tots that live in the community,” says Hector Villagrana, chief of staff for 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio. According to a 1998 city survey of green space, the Fireside’s neighborhood, Logan Square, needs about 110 acres more than it has. Haas Park, despite its size, is the busiest playground in the city and ranks seventh in the number of children participating in organized health and physical fitness programs. In April 1999 Phil Jones, head of the Haas Park Advisory Council, approached Ocasio about building a new field house to accommodate all this activity, but a feasibility study determined that it wouldn’t be possible on the existing lot. So Ocasio proposed expanding the park eastward.
Over the following winter and spring the Park District held several community meetings at which the proposal was discussed. According to Jones, Fireside Bowl owner Jim Lapinski did not attend any of them. (Lapinski, who took over the business from his father in 1993, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.) On May 16 the Park District sent letters to the affected businesses notifying them that their buildings had been designated for acquisition. Under eminent domain, the owners are entitled to “fair cash market value” as compensation, and though they can dispute the price if they find it unfair, they can’t stop the city from acquiring the property. The value of the Fireside will be determined at a hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
Villagrana says the alderman’s office had fielded complaints about the Fireside from increasingly “more vocal” residents in recent years. “Slowly the neighborhood has turned more yuppie,” he says, noting that while some older neighbors were also annoyed by Fireside patrons, they were generally more tolerant. The most common gripes have been about noise, littering, drinking in parked cars, and sex in the alley. Villagrana says warning letters have been mailed to Lapinski on a regular basis over the last three years, but no further action has ever been taken. “In some ways [the expansion] kills two birds with one stone. We cut down on some community problems, plus we provide more park space.”
Jones, a 40-year-old lifelong resident of Logan Square, has trophies in his attic that he won at the Fireside as a kid, and says that tearing it down wasn’t his idea, but agrees that in its current incarnation the Fireside has caused problems in the neighborhood. “Parking is atrocious,” he says. Talman and Washtenaw, the side streets just east and west of the venue, have permit parking now, but Jones claims that the signs are widely ignored. “I don’t blame all the kids, but there’s a few who make it bad for everyone, urinating on our lawns, throwing their garbage on the ground. We’ve talked to Jimmy about this, but it’s always been disregarded. He’d appease us to a point, but he wasn’t really keeping watch.”
Eminent domain transactions can take years to complete, so the Fireside’s programming may not be in immediate danger. Brian Peterson, who’s handled most of the booking over the years, says he’ll operate as usual until he’s told to stop. He also says he wasn’t surprised by the news. “From the very beginning I knew that it wouldn’t last,” he says. His sentiments were echoed by Elliot Dicks, who’s drummed at the Fireside in several bands, including the Nerves, and has furnished the venue with a sound system and sound engineers almost since the beginning. “It’ll be sad in a way, but it couldn’t go on forever,” he says. “We never expected it to be open more than a year.”
Their expectations were realistic, but that just makes the loss all the more significant. For much of the past two decades, underground bands and their fans have had to create their own opportunities, and the north side is peppered with places that used to host great shows. What often happens is that owners who don’t know much about the scene begin to meddle in the booking, and before long the situation falls apart. Dicks praises Lapinski for his hands-off approach to that side of the arrangement. “The Fireside has proven that this could be done for a sustained period, to not be shut down because of trouble-causing kids,” he says. “It’s not been perfect, but the kids have really been well behaved.”
Other Fireside mainstays are taking the news a bit harder. Matt Skiba of the Alkaline Trio, a nationally known local punk band that’s built a large following at the Fireside, has been performing at the venue and going to shows there since he was 18. He says he’d still rather play there than anywhere else in town and compares it to Gilman Street, the Berkeley punk shrine that most famously nurtured Green Day and Rancid. “I’m going to be deeply saddened when the place isn’t around,” he says. “When we’re not on the road I’m usually there.”
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.