The Fireside’s Unlikely Allies

When the Fireside Bowl hits its tenth anniversary as a music venue in June, somebody ought to throw it a party–after all, few people thought it would be around to celebrate that milestone. The shabby bowling alley at 2646 W. Fullerton has been Chicago’s only full-time all-ages rock club for years, and in local music circles rumors of its impending demise have become something of a running joke. Of course, the joke didn’t seem so funny back in 2000, when the Chicago Park District first announced its plan to demolish the Fireside and expand neighboring Haas Park. Since then the club’s regulars–bands and fans alike–have been waiting and wondering, keeping one eye out for the wrecking ball.

Four years later there’s been no official word from the city on a change in the Fireside’s status, but the club has started spending more money on upkeep–not the behavior of people who know they’re running a doomed operation. The breathtakingly skanky bathrooms have gotten a partial makeover, some maintenance has been done on the lanes, the roof’s been repaired, and there’s a new coat of battleship gray paint on the paneling in the stage area. Though owner Jim Lapinski didn’t return phone calls for this piece, it’s fair to say that someone at the club has reason to believe that its future is relatively secure now.

First Ward alderman Manuel Flores confirms that the original plan to expand Haas Park has quietly been tabled. “Yes, my last understanding is that the plan has been put on hold,” says Flores. “The main reason is it’s cost prohibitive.”

When the plan was first announced, the city cited a 1998 green-space survey that found that Logan Square needed an additional 110 acres of parkland. Though Haas Park occupies less than an acre, it’s the busiest and best-loved park in the ward, according to Flores’s office. To clear the way for its proposed expansion, eastward along the north side of Fullerton, the city planned to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the bowling alley as well as a neighboring muffler shop and bar. Letters even went out to the businesses in question, notifying them that the acquisition process was under way. Yet little more ever happened.

Two key developments prevented the plan from coming to fruition: First, real estate prices in the area began to climb steeply, so that with each passing year the fair market value of the property the city needed to buy got higher. Second, during a redrawing of Chicago’s political map in December 2001, the area around Haas Park was trimmed from Alderman Billy Ocasio’s 26th Ward and became part of the First Ward. In spring 2003 the matter of the park’s expansion ended up on the desk of first-term alderman Flores, who’d just beaten incumbent Jesse Granato in a runoff election.

Flores, at 32 the youngest member of the City Council, is more tolerant of the Fireside than Ocasio’s staff was. They seemed to view the neighborhood’s relationship with the venue in us-versus-them terms, and cited resident complaints about the noise, vandalism, and parking problems associated with the club to bolster their argument that the area would be better served by an expanded park. “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,” noted Hector Villagrana, Ocasio’s chief of staff, in a 2000 interview with the Reader.

By contrast, Flores seems to appreciate the Fireside as a community resource and youth hangout. “The bowling alley has been there a long time. It’s a long-standing venue for good up-and-coming live bands and something that a lot of young people enjoy,” he says.

Flores won’t go so far as to promise that the Fireside is off the hook for good, since the city still intends to expand Haas Park somehow. “There was, and is, this issue of trying to provide better programming and park space for the kids,” he says. But he adds that none of the current proposals for the park would involve uprooting or demolishing the club.

Catching Up With Tortoise

What’s Russian for post-rock? Locals Tortoise will undoubtedly find out on their European tour this summer, which includes a date at the 16 Tons Club in Moscow. It’ll be their first visit to Russia, but they’re certainly not new to the jet-set lifestyle: they recently played a rowdy show in Istanbul and in March reprised their 2001 turn as curators at England’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.

Of more immediate interest to Chicagoans is Tortoise’s concert at Metro on Thursday, May 20, to celebrate the release of the band’s fifth album of new material, It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey). A week ago the group was forced to cancel a couple dates on the first leg of its North American tour after drummer John Herndon injured his wrist skateboarding; the Chicago show will be his first time back onstage since the mishap. A second performance scheduled for May 21 has been called off; ticket holders can attend the Thursday concert or get a refund.

In the past Tortoise has tended to alternate between long periods of intense activity and even longer periods of relative inactivity, but second drummer John McEntire says the band plans to start working more steadily, both onstage and in the studio. “Our idea is that we’ll tour in shorter periods but more often,” says McEntire, “so that we’re busy throughout the year, rather than doing like six months every two years or something.” Two members of Tortoise, Herndon and guitarist Jeff Parker, have started families since the group hit the road in support of 2001’s Standards, and the decision to take many short tours–with many short breaks in between–was made with their children in mind.

In keeping with its new work ethic, Tortoise has already begun tracking a follow-up EP to It’s All Around You. “We have a couple tunes recorded; we want to get a few more,” says McEntire. The EP will also include the band’s first professionally produced video, for “Salt the Skies.” Filming was completed last month with Adam Levite, who’s directed clips for Interpol, Elefant, and the Burning Brides, among others. The disc will be out on Thrill Jockey early next year.


Last week’s story on engineer and musician Bob Weston misidentified Weston’s alma mater, the University of Lowell, as the University of Massachusetts Lowell. And Weston did not live but only worked in Steve Albini’s attic in the early 90s. My apologies.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Saverio Truglia.