A crowd on a darkened dance floor, vividly lit by a flash underneath a brilliant disco ball and rows of multicolored lights
Dancers in Podlasie Club’s former banquet hall, before the bar shut down for remodeling Credit: Aaron Rolle

By all accounts, the debut of Podlasie Club’s namesake party, Podlasie Pleasure Club, was insane. It was a muggy night in July 2021, and organizers were expecting a turnout of maybe 50. Podlasie hadn’t hosted an event in almost a decade, and it was only zoned to accommodate 104. So when the club got so full that the sidewalk along Central Park was thronged by people with high-water pants, shaved heads, harnesses, and ice-dyed tees, everyone was stunned. 

Bar manager Violetta Konopka was relieved she’d had the foresight to ask her younger brother Vitek Pluta for help. But even with a second set of hands, the veteran drink slinger struggled to meet the demand. She and Vitek broke out Solo cups to keep up with orders and eventually accepted help from three party guests. At one point, the power briefly failed, and by the end of the night, the bar was out of ice and vodka. Its beer supply had been drunk nearly dry. 

As stressful as the evening was for Podlasie’s staff, though, it was also really fun, even for them. Violetta and Vitek both recount the night flying by, carried by the energizing music and dozens of conversations with friendly, interesting patrons they’d never seen before. Pleasure Club’s organizers helped with cleanup too. 

The bar also sorely needed the money the party brought in. For years, Podlasie had been operating as a neighborhood watering hole for a dwindling supply of weekday regulars, and it’d barely survived the first 15 months of the pandemic. The first Pleasure Club had hit the bar like a flash flood in Death Valley, and Violetta felt like all she’d had to do was let it happen. Its success attracted a slate of party planners eager to throw their own music nights at Podlasie, and to Violetta it seemed like a no-brainer to steer the club in that new direction.

By fall 2021, Podlasie was the buzziest dance spot in the city. In less than six months, it had become a pocket universe for twenty- and thirtysomethings eager to purge their lockdown demons with beat-driven catharsis. The varied bookings included rising underground artists such as Tijuana-based reggaeton superstar Muxxxe and Brooklyn-based techno talent Akua, with local DJs sharing the bill and the spotlight. The drinks were cheap and strong, and the atmosphere and decor were unlike anything at a bar drawing this much traffic. 

When the Omicron variant hit late in the year, the owners decided to make the best of it—they closed the club, but they did it not just to protect public health but also to remodel the space. When Podlasie announced the impending makeover, its new fans wondered: Was this next chapter going to confirm the bar as a driver of the rapid gentrification of Avondale? Could Podlasie enjoy a few nips and tucks without losing the amazing vibe that had helped transform it into an oasis? The club reopened last month, and the radical transformation of its look, feel, and sound has raised more questions than it’s answered.

M50, Frail808, Alejandro Marenco
Admission is cash only at the door. Fri 10/14, 9 PM, Podlasie Club, 2918 N. Central Park, $10, 21+

Podlasie Club (pronounced “pohd-LA-shyeh”) is owned by Violetta’s mother, Danuta Pluta, an 80-year-old immigrant who’s called the neighborhood home for 42 years. Like many Polish people in Chicagoland, Danuta’s children have left the city for the suburbs, but she’s chosen to remain in her apartment above the bar, where she’s lived since buying the building at 2918 N. Central Park in 1986. She says Podlasie has been operating since the 1970s. She’d been struggling, mostly by herself, to attract a new audience to keep the bar alive, but a chance encounter shortly before the pandemic ended up doing the job for her. A year and a half later, it resulted in the storied debut of the Podlasie Pleasure Club dance night at the height of vaccine summer.

A woman with short reddish hair talks and smiles from behind a cluttered bar decorated for Christmas.
Podlasie Club owner Danuta Pluta behind the bar in the good old days Credit: Courtesy Podlasie Club

The loose group of friends behind the Podlasie Pleasure Club project never meant for it to be a big dealcertainly not something that attracted coverage by the Tribune and Block Club and indirectly resulted in a complete interior makeover of the bar. The seed for the party was planted on a crisp evening in January 2020, when Justine Tobiasz called up the Podlasie Club to ask if they were still open for the night. Tobiasz, who works as a media archivist for WBEZ, is a first-generation Polish American from outside the city who was raised on tales of Chicago’s vibrant Polish community. She fondly recalls visiting the city in 2015 and attending a polka night at Podlasie when the club still catered to a more Polish audience—and since then she’s struggled to find the sense of cultural communion she felt there. 

That evening in January, it was her birthday, and she wanted to share some of the magic and history of the space with friends. Would Podlasie be willing to put off closing a few more hours? Roughly 20 people braved glacial temperatures to experience the space—courage Violetta rewarded with ample stories and vodka. The club had a bar and coat-check area in front and descended into a small banquet hall with a dance floor in back, and for the first time in ages, it seemed, it was full of laughter and excitement.

One of the guests was Ali Najdi, 30, a Kuwaiti immigrant who’d just completed a music technology degree at Columbia College. In 2016, he’d moved to Chicago in large part because of its history of innovative dance music. 

Najdi had spent his formative years downloading dance music via LimeWire onto the family computer. Growing up, he listened to all sorts of pop—Gloria Estefan, the Gipsy Kings, the Police. Eventually, he realized he was always picking up music built around a four-on-the-floor beat: the dance rhythm at the heart of disco, house, and electronic club music in general. When his family relocated from Kuwait to New Orleans after the 2008 financial crisis, he found himself adapting to a new culture and slowly becoming enamored with American nightlife. He wanted to commune with people who shared his love for this kind of music.

“In Kuwait,” he says, “there weren’t bars or nightlife. Fun was smoking shisha and maybe going to the desert to light things on fire.”

After Najdi moved to Chicago, though, he didn’t find it as easy as he’d hoped to immerse himself in the city’s music culture. Attending school full-time while working full-time to meet the high cost of living kept him from really connecting with the dance scene. He struggled to find the time and money to go out. 

At the time of Tobiasz’s get-together, he’d graduated, and he was working for the Numero Group and DJing when he could. But he’d spent the previous few years doing all that and waiting tables and studying. He was pretty burned out and eager to make dance music a bigger part of his life. That night, as he stumbled into the depths of the bar—which he describes as a “cavern of darkness” because the lights leading into the party area were off and the space felt so deep—he was amazed at what he found.

“I didn’t really venture back there until later in the night,” Najdi says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, it just keeps going,’ and then I hit the dance floor. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a real wooden dance floor, and there’s a stage and speakers hanging from the ceiling! Like, what? What’s going on? What is this place?’ This is a space that was not being utilized for something that it was clearly already built for, you know? And that was exciting to me.”

He rushed back to the bar in the front room and floated the notion of a dance night at Podlasie, testing how game Konopka might be and checking to see what his friends thought. Everyone chatted excitedly and began bouncing ideas around, so he and Konopka decided to keep in touch. 

A woman with short reddish hair mixes a drink behind a bar, wearing a one-shoulder silver dress.
A different side of Danuta Pluta Credit: Courtesy Podlasie Club

Then, just over a month later, COVID-19 hit, and the bar’s already uncertain future became cloudier. In some ways, the family was in a good spot to weather the pandemic. Danuta has tenants in the building’s other apartment, so Podlasie isn’t her sole source of income, and her kids are already varying degrees of comfortable. Still, upkeep on a struggling bar was difficult for Danuta, Vitek, and Violetta, especially as the pandemic shutdown stretched from months to a year and Danuta’s age-related ailments worsened.

Violetta was transparent with Najdi: six months into the pandemic, the family had almost sold Podlasie, and they still might if the right buyer came along. After that initial deal fell through, the club’s urgent financial situation made throwing at least one party even more attractive. Najdi felt he had to work quickly: Who knew how much longer Podlasie would be around? He and a few others from that January night, including Tobiasz, S. Nicole Lane, and Alejandro Zerah, worked together to conceive of Podlasie Pleasure Club, loosely inspired by New Orleans’s social aid and pleasure clubs. 

“New Orleans pleasure clubs are like, ‘This is a place to experience pleasure, no strings attached,’” says Najdi.

Dating back to the 1880s, these party spaces began as a way to provide social and sometimes economic relief to formerly enslaved African Americans and their relatives. They continue today as outlets for maintaining cultural history and rituals built on fellowship and mutual aid within the Black diaspora. That’s a lot to aspire toward for a group of novice party promoters without their own space, especially because Najdi and his friends are from diverse cultural backgrounds and mostly transplants to Chicago. But they’d spent more than a year cooped up inside, so reframing partying as communion felt both appealing and obvious.

“We need more spaces to dance, and I mean, really dance,” writes Lane, a seasoned clubber (and former Reader staffer) in an email. “People want to move in a dynamic way that is free of the ‘see and be seen’ culture that infiltrates other club spaces in the city. Podlasie offers that.”

Sophia Savin, a former bartender and nanny now working in event planning, came out that first night in July 2021 after seeing an Instagram flyer from Najdi, then a casual friend. She remembers showing up to an empty bar around 9 PM. Najdi was DJing with Zerah, but the room was dead. She left. When she returned two hours later, the house was packed and the crowd spilled into the street. Savin, who’d grown up in Rockford throwing house shows and the like, recognized the need to jump in—she asked if she could help Violetta and Vitek keep up with drink orders. So did a few others, including Zerah, who also helped Najdi troubleshoot equipment and electrical issues. 

It was chaos, but in that magical way where everyone was excited to be away from their computers experiencing something human together: sweat, coincidence, eroticism, play. Afterward Savin went to a nearby Golden Nugget with the party organizers and their friends, eager to keep the excitement going and get involved with the next event. The next day, someone commented on Pleasure Club’s Instagram, “Best night of my life! Thank you.”

A crowd on a dark dance floor, lit by a flash as the camera is moving so that the colorful background lights streak across the frame
“We need more spaces to dance, and I mean, really dance,” says Podlasie Pleasure Club cofounder S. Nicole Lane. Credit: Aaron Rolle

When other people from across the electronic-music scene began approaching Violetta to throw their own parties at Podlasie, she developed an informal booking system: she’d simply write their names and numbers in pencil on a calendar behind the bar, then wait for them to show up at some point on their scheduled day. 

Not every party was planned as well as Podlasie Pleasure Club. Its organizers brought their own audio gear and handed out flyers, and Tobiasz made curtains to add ambience to the bar as well as silk-screened promotional posters to hang around town. Teddy Piekarz (who works in the Reader sales department) paid for an ad in the Reader. By contrast, new promoters who came aboard after Pleasure Club’s debut sometimes ended up with extremely sparse attendance. On several occasions, organizers arrived without necessary sound equipment (subwoofers, for instance) because they’d assumed the club provided it and Violetta didn’t know that she needed to say otherwise. More than once, hosts ran long, noisy sound checks that bothered Violetta’s regulars as they tried to unwind and shoot the breeze after work. 

The greener someone throwing a party was, the longer Violetta had to wait for them to load up and leave at the end of the night—and the later she got home. Many didn’t help with cleanup, and the outdated, failure-prone electrical system in the party area (formerly a banquet hall) was a constant problem. By October 2021, the novelty of this new revenue stream was starting to wear off for Violetta and Vitek—they were feeling overwhelmed by the logistics of ensuring successful events.

Because Najdi and Savin had played such a big role in unbottling the party genie, they felt some responsibility for the chaos at the bar, and especially for the stress it was causing Violetta. As often as they could, they volunteered to help run other parties that Violetta had booked, so that they’d go more smoothly. They gradually picked up more and more event tasks so she could focus on what she knew best: running the bar with endearing hospitality. 

The pool table between the bar and the former banquet hall Credit: Micco Caporale

When Zerah got a full-time job with Metro and Smart Bar in September 2021, Najdi reached out to his friend Jake Hopes to help with sound and electrical issues. Hopes, an Iowa-born record collector who’s been part of the electronic-music scene since moving here in 2014, lent the bar some of his personal audio equipment, built a makeshift DJ booth, and jerry-rigged the power supply so there’d be fewer outages. By November, the trio of Najdi, Savin, and Hopes had set up an Instagram for event promotion and an official Podlasie email to keep track of booking requests and other queries. They also switched the bar to a digital calendar and began scouting talent to ensure robust, diverse lineups. By the time the bar closed for remodeling, Violetta had been able to hire three new bartenders and three bouncers and was looking forward to adding barbacks and a cleaning crew upon reopening. 

Najdi and Savin see their labor as an investment in their communities and the Pluta family; they both affectionately refer to Violetta as “V” and describe her like an adopted mother. Hopes, who lives off multiple odd jobs, is worried that Avondale is losing its character and becoming unaffordable. He just wants an affordable hangout where people can drown out the noise of the outside world while listening to interesting music in a welcoming environment. He sees devoting time and energy to Podlasie Club as working toward the neighborhood he wants rather than the one he senses being forced on him.

After Podlasie Club’s reopening, Savin, Najdi, and Hopes joined the bar’s staff. Savin handles event organizing and promotion; Najdi and Hopes focus on booking talent and keeping the sound system running smoothly. Until going on payroll last month, the three of them had received minimal compensation for the work they did as they got more formally involved in growing the bar. During the five months when the club was picking up steam as a party spot, tensions emerged among the Pleasure Club crew. Tobiasz, Lane, Zerah, and Najdi were among the founders, with other friends pitching in during its short run. Now the party is on indefinite hiatus—it hasn’t returned since the reopening—and Tobiasz and Lane have cut ties with Pleasure Club. 

Everyone I spoke to who’d thrown parties at Podlasie last year (including Najdi, Hopes, and Savin) expressed anxiety about the club’s potential role in gentrification. Some specifically criticized the three members of the crew who’ve become staff, accusing them of disrespecting Podlasie’s Polish history or hosting events that would bring about a dramatic change in the neighborhood.

“It’s Violetta and Vitek’s bar first and foremost,” Lane says. “This isn’t a ‘new Danny’s.’ It’s Podlasie. And it’s been there a lot longer than most of us. It has a huge history of dancing and community. The music is just a little different. I hope people—meaning DJs, bookers, dancers, or people waiting in line—honor and respect that.”

The lights above Podlasie Club’s old dance floor Credit: Micco Caporale

When Pleasure Club debuted in July 2021, Podlasie was resplendent in Soviet-era kitsch: a disco ball on the ceiling, a weathered parquet dance floor, vaguely Eastern European-looking flags, neon signs for Polish beers, and retro details such as a wall of reflective bubble domes, airbrushed black-light murals of bodies writhing and vine-covered coliseums, a warped mirror emblazoned with galloping horses, and overhead lights that chased each other in circles like a Ferris wheel at night. The bathroom floors heaved like funhouse mirrors underfoot, and there was a massive pool table whose surface had recorded innumerable spilled drinks. The bar felt visceral and unpretentious, in sharp contrast to the restrained and manicured condos and storefronts slowly inching up Milwaukee, and it attracted people eager for that energy.

Until the remodel, Podlasie hadn’t been updated since the 90s. The black-light murals and other campy details had been designed to excite overworked Eastern European transplants who’d come to America looking to escape state violence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this struck a chord with today’s dancers, many of whom are wrestling with material and existential concerns loosely similar to those of Polish immigrants of the late 20th century. 

Danuta came to the States in 1980, when she was 38. Like many of her generation who settled in Avondale, she was escaping the dire economy and authoritarian government of communist Poland. Since the early 1900s, Chicago has had the largest Polish population of any American city; in fact, Grease is based on Polish Chicago teen culture of the 1950s. 

One of the former banquet hall’s murals, lost in the renovation Credit: Micco Caporale

Immigrants came to Chicago in three main waves, two of them during Poland’s post-WWII decades as part of the Soviet bloc. In 1981, the country’s communist regime declared martial law, hoping to squelch the independent trade union and anti-authoritarian movement popularly known as “Solidarity.” During the ensuing struggle over the fate of Poland—in 1989, it would begin its transformation into the democratic Third Polish Republic—people fled the country in droves. Because the U.S. had passed the Refugee Act in 1980, making it easier for Polish people to seek political asylum in the States rather than elsewhere in Europe, many of them ended up here.

In the 1980s, two neighborhoods recognized by Polish people as Jackowo (“yahts-KOH-voh”) and Wacławowo (“vahts-wa-VOH-voh”) made up what are now Avondale and parts of Irving and Jefferson Park. These were destinations that promised a cultural support system for Polish-only speakers, and many people, including Danuta, already had family here. Many immigrants of that era relied on “vacation visas” to get to the States, then never returned. This mass migration is sometimes called the Solidarity movement, not just because of the union pushing for change back home but also because of the new arrivals’ shared need to build futures together.

Everyone’s reason for leaving Poland was different, but by unspoken agreement, starting over here was safer than continuing to live under Poland’s repressive social and economic conditions. Focusing on that communal weight made recent immigrants more likely to support a  loosely organized culture of mutual aid. Coming to the States wasn’t easy for anyone. So when everyone’s life is hard, why not share in lightening the load?

Danuta, who still speaks only Polish, left behind an ex-husband and four children who were being looked after by her mother. She was welcomed into her uncle Stanley’s home and connected with jobs that didn’t require much talking. Mostly she worked as a cleaner, but in Poland, she’d been a barmaid. 

Serving drinks and chatting with people—performing the act of welcoming so that bar guests felt encouraged to relax and enjoy themselves—had always brought Danuta joy. But landing a local bar job was difficult as a non-English speaker. For six years, she worked long hours for low wages, often holding two or three jobs at a time so she could send money home while saving toward her dream of running her own club. She wanted a place where she could book the bands her friends loved and make them their favorite drinks. It’d be a home away from home. When Podlasie Club went up for sale in 1986, Danuta saw her opportunity.

Podlasie had never been the hottest spot in the neighborhood, but it had some name recognition, and Danuta could build on that. Because the bar had been around for a minute, locals knew it, but the name was meaningful to recent transplants too. Polish people know Podlasie as a region in the northeast of the country. “Pod” means “near” or “under” and “lasie” may be loosely derived from “forest,” so the name likely refers not just to a specific place and culture but also to a sense of being “by the woods”—or rather “out of the way.” 

Being able to get comfortable somewhere “out of the way” was especially important to Danuta’s clientele, since so many had arrived in America fleeing constant surveillance. During the period of martial law, which lasted from 1981 till 1983, people were expected to remain in their homes at night—at first the curfew was enforced from 7 PM till 6 AM, and later it was loosened slightly to begin at 10 PM. Authorities disconnected many phone lines and read mail before it was delivered. Community members frequently ratted one another out to curry favor with the state. Everyone felt hyperaware of being perceived, so they exercised tight control over what they were seen reading or wearing and policed their own public associations with other people. People learned to self-censor to feel safe. 

Living like that in Poland had been exhausting. But Polish Chicagoans also found it draining to work constantly in a new country where they didn’t speak the language or totally understand the culture. They were extremely worn out, so clubs popped up across Jackowo and Wacławowo targeting a spectrum of escapist tastes. What’s your pleasure? There’s something to help everyone’s mind drift.

Danuta catered to middle-aged people like herself who liked acoustic dance music—polka, folk, jazz. It was lively music with working-class roots, and it invited dancing from couples and families who enjoyed the rehearsed steps of polkas and waltzes. When Vitek arrived in 1994, he remembers the club being frequented by regulars during the week, then packed with all kinds of people every Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes, the crowds showed up for weddings or birthdays, which he’d watch from the bar’s coat-check room, where he worked on weekends until landing a full-time job. Other times, they came out for concerts. 

A large, formally dressed wedding party at a bar, with the hostess in a blue dress with her back to the camera
Danuta’s son Vitek often worked the coat check when the bar hosted weddings. Credit: Courtesy Podlasie Club

Danuta could easily find good music; she simply asked her customers who their favorites were and monitored which performers were generating buzz at neighboring spots. Then she used her club connections back home to bring joy to her community. 

“People would say, ‘At Donna’s, there’s always a great band,’” says Vitek.

As documentarian Adrian Prawica points out in his 2018 film, A Night on Milwaukee Ave., Chicago’s Polish club scene thrived because it provided Polish Americans a glimpse of home while enriching Polish artists who were struggling in the old country. Many of the country’s top talents were huge celebrities domestically, but performing in Soviet-era Poland meant their fame came with a lot of visibility for very little money. Polish Chicagoans kept abreast of emerging Polish talent by hearing from visitors and recent immigrants, and many also remembered specific singers and bands they never expected to see live again, if they’d ever seen those artists in the first place—some were such big deals in Poland that their shows had seemed inaccessible.

To Polish performers, Avondale provided a small but dedicated fan base who really, really wanted to see them. Because American money went pretty far in communist Poland, Polish musicians who could make the trip overseas were always happy to play for expats. The artists drew much smaller crowds but earned significantly more money, and they could express themselves in ways they couldn’t back home. Polish Americans loved the chance to gossip, dance, do shots, or just sit elbow-to-elbow with their country’s biggest entertainers. From the 1970s till the 1990s, this mutually beneficial arrangement made clubs throughout the neighborhood feel electric.

All that changed in the 2000s. After 9/11, the U.S. aggressively overhauled its immigration system, and in 2004, Poland was admitted to the EU. Many immigrants who’d come to Chicago during the Solidarity years returned to Poland, and the ongoing internal migration from the city to the suburbs continued. Polish performers largely stopped touring the U.S. because it was no longer financially justifiable. The expat audience was older and less geographically concentrated, and more important, Polish musicians didn’t need it anymore. The Polish entertainment industry had recovered, and they could easily play to emigrants in England and Germany (currently the most popular countries for Polish expats), then return home on a two-hour flight. 

In the 90s, Podlasie had regularly packed the house on weekends, but by the end of the aughts it only occasionally offered entertainment. By the late 2010s, it had stopped hosting events altogether and resigned itself to life as a dive.

Danuta and her daughter, Violetta Konopka, who manages Podlasie Club Credit: Courtesy Podlasie Club

By 1994, all of Danuta’s children—Violetta, Vitek, Stanislaw, and Mariusz—had relocated to Chicago. Violetta came first in 1987, and she helped out at Podlasie Club a few days a week as a bartender before quitting for an office job. Then she got married, and in 1995, she left the state. Over time, the three brothers moved to the suburbs; Vitek became a corporate travel agent, Mariusz an organist, and Stanislaw a developer. Their mother remained in the city, running the bar alone. Then, in 2015, when Violetta was living in South Carolina, she got a call from Danuta. One of her bartenders was sick and on indefinite leave, and it felt impossible to replace a bilingual Polish worker at a struggling bar. Could Violetta please come home?

Until the pandemic, Violetta followed the same routine for years: she drove an hour into the city from Orland Park, opened the bar around noon, served her regulars (usually around happy hour), and closed up when she got bored (often sometime between seven and ten o’clock—the bar didn’t keep strict hours). She was happy to help her mother, but she and Vitek were concerned about the business’s future. Maybe they should cater to a younger crowd, Danuta’s children pressed—they could turn Podlasie into a disco to attract more people. Or maybe they should just sell the bar so they wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

“For some reason, [Danuta] never dealt with younger clientele,” Violetta explains. “It was always older. She was very skeptical of doing a disco. I always thought, It’s a dive bar. What do young people want with a dive bar? . . . Then we met Ali and Sophia and Justine, who said, ‘We love this place, and I know that some other people would love it.’ And they were just the nicest kids. The absolute nicest kids.”

Having never entertained a younger crowd, Danuta had no idea what to expect. Would they bring drugs or violence? Did she have to worry about property damage? Would she have to call the cops? Once that crowd actually got in the door, though, things went OK. Najdi and Savin also taught the family that bar staff could be trained to keep guests safe and de-escalate conflict without involving police. This helped renew the family’s desire to keep the bar running. 

The old Podlasie bar, with the horses on the mirror Credit: Micco Caporale

The family also decided to invest in the bar’s future, hoping to attract more people—and more business—to the neighborhood. Though Avondale’s demographics have shifted, the life and prosperity created by its Polish community have yet to be replaced. In February, Alderperson Ariel Reboyras, whose ward covers much of Avondale, told Chicago magazine that its business vacancy rate is as high as 40 percent. Danuta, a resolutely independent person, can’t imagine ever leaving the neighborhood where she’s spent more than half her life, so she’s especially eager for local change that brings more activity. 

“Young people are being attracted to the area now,” Danuta explains via Vitek, her translator. “And young people . . . that’s life. It took a while to fill in the gap of missing Polish people here. Everything was Polish, every single store, pharmacies, bakeries, doctor’s offices, everything. They’re all uprooted and gone now. Businesses went out of business, and it’s taken years for that gap to be filled in with new life. It’s better to have businesses filled in and working than a nonworking block of nothing.”

The gut remodel of Podlasie, which began in late February 2022, was necessary to update the electrical system and bring the bathrooms up to code. Some of the best parts of the old bar (including the murals) couldn’t be preserved if the family wanted to make the building safer and more reliable. 

The family decided what to keep and what to scrap from the old bar with almost no input from Najdi, Savin, or Hopes. Danuta’s son Stanislaw oversaw the project. As owner of Wilmot Properties, he’s overseen many development projects in the Logan Square and Avondale neighborhoods, including the apartment building that went up on the site of landmark Polish business the Red Apple Buffet

Last year, Block Club reported that Stanislaw had won approval from the city to rezone a lot in Logan Square for a 56-unit apartment building (the spot was originally zoned to permit only 23). Neighbors objected to the dearth of affordable units—the proposal offered just eight, below the legal minimum given the building’s proximity to public transit. Additional outcry arose over the fact that the redevelopment would destroy Project Logan, a four-sided graffiti wall that’s long been a crown jewel of the city’s street-art scene. Launched as a community-led cleanup project, it attracts tourists from across the country.

Community pressure persuaded Stanislaw to increase the share of affordable units to the minimum mandated 20 percent, and he also granted Project Logan’s founders two ground-floor walls of the proposed building to use for graffiti in perpetuity. Despite these compromises, Stanislaw won’t be winning any popularity contests in the neighborhood for a while. And Najdi, Hopes, and Savin knew nothing about any of this until I asked them about it in August 2022.  

“I can feel the gentrification moving up Milwaukee,” Hopes told me during a phone call in March. He lives around the corner from Podlasie in a building that’s being gut rehabbed one apartment at a time by a Polish landlord who owns much of the block; he anticipates soon being priced out or kicked out of his apartment of seven years. “I knew the neighborhood was changing when—OK, you know those places where you go and drink wine with a group and everybody paints the same picture? When that happened down the street, it felt official.”

At Najdi and Hopes’s encouragement, Podlasie now has a PA system that aims for a classic 70s disco sound, not a modern techno sound. It’s inspired by the setup at Paradise Garage (aka the Garage or “Gay-rage”), a legendary New York disco spot that could keep a party going from the wee hours all the way into the early evening.

“The sound is cleaner, so you’re able to take in more details,” Hopes explains. “You can listen to music in a way that’s less likely to make your ears hurt, and it’s easier to speak over because you’re not competing with noise created by low-quality signal output. It’s extremely rare for midsize clubs for underground artists to have this level of quality.”

That level of quality lets DJs push the possibilities of their talents and see what effect it has on the audience. And the relatively small size of Podlasie means emerging talent can play to a packed house instead of a big club that’s half full. 

“The more places to experience dance music, the better,” insists Najdi. He wants underground artists to have a reliable aboveground venue that’s affordable and comfortable for the type of audience that would follow them from a warehouse party to a club. “Chicago has gotten limited in its scope and range, and there aren’t many spaces intentionally cultivating this kind of community that’s accessible to multiple cross sections.”

“From ambient, to disco, to house, techno, hip-hop,” says Hopes, “we really want to focus on Chicago talent. We definitely want to have people coming in from out of town, but there’s so many talented people here of every generation and every type of dance music. We want to connect them.”

Podlasie Club’s bookings reflect this desire—that didn’t change with the remodel. The club’s reopening night on September 17 was headlined by rave legend Bill Converse, superstar of Bauhaus-inspired electronic label Dark Entries Records. The openers were locals versed in darker underground sounds: Jordan Zawideh, Lorelei, Beau Wanzer, and Valdez. The bill at the next show, on September 23, featured the brighter, more R&B-driven vibes of DJs Garret David, Miss Twink USA, and Maudi. The Podlasie crew are delivering artists from all over the underground dance map, and the club’s Instagram posts have started providing biographical detail and historical context about each performer.

The view looking out from inside the front door of the old Podlasie Club Credit: Micco Caporale

But today Podlasie Club’s interior is a far cry from the space that welcomed everyone out of quarantine to throw back drinks and sweat into each other’s mouths. It’s mostly exposed brick, though there’s some intricate floral wallpaper inspired by Polish folk patterns; local artists (many of whom are Polish) have also installed mini murals. The bar portion is visually defined as a sitting-and-talking space, outlined by inky leather couches and dotted with pony-hair chairs. Electric candles of varying sizes cast a dim light, and a vague but unmistakable spicy-sweet aroma hangs in the air. The party area and its dance floor are still in the back, separated from the bar by a gauzy curtain that opens into a black box of oblivion. 

During the remodel, Vitek insisted that Podlasie would maintain its Polish spirit—there would be Polish-themed cocktails, and throughout the club the decor would make visual nods to Polish folklore. The old Polish beer signs would stay too. But in an important sense, whatever Podlasie did would have a Polish spirit, because it’s still run by Polish people.

“That’s who you are,” he says. “If you’re not authentic to where you’re from, you don’t have anything. I’m an American, but I’m Polish first. That’s important to all of us, including my sister. Mom worked really hard on this place for all these years. So we kind of want to keep it going, even though the clientele has changed. Mom is excited it’s still going. It’s almost like a big circle, you know? It’s a totally different genre of music and all that, but at the end of the day, you know, the ownership stays in Polish hands.”

On September 30, I went to Podlasie to catch Humboldt Arboreal Soundsystem—an informal DJ pop-up known for presenting weekend summer dance sets beneath a large tent in Humboldt Park. They’re a beloved staple of the local dance community, and they even loaned Najdi speakers for the first Pleasure Club party. 

On the dance floor, I saw a white guy in a hoodie get unpleasant with an older Black woman in a straw hat who’d bumped into him as she danced. Another guy pressed his face into a woman’s ear to loudly explain house music as they stood still in the middle of the dance floor. Many people were elbowing dancers away so they could take selfies, even though the room was extremely dark. By the bar, there was a group of maybe seven men in suits—not office suits but the kind worn with no tie and a shirt button popped. One of them tried to dazzle the rest by balancing a beer can on his head, and another stumbled on something. He picked it up and offered it for group inspection: an empty bottle of VCR head cleaner. “What the fuck?” he said, and someone offered an explanation of poppers that sounded like a half-remembered Wikipedia article. Everyone laughed—what an amusingly exotic artifact they’d found. I stopped waiting for Humboldt Arboreal Soundsystem and went home before 1 AM. On opening night, I’d left before Bill Converse played too.

Chicago teems with people at peak clubbing age who feel unpleasantly hyperaware of being perceived—they’re policed by peers on social media, policed by social media platforms themselves, literally policed in their communities, or all three. And every day they have to publicly perform as very specific versions of themselves to make money. They’re eager for relaxed, accessible places to escape that exhausting virtual panopticon—places like Podlasie used to be and still could be again. 

Many of these people are transplants making their living in the gig economy and renting rooms in packed apartments, but unlike Danuta and much of her generation, they almost certainly won’t be able to finance a building, even by working several low-paying jobs—and they certainly won’t be able to do it in less than ten years like she did. That means they’re unlikely to ever have ownership of their own club spaces—the kinds of changes that Podlasie has undergone will remain out of their control wherever they go.

At pre-remodel Podlasie, hundreds of people returned from a year spent inside enduring the botched government COVID response to find refuge from the pandemic’s acceleration of America’s economic collapse and descent into fascism. The bar echoed many of the aesthetics driving today’s cutting-edge club music—coldwave, for instance, is inspired by the low-tech synth experiments of Italo disco and 70s and 80s Eastern European dance music. For a beautiful moment in 2021, from the middle of July to the middle of December, Podlasie was the perfect cultural balm that no one could have predicted finding.

“We were a group of four young people wanting to listen to music and celebrate our love for one another,” says Lane, recalling the early days of Pleasure Club. “And while I’m not part of Podlasie anymore, it brings me joy to know that I was able to spend a few parties looking at a dance floor and seeing my best friends, complete strangers, and people I haven’t seen in years uniting and experiencing something really special. I hope there are many, many more lines down the block for the family, because they truly deserve it.”