Out of the Ashes

Latino Chicago Theater burns, but new growth has already started.

By Michael G. Glab

Every few months firefighters from the station on Cortland would drop by the Firehouse, the 103-year-old building near North and Damen that now housed Latino Chicago Theater Company. They’d say hello to the theater people and climb upstairs to look at their old lockers and sleeping quarters. But a week ago Tuesday, shortly after 5 PM, the firefighters returned to battle a blaze that nearly consumed the building. They broke glass, poked ventilation holes in the walls and ceiling, and tore down doors, training high-powered hoses at all corners of the red-brick building. Tongues of flame and billowing black smoke framed a black-and-red banner of Che Guevara that hung from the second floor.

Company member Michelle Banks could see the emergency lights two blocks away as she ran toward the theater. A police car was parked lengthwise across Damen at Wabansia, and an officer was rerouting traffic onto the side streets. A helicopter hovered over the intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee. Banks could hear snippets of conversation as she passed people on their way home from work:

“Somebody in the ambulance…”

“They’d better have insurance…”

“Nothing left…”

Che glared through the flames at Con Fusion, a tony restaurant across the street, as the building behind him threatened to topple. Banks had made the banner to advertise ¡Che-Che-Che! (A Latin Fugue in 5/8 Time). Originally Latino Chicago’s most successful production, it had been revived to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary. Someone in the crowd said that the building’s second floor had collapsed into the auditorium. “Oh, God,” Banks whispered. Another member of the company put his arms around her and led her across the street, where a knot of her coworkers stood like an island among the bystanders, watching their theater burn.

A tall man watched from behind dark glasses. Juan Ramirez, Latino Chicago’s artistic director, had been one of the seven actors who started the group in 1979. He looked helpless, his hands jammed in the pockets of his jacket, the flashing lights reflecting off his shades.

“What happened?” Banks asked.

“It’s pretty much a total loss,” Ramirez replied. “Gregorio took a dinner break at four o’clock. He came back at five, and it was on fire.”

The Latino Chicago group huddled together like war refugees, trying to distract themselves from the fire but unable to sustain conversation.

Frankie Davila, an actor and director, had invested 15 years in the theater company. “When we started in this building, this was a totally dead area,” he said. “We had benches with no backs for seats. We used to get our cars broken into while we were rehearsing.”

In the ten years since then Latino Chicago had become an institution, one of only three Latino theater groups in the nation–and the only one in Chicago–to own its performance space. A number of smaller Latino troupes had used the space too, as did Prop Theatre and Powertap Productions. Latino Chicago had built a mecca for Latino theater, but tonight it seemed a house of cards. “We spilled our blood and guts on this stage,” said Davila. He shook his head and walked away.

A couple of hours later, the smoke had cleared and the firefighters were rolling up their hoses. The battalion chief stopped by to brief Ramirez. He would need to call a board-up service, notify the insurance company, contact the fire department for a copy of the report.

“Did any of your people get hurt?” asked Ramirez.

“I thought I lost about six guys in the beginning,” the chief said. A crew had been working on the first floor when a second crew popped the skylight in the roof to let the smoke escape. The open skylight created a strong draft that drew a wall of fire up toward it. The first-floor crew found themselves surrounded by the flames until they were rescued by other firefighters.

“Nobody called this in,” the chief said. He pointed at Con Fusion’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Patrons sat watching the action, enjoying a perverse dinner theater. “The people in this restaurant, they shoulda been able to see something. I don’t know. Turns out somebody was passing by and saw the fire. They walked into the firehouse up the street and told them.”

When Raul Jaimes, an actor and light technician, heard this, he turned red and faced the restaurant, unleashing a torrent of profanity in Spanish on the unsuspecting diners. Someone put a calming hand on his arm. A huge bear of a firefighter approached the group, his helmet and greatcoat well-worn. He had once served at this firehouse. “It broke my heart,” he said. “When I got here, I went right up to where my old locker was.”

Banks smiled. “We never took the names of the firemen off the lockers.”

As the last of the fire trucks pulled away, one firefighter leaned out his window. “The show must go on!” he shouted. The group cheered as the truck moved down Damen, then they approached the burnt-out shell of the building. Banks wept as she surveyed the building up close. She stood on the driveway leading from the truck portals; the company had called the spot La Playa–the beach. Now it was filled with cinders, broken glass, murky water. “The street was the sea,” Banks explained. “The cars were the boats. The people walking by were seagulls. We used to sit out here and drink and laugh and play music on our boom box until two in the morning.”

A parade of people–artists and shopkeepers and neighbors–stopped by to offer condolences. Ramirez promised them Latino Chicago would rise from the ashes. Yet for months the company had talked about moving elsewhere. The area around Damen, North, and Milwaukee had changed a lot in ten years. “We’re the last of the dinosaurs,” said Banks. “This used to be a Latino neighborhood. Look at it now. Do you see a Mexican on this block?”

She took a last look at the building. The masonry above the windows and the doors was smudged by “eyebrows” of soot. The board-up workers were busy cutting wood to fit the gaping doorways and windows. An insurance inspector was poking around with his flashlight. The banner Banks had made still hung from the front wall, Guevara’s glare still reflected in the windows of the restaurant across the street.

The Joyce Foundation called the day after the fire, unsolicited, and gave the company $10,000 to pay for supplies and a temporary office space. Ramirez announced that the company wanted to be up and running in the firehouse by September 1998. “We really won’t know until our architects and engineers get in there,” he said. “All of this is based on how quickly insurance matters are expedited. Structurally the building’s fine.”

But Latino Chicago’s real gift was its friends and neighbors. When the company had considered selling, mortgaging, or leasing the Firehouse, they wanted to open a space in South Chicago or Humboldt Park, someplace with a larger Latino community. But now Ramirez promised to stay put. “We thought the neighborhood had become this yuppified place that had no soul,” Ramirez said. “Tuesday night all these faces came out of the woodwork. It’s amazing. It’s our home. It’s not a Latino neighborhood anymore, but it’s more our home than we realized.”