For a bar owner, one citizen complaining about noise or street pollution can lead to a nightmare of tickets, conferences, and court dates. After a summer of dealing with the liquor control commission, Robert Gomez feels like he’s been through a trial more alienating than any Kafka could have dreamed up. Gomez is a partner in Subterranean, a restaurant, bar, and music club on North Avenue just west of Damen. His problems began last November, when a couple in their 20s, who had been regulars of the club and lived next door, decided to move into another apartment in the same building. They suddenly began to complain about the noise. Gomez couldn’t understand it; the bar hadn’t become noisier.

The couple started calling their alderman, Jesse Granato, and finally the Local Liquor Control Commission’s Winston Mardis. In March, inspectors from the Department of the Environment took a noise reading in the couple’s apartment; the sound system registered 62 decibels, over the city’s legal limit of 55. After receiving a ticket, the club installed soundproofing materials.

Mardis called Subterranean in for another meeting, which included the couple, their landlord, his lawyer, and the alderman. The couple said the soundproofing had improved the situation, but not enough.

Gomez brought in Doug Jones, an instructor of acoustics at Columbia College. Inside the club they cranked up a Beastie Boys CD. Jones measured the decibel level in the couple’s apartment at 56 decibels. But according to Jones’s report, between songs the reading didn’t change, meaning the music wasn’t contributing significantly to the noise level in the apartment. That, it turned out, was mainly generated by street noise from the six-cornered intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee.

At a third meeting on June 16, Mardis heard the argument that the bar was operating at the legal decibel limit. Then the couple’s attorney said he wanted the liquor control commission to pursue the bar for operating illegally as a “concert venue.” The bar then offered to take over the couple’s lease and find them a new apartment in another building.

On June 26 the city issued Subterranean another ticket. This one claimed that the bar needed a different license to feature live music. Though Subterranean and hundreds of other clubs had been operating legally with a “music and dance” license, in 1997 a new city law was passed stating that to charge money at the door, a bar needed a “public place of amusement” license.

Under Mardis’s tenure, other nightclubs have faced similar problems. Based on a noise complaint from a neighbor, police visited Lounge Ax, near Lincoln and Fullerton, ten nights in a row in early 1996, issuing the bar a ticket each time. Three benefit concerts and an accompanying CD raised enough money to cover legal fees and start a relocation fund, but the case is still pending in court. “They don’t know what they want to do,” says Julia Adams. “They don’t want to close us down, they don’t want to let us have a music and dance license, and they don’t want to give us a PPA license.”

Gomez naturally turned for support to Lounge Ax owners Adams and Sue Miller. “It’s not right what they’re doing to Gomez,” says Adams. “I’ve talked to other club owners and they’re scared it’s going to happen to them.”

Their fears are obviously justified. One Ukrainian Village bar owner has become so paranoid that he’s started to take drastic action. “There is one woman across the street from me who’s around 75,” he says. “She’s been threatening to write a petition because she says my music’s too loud. It’s gotten to the point where I’m videotaping underneath her window every night just to get the volume levels.” A new vote-dry petition has even started to circulate around Marina City, which would dry up House of Blues and Smith & Wollensky steakhouse.

On August 6 the Cook County Circuit Court threw out the ticket for Subterranean’s June 26 offense. But on September 11 a police officer issued a new ticket to the bar for the same sin–illegally charging a cover–and also shut down the upstairs bar, where admission was being charged, for the night. The officer told employees that Subterranean was officially under investigation by the liquor control commission. Since then, Gomez says, the bar has continued booking live bands but no longer charges for entry at the door.

Meanwhile, the tenants who filed the original complaint refuse to comment on the situation. Mardis also declines to comment because, he says, the case is still pending.

“The only reason it’s this severe is because these two yuppies moved into an apartment on North Avenue behind an el,” Gomez says. “They just feel that they’re more important than the business.”

–Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): outside photo of bar by Nathan Mandell.