In August, Kenny Johnson opened Bureau Bar and Restaurant in South Loop, joining a small cohort of bars and restaurants that have debuted during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The reaction of us opening has been good, but obviously, our business is way, way down, just like everybody else’s business is,” says Johnson. “You know, we wouldn’t have wished this on anyone. But we try to do what we can and keep people working.”
Johnson describes his new bar as being an even “swankier” iteration of his other Bureau locations — one in Little Italy, which has closed permanently, and a South Loop location (rebranded as 16th Street Bar, but still known as Little Bureau Bar) which is temporarily closed for renovations. Even within the framework of COVID-19 safety measures that include temperature checks upon entry, reduced seating capacity, and table time limits, Johnson has been able to harness his brand of good vibes. He designed the new Bureau to be a home away from home, a third place, decked out with plush lounges, a pool table, and plenty of TVs. The menu boasts a range of bar staples and quintessential soul-food dishes like Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, mac and cheese, and collard greens. While the full menu can be ordered for takeout, Johnson hopes guests will stay awhile. “We also have a DJ booth that sets the vibe of the room on a nightly basis,” he says. Pandemic or not, Johnson remains the master of (socially distant) ceremonies.
In the Before Times, when it wasn’t unusual to chat up strangers in person, conversations would inevitably lead to naming your bar. And in Chicago, to name your bar offers a tell that peels back layers, along the same vein as “Which high school did you go to?” Bars are neighborhood cornerstones, and Black-owned bars can be a homecoming for the Black community. Today’s Black-owned bars carry the spirit of yesterday’s juke joints; created out of necessity, they are cultural institutions where food, drink, and music meld together to become a welcome oasis for Black folks while graciously welcoming all. For Johnson, hospitality has been his specialty for many years.
Before becoming a bar owner, Johnson, who also owns the South Loop lounge Sage Room, was a promoter for some of Chicago’s well-known bars and clubs in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and River North. It’s common practice and a seemingly innocuous marketing tool for bar and club owners to hire promoters to boost sales on otherwise slow and unprofitable days. Black promoters are sought out, often with the intent of bringing in Black patrons. “They don’t mind doing a ‘Black night’ at their places, because the Black consumer spends a lot of money, and that’s why I was successful doing nights at people’s places. But I got tired of that,” says Johnson. “And I saw how they treated other Black promoters, and it wasn’t right. And to this day it isn’t right.
They use Black promoters to stay open, frankly. A lot of places were always on the verge of shutting down until they had a Black promoter come in and save them and make them thousands and thousands of dollars.” In the hospitality industry, it’s just one facet of an unfair and inequitable system.
It’s been said that Chicago’s nightlife scene is a microcosm of its race relations. There’s a well-documented history of Black consumers being racially profiled and discriminated against in social hubs like River North. Last June, in an event organized by the hospitality-centered social justice group, End Chicago Nightlife Racism, 50 Black promoters, club owners, and bar owners marched against the covert and overt racism that many nightlife industry leaders have chosen to ignore. While the march focused on local reform, their message was part of the much broader, national conversation about systemic racism — driven by multiple recent police killings — now happening.
Johnson says bar owners have missed opportunities to transform the local industry and bring toxic culture to an end. He points to a strategy where operators restructure equity by building on their already established partnerships with Black promoters, offering up an ownership stake in the business. It’s the type of forward-thinking reimagining that some restaurant owners have been developing in wake of the racial and gender equality movements. But Johnson says those conversations never happened, and he doubts they ever will. So he decided to open a bar of his own.
Most operators expect hurdles when opening a bar: financial constraints or trouble finding and keeping staff are typical. But in the process of Johnson opening his first tavern, 16th Street Bar, he encountered a stunning barrier. While much attention was paid toward downtown businesses impacted by looting over the summer, a great many locally owned and operated small businesses were damaged across the entire city. Johnson’s bar is included in the tally. In an Instagram post, Johnson talks about the damage to his bar and goes on to describe how a white neighbor in the bar’s building essentially halted its very opening several years ago. “[The neighbor] had never met me and never been in the place, but they literally wrote a letter [to the city] saying ‘they’re going to have gang activity, they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that,’ because I am Black,” Johnson tells Eater. “They stopped us for nine months. I had to appeal it, I had to get lawyers involved. It was a whole mess just because they only saw the color of my skin.” As it turns out, there’s a precedent of neighbors — residents and business owners — tactically weaponizing city bureaucracy and leveraging gatekeepers to keep Black-owned establishments from opening in predominantly white neighborhoods.
End Chicago Nightlife Racism reminds us that insidious moves like holding up licenses are nothing new. On Instagram, they shared a clip of a 2011 WTTW-Chicago Chicago Tonight interview with Raymond Lambert, a co-owner of the iconic All Jokes Aside comedy club known for showcasing would-be legends like Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, and Steve Harvey in the 1990s. In the full segment, it’s revealed that Lambert was in the process of relocating the club from the rapidly gentrifying South Loop to a new space in River North, only to face a swath of business owners in the neighborhood who’d rallied together to block his liquor license. After a two-year-long battle, Lambert received his license, but he lost more than $1 million in the process. “You can’t underestimate being Black and being an entrepreneur,” Lambert says in the interview. “I probably underestimated the length at which folks would go to to keep me out of that neighborhood.”
“People love everything about us. But they don’t love us,” says Josh Davis, beverage director at 16th Street Bar and the founder of Brown and Balanced, an organization that spotlights Black and brown beverage professionals. He points to the adoration and appropriation of Black culture as an example. “And unfortunately there are so many stereotypes put on us. There are so many preconceived notions of how it’s going to be when we come in the neighborhood that — it’s like redlining — like you want Black businesses because they are fruitful and they are going to make money, but we only want them in these areas. And that’s what I feel like is happening across the country.”
The recent movement to support Black-owned businesses, prompted by racial justice protests nationwide, has given a much-needed boost to a segment that that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. But many Black business owners are looking beyond stopgap measures and taking on a macro perspective. “Why aren’t there any Black-owned bars downtown?” Johnson asks. Downtown Chicago is seen by some as being yet another problematic statute that the city has been complicit in protecting. “Anybody who wants to come downtown and open up a restaurant should be able to. Anybody who wants to come in there, and invest their time, and their money, and go through this hard-ass business should be allowed to,” says Johnson.
Davis, however, believes Black business owners shouldn’t even bother with downtown and should invest in neighborhoods where they’ll be celebrated. “Forget general market, forget trying to fit into the downtown area,” says Davis. “Let’s build our community up and give us places in our community. Instead of us always having to conform and having to step and fetch and acquiesce to be in their neighborhood. Naw. I don’t want that.” What he’s describing is liberation. Davis notes a few stalwart Black-owned bars on the South Side — Leo’s Den in Grand Crossing, Red Peppers, and Murphy’s Lounge both in Chatham — bars that he supports.
Opening a new bar during the COVID-19 pandemic seems risky for anyone. Yet, in a strange way, the opening of Bureau Bar during this period of racial reckoning may be Johnson’s full-circle moment. On a recent Sunday, brunch favorites returned as TV screens glowed with Chicago Bears football. After boycotting the NFL three years ago in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick — an act for which Johnson received death threats — football was back. The overwhelming support he received during the boycott came from where it always has: “African Americans have been supporting me since the day I moved to Chicago,” he says.
Still, he remembers the response he received when he called upon non-Black bar owners across the city to join him in protest. They declined.
“I did not get support from white bar owners. I said, ‘Why don’t we all do this? None of y’all are sports bars, you have football playing in the background.’” Johnson says. “Nope, people didn’t want to do it. It takes a different kind of person to take that kind of a chance.”
So when black squares peppered his social media timeline a few months ago, he was reminded of the ways in which performative allyship shows up in the absence of true partnership. As the seasons change and a new year looms, one wonders about this juncture in a city of neighborhoods — what does it mean to be neighborly? For Johnson, real change starts with the people.
I was deep in thought at my favorite coffee shop, “Sip and Savor”, located in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville community on 43rd st. I heard a steady stream of people coming into the shop and making a bee line to the table of an unassuming well dressed man who seemed to be adored by most everyone who passed through. I looked over at him as I sipped my caramel apple cider, and continued on with my work. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to interview Philip Beckham III, in the midst of researching him I was finally able to put a name to a face and everything clicked. Of course Philip Beckham III would be the center of the universe in Chicago’s iconic Bronzeville community, he was not only an early supporter of Sip and Savor, (previously known as “The Sip”), he was embarking on changing the landscape of the community with his development company P3 Markets. His inaugural project is aptly named 43 Green and is a 91 unit 27 million dollar project located on the south side of 43rd and Calumet Ave just steps from the 43rd st CTA Green Line stop.
I asked Philip what prompted him to get into development, his answer went back generations, his grandfather Philip Beckham was among one of the first Black licensed contractors in Chicago in 1918. Equipped with a sixth grade education and a no holds bar attitude he formed PL Beckham and Sons, his grandfather’s company transformed the Morgan Park community by building more than 50 homes, and rehabbing countless properties in the Black Belt of the city. In 1966 with only 2 buses and a vision Philip Beckham II founded Beckham Transit, a school bus company that shuttled school children across the southside of the city. His company grew from a two van operation, to a major player in transit, with more than 100 buses and dozens of employees, Philip Beckham III sold the company in 2010 in a deal that would have made his late father proud.
In 2016 Philip founded MSBARC (Mid-South Business Association and Resource Center), a non-profit with an aim to build Black businesses to scale by walking them through the important steps needed to create, maintain and expand their operations. To date MSBARC has impacted over 200 businesses. Philip displays his commitment to his community by helping to create a strong business corridor in the Black Belt, similar to the one that existed in the 1900’s. In 2018 he received a call from Alderman Pat Dowell informing him that no one had responded to her RFP (Request For Proposal), for a swath of land that had been vacant for years. With no development experience, Philip saw an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. Philip envisioned a plan to anchor what he refers to as, “Downtown Bronzeville” with affordable, accessible, chic housing that combines Black culture with access to fine dining, hip boutiques and entertainment venues. After months of rejection from developers he found a partner who shared his vision. The Habitat Corporation and developer, Juan Saldana partnered with him to make his vision a reality. Months after cementing his partnership, Philip secured the 27 million dollars needed for the project, and will break ground in 2021, a world wind turnaround time in the development world.
I asked Philip about the fears that some in the Black community have raised about being priced out of the housing market, his response was that there are many apartments affordably priced in Bronzeville. The problem is that in the social media age, young people want to pivot from college to half a million dollar homes and that’s just not feasible. His advice, live in a smaller affordable space until upgrading to a larger space is sensible. By remaining focused and practicing fiscal restraint home ownership in the Black Belt will be within reach. Philip knows a thing or two about focus. He has fond memories of working for his fathers transit company from, cleaning and driving buses with his brother to sitting at the helm of the company. He believes that there are levels in life and one must appreciate them while climbing the ladder. He continues his legacy by having his twin daughters and son accompany him to meetings with developers and city officials. Continuing his family legacy of uncovering opportunities that have a lasting impact on this generation and the ones to come.
Black Firms stepping up to help stop carjackings
The move comes amid a spike in carjackings and is meant to ease the minds of women and seniors from feeling like easy targets while pumping gas.
To combat a rash of carjackings, a private security firm will be stationing guards at gas stations in areas of the city and suburbs that have been particularly hard hit.
William Kates, CEO of Kates Detective and Security Agency, said that beginning Friday between 25 and 30 guards would be posted at various gas stations, mostly on the South Side, in an effort dubbed “Operation Safe Pump.” The guards will be in security vehicles with the lights flashing between 6 and 8 p.m.
The operation is expected to last for 30 days but could be extended.
Kates is partnering with Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th). Kates said he will be paying for the service.
“This is to help seniors, as well as women, to feel safe at service stations when they pump gas,” said Kates, who wasn’t sure if the guards would be armed.
The guards will be meant “more to deter than to detain,” Kates said during a news conference at an Englewood gas station at 59th Street and Ashland Avenue, the site of a Christmas Day carjacking that left a 63-year-old woman uninjured but badly shaken.
“No one is exempt from this other pandemic,” said Coleman, who called on other security firms to join in the effort.
“Our police department, they’re doing the best they can, and we’re just here to help,” she said.
Early Walker, who owns W&W Towing and runs I’m Telling Don’t Shoot, an anti-violence organization, said he came up with the idea because his company, through contracts with various police departments, regularly tows carjacked vehicles that are later found abandoned.
“I talk to a lot of victims, and I often hear, ‘I got carjacked at a gas station,’” said Walker, who reached out to Coleman to get the ball rolling.
The alderman said she hopes “Operation Safe Pump” helps change the narrative that some people have of Chicago being “crime, guns and violence.”
A list of the gas stations where guards will be located is expected to be posted at www.imtellingdontshoot.com.
Chicago Police Supt. David Brown said Thursday there had been 144 carjackings since the beginning of the year.
The skyrocketing figure from the first three weeks of 2021 comes after the number of carjackings more than doubled to 1,417 carjackings in 2020.
Friday night, at a town hall meeting for the 2nd police district — which covers South Side neighborhoods such as Hyde Park, Oakland and Washington Park — police reiterated they are taking every step they can to stem the tide of carjackings and offered tips for residents to stay safe: Namely, pay attention to your surroundings.
Police also warned residents not to get in their vehicle and spend time on their phone or with other distractions, and to never leave their vehicle running unattended. They noted the majority of carjackings across the city are being perpetrated by teenagers who use the vehicles to commit other crimes, or simply take them on a joyride.
“We’ve got to put our arms around the entire community and reach out to those young people who might be on the edge of falling in with a bad crowd … to say, ‘Hey, this is not a game, somebody can get hurt,’” said Glen Brooks, the department’s director of public engagement.
“We are scared to death of a tragic instance where, one, a victim gets hurt or killed, and two, that one of these children will think this is a game and point a weapon at an officer, and we have tragic circumstances.”
‘Black-Owned Business’ signs show solidarity in communities hit hard by looting
After large-scale protests in response to the death of George Floyd devolved into violence and looting downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, many small businesses in Chicago have been hurt by property damage and inventory loss.
Keeana Barber, owner and CEO of WDB Marketing Group, said she was distressed to see businesses damaged, especially knowing that many black-owned businesses were among those affected. After a conversation with a friend about what could be done to help protect local businesses, Barber realized she could use her unique skill set and resources to help.
The Roseland native enlisted her company’s printing services to produce signs that read “Black-Owned Business” and “Don’t Destroy Our Black Business,” and set to work distributing them to stores, particularly on the hard-hit South and West sides.
“I was heartbroken to see so many black-owned businesses get looted,” Barber said. “I don’t know how much [the signs] will protect some people. … I think, more than anything, it gives people pride, unifying them in something they can stand for.”
On Monday, after printing about 500 signs, Barber posted photos of them Facebook and urged business owners to come pick one up if they wanted to display it. She was flooded with offers from volunteers to help hand them out, and inquiries about donating to help cover her printing costs.
As of Tuesday, hundreds of storefronts on the South and West Sides — along with businesses in the south suburbs — were displaying her signs in their windows.
“I didn’t expect it to be that popular,” Barber said Tuesday, adding that she had since printed another 250 signs to keep up with demand.
“What I love about it is that it’s not just us; we’re a vehicle for people who are saying, ‘Hey, I just want to give these out in my community. I want to give [black-owned businesses] something special to have, and to be proud to identify themselves.’”
Vanetta Roy, owner of Surf’s Up South Shore, a restaurant that specializes in seafood, noticed someone had placed a sign in her window when she came in Tuesday morning.
“I saw it and I said, ‘Thank God,’” Roy said. “We had no idea this was happening.”
Barber says her goal isn’t to drive would-be looters to other businesses, but to send a broader message to the community about solidarity.
“I support all small businesses,” she said. “But at the same time, I am going to give my businesses the support to identify themselves. There’s nothing wrong with identifying ourselves to protect ourselves.”
Article Sourced from Chicago Sun Times –
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