Bridgeport Blues: Why has the city been shutting down arts events?

The cops broke in like it was the Haymarket Riot. The Zhou B. Art Center in Bridgeport–white interior gleaming, techno beats pulsing softly–was hosting the 3rd Annual Printers’ Ball, a gala for the see-and-be-seen crowd in Chicago’s independent publishing circle. Then the boys in blue arrived. “I noticed early on that the off-duty police who were working security were wearing Kevlar vests and behaving in a rather aggressive manner considering the fact that it was a party for independent print culture,” David “Raver” Emanuel remembers in his blog “Impossible to Work.” “When we got back [from dinner], the police had already kicked everybody out and were preparing to put big orange stickers on the front doors, letting the world know that the venue was closed for business, effective immediately.”

That was on July 20. Within the last four months, three other events like the Printers’ Ball have been shut down by police in Bridgeport, marking a peculiar stand-off between local law enforcement and the flowering art scene that has made the neighborhood one of Chicago’s hottest bohemian enclaves. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s Art Open, held at Iron Studios in the heart of Bridgeport’s old manufacturing complex, was challenged by police and nearly closed. Recently, the Zhou B. Art Center saw performances by Opera Cabal cut short and the Chicago Composers Forum moved out.

What gives?

“Proper licensing” has been cited as the main reason that the Zhou B. Center cannot continue to operate at full capacity. The licensing in question refers to special event licenses, those of the nit-picking ilk that Chicago’s bureaucracy requires for large events that have over 100 people attending. After the Printers’ Ball fell through, Rosa Escareno, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs, told the Near West Gazette licensing is necessary as a certification of safety: “There were a lot of issues because the location was not properly licensed or permitted. This is an industrial establishment. It did not have the proper amenities to accommodate this type of event and this number of people.” The Zhou B. Center has failed to acquire the proper licenses since the July debacle and their continued defiance of the rules requiring registration has likely increased police surveillance of the institution.

Part of the reason is that city zoning laws have recast the stretch of 35th Street where the Zhou B. Art Center resides as a manufacturing zone, as opposed to the more lenient business district it used to occupy. But all of Chicago’s manufacturers are moving out, and the new zoning laws constitute an expansion of the industrial district already there.

The new strictures in place may end all future public events at the Zhou B. Art Center, due in most part to the costs associated with meeting licensing requirements. Zhou B. manager Oskar Friedl told Chicago Reader that to be eligible for a year-long license good for thirty events, the Zhou B. Center would have to shell out at least $200,000 for electrical upgrades to meet the code the licensing application requires. Friedl also told Chicago Reader, “The Zhou brothers’ current thinking is that ‘in the future we’ll have no more public events, period.’”

That apocalyptic assessment would spell doom for the grassroots art movement the Zhou B. has been able to generate in Bridgeport. The Zhou brothers’ superstar status was making Bridgeport a destination for fans of the avant-garde, and their generosity was making the neighborhood a fertile ground for grassroots art movements who need space and PR. As Friedl complains in the Reader, the latest moves by the city seem to be an example of “bad policy.”