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Uptown in the News  

March 3, 2004
McKeon not giving up fight to save Big Chicks
By Cub Barrett, Medill News Service

Big Chicks, a predominantly gay bar in Uptown, is in danger of losing its liquor license and being forced to close.

Chicago officials said the bar, 5024 N. Sheridan Road, violates state liquor laws because it operates within 100 feet of a synagogue.

And despite efforts by state Rep. Larry McKeon (D-13th) to amend the statute, the Illinois House on Feb. 20 failed by three votes to pass his proposed bill.

McKeon, who represents the area, said he will re-introduce the bill, which would slightly change the distance requirements to fit Big Chick's situation, this week.

Meanwhile, bar owner Michelle Fire and her lawyers are appealing their case to the Chicago Liquor License Control Commission, during which time Big Chicks can stay open. The process could take a year or longer, said Greg Harris, chief of staff for Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th).

But the commission would drop its bid to close the bar if the statute is amended.

"I was hopeful it would pass the first time; (McKeon) assured me it would," Harris said. "Hopefully next time he'll have enough votes on the floor and they will stay in operation."

Last November, when Big Chicks owner Michelle Fire applied for a liquor license for a new restaurant adjacent to the bar, city inspectors realized Big Chicks was in violation of a 1934 state liquor law about proximity to schools and houses of worship.

Though Big Chicks has operated in the same storefront for 24 years, nobody had noticed the violation. Harris said the location has had a continually operating liquor license since the 1940s.

Wally Rozak, interim director of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, said the synagogue, Agudas Achim, 5029 N. Kenmore Ave., does not object to the bar.

When news of the violation and impending bar closure broke in November 2003, gays and lesbians, as well as numerous community organizations, dove into action.

"It's like no issue I've seen in 10 years," Harris said.

Ald. Smith's office received more than 1,000 letters within four days of the announcement, Harris said. Similarly, an online petition addressed to Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city's liquor commission garnered more than 2,000 signatures during its first weekend.

Rogers Park resident Jeff Ramone, who said Big Chicks is like his "home away from home," started the petition, which now has nearly 6,000 signatures.

He said he was amazed at the immediate, widespread support, an indication of Big Chicks' popularity.

"(Big Chicks) is one of the few places that's really supportive of individuals and the community," Ramone said. "Part of what Big Chicks does is be an active part of the community, not just a bar."

"It's sort of like a mini-Cheers," he added.

Harris and Ramone cautioned that the bar's closing would have an impact on the entire Uptown community, not just the bar's patrons.

"Big Chicks is for gays, straights, community organizations and block clubs," he said. "It sponsors everything, from boys and girls clubs to community sports teams."

Rozak said, "Fire's been this mother hen figure for so many people. Big Chicks is one of those places where everyone's welcome."

The bar sponsors charity events, AIDS organization fund-raisers and community functions, Ramone said, adding that Fire is a "fixture in the community" and "completely loyal to her patrons."

Calling Big Chicks a "treasured institution," Harris said Ald. Smith will continue to work with Rep. McKeon, Uptown community organizations and Big Chicks to keep the bar open.

"We're not leaving a stone unturned," he said.

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