Taza Khabre

Labor dispute closes Berlin, Chicago’s beloved gay bar

The Berlin, a club that was a cornerstone of Chicago’s gay nightlife, has closed after four decades.

The bar’s owners announced they were closing last week after months of boycotts by workers and contractors in support of the new union’s demands for higher wages, health insurance and improved safety.

“The magic that happened at 954 W. Belmont will never be recreated,” at least it is stated in the announcement on its website. “It couldn’t be. It was an extraordinary tornado of talented performers and staff, inspired friends and customers, a crazy location and a lot of dreams.”

Patrons and former bartenders responded by flooding social media pages dedicated to the eccentric space with pictures and memories. “The early 90’s in Berlin were a blur and an absolute blast!” one customer wrote on Facebook.

The bar opened in 1983, as Chicago’s gay rights movement coalesced around demands for more funding to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

Named after the cabaret clubs of the Weimar Republic, Berlin became the scene of political rallies and a place of entertainment. Club DJs generally avoided the pop music played in other gay bars, preferring dark wave and post-punk.

Still, Berlin has attracted celebrities to its dance floor, including John Waters, Elton John and Donna Karan. And famous performers, such as Lizzo and drag star JoJo Babygraced his stage.

“It was like an island of inappropriate toys,” said St. Sukie de la Croix, who photographed Chicago’s gay nightlife in the 1990s. “Everyone who didn’t fit in at the other gay bars went to Berlin because everyone went to Berlin.”

The club stood out in a neighborhood – dominated by LGBTQ bars, sex shops and record stores – where revelers danced until the early hours of the morning and drag queens and kings performed at Sunday brunch. And it survived even as other counterculture strongholds closed due to rising costs and lost revenue during the pandemic.

“Berlin offered you a space to not do a Top 40 song, not wear the trendiest wig, just be a weirdo and a freak, and the crowd would embrace you,” DiDa Ritz, a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and a regular Berlin performer, said in an interview.

Ms. Ritz said the club’s welcoming atmosphere made it a bridge between Wrigleyville, the sports bar area around Wrigley Field, and Boystown, Chicago’s gay enclave, also known as Northalsted.

“What made it really magical was there would be straight people from Wrigleyville wearing Cubs jerseys, trans people, just a whole range of people,” Ms. Ritz said. “Literally until the last day it closed, it welcomed everyone.”

Berlin was originally owned by Shirley Mooney and Tim Sullivan. Jim Schuman and Jo Webster took over after Mr. Sullivan died of complications from AIDS in 1994, according to the club. Berlin was at the heart of Mr. Schuman and Mr. Webster’s origins as a couple and continued to be throughout their marriage, they said in a statement.

Bar always had political leanings, said Owen Keehnen, an LGBTQ historian who came of age as a gay youth in Berlin. After activists involved with the Chicago chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act UP, clashed with police at a 1990 demonstration, they celebrated in Berlin, swaying side by side to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Terence Smith, who ran for mayor of Chicago in the early 1990s and then for president as Joan Jett Blakk, his drag persona, campaigned in Berlin.

More recently, the nightclub has once again been the center of agitation as performers rally for better pay and protection.

In 2020, Ms. Ritz helped lead a march from Berlin to Halsted Avenue, the commercial heart of Boystown, demanding better working conditions for contractors.

And this year, the bar workers went on a two-day strike at the beginning of August, demanding raises, as well as health care and pensions. U an open letter on the bar’s website, Berlin managers said the demands were not financially sustainable for a business that operated on very thin margins, much less one that was still recovering from the pandemic.

The letter said Mr. Schuman was being treated for stage 4 cancer, and that Mr. Webster — his husband and business partner — was his primary caregiver.

The bar could not afford the rising costs of “security, insurance and licenses, equipment, leases and more,” the owners said last week in a statement announcing the closure.

Neither Mr. Schuman nor Mr. Webster responded to a request for an interview.

U statement on InstagramBerlin workers said they were “heartbroken” by the decision to close the club, but had no regrets about their fight for better conditions.

“As workers, as queer and trans people, as artists, we must continue to fight for what we deserve in this world that too often underestimates and belittles us,” they said.

Cecilia Dillon, a cashier at the Vic Theater, a music venue near Berlin, said the nightclub has been a mainstay in her life since she arrived in Chicago 12 years ago.

“It’s an important place, especially for the queer and drag communities,” she said. Themed geek nights on Fridays — when drag queens would dress up as Pokemon or anime characters — always drew huge crowds, she said.

“It’s a very successful business, so I’m surprised they wouldn’t have the funds to pay their workers a living wage,” Ms. Dillon said.

Berlin was mourned even by his competitors, said Jamie Reyes, a bartender at Sidetrack, an LGBTQ bar a few blocks away.

“It was a different kind of bar,” he said, “where people who might not feel comfortable in a typical gay bar would feel at home.”

Jesus Jimenez contributed to the reporting.

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