Finding ways for bars to better support marginalized communities was one of the many subjects covered last week at the second-annual Chicago Style conference, an event that gathered bartenders and others in the beverage sector to discuss social justice topics including those affecting LGBTQ and people of color. The women-led conference, a four-day event, drew more than 500 seminar attendees, according to a spokesperson.
Tavern culture has been a rich part of Chicago’s history, but there have been attempts to stifle political discussion. Chicago taverns were closed on Sundays to prevent immigrants from gathering in the mid-19th century. Immigrants had little access to places to meet with bars being an exception, and lawmakers wanted to stifle any political talk. Currently, there seems to be an emerging trend to once again sanitize bars from having anything to do with social justice. SJW (social justice warrior) is a dirty three-letter acronym that triggers outrage.
Panelist Alex Maynard of Starline Social Club in Oakland provided a history lesson. Bars owned by African Americans have had to battle racism as white lawmakers didn’t want them to hold liquor licenses and when they did, it came with tight regulations. Often so-called “negro bars” were legally mandated to serve food “to avoid problems,” Maynard said. This type of policy extends to cities across America, including in Chicago where there’s a scarcity of bars owned by African Americans. Maynard said African American customers often light up when they find out that he’s one of Starline’s co-owners.
Another panelist, Dan Q. Dao, a journalist who writes about the beverage industry, pointed to the legacy of Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern, a bar established in the 1800s on the Freedom Trail. Dao, a Houston native with a public relations background, remembers organizing a fundraiser in Texas for Democratic candidates. Politics were a change of pace for him, as he was used to holding events for charitable organizations. Despite what angry social media comments may belay, Dao encourages bar owners to take the plunge, even in smaller cities with more homogeneous populations.
“Building culture takes time because there are a lot of steps to it,” Dao said.
The only local member of the panel, Slo’Mo’s Kristen Kaza, last year helped organize an event at Navy Pier for LGBTQ pride. She called the effort “queer the pier,” and said it was an example of appealing to the masses. In this case, it was taking over Navy Pier, traditionally a mess of tourists. Kaza also wants bar staffers to drop the defensiveness and learn to take criticism better. An example used was one of a bar customer of color frustrated that she wasn’t greeted by a bar’s host. Other customers in her group, all white, were. That customer asked to speak to a manager, and the manager denied any wrongdoing, it was an accident. This ignores impact versus intent, Kaza pointed out. These types of situations should be handled with better care.
“It’s a gift that she brought that to her attention,” Kaza said. “She could have gone to social media.”
Starline opened in 2015 in Oakland, and Maynard and his crew aimed to open a bar where locals could drink comfortably. But as the bar’s popularity grew, it began drawing affluent customers from other neighborhoods. They worried about safety, but had different priorities than Starline’s owners. The new customers felt unsafe in the area, worried that their car would be broken into after visiting the bar, Maynard said. Meanwhile, Starline’s priority was to give minorities and women a safe spot to have a drink without worry of harassment.
While not everyone can take drastic steps to protect their bars from creeps, Maynard demonstrated the lengths he’s taken to keep his bar safe. He recalled times when he and his staff cruised the bar for creeps. They’re usually men that approach women and harass them. They found one and he and a staffer sat on opposite ends with the offender in the middle. They proceeded to “freak them out and show them what it feels like and hope they never come back.”
Chicago Style raised $25,000 for Chicago Period Project and the James Beard Foundation’s Women Leadership Programs. The conference was founded by Shelby Allison (Lost Lake), Caitlin Laman (beverage consultant, former Ace Hotel Chicago beverage director) and Sharon Bronstein (Fords Gin).