Dive bars face many obstacles during a pandemic with tight quarters, a lack of outdoor seating, and the fact many are in old buildings without pick-up windows or floor to ceiling windows to increase circulation. But the owner of Innertown Pub, a 37-year-old dive in Ukrainian Village, hoped to cling to a lifeline by opening up a six-table patio. However, a neighborhood group is trying to quash the idea, crippling the business.
The Innertown Pub, southeast of the busy Division Street and Damen Avenue intersection, has been pouring beer and malort for customers who don’t need the sports bar vibe seen elsewhere in the neighborhood. Pool leagues convened, “Tamale Guy” Claudio Velez would bring his tamales inside, and regulars would post up at the bar. Dives used to be popular in the area, but Club Foot closed in 2014, Happy Village has been dormant since January (the pandemic has placed a renovation plan under new ownership in jeopardy), and Gold Star Bar has a new soul and ownership. Rainbo Club appears to be all right.
Since bars closed in Chicago in March, Innertown owner Denis Fogarty took the time to install ceiling fans for better air circulation, to clean the bar, and to make small renovations to make patrons feel safer when his bar could reopen. Innertown reopened in June, but closed last week when Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s order to close bars for indoor service went into effect. Coincidentally, Fogarty has been considering converting a fenced-off space used for parking and storage into a patio. He applied for the city’s Extended Outdoor Dining program, designed to fast track patios and give bars and restaurants a chance to safely increase customer capacity during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The city, though deluged with requests over the last few weeks, says it should take five days to approve a permit. Officials granted Innertown a permit, and Fogarty and company eagerly began work on their patio. Fogarty didn’t want to lose a day of business as outdoor patios have limited shelf life in Chicago as fall and winter approach. Respectful of residents, he planned to close the patio at 10 p.m., even though he could legally remain open until 11 p.m.
However, as Block Club Chicago reports, Innertown has hit a snag. Their permit was pulled two days after approval, before it could debut. The city says it was an error — an explanation Fogarty buys — but he’s also concerned about the influence of a neighborhood group.
“I do not have issue with the order to close,” Fogarty says. “If they think that’s the right thing to do, by all means. We want to comply, but as long as other businesses within Chicago are able to take advantage of this lifeline, we don’t see what we can’t as well.”
As Innertown sits on a residential block, the East Village Neighborhood Association wields influence over businesses in the area. The non-elected board exerted its influence with the aforementioned Happy Village project, as construction plans had to gain the association’s approval.
Now, Fogarty believes the group is at it again, trying to convince Ald. (2nd Ward) Brian Hopkins to oppose Innertown’s patio. Hopkins is hosting a Monday Zoom meeting seeking public input on the matter. Details on the meeting will be posted on the East Village Association’s Facebook page. Fogarty hopes he’ll receive backing from his customers at the meeting. Earlier this week, he began circulating a petition to try to drum up support for the patio. As of Friday morning, the petition has 900 signatures.
Block Club spoke with East Village Association board member Neal McKnight. He tells the website that he resents being called anti-business. He says Fogarty has a neighborly obligation to share Innertown’s business plans with the association before pursuing them with the city.
Fogarty says he’s trying to be good neighbor. But if he was allowed a patio, he could bring back his full staff of nine to 12 workers; he brought back three before the city closed bars last week.
Many restaurants have set up sidewalk and parking lot patios without city approval. Some bars sold to-go cocktails before they were legalized. Owners are desperate for business during the pandemic. Fogarty didn’t want to do that at Innertown. He’s been in the community for too long.
“I’m trying to do this right,” he says. “Because I do appreciate the neighborhood and have to work with the city.”