When Claire Henry began working as the marketing and programming director at the Ace Hotel in Chicago shortly after it opened in Fulton Market in the fall of 2017, she was excited by the possibility of creating a space where all sorts of people could come together to appreciate music, art, and food. To Henry, who was fresh out of grad school, it felt like a grand experiment, and she immediately began reaching out to artists and DJs to schedule a full slate of parties, talks, and exhibits.
Now, four and a half years later, the Ace has left town, and Henry, who says she was asked to leave her job in September 2020, is suing the hotel chain for defamation of character, corporate negligence, and infliction of emotional distress. The Ace’s ethos of diversity and inclusion was just a facade, and behind the scenes, the chain’s management was guilty of mistreating and even abusing its workers, specifically its workers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), her lawsuit argues, with specific examples gleaned from social media claims. Instead of taking responsibility for its culture, the lawsuit argues the Ace used employees like Henry, who is white, as scapegoats.
“Ace hires young, enthusiastic, excited people who really need [the brand] on their resume,” Henry says. “They need the connection, and they’re not in a position to fight. It feels like bullshit that these people are left hurt and damaged by a company that propped themselves up on the idea of community and connectedness and inclusivity. I got to a point, as so many employees who have made complaints have done, where you either stop talking about it, or you realize that this is how they continue to get away with this behavior.” That is why, she says, there are so many other complaints besides her own in the filing.
General counsel Meriem Soliman wrote in an email to Eater that the Ace was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
During the first year of Henry’s tenure at the Ace, everything seemed to be going well. Henry said she received praise for her work from Ace’s management and members of the community. She sometimes felt overworked, underpaid, and undersupported: Her starting salary was $63,000 and she was expected to manage not only the hotel’s slate of programming — between three and 10 events a week — but also its branding in Chicago, with the assistance of only one other person, a social media manager. Still, she also felt like she was doing important work, partnering with interesting people, including singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, rapper Anderson .Paak, and the late artist and designer Virgil Abloh. The hotel also hosted a panel event with Eater Chicago back in 2019.
Henry says that she was always “hyper aware” of her race as she built the hotel’s schedule of programs. She wanted to make sure that the Ace was a place where all Chicagoans would feel comfortable. “I did not want to do programming that was reflective of just my perspective and who I was,” she says. She worked with DJ bookers to hire DJs to play a variety of music; she hoped that by hosting regular dance party nights, both they and Waydown would develop a following. Waydown was the first rooftop bar in Fulton Market, then a slightly out-of-the-way industrial area, and part of Henry’s job was helping it find its place in Chicago.
Her work did not go unnoticed. “Ace Hotel helped fill a gap in the limited number of nightlife options for Black Millennials, thanks to a host of creatives and thoughtful staffers who centered our needs,” wrote the Triibe, a website that describes itself as “reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago and giving ownership back to the people.” The Triibe specifically singled out Waydown (which was later renamed Little Wild) in its article.
Henry’s official title at the Ace was “cultural engineer,” one she and her counterparts across the chain disliked, she says. It made them sound like they were engineering, or manipulating, culture, and it didn’t quite specify their place in the management hierarchy. They asked upper management for a better title that more accurately described the work they actually did: managing the hotel’s brand and cultural programming, not determining what the culture of the hotel was to be. But Henry says in the lawsuit their requests were ignored.
In late 2018, the Ace Chicago hired a new general manager, Jesse Boles, who wanted to revamp aspects of the hotel that he felt were faltering. One of those was Waydown. Boles and his managers at Ace’s corporate headquarters felt the bar had too much of a club atmosphere, Henry says; they envisioned it as something more like a cocktail bar. In mid-2019, they drew up a list of music that they no longer wanted played there. This included trap music, a popular hip-hop subgenre that features intense instrumentals (characterized by sharply accented hi-hats and rumbling sub-bass) and raps about street life. The music was one of the main draws for the young, Black crowd who came to the venue to dance. (The Ace’s list of music to be cut also included country pop.)
Henry told management that she thought this decision would be “dangerous,” and would create racial tension within the staff and with the public, but she says they ignored her. Instead, they left it to Henry to break the news to the staff, who assumed that the decision had been hers and that it was racially motivated. Neither of these things, she says, was true. She asked Ace’s management to clarify who had made the decision, but, she says in the lawsuit, they ignored her request, and the staff continued to believe that Henry wanted to discourage Black people from coming to Waydown. When customers complained about the removal of trap music on social media and in person, the Ace didn’t respond, according to the lawsuit; the bad feelings festered and were increasingly directed toward Henry.
In May 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, the frustration among BIPOC workers boiled over. While other companies across the country were openly declaring their support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the form of public statements and donations, it took nearly a week for the hotel chain to post a message on its corporate Instagram account that vowed to “take a hard look inward to identify racism and inequality within our own house.”
Ace employees from across the chain responded to the post with a litany of complaints and anecdotes about racism within the hotel’s management, which were cited in Henry’s lawsuit. Black workers claimed they had been harassed and punished for behavior for which their white colleagues were praised. An unnamed former manager of the Ace Chicago’s restaurant, City Mouse, was quoted in the lawsuit as saying they had specifically been told by upper management not to hire BIPOC workers.
According to the lawsuit, Henry and her fellow so-called cultural engineers felt that, given their role, which required plenty of interaction with both the hotel staff and the community, they were best-suited to report to upper management on the general mood, both inside the hotel and out. Instead, Boles held a meeting with the staff at Waydown to which Henry was not invited.
The following day, according to the lawsuit, Boles sent an email to the staff acknowledging “that many systems and policies designed to address employee issues have an inherent bias toward existing structures and, as a result, do not do enough to support vulnerable groups” and vowing to do better. In response, an Ace Chicago bartender sent an email to all Ace employees worldwide; it included a Google doc created by Waydown staff that claimed that Henry had “advocated” for the removal of trap music, and also included a list of demands that called for “reform of the ‘Cultural Engineering’ department and for current head at Ace Hotel Chicago, Claire Henry, to be TERMINATED.”
In an Instagram post at the end of July, the Ace said it was listening and taking action, including instituting implicit bias training, salary reviews, listening circles, and investigation of all allegations. One of the first of those investigations was of Henry, specifically her role in the removal of trap music. The Ace’s CEO, Brad Wilson, had already announced in an email to the entire organization that Henry would be “investigated for inappropriate bias and racism,” and if she was found guilty, she would be fired.
In July, Henry was interviewed by an outside investigator, and in August, she says she was told by the investigator and the Ace’s head of HR that they found that her behavior had not been racist or biased. Henry, and later her lawyer, Tamara Holder, asked the Ace to send a message to all employees clearing her name. Instead, in September, the hotel handed her a separation agreement, ostensibly because of “reduction in workforce,” and offered her a payment of $3,930.82 in exchange for waiving all claims against the company, according to the lawsuit. The agreement arrived just as Henry was about to go on furlough, so she was never given a chance to explain her departure to her coworkers.
“They needed to say, ‘We need to fix that,’” says Holder. “[They needed to say to the employees] ‘Look, we’re sorry that Claire looks this way to you. This is what she’s done. Let’s have a conversation about the trap music issue.’ Because that’s what a family and a community does.”
For Henry, what happened to her is just one example of the way she says the Ace had mistreated other employees. “It’s not just one employee who is voicing concerns and having issues,” she says. “This is a larger problem of the way this company treats their employees and how they want you to feel part of a tight-knit, close community and celebrate art and diversity and inclusion. But when they were faced with a large culture and social upheaval, they failed to rise to the occasion.”
Henry is asking for $50,000 in damages, less than the equivalent of what she earned each year working at the Ace. She’s been able to continue working in the arts and interior design, in a far less public role. But both she and Holder feel it’s important that the Ace should answer to her accusations and explain the discrepancies between its rhetoric of inclusion and the way it actually treated its employees, and why no one responded to Henry’s many requests to officially clear her name.
Holder filed the lawsuit on January 21. The Ace has yet to respond.