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A poster with notes from Berlin.
Fans leave farewell notes outside of Berlin in Lakeview.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

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What Led to the Demise of a Chicago Queer Bar Icon

Berlin’s closure has provoked a series of questions about the role of organized labor in Chicago’s nightlife scene

Co-founded in 1983 by Tim Sullivan and Shirley Mooney, a gay man and a straight woman respectively, Berlin was originally pitched to the public as the “neighborhood bar of the future.”

It’s unlikely that Sullivan and Mooney could ever have anticipated just how prescient that statement of purpose would become. When the first revelers entered Berlin, one of the first video bars in Chicago (video bars feature art projected onto screens, now queer club mainstays), it would still be two years until then-president Ronald Regan spoke the word “AIDS” in public (after more than 12,000 Americans had died) and 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark sexual autonomy ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. In 1983, RuPaul — arguably the catalyst that brought drag performance to mainstream America — was just cutting his teeth on a public access variety show in Atlanta.

As Chicago recently elected its first Black mayor, Harold Washington, the city was undergoing a

nightlife revolution just steps from the CTA’s Belmont Red and Brown line station, a short walk from Wrigley Field, existing in an era before Wrigleyville transformed into the sports entertainment hub that exists today.

Berlin bore little resemblance to discreet gay and lesbian bars of the past where customers rightfully feared police raids and arrests. The club’s gritty, raucous ethos made it a hub for late-night dance parties playing a variety of underground artists, often supporting the city’s industrial music scene. It also attracted some of the city’s most inventive, radical, and transgressive drag performers who stood in stark contrast to the glamorous “female impersonators” of decades past.

That openness also attracted transgender patrons and performers, many of whom encountered discrimination at other gay and lesbian nightlife venues.

Berlin co-founder Sullivan died from AIDS-related illness in 1994 and the bar was sold to Jim Schuman and Jo Webster, a married couple who were close friends with the original owners.

For those curious about what made Berlin special, read no further.

A crowd of people inside Berlin cheer for two performers on stage.
Ramona Slick (left) and Chrissy Chlapecka used to hold a dance party, Bifurious, at Berlin.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Wasn’t Berlin in the process of unionizing?

Tensions between Berlin workers, Schuman, and Webster escalated in early 2023. In April, employees overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionization with 16 of 22 voting to join Unite Here, an organization representing more than 15,000 hospitality and service workers in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. This effort was different from other hospitality organizing efforts that have gained steam (like Starbucks and Collectivo Coffee) since the early pandemic as it centered on nightlife workers, a group that sees significant turnover and therefore can be challenging to unionize. Workers at Berlin were motivated to unionize by concerns over stagnant pay for security guards and coat-check staff, as well as a battered space that needed repairs to the restrooms, back bar, and more.

So the owners were cool with the unionization effort, right?

Well, since you asked, not exactly. By August, workers were walking off the job to protest stalled negotiations over wage increases and healthcare coverage, and in late October, they called on supporters to boycott Berlin over the lack of progress.

So did the boycott work?

Yes, and no. The boycott placed pressure on the business, but, as sometimes happens, the owners decided to cut their losses rather than negotiate. On Tuesday, November 21, Schuman (suffering from Stage 4 cancer) and Webster announced on Instagram that the club was permanently closed.

“The final chapter will surely be written by the essayists, the journalists, and memorialized in tribute events and documentaries but the magic that happened at 954 W. Belmont will never be recreated,” Schuman and Webster wrote. “The expenses of increased security, insurance and licensing, equipment, rent and more cannot be overestimated and we could not imagine morphing the bar into a bottle service, VIP area venue. So the doors are locked. The music is silenced and our dreams are now memories.”

The exterior of Berlin Night Club.
Berlin remains dormant.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

So, is it the union’s fault that Berlin closed?

That depends who you ask, but like anything, the situation is complicated. After the shutter announcement, many observers asserted on social media that the union had overplayed its cards. For restaurant and bar owners frustrated by Mayor Brandon Johnson’s progressive agenda, Berlin provided an ideal target for anger about increased labor costs including measures that will increase paid time off and eliminate the tipped minimum wage.

The Tribune’s editorial board wrote: “Berlin was not run by some big corporation (as are many clubs) but was a mom-and-pop business already facing a difficult environment. In such instances, it can’t just be about what employees want but also what such a business reasonably can afford and still stay alive.”

The editorial enraged union supporters including Chicago Reader music editor Phillip Montoro who wrote, via the site formerly known as Twitter: “Want to see a bunch of highly paid bootlickers make a bad-faith effort to pretend they know nothing about contract negotiations or labor law?”

One restaurant owner, the Illinois Restaurant Association’s Sam Sanchez — his family runs a group of restaurants including the legendary John Barleycorn, a club near Wrigley Field and the type of sports venue that Berlin’s existence sought to rebel against — used Berlin as an example of the perceived harm progressives are inflicting on the restaurant industry: “The shutter of Berlin nightclub should concern many business owners,” Sanchez wrote. “Please read the full content before sharing or commenting UNION ORGANIZERS!!”

Berlin’s workers published their own statement on Instagram in the hours ahead of management’s public announcement. “The workers of Berlin are heartbroken to hear of Jim and Jo’s decision to permanently and abruptly close this historic institution,” they write.

“We made clear to the company that our original proposals were not final and we were negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement that was financially practical for the business. We continue to believe that businesses that refuse to value our work above minimum wage do not belong in our community… While we are sad that Jim and Jo have made this decision, we know that our community is resilient, creative, and capable of dreaming things into its place.”

So what does this all mean for nightlife union drives?

Unions have started to find workers willing to organize, but the long-term impact of collective bargaining efforts at bars, venues, and nightclubs remains isn’t clear. No business exists in a vacuum, but don’t be surprised if Chicagoans hear about more union efforts in the future.

Berlin

954 West Belmont Avenue, , IL 60657 (773) 348-4975 Visit Website

Berlin Nightclub

954 W Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657 773 348 4975
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