Chicago: HotHouse Under Fire

Revolutionary Worker #1202, June 8, 2003, posted at

"They'd be losing something that's incalculable. They'd be losing a community-based center for variety of progressive solidarity programs, current issue programs; the ability to experience sort of new and innovative artists in a variety of genres; to be in a relaxed, independently owned space. We're here to serve people, not to go out of the world with fortunes."

Marguerite Horberg, executive director of the HotHouse,
on the stakes for people if the venue goes out of business

Friday evening. May 9. Orquesta Aragon, the legendary Cuban band, is headlining at the HotHouse cultural center in downtown Chicago. It is not every day a band comes to town from an island deemed the "enemy" by the U.S. government, let alone a band with a six-decade history of innovation in Afro-Cuban music. Hundreds pack the club for what they hope to be a night to remember. They expect beautiful melodies, brilliant arrangements, got-to-got-to-move rhythms. What they didn't expect was a raid by the Chicago police.

Shortly before 9 o'clock, as the band is taking a break before its second set, 10 plainclothes Chicago police officers and representatives from the Department of Revenue arrive at the HotHouse and claim to discover a problem with their business licenses. The police order the venue's management to "cease and desist" their operations. The hundreds of patrons already inside, along with those patiently waiting in line outside, are sent home. The venue shut down. The music silenced. By order of the state.

The city's action brought an immediate response from many HotHouse fans--which resulted in hundreds of phone calls, emails, and faxes to both the HotHouse and the Mayor's office. A number of city aldermen also expressed support for the club. Three weeks later the city dropped its case against the HotHouse at a May 30 administrative hearing. The HotHouse would be allowed to operate normally once again.

The strong response of both outrage at the city and support for the HotHouse reflects the importance of this venue. Also known as "The Center for International Performance and Exhibition (C.I.P.E.X.)," the HotHouse has a history of giving its stage over to, in their words, " cultural programming....local, national, and international artists whose work would otherwise remain under-recognized and isolated." Or in the words of the local Chicago paper Barfly , "HotHouse is first and foremost, a mecca, if you will, of artistic and musical diversity."

As claims go, that is no exaggeration, as shown by the following abbreviated listing of just some of the artists scheduled for May (many of whom had their shows cancelled due to the city's action): Cuba's Orquesta Aragon, who at least did manage to perform half of their show before the city pulled the plug; veteran jazz innovators 8 Bold Souls, of the renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) collective; Funkadesi, who mix East Indian, Reggae, Funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms; 87-year-old blues giant David "Honeyboy" Edwards; the "Mighty" Sam McClain, a W.C. Handy nominee for this year's Best Male Blues Artist; Asian-American jazz innovator Tatsu Aoki; Grammy Award-winning drummer Paul Wertico; the Afro-Cuban band Mambo Express; the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, who continue the genre pioneered by the late great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; Hip Hop founders Africa Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc; the "Phat Tuesdayz" showcase of "the most progressive local hip-hop crews"; Senegalese vocalist Fania; Portuguese Lado singer Mariza and Flora Purim, an award-winning jazz singer with a six-octave voice; Yoko Noge's Jazz Me Blues (which includes all-star musicians and occasional Japanese lyrics); and 25-year Chicago blues star Vanessa Davis.

But the HotHouse is not simply a nightclub, it is a community center as well. If you want to hold a benefit--ask the HotHouse. Have a program on an important and controversial issue--ask the HotHouse. Need a meeting place--ask the HotHouse. It has opened its doors to the anti-war movement, provided a platform for revolutionary-minded Afghanistani women, hosted a panel discussion on post-9/11 repression, and holds annual May Day events. It has been the site of a wide array of benefits including ones to support the struggle to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, police torture victim Aaron Patterson, the Palestine Media Project, the Brazilian children's circus Circo Picolino, and Hardcover--a 15-years-running public access TV show written and directed entirely by youth.

It should come as no surprise that the HotHouse draws an audience that is, as the club's literature describes, "multi-racial, multi-generational, and diversified across economic classes, and who live throughout the entire metropolitan area." That is in part a result of the HotHouse's decision to make its shows affordable and accessible, a reflection of its belief that "the production and enjoyment of art and other intellectual pursuits should be made available to all economic classes and to that end our organization strives to ensure that working class and poorer people have access to first rate production resources and the opportunity to participate in cultural events..."

While any one thing among its cultural and political contributions would bring the HotHouse to the attention of the powers-that-be--the vast array of activities sponsored by the venue would certainly place the club toward the top of the authority's "we-need-to-fuck-with-these-people" list. And among outraged HotHouse supporters the attack is being viewed as very political.

In press interviews, representatives for the city's Department of Revenue claimed that while investigating an unrelated complaint they suddenly "discovered" that the HotHouse was operating with the wrong kind of licenses. Instead of licenses that allowed for music, dancing and a bar for the evening--the HotHouse's licenses only permitted theatrical performances and liquor served before and after performance and during "intermissions." As the city presented it, they were simply enforcing proper rules and regulations.

But many people have questioned the timing of the city's "discovery" of invalid licenses, especially with the assertions by the Department of Revenue director that the HotHouse "lied" about their business activity. In fact, the HotHouse has been operating at its present downtown location for six of its 15 years. That's six years of hosting bands, dancing and serving liquor. Six years of broadly advertising these shows--including on the City of Chicago website as part of the city-sponsored World Music Festival. The specific licenses themselves were originally recommended by the Department of Revenue as appropriate for the venue and never questioned at periodic renewals. The HotHouse was even inspected by police five times this year, a result of the hyper-vigilance following last February's "E2" club disaster, when 21 young people died during a panicked rush to the exit. Yet during none of the visits did any alarms go off concerning HotHouse licenses. All this has made many people question what the real reason was behind the city's action on May 9.

The city's rushed fervor to deal with the alleged violations is also telling. The alleged license violations could have been handled by first issuing a warning to correct the situation, and then later taking action. Instead the city decided to raid the HotHouse with plainclothes police in the middle of the night, right in the middle of a packed-house performance. And though the ordinance permitted it, the city had refused to even grant a temporary liquor license.

Regardless of what surfaces (if it ever does) as the city's motivation, the consequences of their action have been "dire," according to HotHouse Executive Director Marguerite Horberg. While they were not officially closed down, the venue had been limited to theatrical performances and a few hours of serving drinks--resulting in the cancellation of most of their scheduled shows. With bills to pay and three weeks of having their income slow to a trickle, the HotHouse is now in the hole $70,000. For a non-profit operation that plows its money from shows and bar sales back into operating costs, this financial hole could be disastrous.

Currently there are ongoing efforts to raise needed funds, including through the HotHouse's own website ( After their HotHouse show was cancelled, Antibalas and Yerba Buena held a benefit for the HotHouse at another club. Political and financial support remains absolutely crucial. And many people who recognize the importance of this venue are determined that the HotHouse must be saved.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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