RIVER NORTH — A Downtown alderman wants to revoke late-night licenses for bars in River North as the hub for tourism and nightlife struggles with an alarming spike in shootings.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) told Block Club Chicago it’s time to consider ending 5 a.m. bars in River North as neighbors there say they’re fed up with the violence.
Late night bars are “attracting the most violence,” Hopkins said.
“When you have large groups of intoxicated people with tempers, guns and conflict … it’s a recipe for violence, and that’s what’s happening,” Hopkins said.
Early Sunday morning, four people were shot, one critically wounded, in a drive-by shooting in the 400 block of North State Street in River North. In late May, a mass shooting outside a local McDonald’s killed two people and wounded seven.
Shootings citywide are falling, according to police data. But crime in the 18th and 1st districts Downtown is up significantly from years past.
The 18th District, which includes River North, has seen 56 reported batteries or assaults with a gun so far this year, compared to 37 over the same period last year. Before the pandemic, in 2018, there had been 29 incidents by July 14.
The 1st District, covering the Downtown area, has had 72 batteries or assaults with a gun this year, while there were 56 incidents by this point of 2021 and 37 by July 14 in 2018.
Brian Israel, longtime River North resident and president of the River North Residents Association, said the frequency of the shootings is alarming.
“This kind of behavior can’t be allowed to become normalized,” he said. “… We understand that extraordinary measures are necessary to respond to extraordinary circumstances. Of course, we support the efforts of Alderman Reilly and Commander Hein, but we all have to do our part.”
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who also represents River North, could not be reached for comment.
But as Hopkins is pushing for a crackdown on bar hours, bar and club owners say the shootings aren’t stemming from bar patrons.
“If the city wants to close down all the bars and give them to criminals, that’s the wrong way to go,” said Sam Sanchez, owner of Moe’s Cantina and chairman of the Board of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “We need to pay more attention to the corners.”
Sanchez said River North streets have become “hot spots” for drug activity, leading to violent turf wars.
“This is a tourist place. Tourists are going to buy drugs. Where there’s people, there’s business for them,” Sanchez said. “We’re short-handed and being overrun by criminals.”
Sanchez said he’s gone to great lengths to keep the area around his bar safe, employing 12 armed security guards outside Moe’s on weekends. Still, the bar and restaurant has lost its happy hour and early dinner business, which Sanchez chalks up to the shootings.
“We’re dealing with a real nightmare,” he said.
Sanchez also said he felt a shortage in police officers and “no accountability” for repeat offenders were to blame for the violence, expressing frustration at Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
In a statement Thursday, Foxx’s spokesperson Tandra Simonton said the office “will continue to prosecute criminal cases based on the law and the evidence as we strive to increase safety in our communities.” But prosecutors can’t be involved in cases “until police make an arrest and we are contacted for felony charges” Simonton said.
Police are responsible for filing criminal charges for misdemeanors and drug cases, Simonton said.
Foxx’s office has prosecuted the majority the felony cases submitted by police this year out of the 60654 ZIP code, which includes River North, Simonton said. Prosecutors took 82 percent of the area’s gun-related crimes to court in 2022, and secured convictions in 83 percent of them, Simonton said.
At a police community meeting Wednesday at Moe’s Cantina, 155 W. Kinzie St., tensions built as business owners and residents in River North demanded more help fighting crime.
Brian Galati, co-owner of Headquarters Beercade, and other business owners and residents said River North is bombarded with crowds of people drinking on the streets and in parked cars. People loiter late into the night and open-air drug deals are common, residents and business owners said.
“Some of the things that we’re experiencing now I haven’t seen in 26 years of doing this,” Galati said. “We can’t continue to be in these conflicts with guests that aren’t even our guests … What do we do as business owners? We want to be good neighbors.”
Business owners say they are calling police on a daily basis and fear arguments will turn deadly.
Sunday night’s shooting unfolded just outside Snickers Bar & Grill, 448 N. State St. Johnny Frangias, owner of Snickers, said two 24-hour 7/11s between Illinois and Hubbard streets attract problems.
“Every night you got two 7-Elevens, you got all these people hanging out, it’s going to be violent,” Frangias said. “There’s always trouble out here.”
Tom Kalayil, owner of the 7-Eleven at 418 N. State St., said he cooperated with police in May to close his store at midnight on weekdays and around 2 a.m. weekends in anticipation of a more violent summer.
Kalayil said he calls police “three or four times a day” to deal with people loitering outside his store. Late-night shops on street corners have become a scapegoat for bars who are “blaming the weaker person,” he said.
“Some of these guys are mentally disturbed, some of these guys are drug dealers. I can’t do anything,” Kalayil said. “The city doesn’t have control over this. The city needs to put more services out there.”
Business owners and employees also said they have noticed fewer squad cars and a declining police presence since the start of the pandemic.
But two sergeants at the meeting said they’ve recently added more patrols, including undercover officers who are present on streets. River North will also soon be fitted with six new cameras, police said.
As bar owners place blame on business owners and residents and bar owners ask where the police are, resident Pericles Toscas said he’s considering moving out of River North. The neighborhood has reached a boiling point on a “chronic issue,” Toscas said.
“Clearly what we’re doing is not working,” Toscas said. “We have a bunch of people with talking points who aren’t working well together.”
An employee at a Subway across the street from Snickers, 447 N. State St., said he was working early Sunday when the shooting happened. People ran inside the sandwich shop “to save themselves,” he said. The Subway closed for a few hours before reopening.
“It just goes normal the next day,” he said.
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