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In the Shadow of Lincoln Yards

A $5 billion development threatens one of Chicago's most beloved venues—and much more

Recently, there has been one question on every Chicagoan’s lips—or at least those attached to that subset of citizens keen on local politics, cheap bars, and independent music. In one brisk month this winter, I heard it asked at the gym and at Christmas parties; at craft fairs and at bars. Even the waiter at the nice French restaurant had a question or two: What’s going on with the Hideout?

To be fair, I may have heard this question more than many. I tended bar at the Hideout, a small tavern on an industrial street on the city’s near north side, for eight years. But you don’t need to have a personal stake in the place to share this blend of curiosity and concern.

At issue is “Lincoln Yards,” a proposed fifty-five- to seventy-acre multi-use development and entertainment district adjacent to the Hideout and other small businesses, on land formerly owned in semi-equal part by the city and its oldest steel manufacturer, Finkl Steel, along the north branch of the Chicago River.

Smack dab between wealthy Lincoln Park and, just across the Kennedy Expressway, its training-wheels neighborhood of Bucktown, Finkl’s twenty-eight-acre complex of buildings was in operation for 112 years and had since 1988 anchored a 115-acre Planned Manufacturing District that locked up some of the city’s most valuable real estate. Within spitting distance of the former Finkl site are a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods, a Crate and Barrel, a Williams-Sonoma, and at least two high-end home and garden stores, not counting the Home Depot. Commercial real estate on the nearby Clybourn Avenue strip runs about $40 a foot; the median price of a single-family home in Lincoln Park hovers around $1.6 million.

But the furnaces at Finkl went dark in 2014, and, in a sweetheart deal with the city, the operation moved to the far southeast side. The old complex was razed in 2015, and the land was purchased by bigfoot Chicago developer Sterling Bay—which has been retrofitting old industrial properties for the likes of Google and McDonald’s locally at a breakneck pace—for $140 million. The company went on to pick up other industrial properties nearby, and in 2017, the City of Chicago repealed the PMD designation, allowing the area to be rezoned as needed for commercial and residential use. That summer, Sterling Bay bought another eighteen acres from the city itself—after the city announced it would relocate its Fleet Management maintenance shop and fueling station to south-side Englewood. The Hideout sits just west of the Fleet Management site; it is now flanked on three sides by the promise of Lincoln Yards.

Even the waiter at the nice French restaurant had a question or two: What’s going on with the Hideout?

Well-connected Sterling Bay has made no secret of its sweeping plans for the site. For most of 2018, the promised development was the jewel in the rhinestone tiara of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Amazon HQ2 bid. But since that went belly-up in November, two months after Rahm announced that he would not seek re-election, it’s not unfair to say momentum on the project has foundered. A November 14 city-sponsored public meeting on the proposal to designate the entire Lincoln Yards area a tax-increment financing district (or TIF)—a controversial  revenue-generating tool often wielded by the city as a way to subsidize the pet projects of influential friends—was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster.

When a pack of real estate developers and civic leaders convened two weeks later on November 29 to hear Sterling Bay unveil its revised plans, hundreds of people turned out. The crowd filled every seat in the hall. Small business owners, green space advocates, civic organizers, musicians, artists, bartenders, and general-interest gadflies crouched in the aisles and spilled out into the lobby. On the stage, a squad of affluent white men (and one or two women) represented Sterling Bay, Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and the New York-based James Corner Field Operations, co-designers of Manhattan’s High Line. The optics were less than promising, but Sterling Bay’s Andy Gloor hit hard on his hometown bona fides. “I’ve lived in Lincoln Park for twenty-four years,” he said. “This is my home. I’m now raising my family in Lincoln Park. This is a neighborhood I understand.”

He appeared to be trying to make the case to the assembled that he—managing principal of the fastest growing real estate concern in Chicago, which had earlier in 2018 inked a deal with the Chicago Cubs owner, part of the anti-labor Ricketts family, to buy the United Soccer League team; whose investments are backed by the fortunes of the families Pritzker and Crown (Keating Crown is himself a Sterling Bay principal)—was just like them. That he shares their fears; that he wants what they want; that they are all in this together.

The people on the floor were not buying what he was selling.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The Hideout is a small bar and music club with an outsized public persona. A rickety two-story balloon-frame house dating back to 1881, it was originally built as a boarding house by an enterprising widow and has been operating as a tavern since at least the repeal of Prohibition, if not longer. For a century, it was the watering hole of choice for workers at the long-gone Chicago Rolling Mills, at Finkl, and at surrounding outfits like the Gutman Tannery. In 1947, after it was bought by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Favia, the Hideout effectively disappeared. As Tim Samuelson, the official cultural historian for the City of Chicago, tells it, midcentury Chicago phone books listed no drinking establishment at 1354 West Wabansia Avenue. In an already marginal, under-the-radar neighborhood, the bar itself went to ground. It had no advertising, no sign on the door. In classic Chicago style, you had to know somebody to know where to find it.

“It was still a workingman’s bar,” said Samuelson at the Hideout’s annual Block Party in 2016. “People came who lived nearby. It’s a place where Nelson Algren and Art Shay actually came to have a drink. It carried on like this. But it was a place where, if you didn’t know where it was, or didn’t know what it was, you weren’t welcome to be here.”

It went like this for decades, as a secret hideaway for men like Tom Nicholson, who worked in the gravel biz. He whiled away his evenings there for years, far from his suburban family, until one day in the eighties, after days spent combing the divey corners of the near north side, his daughter Katie and her boyfriend Tim burst in the door, and Tom’s secret was out.

Katie Nicholson and Tim Tuten and their friends Mike and Jim Hinchsliff, twin brothers, became regulars, and they bought the bar from then-owner Eleanor Favia in 1996. They replaced the horseshoe-shaped formica bar with a long wooden one, but otherwise hardly changed a thing. The Hideout remained a secret, its location passed along by word of mouth from friend to friend, and then, slowly, to fans of the bands they started booking—mostly acoustic stuff, like the washboard-driven Americana trio Devil in a Woodpile.

In classic Chicago style, you had to know somebody to know where to find it.

Music writer Peter Margasak chronicled this early history for the Chicago Reader, where we both worked, in 1998. At the end of that interview, Katie, now Katie Tuten, worried aloud that the new alt-country fans might drive away the old timers. But it was already too late. Over the next twenty years, the Hideout became an anchor of Chicago’s independent music scene, booking everything from the earliest efforts of Andrew Bird and Neko Case to MacArthur “Genius Grant” reedist Ken Vandermark to the legendary Mavis Staples. Its annual block parties, which at their peak took over the Fleet Management parking lot across the street, drew crowds in the thousands. And, yes, as the surrounding industry disappeared, so did many of the former regulars.

I started working at the Hideout in 2008, after new ownership at the Chicago Reader forced out much of the staff. Anticipating the service-industry future of unemployed journalists nationwide, Katie Tuten cocked her head at me during our going away party and asked, “What are you gonna do now? You need a job?”

The Hideout has always operated by similarly generous if haphazard logic. When the venerated Chicago club Lounge Ax closed in early 2000, the Hideout took in many of its unemployed bartenders. Holiday pantomimes scripted and staged by the Mekons’s Sally Timms were for years an inscrutable, baffling spectacle that evoked spasms of delight in small children. The block parties have featured everything from a three-day celebration of local label Touch and Go to a performance of the “Thriller” dance by a cast of badly made-up zombies to belt sander races.

And the bar has also long positioned itself as a prototypical third space for community-based action. On the evening of September 11, 2001, people gathered there for an impromptu vigil.  The Hideout has hosted benefits for every left of center cause you can imagine, from immigrant rights to marriage equality. I personally have run a pay-what-you can soup dinner out of the bar for the past eleven years. And the bar’s reach extends all the way to the political establishment. In the fall of 2008, canvassers met weekly there, under a portrait of Obama painted by bartender Andrea Jablonski, to carpool out to Wisconsin and Indiana and get out the vote for the junior senator from Illinois. After Obama won, the Hideout hosted its own inaugural “ball” at the D.C. rock club the Black Cat, and they chartered two buses to take staff, bands, and friends to the inauguration. Later, Tim Tuten, by training a high school social studies teacher, was tapped by newly minted secretary of education Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, to come work in his office in D.C., which he did for seven years.

Given this track record of public engagement and the Hideout’s proven willingness to work with the city—on programming at the Cultural Center; at downtown’s Millennium Park for the annual World Music Festival; and even as an inaugural tenant of Emanuel’s Riverwalk development—I had assumed that the owners must have had some sort of inside track on Sterling Bay’s plans.

I was wrong. The first they heard about them was when preliminary designs were released this past summer, the same time as everyone else. But Katie Tuten says she suspected something was up in 2015, when the bar was redistricted out of progressive alderman Scott Waguespack’s 32nd Ward and into a new, gerrymandered 2nd Ward that’s ungainly, claw-like shape has earned it the nickname “the Lobster.”

“Every single year since we’ve owned the Hideout,” says Tuten, “someone would come in here and say, ‘Hey, you know they’re selling Fleet, right?’ Every. Single. Year.” Still, talk is cheap, and Chicago is Chicago. They didn’t see it happening, until, suddenly, it did.

Since July, the “Save the Hideout” rhetoric flying around Chicago has gotten steadily louder—but the bar itself is not technically endangered. Alderman Hopkins offered to landmark it at one point, but no one from Sterling Bay or anywhere else has made the Hideout an offer. No one except, jokes Tim Tuten, “the filmmakers of Up,”—that’s the Pixar movie about a little house surrounded by tall buildings whose owner, to save it from a rapacious developer, floats it away to South America with the help of a brigade of balloons.

It’s a scenario not without some appeal. But, Sterling Bay’s Andy Gloor claimed at the November 29 meeting, “We don’t want to buy the Hideout. We love the Hideout. We are all about creating authentic neighborhoods.”

“The Real Deal”

Oh, authenticity: the Holy Grail of urban redevelopment. A December 28 piece by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin puts the point in sharper focus. “Sterling Bay says it wants The Hideout to remain a neighbor,” writes Kamin, “allowing Lincoln Yards to benefit from the venue’s authenticity.”

The question of how, exactly, authenticity might be preserved by a team of developers and consultants went unasked on November 29, and, correspondingly, unanswered. As did the question of how this would benefit the authentic venue in question. This is because, of course, what mattered were the best interests of Sterling Bay, not the best interests of the Hideout, or of Chicago.

For years, garbage trucks and fire engines trundled up and down dead-end Wabansia Street past the Hideout in search of gas or a tune-up. Now, the trucks are long gone, and (graceless, granted) maintenance sheds have been demolished. All you’ll see if you pull up to the Hideout today are a fence and a large sign touting the services of the Heneghan Wrecking Company: “We Make Space.” But that might soon change. The ever-evolving plan for the Lincoln Yards site includes a new commuter rail station, a radical overhaul of the existing street grid, an extension of the 606 bike trail, three water taxi stops, restaurants, retail, and several new office and residential towers, nine of which, as Kamin pointed out, are over four hundred feet tall—taller than anything outside downtown. A hulking condominium building is planned for the site across the street from the Hideout.

But never fear! Authenticity will be saved! Or, if must be, created. Artifacts from the site have already been identified and inventoried for reuse. The landscape design will honor the area’s rusty history, with trees planted in giant industrial ladles salvaged from the Finkl site. Walking paths will be set flush with rails, with a “detailed attention to materiality,” to quote James Corner Field Operations’s Sarah Weidner Astheimer. The riverfront park will feature “stunning and seasonally dynamic meadow gardens” and, for the kids, amenities like Foundry Playground. Its cluster of tubes was designed as a callback to factory ductwork, while the Furnace Garden will offer “a year-round destination for informal socialization, sitting, and relaxing, and is reminiscent of the fiery process that once took place on site to produce steel.”

Forty percent of the site will remain open space, Keating Crown pointed out at the November 29 meeting. But so far, none of it will be publicly owned: the Chicago Park District, per Crown, is unable manage the land due to “budget challenges and limited resources.” And that forty percent of publicly accessible, authentically designed open space also includes green roofs and the Chicago River itself.

Just before that meeting, the owners of the Hideout and a dozen or so other Chicago clubs held a press conference to announce the formation of something called the Chicago Independent Venue League, or CIVL. Why? Because the three—or five, it’s still unclear—new concert halls also being proposed as part of a planned  Lincoln Yards entertainment district, along with a twenty-thousand-seat soccer stadium, were all being developed in partnership with Live Nation, the concert promoter and artists’ management company behind Lollapalooza and more than a hundred other international festivals, not to mention the local venues House of Blues and Huntington Bank Pavilion. Per their own website hype, Live Nation “produces more concerts, sells more tickets, and connects more brands to music than anyone else in the world.” It also levies famously restrictive radius clauses. Bands booked for Lollapalooza, for example, can be prevented from playing locally as many as six months before the festival and three months after. Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ariel is the Independent Director at Live Nation and sits on its board.

Never fear! Authenticity will be saved! Or, if must be, created.

The Hideout and its partners in CIVL were, justifiably, worried that the arrival of Live Nation on their literal doorstep posed an existential threat. As the independent label Bloodshot Records co-owner Rob Miller wrote in an op-ed for Crain’s Chicago Business:

If Sterling Bay and Live Nation are the part of the community that they would like us to believe they are, they would see quite clearly the devastating effect this arrangement will have on not only the Hideout, but the entire independent creative ecosystem they purport to cherish and respect. The city and its cultural landscape will be less vibrant, less interesting and less independent.  It will be the level opposite of ‘authentic.’ . . . This whole process is an exercise in the city government and developers working together to pick winners, while the rest of us lose.

Opponents of the deal raised enough of a ruckus that Alderman Hopkins declared, on January 8, that he would not support any Live Nation-run entertainment district, or the stadium.

In response, Sterling Bay scotched the stadium. Chicago rejoiced! For about five minutes—until observers started pulling at the threads of Hopkins’s statement, noting that it wasn’t at all clear what it might mean in practice, and not exactly binding anyway.

“We are happy to see that the city and developer are responding to our concerns,” said CIVL co-chair Robert Gomez, owner of the club Subterranean, in a statement. “We oppose the creation of multiple music venues of undisclosed sizes in this so-called city within our city. We see no indication that Live Nation or some other corporate conglomerate won’t be running or leasing music venues in Lincoln Yards, even though the alderman has said Live Nation won’t own any of the venues.”

CIVL and other groups have continued to hammer away at the TIF proposal which would, very loosely, freeze the amount of property tax revenue channeled into public schools, parks, and other services for twenty-three years. As property values rise—and they undoubtedly will—excess tax monies will be diverted to fund various Lincoln Yards-related infrastructure projects, including streetscaping and public transportation enhancements. In 2017 alone, there were 143 TIF districts in Chicago, which generated a record $660 million dollars in tax revenue. That’s $660 million of Chicago taxpayers’ money that did not go to fund public schools, mental health clinics, green space development, public safety . . . you get the gist. Essentially, a TIF designation would function as an (estimated) $800 million subsidy to Sterling Bay, paid for by the residents next door. A campaign to urge the city to delay action on the TIF proposal at least until after a new mayor takes office in April was launched in November. (Chicago, ever daring to be different, holds its municipal elections on the last Tuesday of February, ensuring voter turnout is depressed as low as the lowest seasonally affected voter can go.)

CIVL’s online petition reads, in part:

The proposed Cortland/Chicago River TIF District—and the related Lincoln Yards development plan—do not represent equitable, balanced development.  The planning process has not been transparent, comprehensive, or responsive, and it has not challenged the developers to show what they could build without $800 million in public TIF funds.

On this point, however, the city appears unmoved. The TIF proposal was accepted into committee on December 11. It was approved by the Joint Review board on January 11; the next Community Development Committee hearing, open to public comment, is set for February 19, one week before the election. Meanwhile, Sterling Bay’s revised plan, whatever that may turn out to be, goes to the Chicago Plan Commission for a zoning change approval on January 24. To quote Blair Kamin again, despite initial appearances, “It looks like Hopkins and the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel have cut a deal and that the alderman has climbed aboard the Rahm ‘Get Lincoln Yards Done Now—Before I Turn Into a Lame Duck’ Express.”

Same as It Ever Was

None of this, of course, is new. It is Chicago, and it is Chicago politics.

In fact, in a little-covered moment of peak-Chicago backroomery, the Lincoln Yards saga briefly intersected with the recent criminal troubles of alderman Ed Burke. Bright and early on November 29, the day of the Lincoln Yards community meeting, both Burke’s City Hall and southwest side ward offices were raided by the FBI. On January 3, to the glee of Chicagoans across the city, he was charged with political corruption for trying to extort business for his law firm from the operator of a Burger King in his ward. A one-time cop, Burke has been in office since 1969 and is most famously known as a leader of the Council Wars’ cabal of mostly white aldermen who thwarted the city’s black reform Mayor Harold Washington at every move.

Between the raid and the ruling, though, Burke returned to chambers to assume his position as longtime chair of the all-powerful Finance Committee on December 10. On the agenda that day was an obscure change to a bit of legislation that could have effectively demolished the Lincoln Yards TIF proposal. But before progressive aldermen seeking its passage called for a vote—a vote they had the numbers to win—Burke called for a quorum. They were three alderman short, and he immediately recessed the meeting. No quorum, no vote. When the committee reconvened the next day, the Progressive Caucus agreed to attempt a compromise with Emanuel’s administration and called a time-out on the ordinance. (The Lincoln Yards and Ed Burke stories also intersected in a different way—until recently, Sterling Bay was represented by Burke’s law firm).

Burke has since resigned his chairmanship, though not yet his council seat. And the scandal pooling out from his indictment is fast seeping into seemingly every corner of Chicago politics—including the Laquan McDonald murder case, widely credited to have prompted Rahm’s departure from the scene, and the ever-more chaotic mayoral race itself. Since taking office in 2011, Rahm Emanuel has proudly made his name as a bulldozer—once he sets his mind to complete a project, look out. Now, focused on securing his legacy, he’s even less inclined to waste time on such trivialities as participatory democracy. (If we’re really unlucky, Rahm will soon push through a deal with Elon Musk to build a high-speed “electric skate” tunnel at O’Hare that nobody wants or needs.)

Turning Chicago into a playground for the creative class, tricked out in cheap nostalgia, of benefit only to his friends—this is Rahm Emanuel’s legacy.

This is all, obviously, about much more than the Hideout. It’s about Live Nation and nepotism and the threat to independent music venues across Chicago. It’s about the west side, where the money the city earned from the sale of Fleet Management is going to fund a controversial new police academy. It’s about Englewood, the South Side neighborhood to which Fleet Management is being relocated amid claims of “job creation” that have yet to materialize. It’s about Hegewisch, the far South Side neighborhood to which the General Iron metal shredding company plans to relocate and which already suffers the well-documented and loudly ignored effects of toxic manganese, petcoke, and other industrial contaminants. It’s about the creation of yet another TIF slush fund controlled by City Hall, whose implementation will benefit developers at the expense of their neighbors.

Sure, cities change. It was not lost on many that the November 29 community meeting was held on land formerly occupied by the Cabrini-Green Homes, the public housing project whose demolition in the early part of this century, part of the city’s master Plan for Transformation, scattered thousands of Chicago’s poorest families to the south and west sides and beyond. That site is now home to townhouses and a Target. And of course, in the eternal wheel of decay and development, little independent bars and restaurants pay their own role. The Fulton Market district—which with its Google and McDonald’s complexes, Sterling Bay has turned into a playground for seekers of Sweetgreen salads and artisanal doughnuts—first began “transitioning” in the late nineties, with the opening of a small strip of high-end restaurants on what remained for years an active industrial and meatpacking area. Without the Hideout, there would likely be no Ada Street, a small-plates hideaway that opened down the street from the bar (on, yes, Ada Street) a few years ago. There would probably be no Crossfit gym a block away, which from time to time offers up the summer spectacle of sweating, panting people dragging giant tires past the Hideout patio. There might be no doggie daycare next door, in what used to be a furniture shop.

But turning Chicago into a playground for the creative class, tricked out in cheap nostalgia, of benefit only to his friends—this is Rahm Emanuel’s legacy.

Like Rahm, the Sterling Bay principals seem fundamentally unable to fathom that the people packing community meetings to voice sophisticated, genuine concerns—about traffic, green space, small businesses, and the diversion of public monies to private interests—may not share their values. They assume that their lifestyle is what writers, artists, musicians, and former Hideout bartenders must aspire to. Don’t you want what we want? they plead. We sit in the same traffic as you, say Crown and Gloor. We want ball parks for our kids. We like live music. We like beer!

And the thing is: they don’t have to try. They don’t have to extend their understanding to accommodate the perspectives of people who don’t matter in the urban development endgame. Because they still hold all the cards. By which of course I mean all the dollars.

Burn It All Down

Outsiders often focus on the Hideout’s importance as a launching pad for indie-famous musicians like Jeff Tweedy. It’s easy media shorthand for “this is why you should care.” But the value of a place like the Hideout can’t be measured in the big-time careers it has fostered. To focus on the breakout successes devalues what the Hideout does best: making space for the small, uncategorizable, unscalable, and failed. It is a place where you can be free to suck, to draw a crowd of ten, and still be happy. There’s not a question of selling out because there’s not much to sell.

All the “Save the Hideout” headlines, Tim Tuten says, “imply that we’re in peril. That we need to start a GoFundMe page, right?” An outsider might infer that he and his partners are just bad business people. But, he hammers home, “We are a main street, small town, Adam Smith kind of business. We are a sustainable business. We are small business people, and we are not greedy.”

The value of a place like the Hideout can’t be measured in the big-time careers it has fostered.

Still, in late November, I was out at a bar where half the people in the room had played the Hideout, or worked at the Hideout, or simply seen a great many shows there, when the question came up again: What’s going on over there? My table, at least, was grimly sanguine. “We know we’re going to die,” said one man, a stalwart Hideout regular. “We’re just trying to figure out what the best death might be.”

The best death, someone mused, might just be to blow it up before it gets taken away.

“Let’s do what we did for Dan Blue,” said a third, referring to a beloved Hideout regular, metalworker, and sculptor who had lived in a converted industrial space down the block often left extravagant tips for the staff, with the directive that they “do something creative” with the windfall. When Blue died in 2013, the Hideout staged a Viking funeral in his honor, parading an elaborately decorated cardboard vessel around the block with a brass band, and then incinerating it on the street outside his door.

Increasingly in Chicago, it feels like the only viable alternative to watching private development appropriate and adulterate that which the rest of the city holds dear is to set it on fire ourselves and watch it burn.