Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=165360
Story Retrieval Date: 12/6/2013 12:59:15 PM CST
Any way you slice it, Boystown is a community divided.
The closing of Pie Hole Pizza Joint has brought conflicting perceptions of comfort, safety, and the role of youth spending time in the neighborhood to the surface. The restaurant will close Sunday when the lease for its storefront near the corner of Halsted and Roscoe Streets ends.
Pie Hole’s owner Doug Brandt said he knew when he bought the business more than three years ago that there was no provision in the lease to renew. “I ran the business as if it was going to end next Sunday night,” he said, but soon realized it was a business that he wanted to continue.
Brandt said he started looking in earnest for a new location more than a year ago but hasn’t yet found the ideal location. “I’m just, really, waiting for the right space that has the look and feel of Pie Hole,” Brandt said.
The greatest challenge in finding a new location, Brandt said, has been that many landlords do not want a restaurant or late-night businesses of any kind in their building. However, posts on the blog HillBuzz, a web site registered to Kevin Dujan, said many in the neighborhood had negative feelings about the pizzeria.
The blog had initially made efforts to promote the restaurant and to help it find a new location. But in a May 21 post, a blogger on the site wrote “We were amazed at how little support anyone in Boystown wanted to give this little business — and how much it seemed that everyone WANTED Pie Hole to close, because the perception was that this place had become a nuisance. Or, more apt, a nuisance-attractor.” The blog post went on to describe the restaurant as a club house whose youth clientele, largely from outside the neighborhood, drove away neighborhood customers and negatively affected nearby businesses. E-mails to the blog’s and Dujan’s personal e-mail addresses requesting further comment received no reply.
Brandt said Pie Hole caters to a diverse clientele. “We get everybody who comes in here and that’s exactly what we want,” he said. “We want it to be a community of just random people who all get along and are interested in learning about other people.”
Brandt acknowledges that, even as a businessman, he sees the role of Pie Hole as more than just serving pizza. “I just wanted to have a cool little pizza joint, have cool people come in and it quickly became apparent that we do have a cause,” Brandt said. This cause, according to Brandt, is youth advocacy which became important to him after realizing that groups of mostly-black youth who came to Boystown lacked places where they were welcomed.
Brandt said he’s had a positive experience with this segment of his clientele. “We never had problems with the kids. We had problems with community members who had problems with the kids,” he said. Still, Brandt said he has taken steps to respond to concerns from some in the community and to sustain his business including hiring security for a karaoke night staged at the pizzeria and ultimately canceling the event when too many attending the event did not purchase food. Brandt said he has also banned youth involved in fights elsewhere in the neighborhood from Pie Hole, but he is quick to point out that black youth have never been a part of the handful of fights that have occurred inside the restaurant.
Jacky Gandara, assistant manager at Beatnix, a clothing store near Pie Hole, said she has had a mixed relationship with a group of 10 to 20 youth that she said hangs out at Pie Hole, The Center on Halsted and around the neighborhood. While some in the group are customers at Beatnix and have a respectful relationship with Gandara, she said, others have made rude or threatening comments about her as she walked through the neighborhood.
Youth in the neighborhood haven’t affected business at her store, Gandara said, other than occasional shoplifting attempts. She said she doubted Pie Hole’s closing would affect the number of youth in the neighborhood.
Kathie Kennington lives near Pie Hole and said she gets pizza from Pie Hole at least once a week. Kennington moved to the neighborhood a year ago with her two daughters, in part because of its diversity. “I like living in a diverse neighborhood where my kids don’t see anything wrong with people being who they, no matter who they are,” she said.
Kennington said she has never felt threatened by young people hanging out at the Pie Hole or elsewhere in the neighborhood. “It’s kids hanging out,” she said, “I feel a lot safer in this neighborhood than I did walking down the street in Lincoln Park. I feel my daughter is safer walking in Lakeview as well.”
Ashleigh Paolini, Kennington’s 17-year-old daughter, said there’s not a lot of places where youth her age can hang out in the neighborhood, but said Pie Hole’s closing would have less of an effect on her than on LGBTQ youth from other parts of the city who came to Pie Hole. Paolini said she had attended Pie Hole’s weekly open mic nights, frequented by other youth, several times. She said she never had any problems with other youth who came to Pie Hole. “If they’re being loud, so are the people who live here. They’re not doing anything that anyone else isn’t doing.”
Pie Hole held its last “Soul at the Hole” open mic night Tuesday. Performers signed up on a paper plate wielded by Karen Richardson who called and sometimes cajoled performers up to the stage. Some performed “mash-ups” where two people were brought up on stage together to perform a spontaneous, original piece. Others performed poems, rapped or sang songs they had written.
At times members of the audience would spill outside to smoke, be hoisted onto a friend’s back for a quick ride around the sidewalk or take playful jabs at one another in a mock fight. But mostly, they watched, intent on the stage, unless they were snapping, clapping or singing with the performer.
It was clear that the event’s last night was an emotional one for many of the performers and attendees. Before they sang or recited a poem, many of the performers recounted a memory from the Pie Hole or expressed gratitude to Brandt for sponsoring the event. Some embraced Brandt as he skirted through the crowd, serving pizza, snapping photos and checking on the scene outside. As the event came to a close around 3 a.m., slips of paper, each one with a line of a poem, were distributed to the attendees. Brandt asked everyone to form a line and step to the stage, one by one, to read their line. He recorded this collective recitation of the poem as a remembrance of the event.
Richardson, the night’s master of ceremonies, said she’s been a part of the open mic nights for almost a year. “It’s like spiritual growth,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to explore my culture with an audience.” Richardson said Soul at the Hole was different than other open mic events in the city that rarely featured diverse types of music or acapela performance. “A lot of these kids don’t perform at other venues. They come here for this event,” she said. Richardson said she and other black performers at other open mic events are often asked to sing songs that people associate with black stereotypes. “Maybe we want to sing Dixie Chicks, and they don’t know it,” Richardson said.
Ra Perre was another performer at the open mic event and said he has also helped organize and host the event. He has also worked behind the counter at Pie Hole. Perre said he spends a lot of time in the neighborhood, hanging out at bars or at the Pie Hole after they close. “One of the places where I feel most comfortable is just in this neighborhood,” Perre said.
Still, Perre said, he also felt marginalized in the neighborhood that seemed made for “the majority class, the majority race.” He said the pizzeria was “a place where the marginalized could get together and feel a part of a group. Soul at the Hole and Pie Hole has been a safe haven for them always to get here [and] do positive things.”
“What we just wanted to provide was a safe space for people who otherwise would not have one,” Perre said. He said Pie Hole offered people of color who were gay a chance to share art and create family.
“I think there will be a void in the neighborhood,” he said of the restaurant’s closing.
Frank Walker is blunt about the impact of Pie Hole’s closure. “The youth will be out on the street more because there’s no place for them to go like Pie Hole,” Walker said.
Walker founded and directs Youth Pride Services, a Hyde Park-based organization that provides programs, many of them focused on leadership training or performing arts, for LGBT youth on the South Side. He said Pie Hole sponsored a number of the organization’s events and performances.
Walker said Pie Hole was important because it allowed youth to perform for a larger LGBT community. “If we have a North Side event, the LGBT community comes out in full force, but if we have it on the South Side, the LGBT community may not come and support young people,” Walker said.
Pie Hole also served as a headquarters for youth when they visited the North Side, Walker said. Though he said youth involved in programs with his organization were not frequent visitors to the North Side, having welcoming spaces was important.
“To say that youth or young people should stay only in their neighborhood and not get the cultural experience of being somewhere else is unhealthy,” Walker said, “I think it’s highly important especially when it’s more accepting to be gay on the North Side.”
Walker said that LGBT youth come from other parts of the city to Boystown, not only because it’s perceived as safer and more accepting, but also because it is a gay destination. “Even if it is safe in your own neighborhood, you’ll still want to go where everybody is and everybody hangs out at,” he said.
Because his organization has strict accountability for youth participants in its programs, Walker said, they are often approached to help find solutions for problems involving LGBT youth. Walker said the framing of conversations and a failure to bring youth to the table have perpetuated conflict in Boystown.
“Attention should be drawn on cutting bad behavior or crime in general, it shouldn’t really be focused on race,” Walker said. “The fact that it’s focused on race is what is making it hard to bring kids to the table.”
Brandt is unapologetic about his connection to youth who spend time at Pie Hole and in the neighborhood. “As far as us losing business, I’m sure that we have,” Brandt said, “Quite frankly if people are walking by and they are afraid or uneasy with a room full of black people then they’re not the people who I want in here anyway. I’d rather not have their money.”
His passion may seem strictly a reflection of strong personal beliefs, but it may also reflect Brandt’s business sense. He said he would prefer to have a business that’s out of step with some of the bars in the neighborhood. “The next time a bar like it opens up everybody’s going to flock to that and then the previous bar’s going to lose their business because everything’s the same.”
Brandt said he was committed to staying in business in Boystown. “If Pie Hole doesn’t work out somewhere I’m just going to open up another business doing something else. I will still allow anybody who wants to come in and if people don’t want to come in because of somebody who’s already in there then they can go somewhere else.”