Cermak-Chinatown: Music Venues Look to Change Neighborhood's Culture

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Cermak-Chinatown IconBy Matthew Anderson and Andrew Rodriguez
The Red Line Project

Posted: Sunday, Dec.. 2, 2012

Chicago's South Side has long been known as a dangerous area of the city with a lot of violence and gang activity. But music venues in the Near South Side neighborhood are working to build an entertainment corridor and help curb the violence.

2012 will be remembered for a spike in the number of murders in Chicago, many coming in South Side neighborhoods. The Huffington Post reported that there have been more murders in Chicago than U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan. As of Aug. 16, there had been 228 murders in Chicago, compared to the 144 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan. By Oct. 29 Chicago reached 435 murders with two months of the year remaining. The city had 435 murders in all of 2011.

But some see the area near the Cermak/Chinatown Red Line CTA stop as not just a dangerous neighborhood, but an ethnically and culturally diverse community. This area, known as the Near South Side, is growing as a neighborhood rich with music venues and other business opportunities.

The combination of musical venues such as The Shrine, Reggie’s Rock Club, and the Blues Heaven Foundation are contributing to what they hope will improve the area.

“As the location of the former Record Row, I know the city is trying to rebuild the area and make it more prominent,” said Alex Dixon, grandson of legendary musician Willie Dixon and employee of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.

This area used to be famous because of its influence on Blues music nationwide. Now the Blues Heaven Foundation help a lot of local musicians to come together by hosting a summer concert series at their current location, the building formerly used for the Chess Records record label.

While the Blues Heaven Foundation is different from the more club like atmospheres of The Shrine and Reggie’s Rock Club, they are all working to improve this culturally and historically rich neighborhood.

With The Shrine and Reggies sharing similarities in their venue sizes and mentality, they have become popular fixtures within the Chicago music scene.

“Like Reggie’s, I feel like we’re kind of trailblazing in the community,” said Marcel Wilks, more commonly known as Mr. Greenweedz, a talent buyer and booking agent for The Shrine.

With a concentration on developing the African Diaspora experience, The Shrine has featured popular artists such as Talib Kweli and Mos Def.

“Every time you come here, we want you to feel like you just was a part of something,” Wilks said. “What’s cool about it is that I feel we bring a lot more culture to this neighborhood.”

Their focus on bringing people together through music could help the community. They will be partnering with a non-profit organization, Youth for Positive Change, which helps kids on Chicago's West Side.

“We throw a lot of themed and conceptual shows. For example, we have Def Squad coming,” said Wilks. “But were partnering with Youth for Positive Change which is a west side community based organization and what we’re trying to do is stop the violence.”

From the outside, The Shrine appears to be an understated building. Once inside, the true ambiance of the club is immediately noticed. The appearance may seem quiet, but their message is not.

Reggie’s Rock Club, located less than one-tenth of a mile west of The Shrine, does not focus on any particular type of music. Reggie’s features a bar, a club venue, rooftop venue and a record store.

Near South Side from the rooftop at Reggie's Rock Club

They have everything from vinyl records of banjo-playing African American folk artists to live performances by hip-hop figures such as Mac Miller.

“It’s a combination of getting those larger acts so that people make the trek down here,” said Edgar Oprondek, a venue manager and promoter at Reggie’s Rock Club. “Once they make the trip once, they realize it’s not hard to get down here at all.”

Photo: The view of the Near South Side skyline from the rooftop at Reggie’s Rock Club on South State Street.

With Mayor Rahm Emanuel working to establish an Uptown entertainment district with The Green Mill, The Vic and a restored Uptown Theatre, the music venues in the Near South Side are working to restore their own piece of Chicago culture.

“Everyone knows what’s going on on the North Side, but we’re a beacon down here,” Oprondek said.

“It’s definitely coming into itself right now. It’s getting better and better and better … It’s awesome.”

Interactive map: Locations of music venues in the Near South Side. Points include Reggie’s
Rock Club, The Shrine and Blues Heaven Foundation:

View Near South Side Music in a larger map

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