May 13, 2003

Famous blues lounge may move to Hyde Park

The depressing winter is over, but Hyde Park is about to get the blues.

The legendary South Side Checkerboard Lounge is considering relocating to the neighborhood with help from the University, working to fill what many see as a sorely vacant role in the community: a large entertainment venue.

Once the word had spread that the Checkerboard had gone out of business, the University approached the management of the lounge about possible plans to revamp the club and find a new location that could mutually benefit both parties.

"We heard with a lot of other people that they lost their lease, and we would not be engaged if they had not," said Hank Webber, vice president of community and government affairs. "That's the context that we are having the conversation. [They] lost their lease and we thought it would be valuable to have in our neighborhood."

Plans to move the bar are still in the beginning stages, but although neither side has agreed on any specific terms, several potential sites are being considered.

University officials have proposed, for example, relocating the fabled nightclub to a property on 52nd Street and Harper Court, a portion of real estate that the University hopes to purchase from the Co-op Markets by the end of May.

"We are hopeful that this will work, but emphasis should be on the term hopeful. We are investigating a couple of sites and trying to figure out regulatory issues, but hopefully it will work," Webber said.

The Checkerboard was a Chicago staple for famous blues musicians and rock stars in the '60s and '70s, drawing the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and many more. As popular interest in blues music declined in recent years, however, attendance dropped and the current venue fell into noticeable disrepair.

Club owner L.C. Thurman was forced to cut back on the number of live acts--which, until recently, had appeared every night--until band performances were confined only to Thursday nights. Finally, early last month, city inspectors shut down the bar permanently due to the building's poor condition, particularly the roof, which has needed repair for some time.

Thurman was very interested when the University contacted him, according to Webber, and depending on the terms that have yet to be negotiated, seems optimistic about the venture.

Thurman could not be reached for comment at press time.

Student response has been mostly positive to the proposed move, and many believe that the number of students who attend the Checkerboard will see a dramatic increase once the bar comes to Hyde Park.

"I think it will be great because it will provide students more access in a secure and accessible location," said Rob MacNaught, fourth-year in the College and frequent patron of the Checkerboard. "The old location, on 43rd Street, might have been fine during its heyday, but it's a little bit sketchy right now."

MacNaught added that he thought the new location would not alienate any of its local regulars, being only a few blocks away from the old location and situated very close to Lake Shore Drive.

"Look at Lucky Strike. If you go in there, many of the people are upper class African-Americans because students can't necessarily afford the prices all the time," MacNaught said.

Some students are hesitant about the idea though, saying that removing the club from its somewhat seedy element will eliminate much of the atmosphere that makes the club special.

"It will become just like the clubs in Lincoln Park," said Eric Fish, a fourth-year in the College. "This new Checkerboard will lack authenticity, and [it will] be another attempt at the 'yuppification' of real Chicago blues music."

But University officials said they believe the move will be positive for both Hyde Park and the Checkerboard. The bar would increase its attraction to students, who already make up most of its business, while making the surrounding area a more socially vibrant environment. "We believe that it will good for the neighborhood if it was a little livelier," Webber said.

The possible financial relationship also raises issues about the University's attempts to develop its real estate to create more viable social options for the student body. Discussions over the use of pieces of property like the old Meridian Theatre are still in the works, and officials are confident they will have a possible tenet in the fall.

"Just to amplify, we want to attract more recreation and entertainment options, and music is a big part of that," Webber said.