A proposal to open a new hookah and coffee lounge at a vacant storefront at 1351 W. Belmont Ave. met stiff opposition and some ethnic prejudice at last night’s South Lake View Neighbors (SLVN) meeting in the St. Alphonsus Catholic Church basement. The community group ultimately voted 32-20 against the lounge in a secret ballot, but not before some attendees equated the prospective owners with Iraqis and voiced fears of “a certain element” coming to the neighborhood.
The lounge, Shisha Café, to be sited next door to Schuba’s Tavern, would not serve alcohol but Chicago’s smoking ban requires hookah lounges to obtain a special use permit from the city. While SLVN’s vote has no direct impact on whether or not Shisha Café receives a permit from the city, Ald. Waguespack (32nd) has solicited community opinion before he makes his recommendation to the city.
Hookah smoking involves mixing tobacco and various flavor packets in a communal pipe, which is then smoked using individual arms of the pipe. The mixture usually consists of about 10 to 50% tobacco, according to hopeful business owner Nihad Avdic. Because Islam disapproves of drinking alcohol, hookah lounges have grown to replace bar culture in some Muslim societies. Despite this, Avdic says his research has found only about 10% of hookah smokers in the United States are Muslim.
Avdic, a native Chicagoan of Bosnian Muslim descent, and his co-owner Ali Eli, also a native Chicagoan with family in war-torn Syria, are both armed with MBAs and say they’ve been searching for the right location for seven months.
During the twenty minute question and answer session before about fifty neighbors, Avdic and Eli were asked about the nature of hookah, who they envision their customers to be and why they chose South Lakeview as a location. During the questioning, Avdic and Eli seemed to be unprepared for the number of questions and were quiet-spoken in their responses.
Then, one attendee piped up, “I’m seriously concerned for my kids. I just searched crime and hookah on my phone and I found quite a few stories about how bad these places can be.” At this, the crowd immediately came alive shouting alternately angry disapprovals and applause for the questioner. One person asked why a business that stays open late and attracts mainly Middle Easterners should be invited, when the patrons would just, “end up roaming around the neighborhood late at night.”
The meeting had seemed to quiet down when another attendee posited, “After we’ve killed a few hundred thousand over in Iraq, why should we care if a few Iraqis shoot up our neighborhood?”
Avdic and Eli remained motionless at the podium as SLVN president David Duggan stood up to try to gain control over the discussion. Next, he called on Bill Haderlein, SLVN recording secretary, for a comment. “I suggest we vote no, since [the hookah lounge] will bring a certain element to the neighborhood,” said Haderlein.
Duggan then sent the issue to a vote and moved the meeting to discuss a proposed electronic bulletin board on Lincoln Avenue as attendees filled out their paper ballots. Avdic and Eli took seats in the audience and quietly listened to the remaining ninety minutes of the meeting.