Galewood resident Omar Bryant’s proposal to open a restaurant and event space at 6134-38 W. North Avenue has inspired controversy for reasons that have little to do with the proposal itself.
For most of the residents in attendance at a Feb. 4 community meeting organized by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), it was all about Bryant’s prior record as a neighbor.
Residents who live near his house have complained about loud parties, garbage on the streets and people having sex in cars. Most residents who spoke also worry that, given Bryant’s record, he would be inclined to bypass the area’s alcohol restrictions.
Taliaferro said that he wanted to hold the meeting to give the residents a chance to provide input and to give Bryant a chance to respond to their concerns. He subsequently told Austin Weekly News that he intended to have a follow-up conversation with Bryant after the meeting and that he would make a final decision on whether to approve the proposal sometime in the near future.
As previously reported by Wednesday Journal, this newspaper’s sister publication, there is a history of allegations that Bryant operated an illegal nightclub called Urban Myth out of the basement of 1610 N. Moody Ave, a mixed-use commercial/residential building where he lives. The building is owned by his mother, Geraldine Bryant.
Omar Bryant insisted that Urban Myth is merely a group of friends who meet together to share their love of disco music. He also maintained the gatherings aren’t open to the public and he doesn’t sell alcohol. But in 2014, the venue was issued a cease-and-desist order by the Chicago Department of Business Affairs for allegedly serving alcohol and illegally operating as a nightclub.
The North Avenue building is located near the intersection of North and Moody avenues, where the Moody Ave building is located. The structure is owned by Bryant, and, until recently, Touch by an Angel Daycare leased the space. The business was shut down after hazardous levels of mold were found in the basement.
Beatrice Humphrey, who owns the daycare, believes that Bryant deliberately allowed conditions to deteriorate in order to force her out.
The building is located in a dry precinct, so any business operating there wouldn’t be allowed to sell alcohol.
During the Feb. 4 meeting, Bryant said that he plans to gut-rehab the building and turn it into a restaurant called Urban Smoke Café. The design concept renderings he shared showed a counter with coffee and tea pots, and four-seat wooden tables in the middle of the space along the walls and by the window.
Bryant said that he wanted to open an eatery because he loved grilling and he wanted to create the kind of restaurant that the stretch of North Avenue, between Austin and Narraganset Avenues, currently doesn’t have.
“We have no restaurants, no cafes, no sit down and eat place,” he said. “With the storefront we have, I’m proposing that we use this space for a café where you can sit down, eat, watch a game, and maybe do some homework.”
Bryant said that he looks to employ about 10 people and also plans to use the space as a showcase for local artists, whose works will be rotated once a month.
“Everything I do in the café is something you can get when you cross the yellow line into Oak Park,” he said.
As far as the liquor, he said that he didn’t know of any café that didn’t sell it, but he was willing to compromise.
“If [not selling liquor] is the way we have to operate and get the community to believe in me, that’s the way I’m going to go,” said Bryant.
But it was trust that was ultimately an issue for most of the residents who spoke during the meeting. The issue was especially acute for his neighbors, who complained about garbage and loud noise. They cited the fact that Bryant continued to hold parties in spite of the cease-and-desist order, as well as an incident last summer when he held a block party without a permit, as examples of why he couldn’t be trusted to keep his word.
“I don’t know what’s going on with those parties,” said Gwendolyn Ramsey, who lives across the alley from Bryant and is against his proposed café. “My husband, he couldn’t get a good night’s sleep because [the parties] were going on until 4:00 in the morning.”
That is not to say he didn’t have supporters. Several friends and people who attended the party spoke in his favor.
Lisa Sweeney, who said she attended the get-togethers, stated that the group was a source of comfort after her brother died of pancreatic cancer. She said that she would never associate with the group if they engaged in anything unsavory or illegal.
“I grew up Catholic,” said Sweeney. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I work for the US government. I am a decent human being.”
Taliaferro said he shared many concerns with residents who spoke out against Bryant, but that, after discussing the issues with the businessman, he was willing to give him a chance to prove himself. At the same time, he urged Bryant to work to earn the residents’ trust.
He also said that city law allowed him to establish an agreement that requires businesses seeking licenses to follow certain rules and that, once the licenses are granted, mandates businesses to abide by the rules or risk their licenses being revoked.
Several residents said that, if such an agreement is in place and it banned alcohol sales, they would be willing to give Bryant a chance.
“If [Bryant] violates the agreement on three or more occasions, he’ll shut down his business,” said Steve Kovic. “If he doesn’t [violate it], we’ll give him a chance.”
Taliaferro told Austin Weekly News that he would discuss the issues raised at the meeting with Bryant and make the decision. While he didn’t know when exactly he would make the final decision, he said it would be in the near future.
“[Bryant] deserves that respect,” said Taliaferro.