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Wild Hare reopens without trademark live music after neighbors object

Co-owner AsrSelassie new Wild Hare 2610 N. Halsted. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Co-owner Asrat Selassie at the new Wild Hare, 2610 N. Halsted. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:13AM

The soft opening for the Wild Hare has hit hard times.

The iconic reggae music club quietly reopened in mid-July in a former Notre Dame-themed sports bar at 2610 N. Halsted. It is a smaller space than the original location which debuted in 1986 at 3530 N. Clark, near Wrigley Field.

Unlike the original Hare, the new Wild Hare has Caribbean cuisine and parking (in a tiered Home Depot lot a block north of the club). But it does not have live music.

Efforts to obtain a Public Place of Amusement license have been denied twice by the city. A hearing concering the PPA application will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

Live music is what made the Wild Hare one of the most important Caribbean music clubs in the Midwest.

Toots and the Maytals, Billy “Caribbean Queen” Ocean and Jimmy Cliff appeared at the Hare. In the late 1990s, Lauryn Hill met her future companion Rohan Marley at the Wild Hare after a Fugees concert.

The original Wild Hare closed in May 2011. Half of the ownership decided to sell the building, which will become a Flaco’s Tacos restaurant.

The Wild Hare is a portal for tourists and Caribbean immigrants to Chicago. The 50-seat bar of the new Hare features a set of 20 small flags of Caribbean countries that hang along the north wall. They run from Antigua & Barbuda to Trinidad & Tobago.

The voice of the Wild Hare is Asrat Selassie. The Hare’s business manager was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States as a pre-med student in 1973, attending Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Selassie is drummer of the Ethiopian reggae band Dallol, which played its first show in 1982 at the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary — then a country music bar.

Selassie took over ownership of the Wild Hare in 1985 with his bandmates. About 3,000 Ethiopians live in Chicago, many of them refugees who fled the Communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991).

Selassie, 57, and fellow Dallol member Ruphael Woldermariam remain as original Wild Hare partners. Two new partners are audio engineer Joel McCarthy, 43, a native of Costa Rica, and St. Louis native William Glastris, 51, a Chicago private equity investor and former concerts director for the A&O Board at Northwestern University.

In November 2011, the partners introduced themselves to their alderman, Michele Smith (43rd). They were told to meet with the neighbors. “Which we did,” Selassie said. “There were about 200 people at the meeting in a church up the street. About three or four people asked what kind of people would come here. We answered that we have been in business for 25 years and we’re not new in accomodating neighbors and doing what we have to do to stay in business.”

About a month after the meeting, Smith detailed some concerns including parking, noise and artistic content. “They mentioned gangsta rap,” Selassie said. “We don’t do that.”

Some residents petitioned the Department of Business Affairs to deny the PPA license. “We don’t know what happened,” Selassie said. “We had already signed a lease. The alderman said there was opposition from the neighbors and she was going to support the neighbors.”

The Hare is open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. “This is about traffic, parking and late hours,” Smith said. “According to city code, if 50 percent of registered voters within 250 feet collect petitions saying they don’t want the PPA on a few grounds, they are entitled to a hearing. Last summer 50 percent of the neighbors petitioned against a PPA, which is pretty unusual. And the city hearing went the neighbors’ way.” Smith said there were more than 100 signatures on the anti-PPA petition.

Selassie said, “We had traffic experts [Kenig, Lindgren, O’Hara, Aboona Inc. of Rosemont] testify that there would be no traffic problems. We solved the parking problem. But we’re dumbfounded about the hours of operation, because with the liquor license we have, we can stay open until 2.” The PPA was denied at June 4 and Oct. 29 hearings.

The Wild Hare is a block north of Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted, the popular blues club that stays open until 5 a.m. on weekends. B.L.U.E.S. has live blues music seven nights at week nearby at 2519 N. Halsted.

The Wild Hare had a similar pushback from neighbors in Wrigleyville, as it opened in that neighborhood pre-gentrification.

So why did the owners want to relocate in Lincoln Park?

“We looked all over the city,” Selassie said. “We looked in the West Loop. We stumbled onto this place. It had been closed for a year. We were surprised we could find something in this neighborhood, and since it had a kitchen it added a new dimension to the Wild Hare experience.”

The club is right behind residences, Smith said, “In Lincoln Park I have neighbors upset about a Walgreens, a fitness center,” she said. “Kingston Mines has been there 30 years and people have to live with that. They don’t have to live with any more traffic congestion. This is a rare circumstance because it’s rare a neighborhood can get those petition signatures done. The hearing on Monday is not an appeal. It is an attempt to start again.”

The Hare has delivered to the city a petition with nearly 1,000 signatures of support.

“Everybody expects the Wild Hare to be a show place,” Selassie said. “We didn’t want to announce the Wild Hare had reopened and tell people there’s no performances.” The only other venue for regular live reggae in Chicago is Exedus II, 3477 N. Clark, which books about two live shows a month. Exedus II also has DJs.

The new Hare’s 155-seat front concert room is smaller than the original’s 400-seat space. The new Hare also has a back room with seating for 55 for private events.

The Bulls’ Luol Deng and his family visited the old Hare several times because of the club’s connections with the Sudanese community, and Dusty Baker popped in when he managed the Cubs. “I’ve met so many people who first came when they were in college,” Selassie said. “They’ve gotten married and have their own families.”

The Wild Hare stays afloat with reggae on satellite radio, Caribbean music videos on TV screens (the sports bar left behind 29) and the Caribbean dinners of Chicago chef Ameer Salam, whose grandparents were from Trinidad.

“We can’t even have a DJ,” Selassie said. “No dancing. If you don’t have an entertainment license you cannot provide any kind of entertainment.”

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