This Chicago Nightclub is Reimagining Safety Through Community Care

“What’s a bigger liability? People using substances … or somebody dying from an overdose in your bathroom when you could have had something to prevent that overdose?”

Sonal Soni

Cheerful young friends dancing at nightclub. Stock photo by Getty Images

Soothing ambient music quietly hums as people trickle into Podlasie Club, a Polish bar turned nightclub in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. On typical weekend nights, local and touring DJs blast diverse sounds throughout the venue, from Chicago house music to electronic dance music from around the world. But on this Tuesday evening, staff and community members gather on the club’s black leather couches for the second installation of their ongoing town hall” series. Today’s agenda includes a de-escalation and bystander intervention training, which teaches folks what to do during intense situations like an overdose, violence and other forms of conflict that can occur in nightlife settings.

Cook County set a record for opioid overdoses in 2022, with several taking place in bars and clubs throughout the city. The numbers, according to recent reporting from the Chicago Reader, show the opioid epidemic’s widespread impact on Chicago. While opioid prescriptions decreased over the past decade in Illinois, opioid overdoses increased — killing more state residents in recent years than homicides and road accidents combined.

Alex Carrion of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a harm reduction organization, facilitated Podlasie’s first town hall in June. That included a workshop on how to administer the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone, otherwise known by the brand name Narcan.

People are going to engage in risky behaviors, whether or not the people who are in charge of or own these venues like it or not,” Carrion says. What’s a bigger liability? People using substances … or somebody dying from an overdose in your bathroom when you could have had something to prevent that overdose?”

“Establishments will try to claim that they are a safe space, but that takes actual work. Doing a town hall like this not only ensures that your space continues to stay safe, but it also ensures that your audience and the people coming to the bar are also trained in conflict resolution.”

CRA offers services to all types of groups and hosts overdose response training at any venue that agrees, free of charge. 

Carrion has been on the receiving end of harm reduction services and a range of other approaches throughout his 14-year-long recovery journey. He shares his own struggles and utilizes a judgment-free approach with people on their own pathways to recovery. Despite evidence-based recommendations, other groups and services still push the just say no” approach to drug use and implement restrictions for folks seeking resources. Shame and stigma around people who use unregulated substances can make it even more challenging to overcome addiction.

Carrion regularly distributes fentanyl testing strips, Narcan and safe sex supplies, among other potentially life-saving resources to folks across the city. That work is largely thanks to the efforts of harm reduction advocates who paved the way to get the public the tools they need to stay safe. Places like Podlasie are able to keep the opioid overdose reversal medication on their premises along with free fentanyl testing strips for patron use. Synthetic additives like fentanyl are increasingly present in recreational drugs and can be lethal.

Some establishments fear that harm reduction measures condone drug use and hesitate to take action, according to reporting by Block Club Chicago. While management worries about being held liable, overdoses persist.

Podlasie Club staff and local community members gather at the nightclub on August 29 for the second installation of their ongoing “town hall” series. Photo by Sonal Soni

Podlasie’s operations and marketing manager Sophia Savin frequently thinks about ways to promote safety. She initially had the idea to host an overdose and de-escalation training just for staff. When Carrion learned about those efforts, the two worked together to make the initiative public. 

[The town halls are] for people to talk about what they want to see in a specific space or in Chicago as a whole to feel like they can comfortably participate in what nightlife is supposed to be — a place to feel free,” Savin said. 

Meetings since the first town hall explored topics on community safety beyond substance use. The second installment covered different high-intensity situations that can occur in nightlife spaces and the appropriate steps to safely mitigate escalation. 

Chicago’s restorative justice efforts — like implementing structures of care such as mental health facilities — pale in comparison to its investments in the police department.

Much of the essential harm reduction work falls to advocates like Carrion and Emma Gonzalez, an organizer who facilitated the second town hall.

It’s really important to protect these spaces … a lot of them are places where we can feel very included,” Gonzalez says. And then, unfortunately, through harm and violence, can also feel very excluded as well.”

A year has passed since Chicago resident and organizer Peter Dorman was physically assaulted at Podlasie. Somebody by the door had just come up to me and grabbed me,” Dorman said. I called [a staff member] who then … asked them to promptly leave.”

He’s happy to see the club’s continued efforts to reduce harm and violence. I love that it’s happening here,” Dorman said. I don’t see that happening at other bars and establishments.”

Lara Haddadin hadn’t been to Podlasie before the second installation of its town hall series, but she says she’s more inclined to frequent the venue because of its efforts to promote community safety.

“[Establishments] will try to claim that they are a safe space, but that takes actual work,” Haddadin said. Doing a town hall like this not only ensures that your space continues to stay safe, but it also ensures that your audience and the people coming to the bar are also trained in conflict resolution.”

Podlasie plans to host more community events that explore different ways to keep people safe.

Being able to talk about what you would do in a situation with other people before you ever get [there] I think is so helpful because it’s hard to know what to do in the moment,” says Jess Nickelman, a Podlasie production manager who assists with curating the workshops. The town hall serves the purpose of connecting people who are interested in harm reduction … who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access resources that we have access to.”

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Sonal Soni (they/​them) is a South Asian multimedia reporter, covering topics affecting queer residents, communities of color and social justice in the Chicagoland area. Soni’s work is published in WBEZ, the Chicago Reader and the Harvey World Herald. You can follow them @sonal_soni_ on X for more reporting.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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