Jordan Land hadn't lived in the city for even a month last year when he witnessed a bar brawl so ugly he and a friend caught a cab home in fear.
"We were so freaked out," said Land, 21. "It was so ridiculous, it was inside the bar and then it came [outside]."
The Gold Coast resident said he's more cautious now, and he carries pepper spray with him in case a similar incident happens when he is out downtown or in certain North Side neighborhoods. He avoids areas known for their rowdiness.
His suspicions about certain areas being worse than others aren't without merit. The general area of State and Division streets, which is near several nightlife hotspots, has logged nearly 100 reports of assault or battery inside bars and clubs since 2007, ranking it among the top three offending areas almost every year in the period ending in June, according to an analysis of police reports from the city's data portal.
The State and Division area was the only location to appear in the top three more than three times during the time period. Only three other locations appeared more than once in that ranking since 2007.
Police logged about 980 assaults and batteries in 2007 that occurred in a "bar or tavern," a designation that also includes nightclubs. Fast forward to 2011—the last full year data is available—and the number of reports was 745. In fact, in the past five and a half years, with few exceptions, both the number of reports and arrests for assault and battery have fallen.
The downtown area is one of many in Chicago that have a high concentration of establishments with liquor licenses, and those areas can pose challenges, police say.
"The dropping number [of total incidents] is where we measure our success or failure," said Chicago Police Cmdr. Ken Angarone of the 18th District, which encompasses most of downtown.
Police and other city departments have been working on taking proactive steps and working on systems that keep owners in check when violence happens, Angarone said.
"If I see I violent incident happen, I don't wait for two or three [more]," he said. When a report of a fight comes in to his district, he calls owners in to explain what happened and makes sure the establishment was following its own safety plan. When patrons come to blows in a bar, Angarone said, bars are required to call police. If a bar or club becomes a repeat offender, Angarone said, owners can face consequences including the loss of their licenses. He said he believes the dropping numbers show owners are getting the message.
But hotspots for violence inside bars and clubs extends beyond Angarone's district. The 2000 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, near the intersections of Armitage and Western avenues, was first in 2010 and second in 2011 for the most fights. The area saw about 30 reports both years.
That's news to Stacey Andeen, who bartends at nearby Floyd's Pub.
"It's really, really surprising to me. The place I work is so laid back, it's not the kind of place where people get wasted and hit each other," the 28-year-old North Center resident said.
Ryan Dwyer, 27, of the Gold Coast, said he's familiar with the area's nightlife. While he usually goes to Old Town for nights out, he's seen the State and Division area get ugly.
"I've seen a lot of fights here, your typical couple of people going at it and people holding them back," he said.
Joey Giammarino, a manager at The Mid in the West Loop, said he has noticed bar fights and violence seem to be dropping. Before taking the manager position at The Mid, he was a manager at SpyBar in River North for six years. He said he recognizes it's a rough area for police to deal with, but he found it easy to work with them. While at SpyBar, he said he regularly attended community meetings to listen to concerns.
"It was working together [with police] and there was respect there, I had a lot of respect for them for sure," he said.
Even though the incident numbers are down, Andeen said she's still surprised so many cases of assaults and batteries happen in bars. She said she thinks the trend of niche bars – where people can go to enjoy their own scene – as part of the reason why crime might be dropping. And for her, that's a good thing.
"It makes everybody's going out experience better if nobody gets jacked in the face," she said, adding that brawls are hardly an issue unique to the city. "I think it's every bar in every city. People get drunk and do dumb stuff. It's not a Chicago-only phenomenon."
BY THE NUMBERS
Alcohol, late nights and big crowds—a combination that can turn a club scene into fight night. But since 2007, instances of assaults and batteries occurring in bars, clubs and taverns throughout the city have dropped, both in incidents where an arrest occurs and overall. Here's a breakdown of the brawls, and where they most frequently occur, according to an analysis of police reports on the city's data portal.
Without arrest: 618
With arrest: 365
Without arrest: 581