Although it’s not a Black-owned establishment, the Ace Hotel Chicago — particularly, it’s popping rooftop bar, Little Wild — became a haven for Black people throughout its tenure. From the West Loop, the Little Wild’s picturesque view of the Chicago skyline, inclusive vibes and willingness to play anything from funk and R&B to Afrobeats and alternative hip-hop made it an inviting space for all types of Black people. 

At a time when there was a need for more spaces for Black folks to gather, as notable bars and nightclubs such as Nouveau Tavern — which was Black-owned — and The Shrine were shut down in 2015 and 2016, respectively, Ace Hotel helped fill a gap in the limited number of nightlife options for Black Millennials, thanks to a host of creatives and thoughtful staffers who centered our needs.

On Dec. 22, 2021, officials announced that Ace Hotel will shut its doors on Jan. 26. In a written statement to The TRiiBE, a hotel spokesperson said Sterling Bay decided to sell the property and, with the sale, comes the end of Ace Hotel Chicago and its part in the Ace Hotel Group.

On Jan. 7, The TRiiBE learned that the hotel’s new owners, Onni Group, are letting go of the staff at Little Wild, Ace Hotel’s rooftop bar.

“So Ace was like, ‘Hey, you have employment through us through the 26th, and then after that, you could become an Onni employee.’ Then Onni came in and said, ‘Yes, we are definitely going to hire you. Your jobs are safe,’” Little Wild’s nightlife director Natalie Figueroa told the TRiiBE.

Then on Jan. 6, Figueroa said, she and the staff learned that the new owners won’t be keeping them on board. 

“It’s just very sad for me. It was my favorite job to have,” she said, explaining that her role at the Little Wild at Ace Hotel Chicago allowed her to create “spaces specifically for Black and brown people in Chicago to come and enjoy themselves, feel welcomed and feel loved. All of that was really important.”

When the news of Ace Hotel’s closing hit social media over the holiday break, many Black Chicagoans, especially Millennials, expressed their disappointment. Unfortunately, it seems the cycle of Black partygoers finding a dope spot and soon losing it altogether will continue in the new 2022 year. 

“It felt like we could go in there and play hella turn-up if we wanted to, or we can go in there and play some very experimental downtempo-like vibe if we wanted to,” Chicago DJ and space maker Rae Chardonnay said. Through its programming, curated events and DJ selection, she added, Ace Hotel gave Black people the space to be celebrated while experiencing comfort, relief and joy.   

When it comes to the Black party scene, it’s a well-known fact that major cities like Atlanta, Houston and Washington, D.C., are the goldmines. There are happy hours, day parties and clubs galore, with enough diversity in the mix to cater to the Black person who wants to dance to Kaytranada and the Black person who wants to pop bottles to Lil Baby. TRiiBE editor-in-chief Tiffany Walden wrote about this for the Chicago Tribune back in 2016.

In Chicago though, Millennials can count on their hands the number of Black-owned entertainment spaces for us. And, Chardonnay points out, many of those venues exclude a lot of Black patrons by subscribing to respectability politics. As a Millennial herself, she said her generation wants to come as they are to bars and clubs.

Folks dancing and enjoying themselves at the Little Wild at Ace Hotel Chicago. Photo courtesy of the Little Wild at Ace Hotel Chicago [Facebook].

“The fact that [some] our cultural institutions are not Black-owned, it bothers me. And the ones that are Black-owned, unfortunately, they tend to not always be the most welcoming of the diverse, like the vastness of Black Millennials,” Chardonnay said. “Like, we don’t all want to wear hard-bottom shoes to the club.”

The TRiiBE reached out to Ace Hotel for a statement on its closure. A hotel spokesperson sent a written statement to the TRiiiBE on Jan. 5 explaining the closure. A Vancouver-based real estate developer, Onni Group, purchased the hotel for $63 million. Crain’s Chicago Business first reported on news of the sale. In a written statement to The TRiiBE, a hotel spokesperson said:

“We have loved being a part of Chicago’s innovative and rich cultural landscape, and have deep gratitude for every staff member, guest and collaborator who helped bring our space to life in the West Loop. Chicago and its people are dear to our hearts and we hope to return to the city before too long.”

Little Wild’s final party will take place on Sunday, Jan. 23 from 5:00 p.m. to midnight. 

When Ace Hotel’s rooftop bar, originally called the Waydown, opened in 2017, Sophia Mwaura was its assistant general manager until 2019. At the time, she didn’t foresee the Waydown becoming one of the city’s go-to spaces for Black people to party. 

Mwaura regularly worked with artists, curating and coordinating events and other programming at the Waydown. Her vision was for the Waydown to be a melting pot, a welcoming and affirming venue for anyone who walked in its doors. Most importantly, she wanted the space to reflect her upbringing. Born in Kenya, she grew up in the U.S Virgin Islands and New Mexico. She’s lived in Chicago for seven years. 

“I’ve grown up in multiple different places and environments, lived abroad in other countries [with] multiple languages. I just wanted to bring essentially what I was to the space,” Mwaura explained.

She learned early on just how protective Chicagoans are about their city. So she felt it was essential to give Chicago creatives license to curate events authentic to the city itself. That freedom shaped Ace Hotel’s rooftop into what it is today. 

The Waydown underwent a name change when Ace reopened after temporarily closing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s now called the Little Wild.

“I just wanted people who are coming in from all over to feel good, to feel like there was something there for them,” Mwaura explained.  “So, I took that into account when I was booking certain artists and curating certain parties and working with different people in different parts of the city because I wanted there to be something for everybody.”

With Mwaura and her colleagues curating the vibes at the Waydown, a sea of refreshingly diverse Chicago creatives and DJs became more visible, helping to define the vibes on the rooftop. DJing tastemakers such as King Marie, Rae Chardonnay, DJ SKOLi, Franchise, Bonita Appleblunt, Phreaky Bionick, and many more could be caught spinning at the Waydown on any given weekend, cultivating a new loyal following each night.

The Waydown started to grow in popularity with Black folks in the summer of 2018. Successful events hosted by some of Black Chicago’s cultural beacons added to the intrigue of the Waydown: including a party for retail and creative hub Fat Tiger Workshop, a funk party called “Bizzare Love” in 2018, a monthly house music party called GOOD WORD by the Chosen Few DJs in 2019, and a special curated event by King Marie called “Phillippine X.” 

Additionally, the Waydown became an after-party destination. Partygoers could bump into artists from R&B singer Ari Lennox to Chicago artist and musician Jean Deaux as they chilled with a drink in hand, enjoying the vibes of the seventh-floor rooftop bar.

DJ SKOLi vibing out at the Little Wild at Ace Hotel Chicago. Photo courtesy of him.

Before being signed on as a resident DJ at Ace Hotel, DJ SKOLi said the venue was on his bucket list of places to deejay in Chicago because it welcomed Black people and Black music, which was not always the case for some venues he’s experienced in Chicago. 

“They always had events that were for the culture. It seemed like they were open-minded to Black crowds, hip hop crowds, Afrobeat crowds, and it was like jumping,” he said. “You go to Ace, you know it was gonna be a good party.”

Plus, he added, “Who doesn’t like a good rooftop.”

Rae Chardonnay and King Marie echoed SKOLi’s feelings of belonging at Ace Hotel as DJs, event hosts and even spectators. Rae Chardonnay hosted a special R&B Valentine’s Day at Ace in 2019 called “No Ordinary Love: Sade & Chardonnay,” along with a plethora of other events, through her Black queer and femme-led brand, Party Noire.

All three credit Mwaura and Natalie Figueroa, who took over as the nightlife director at the Little Wild in 2021, as vital figures in building the venue’s reputation for being an affirming place for all patrons creatives, DJs and artists. 

“A lot of venues just think of DJs in the lowest regard. Ace Hotel has been one of the better venues in the city to listen and accommodate DJs and artists as best as possible. You can’t find somewhere like that all the time,” King Marie said.

Although the experience at Ace Hotel was primarily positive for the trio of DJs, that wasn’t always the case for employees there or even for some people who visited the establishment. As a result, similar to many white-owned institutions across the country, Ace Hotel had a moment of racial reckoning in 2020.

In June 2020, Ace Hotel uploaded a post in support of Black Lives Matter after the police murder of George Floyd on Instagram. Underneath the post are numerous comments from the public and even former employees who alleged racism and discrimination toward Black and brown people, and there are claims of sexual harassment. 

That same month, Black Chicago nightlife business owners and promoters held a protest march to raise awareness about the discrimination and racism they’d experienced for decades downtown. The group called for the end to nightlife racism

Ace Hotel hasn’t been perfect, but it was a consistent space for Black Millennials to be their authentic selves. While our Black aunties and uncles have been able to hold on to many of their Black-owned spots for decades, such as Jeffery Pub in South Shore, Leo’s Den in Grand Crossing and the 50 Yard Line in Chatham, there’s a worry among Black millennials that we may not have any places to call our own in the next thirty years.

However, Rae Chardonnay is maintaining hope. There are some emerging Black-owned spaces and venues on the rise that are currently curating one-of-kind experiences for Black audiences.

She pointed to the 2020 opening of Art West, an art gallery owned and operated by West Side native and Black artist Alexie Young; and Principle Barbers, a barbershop out West where people can get a fresh cut and enjoy live music and art events. 

“My hope is that eventually, some of us millennials start situating ourselves so that we can have long-standing physical spaces that we can go to,” she said.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.