The late Bill Lavicka, who fought for the Maxwell Street peddlers and memorialized Vietnam veterans.
The late Bill Lavicka, who fought for the Maxwell Street peddlers and memorialized Vietnam veterans. Credit: John Randolph

As I was writing this story, word came in that the City Council had caved, voting to give Mayor Emanuel what he wanted—in the most recent case, an infrastructure trust fund that has the potential to be an even greater burden on taxpayers than the parking meter deal. Speaking of aldermen yielding to the whim of a powerful mayor.

In each instance, aldermen privately said that they were against the mayor’s proposals but voted with him anyway because they couldn’t afford to upset an all-powerful boss.

It’s a variation on a theme I’ve been hearing for decades: I can’t oppose City Hall because they’ll fire me, or take away my permit, or send in the inspectors—or worse.

It all makes me think of Bill Lavicka, who died of cancer on April 18 at the age of 67.

One of the beautiful things about Lavicka is that he never subscribed to this view even though he—as much as anyone, and more than most—actually did put his livelihood on the line by fighting powerful mayors.

Lavicka was a restorationist—a master at the craft—who rehabbed old buildings. As you can imagine, his trade required building permits from the city. Yet when he wasn’t restoring old buildings, he was fighting like hell to save them. The man loved old buildings almost as passionately as he despised the arrogance of people in power—who, despite our city’s great architectural heritage, treat old buildings like weeds that have to be plowed to cultivate the field.

Lavicka’s greatest fight—the one that consumed much of the 1990s—was the struggle to preserve the Maxwell Street peddlers’ district, near Halsted and Roosevelt. He lost to a conglomeration of the powerful led by the second Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Just leveling things—that’s been the mayor’s response to most situations,” Lavicka told me a few months before he died. “It was something done by the Romans years ago, by the way, when they had enemies—just level their houses.”

Great line about the Romans. Once you got him going, Lavicka could come up with all sorts of artful ways to needle the mayor—and always on the record.

When I asked how he got away with the barbs, he’d shrug, as if to say, maybe they don’t think I’m worth the trouble.

I like to think it was because he was so good at what he did. He restored dozens of mansions and buildings across the city—including many now inhabited by the very politicians and power brokers who once fought him.

Lavicka himself lived in a gorgeous mansion on Jackson Boulevard that he elegantly restored. It’s like an art museum filled with artifacts salvaged from scrap heaps he discovered while walking around town.

He was literally a hands-on guy. Until he got too sick, Lavicka didn’t merely rely on crews—he did much of the restoration work himself on a roof or ladder.

He was also remarkably compassionate, particularly for fellow veterans. Lavicka served in the navy during the Vietnam War, and it pained and outraged him the way society discards old veterans once their wars are over.

In 1987, he converted a vacant lot at 815 S. Oakley into a lovely memorial garden to Vietnam vets. Not surprisingly, he had to fight like hell with the state to get the land.

When state officials wouldn’t give in, he started calling in the reporters. I think he liked reporters almost as much as he liked old buildings. I can hear his voice on the line: “Hey, Joravsky—Lavicka. These motherfuckers . . .”

Oh, yeah, one more thing about Lavicka: he was dropping the f-bomb long before Mayor Emanuel made it fashionable.

By the time Emanuel took over, Lavicka was battling the cancer that would eventually kill him. So he never to got to tussle with Chicago’s latest king. It’s a shame—I’d love to watch those two titans go at it.

His monumental showdowns were with Daley. Lavicka would confront the mayor at public gatherings, often barking out the mayor’s name to demand his attention.

I was always surprised Daley didn’t have him arrested. Instead, the mayor would typically push aside his police guards—the “coppers,” as Lavicka called them—and give Lavicka a few minutes of his time.

Not that it did any good. Daley would go right ahead and do what he wanted regardless of what Lavicka had to say.

Their final confrontation came on December 7, 2010, when Daley showed up for a Pearl Harbor tribute at Navy Pier. That’s when Lavicka pressed the mayor about his great plan to convert the old Michael Reese hospital site into a community for veterans.

“You got a mayor who likes campuses—how about a veterans’ campus?” Lavicka told me, in our final interview last fall. “You’ve got to have a tribute that goes beyond throwing a wreath on the water and having a flyover. A veterans’ campus where you have 50 percent of the site used by veterans as hospital or housing. Instead of shoveling those guys to the VA hospital.

“I cornered the mayor as he’s going to make his speech and I say, ‘Mr. Mayor, you want to be remembered for the next 100 years?’ And he says, ‘What are you talking about?’ I say, ‘Save the buildings and build a veterans’ campus.’ He says, ‘We’re gonna save two buildings.’ I say, ‘Mr. Mayor, there’s 50 buildings there.’ He keeps saying, ‘We’re gonna save two buildings.’ I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, you’re one tough motherfucker.’ And then I said, ‘But you can have some humanity.’ He went snorting off like a bull in the pasture.”

Classic Lavicka. Standing up for what he believed until the end.

This city could use a whole lot more just like him.