By Kari Lydersen

Jesse Melendez started working at the Uptown Car Wash soon after arriving from Mexico in 1968. Earl Weiss was a boy then who came in on weekends to wash floor mats, and sometimes got to explain the new “hot wax” technique to customers. Earl’s father, Selwyn, owned the car wash, and Earl remembers going to the sign shop with his dad and watching him design the shop’s near famous sign, with its neon letters, flashing bubbles, and promise of the “Best Car Wash You Ever Had.”

The car wash has been at 4900 N. Broadway since the 1920s. Selwyn Weiss bought the business in 1953 and the land it stands on in 1985. In 1987 he sold out to Earl, by then a practicing lawyer, and his son-in-law Stewart Sheinfeld; but he still comes in every day. Earl says, “He doesn’t have an official title but we call him ‘chairman emeritus.'”

Melendez is there too, even after going home for 17 years. “When I came back from Mexico in 1991 I stopped by to say hello and they hired me right away,” says Melendez, who has never worked anywhere else in this country. “I feel like a member of the family.”

Charlie Williams has been at the car wash since 1963, when he came to Chicago “following a lady.” He says, “It’s the only job I’ve had since I left the farm,” which was in Greenwood, Mississippi. “Earl was just a kid when I started working here. And there are customers who have been coming here as long as I’ve been here.”

But other people have been complaining for a long time, and now the car wash is fighting to stay open. For decades, critics of Uptown Car Wash have called it an ugly nuisance. At the urging of the local block club, last spring 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith got the City Council to assert eminent domain over the property. To justify seizing the land, Smith proposed using it to expand the Bezazian Library, which stands west of the car wash across an alley.

“The three aldermen I talked to afterward said they had no idea it involved the car wash,” says Weiss. “When I told [46th Ward alderman] Helen Shiller about it, she said that she was sick to learn what she had voted for. She said they just had an abstract saying the city recommended the expansion of the library.” (Shiller had no comment.)

Smith relented. She asked Weiss and Sheinfeld to come up with an architectural plan addressing community concerns, with the final decision to be based on the reactions to it. Sheinfeld has produced a plan by Greene & Proppe Design, and next Monday Smith will meet with representatives of the Argyle, Magnolia, Glenwood Block Club and the Uptown Chicago Commission to discuss it. On August 10 the UCC had voted 10-2 to support the block club’s “library expansion” plan.

“It’s been a community goal for years and years to expand the library,” says Greg Harris, Smith’s chief of staff. “It was built in the 50s. It’s very small. There’s no room for computers or the multicultural collections that we need now with all the immigrants moving in.”

But Chicago Public Library officials haven’t asked for a bigger Bezazian branch. “Our capital improvement plan is set through 2001 and this is not in it,” says director of communications Lois Berger. “We have no plans for expansion. This really has nothing to do with us. Mary Ann Smith wants that car wash gone.”

Nevertheless, Harris insists that Smith’s office has talked with library officials. “There’s been a lot of dialogue. If we have a site then we would have to look at the next round of planning.”

And Sean Keenan, executive director of the UCC, says building should start a year after the lot is acquired, even though there’s no money for it now. “It’s a two-year process,” he says, “with the first year planning and the second year starting the actual construction. The statement that it’s not in the library’s budget may be true, but that doesn’t mean their budget couldn’t be amended in the future. So much money is shifted around in the city on a monthly basis, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Weiss says that if Mary Ann Smith is really serious about a bigger library, there’s vacant land east of Broadway and nearer to local schools that makes more sense. These parcels are on Ainslie and Winthrop, in Shiller’s ward. “There are much more viable places to expand the library if they really wanted to,” he says. “There’s no reason they need to take our business away.”

Though a bigger library was the formal justification for eminent domain, Harris, Keenan, and UCC president Rae Mindock all acknowledge that closing Uptown Car Wash is a major goal. “The problems associated with that car wash have been documented for over 20 years,” says Mindock. “The owners and previous owners have a history of unresponsiveness. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars in the community and don’t reinvest it in improving their business.”

The problems include cars lined up to be washed that block traffic and dirty water that runs onto the sidewalk. A 1996 city investigation found that the car wash met all environmental regulations, and Weiss says the traffic problem was aggravated by a traffic light when it was installed at Broadway and Ainslie three years ago and by tour buses that used to park in front of the business.

“On Saturday and Sunday these tour buses would stay here for two hours while the people were eating dim sum [at nearby restaurants],” says Weiss. “Then they would take them to the riverboat casinos. And they put this unneeded traffic light on Broadway, so people see cars lined up at the light and think it’s our fault. I kept telling the alderman and the people who didn’t like us to come stand here with me and see what’s causing the traffic buildups–the tour buses, the light, buses turning. But they would never come. It’s much easier to sit back and complain than come out and see that your complaints really have no basis.”

He notes that three years ago he and Sheinfeld closed the car-rental business they ran at the site, eliminating the problem of rental cars parked on the street.

Detractors also say the car wash has been a haven for drinking and prostitution. “I went over there early one morning and found cases of beer in the Dumpster and empty bottles lying around,” says Mindock. “It didn’t present a good image for the neighborhood. The boxes in the Dumpster were the same brand as the bottles strewn under cars, so it was obvious it was someone who worked there who was drinking on the property.”

Weiss responds, “On a hot summer day, anyplace in the city someone will be sucking on a beer. We come in and sweep up every morning. If you look around these streets, there’s garbage and beer bottles everywhere. But we try to keep our place clean.”

As he’s talking, a van pulls up and the man inside throws a beer bottle into the gutter across the street. “If Rae Mindock was here she would blame me for that,” says Weiss.

He says he asked the police for increased patrols after he was notified that prostitutes were conducting business behind the car wash. “Even Roberta Stadler, the one who hates us the most, called me to thank me for that because police were there more often and spotted a fire in a nearby garage which no one would have seen otherwise.” (Stadler, the block club president, didn’t return calls for this story.)

Weiss notes that his architectural plans call for a fence along the back of the property that would inhibit prostitution. They also would place concrete planters and plant trees around the property. “That will make it look nicer,” he says, “and the planters will keep cars from going on the sidewalk.”

But Mindock complains that the car wash already put planters along the sidewalk on Broadway–“big plastic containers, like buckets, with artificial flowers just stuffed in them. Those are the type of things the community looked at in judging their commitment. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but they can’t even buy real planters.”

The Uptown Chamber of Commerce opposes the city’s acquisition of the car wash. “I don’t think the Uptown Chicago Commission is looking for another site for the library,” says executive director Solomon Chu. “And we don’t think a business should just be forced out by the city. I’m also afraid the interim choice of leaving the land vacant could be very dangerous. It could just become a haven for gangbangers and drugs–we’ve seen that happen with vacant lots in Uptown before.”

The Organization of the NorthEast (ONE), which has opposed the Uptown Chicago Commission on other issues, supports the car wash. “They employ a lot of people,” says executive director Sarah Jane Knoy. “It’s clearly an incredibly successful business and they’ve been really working to meet everything the community wants. What matters more–a successful business that employs a lot of people or the way a community looks when you drive by?”

The car wash employs about 12 full-time workers and 20 “independent contractors,” Weiss says–many of them immigrants or formerly homeless. The business also pumps gas, and there’s a repair shop that’s leased to and run by Tommy Phan, a Vietnamese immigrant who’s been in Chicago 13 years. A Chicago Tribune story last July quoted Alderman Smith as saying, “I don’t think ragging off cars is the type of job an immigrant reaches for when they come to this country.” (Smith didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story.)

“Many of the people who work there live in SROs and that’s basically how they survive,” says Iris Scurlock, director of the Empti-Spoon Job Club, which places homeless people in jobs. “They have to think about the little people. Getting rid of the car wash is just another way of coming into Uptown and sweeping the low-income people out.”

Weiss, Sheinfeld, Phan, and Melendez all say they worry about their futures and their families if the car wash is closed. Weiss says the city has made an offer for the land, but not the businesses on it. Given costs and zoning laws, he says it would be nearly impossible to relocate.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if they take this away,” says Melendez. “We’ve really struggled to build this business up. We’ve put in a lot of hours, been through a lot of cold winters, made a lot of customers happy. To take it away now wouldn’t be right.”

“Every penny I make comes from here,” says Sheinfeld, who has five kids. “This is a serious attack on my life. I have kids in college. I have obligations. It’s scary when you work here your whole life and someone for some arbitrary reason could just take this away from you.”

“It’s hard to explain to someone who works for a company and gets their paycheck every week what it’s like to build a retail business up and then have it taken away from you,” says Weiss, who still practices law. “It’s like being stricken by a severe disease. You think, ‘Why did this happen? What can I do to fight it?’ You will do everything you can to win.” And Weiss says he’s confident he will win. “We’ve survived numerous aldermen, several mayors, several wars, the oil embargo in 1973 when we could only stay open certain hours and there were cars lined up around the block. We’re going to do our best to survive this too.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Charlie Williams, Earl Weiss, Jesse Melendez, Steward Sheinfeld photo by Dan Machnik.