By Ted Kleine
If he hadn’t been born in Chicago, David Rotolo might be a woodland hermit. A slight man with a gray ponytail and a long beard shaped like topiary, he can call trees and wildflowers by name, an unusual talent for a man who has spent his whole life among the scrubby lots of the southeast side.
For the last 30 years, Rotolo has bunked alone in a room on the top floor of a hundred-year-old house in the Bush, the neighborhood that was once the gateway to the U.S. Steel mill. He used to make a little money selling “girlie magazines and just miscellaneous stuff I was trying to get rid of” on Maxwell Street, but now works as a night watchman at the Exchange Tap, a South Shore tavern. Not long ago, Rotolo’s landlord died and left him the property. Behind the house was a 20-by-30-foot yard. Rotolo decided to turn it into a garden, a tiny patch of wilderness filled with his favorite plants: sunflowers, hollyhocks, scallions, morning glories. He impregnated the dirt with seeds he’d acquired from Habitat for Humanity, and soon the sun lifted the foliage chest high. A careful gardener, he weeded out ugly plants like burdock, lamb’s-quarter, and thistles. The thick flora soon attracted toads, garter snakes, and bees, and Rotolo felt he had cultivated “a nice ecosystem.”
Then in June, according to Rotolo and a neighbor, a tractor from the Department of Streets and Sanitation rolled in from the alley and mowed it all to stubble.
“I got off from the bar on a Saturday morning, and I went into the yard,” says Rotolo. “I was going to do a little yard work, and it was gone.”
A neighbor told him she’d seen the mower early that morning. “It was just one-two-three,” says the neighbor, who asked not to be named. “It took less than 10 minutes. It was half-assed.”
The mower came “before the flowering plants were able to bloom,” says Rotolo. Disgustedly, he rips off a handful of bindweed that has smothered a metal post.
The mowing was the latest incident in what Rotolo calls Streets and San’s “sinister and morbid interest in my backyard.” Last year, a department inspector stapled a notice to Rotolo’s front door, warning him that his backyard was a home for “weeds” over ten inches tall, a violation of the city code.
“It was fall,” Rotolo recalls, “because the sunflowers had just lost their petals.”
The next day, with the help of some neighbors, he pulled out all his lawbreaking plants, which meant “pretty much everything desirable.” Nonethe-less, a month later, he received a ticket in the mail.
At his hearing in the Revenue Department office on 95th Street, Rotolo tried to explain to an administrative law officer that there is no such thing as a weed. There are just plants that some people don’t care for.
“A sunflower grows to about ten feet tall and if the city considers a sunflower a weed, they should let people know,” Rotolo argued as he showed the officer a snapshot of his yard. “Now there are other wildflowers that I personally like. Hollyhock is a very pretty flower. The goldenrod is a respectable plant, but I don’t like it. This man that issued this [ticket], I have no idea who he is or what he knows about plants, but if someone would tell me which of these plants I can’t grow in Chicago–the only plant I know of that’s illegal is marijuana. There was none of that back there.”
The officer fined him $100 for his plants, plus $250 for debris–a stack of bricks–in his backyard. That seemed like a lot of money to Rotolo, who earns only $90, plus tips, for watching the bar three nights a week. And he still didn’t get a straight answer on which plants the city would let him grow. So Rotolo appealed his case to Cook County Circuit Court. Before the trial he took Metra downtown to the Harold Washington Library, where he discovered what he thought was a loophole in the city code. The ordinance didn’t specify what was a weed and what was a civilized plant. It was all a matter of opinion, he decided.
In court, Rotolo showed Judge Sebastian Patti his snapshots and told him, “Your Honor, these are not my idea of a weed.”
The assistant corporation counsel, Thomas Doran, argued that it wasn’t the species of plant that bothered the city, but the height. “The city didn’t attempt to define ‘weed,’ but they did attempt to say, ‘OK, if you like certain types of plants, you have to keep them at a certain requirement,’ and that was not done,” Doran said. “A weed is a flower just like a pansy or a rose…. We’re living in the city of Chicago, and there has to be a requirement for yards. And to just let anyone keep their property as they see fit is not conducive to community living.”
The judge agreed and upheld the $100 fine, even after Rotolo complained that U.S. Steel wasn’t being charged for all the Queen Anne’s lace growing around their abandoned mill. The fine for debris was dismissed.
“All I can say is the Department of Streets and Sanitation is being used by someone to run me out of town,” Rotolo declared in his closing argument. “I’m sorry you just cannot accept the fact that there were no weeds in my yard and you cannot describe the weeds for me.”
This spring, Rotolo again seeded the backyard with his favorite wildflowers–morning glories, snapdragons, field pumpkins, and his beloved hollyhock. Some of them, he concedes, may have risen to a height of 10 inches by the time the mower sliced them down in June: “you can’t tell a plant how tall to get.”
The Department of Streets and Sanitation has “no record of a city worker cutting the grass” at Rotolo’s house, says assistant public information officer Rosa Calderon, though the department would have the right to do so if it thought the plants were providing cover for rats.
“If there’s a complaint, they go out to the premises,” Calderon says. “They can tell right away if it’s a weed patch or a garden. They usually look for signs of rat burrows or debris in the yard. They tell the owner how to rat proof the property. If they don’t comply, then the Bureau of Sanitation does cut the grass.”
The neighbor who saw the mower says she knows of no one who objects to Rotolo’s garden. “No one has a problem with Dave,” she insists. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything about it.”
Rotolo never got a lecture on rats, he says. And anyway, his yard attracted garter snakes, which eat rat pups. He has a letter from a herpetologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo telling him so. After a year of fighting for his right to garden, Rotolo is growing weary of big-city bureaucrats who know nothing about nature. He’s started to suspect that modern urban society has no room for him, or his wildflowers. At the moment a leg injury is preventing him from gardening, but next year he may rip out the ugly bindweed and smartweed that have grown up since June and again seed his yard with beautiful plants.
“I want my backyard to be ‘Urbs in Horto,'” he says, referring to the city’s motto, which is Latin for “City in a Garden.”
“In 1837, I might have gotten an award for my backyard.”
In 2000, he gets tickets.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.