Lake of Ire

Are the beaches’ lifeguards out of control or was Craig Greenman really in over his head?

By Ben Joravsky

The day was hot–the temperature pushing 100–so Craig Greenman headed for the beach a block from his Rogers Park apartment. He wasn’t thinking about acts of civil disobedience. He wanted to swim.

But he soon found himself face-to-face with two brawny beach bosses who threatened to have him arrested. What happened next has ignited a passionate debate in Rogers Park over how deep swimmers should be allowed to go in the water. “Believe me, I didn’t set out to make this my cause,” says Greenman, a 27-year-old graduate student in philosophy at Loyola University. “I just wanted to go swimming.”

During the summer, Greenman tries to swim at least once a day at Columbia beach, one of many beaches between Loyola and Sherwin. “I like to swim laps between the breakwater and the pier,” he says. “I grew up around lakes in northern Michigan, so I’m a pretty good swimmer. But when I started swimming here the guards said I couldn’t go above my nipples. I did what they wanted, but I didn’t like it. It’s illogical–I obviously know how to swim, so why call me in? And it’s restrictive. One reason I like to swim is the feeling that I’ve left the constraints of society. I can exercise without people’s eyes on me. But with these restrictions I’m constantly thinking someone’s watching. I’m waiting for them to yell ‘Come in.’ The freedom’s gone.”

This summer the lifeguards were even more restrictive, he says. “Because the water level’s lower, I have to go further from the shore to get to water deep enough to swim. I think the lifeguards lost sense of how deep the water is. They were forcing me to swim in water no higher than my belly button. Now, I’m six-foot-one–I have reasonably long arms and legs. I hit the sand with my strokes when I come in too far. This has been going on all summer. They call me in and I stand up to show them how shallow the water really was. Sometimes I keep on swimming, as though I can’t hear them.”

But on the steaming hot day of July 24 everything changed. When he didn’t come in as two lifeguards requested, two beach mates, Park District beach supervisors, were brought in.

“The first mate who waded out was this big bodybuilder guy, and he tells me to come on in,” says Greenman. “Well, I tend to be a social activist. I marched against the gulf war, and I’m the head of the graduate student coalition that’s protesting some of the budget cuts on campus. But believe me, I wasn’t looking to make this a cause. If anything, that would be the direct opposite of why I go swimming, which is to get away from it all. But I decided this had gone too far. I decided someone was going to have to take a stand and that someone might as well be me.

“So I said, ‘I’m not coming in. I have a right to be out to my chest.’ And he says, ‘If you don’t come in, I’ll call the squad car, sir’–he kept calling me sir–‘and the cops will haul you in, and the cops don’t like hauling people in from the water ’cause they get wet. And getting wet makes them angry. And you wouldn’t want the cops angry at you, would you?’

“I put my arm around his shoulders, sort of a buddy move, and said something like, ‘Well, let’s wait together.’ He said, ‘Sir, do not touch me! That’s an act of aggression.’ He got right into my face and screamed into my ears–‘Would you please get off this beach, sir!’ I was scared. I’ve never been berated in public like this. He reminded me of every fourth-grade bully who ever beat the crap out of me.”

Things only got worse when a second mate waded out, says Greenman. “This guy was even more abusive. He started screaming, ‘You’re an ignorant motherfucker, sir.’ I looked at him in disbelief. How could anyone be so upset about someone standing up to his belly button in the water? I said, ‘If you want to drag me out, I will let you drag me out.’ I was really ready to go limp and let them pull me in. I had read a lot of Gandhi. But they didn’t do that. I felt I was in Full Metal Jacket. They kept telling me how polite they were being to me. And I said, ‘Well, you’re screaming in my ear, calling me an ignorant motherfucker.’ I guess they thought they were polite because they kept calling me sir.”

Eventually two other lifeguards (“a tall guy and a woman”) rowed out in a boat. “They tried to coax me in,” says Greenman. “I said I only want to swim. One of them–I can’t remember which one–said, ‘If you want to swim, go to a Park District lap pool.’ Then he or she said–and I’m not making this up–‘The lake’s not for swimming, it’s for playing.’ I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to that?”

The standoff lasted for about 30 minutes before Greenman decided enough was enough. “As hot as it was, I was shaking and my teeth were chattering from the cold of standing in the water. I figured I had made my point. I didn’t feel like getting the flu. So I said, ‘I’m cold. You win.’ I went in.

“There must have been 50 people on that beach and they were all watching, and the first thing that happens is a woman starts clapping. Then another guy shakes my hand and another guy gives me the thumbs-up sign. I put out my hands and said, ‘Are you going to cuff me now?’ The first mate said, ‘Oh, just get the hell off of the beach.’

“I think about what the guard said–‘The lake’s not for swimming.’ That’s the central absurdity of it all. The lifeguards feel they’re responsible for our lives in ways we can’t understand. It reminds me of the scene in A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson starts screaming about the liberties he has to take to protect the country. ‘You can’t handle the truth!'”

For their part, many lifeguards believe it’s absurd of Greenman to think he should be free to swim without being watched. “If we don’t watch, we can’t rescue people,” says Susan, a 16-year-old high school junior who patrols Columbia beach.

Most of the lifeguards in Rogers Park are like Susan–local kids who work during the summer (as opposed to the mates, who are year-round Park District employees). They’re proud that no one’s drowned on their watch. “People are always trying to go out further than they’re supposed to,” says Susan.

As she talks, four boys bob in waves that wash over their shoulders. She blows her whistle and waves at them to come closer to shore. They laugh and ignore her. She blows her whistle louder. They grudgingly obey. “I don’t think they can swim,” she says. “You can tell by the way they sort of thrash around. They’re having fun–they don’t feel they’re in trouble. They probably think I’m being mean for making them come in. But all that has to happen is for a big wave to hit them. They’ll swallow water and panic. Then we have to get them.”

Other lifeguards say swimmers have to be accommodating. “There’s no hard rule about how far you can go–you have to be inside the rowboats, and we set the rowboats according to how high the waves are,” says Tom, a 20-year-old lifeguard at Loyola beach, who, like Susan, didn’t want his last name used. “Maybe the mate got a little out of hand. I don’t know. I didn’t see it. We try to be reasonable. But the swimmers have to be reasonable, too. They can’t go too far out, even if they can swim. Then the little kids, who can’t swim, are going to want to go out too.”

The topic’s been a hot one around Rogers Park since Greenman wrote about it in an open letter that he posted at local coffee shops. Some residents sympathize, going so far as to call the mates “goons.”

Others disagree. In fact, while Greenman sat at one table in the Ennui Cafe on Sheridan Road and talked about the issue, Eddie Reisberg sat at another and told a much different tale.

Reisberg’s story took place on August 1, when he was swimming in choppy water at Sherwin beach. “The waves were coming in strong and I swallowed a bunch of water,” said Reisberg. “I tried to swim but I got pulled out really quickly. In desperation I grabbed the pylons of the breakwater like it was the last thing in the world. Within seconds there were a bunch of lifeguards around me. I had swallowed so much water I was out of breath and completely helpless and really panicky. But they helped me to relax. They didn’t force me in until I was ready. They were great. I don’t know what would have happened to me if they hadn’t been there.”

Reisberg wrote the Park District a letter of thanks that’s been posted at guardhouses along the lake. “I read your letter,” Reisberg told Greenman. “But I have a different perspective. They saved my life.”

Greenman admitted Reisberg’s story took away some of his thunder. “I agree a lot of lifeguards do great things, and of course I’m very happy they saved his life. But reasonable people can agree that there’s a difference between jumping in to save a guy in wavy water and trying to arrest an experienced swimmer for the high crime of swimming above his waist.

“After the incident I saw one of the mates at the beach. He yelled, ‘Good to see you, sir. Too bad you missed the cops.’ I thought, ‘What an asshole.’ But that day they let me swim above my waist. Who knows–maybe I got them to change their policy.”

The Big Takeover

With the South Loop booming, Tommy Gun’s Garage found itself in developers’ sights–with City Hall ready to pull the trigger.

By Sarah Downey

The telephone rang in the back room of Tommy Gun’s Garage, and owner Sandy Mangen took the call. It was some guy representing Jewel Food Stores, and he wanted to know if she wanted to sell.

Mangen knew that Jewel was developing the tract bordered by Roosevelt, Wabash, 13th Street, and State–the food giant had bought up just about every piece of land there but 1239 S. State, the piece Mangen’s dinner theater stood on. The transients from the St. James Hotel across the alley who used to help out at Tommy Gun’s–one even painted the murals of Prohibition-era gangsters on the walls–had all moved away when the hotel was shuttered for demolition.

But until this call from Jewel’s developer, Harlem Irving Companies, Mangen didn’t know the Jewel project had gone from big to bigger. She referred the caller, Rick Filler, to her landlord, a former Chicago cop. “I seen the area coming,” says Bob Sanfratello, who bought the two-story brick building for $250,000 in 1981.

It was Sanfratello who started Tommy Gun’s Garage in 1987. Mangen worked there from the start, bringing clever marketing skills and dinner-theater credentials from the Dry Gulch in Schiller Park and King’s Manor in Naperville. In 1989 Sanfratello sold the business to Mangen and her parents for $290,000. He collects a few thousand in rent from them each month, and with his son Bob Jr. runs Bobby McGee’s tavern, the building’s other commercial enterprise.

Filler met the Sanfratellos in Bobby McGee’s and tried to talk them into selling their building.

The city had decided the Jewel project needed more “pedestrian-friendly” landscaping. This extra grooming was going to eat into Jewel’s employee parking, but if Tommy Gun’s and Bobby McGee’s disappeared Jewel would gain 41 parking spaces. What’s your asking price? Filler wondered, and the Sanfratellos replied carefully that Tommy Gun’s had been appraised in 1998 at a little more than $1 million–a figure arrived at using the industry standard of ten times the annual rent.

Filler left behind his business card and a promise to get back to them. Instead, a few weeks went by and then a letter arrived. It said the building would be the subject of a condemnation hearing on July 27.

The Sanfratellos say they would have sold their property to Jewel for a million dollars if Jewel had offered it. Instead, they claim, Jewel asked the city to use muscle and condemn the building, and the city’s price for the property was sure to be much lower. Jewel, for its part, contends that it turned to the city only because the Sanfratellos refused to sell.

Assistant planning commissioner Ron McDermott would never say what the city was willing to pay. Whatever the price, if the building had been condemned Mangen as a lessee would have been entitled to only $20,000, far under the $350,000 she estimated it would cost her to move Tommy Gun’s. The dinner theater with Roaring 20s shtick is where Mangen met her husband, Bob Lukasik, who works the floor while she supervises the kitchen. Mangen’s parents, neither in good health, have their retirement money tied up in the business. And few of the employees could afford to be out of work for the time it would take to relocate. “I just don’t think it’s right,” Mangen said. “I’m glad there’s been development going on here, but not at the expense of my business.”

Development became a certainty in the early 90s, when the city established the Near South Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District between Congress and 21st Street and Lake Shore Drive and State. TIFs lure businesses to blighted areas by dangling incentives. But slums don’t always turn into tax generators quickly or cleanly, and that’s when eminent domain can come in handy as a demolition tool. Even a longtime and profitable business like Tommy Gun’s Garage can be cleared out if a bigger, richer business wants in.

“I’ve been fighting to get people into this area for ten and a half years,” Mangen says. “There used to be rats running rampant around here and people smoking crack on the street.” Today when she looks across State Street she sees neat rows of houses sprouting from what was once a field of weeds. Two blocks down State, new lofts are selling for just shy of a million dollars. Mangen can count Mayor Daley among her neighbors. And there’s already a supermarket handy: Dominick’s set up shop two years ago.

When the Community Development Commission met on July 27, Mangen and the Sanfratellos showed up to plead their case. Bob Sanfratello Jr. had been down this path before. Last year the city seized the building on South Prairie that housed his construction company in order to build another McCormick Place parking lot. It took a lawyer to get Sanfratello more money from the city than he’d paid to buy the property the year before. The city never did find his company another place to go, so he moved across town to 49th and Central. “I wanted to stay where I was but I couldn’t afford it any more, and I was hearing horror stories about these condemnations. I got out, but with what I’ve lost in business, they’re still killing me.”

The Community Development Commission approved 11 of the 15 proposed property seizures in the Near South TIF. But Tommy Gun’s Garage and Bobby McGee’s got a reprieve–four more weeks of life while Jewel tried to rework its parking plan. The astonishing thing is that this week Jewel succeeded. “The site’s been reconfigured and they accommodated the parking to the south of Tommy Gun’s,” Ron McDermott announced Tuesday. “They’re not going after Tommy Gun’s anymore.”

“I can’t believe it. I actually beat City Hall,” says Mangen. “It looks now like we’re safe.” Victory isn’t complete–Jewel informed City Hall that it can do without Mangen and the Sanfratellos’ building, but it does need their parking lot. “That’s kind of going to screw us up,” Mangen says, “but we’ll figure something out.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.