By Ben Joravsky and Mary Wisniewski
Forty years after the University of Chicago demolished almost all the bars on 55th Street in Hyde Park, it’s trying to save the sole survivor.
The Woodlawn Tap, better known as Jimmy’s, has been closed since its founder, James Wilson, died last spring. But the bar’s longtime managers, the brothers Bill and Jim Callahan, and its landlord, the university, are renovating it; they plan to apply for a liquor license and hope to reopen in a month or two.
At the moment the only resistance comes from an unlikely source, a graduate student who lives nearby. It’s an odd reversal of positions for Hyde Park, where it’s usually the students who complain about the university’s stern and stodgy opposition to anything resembling fun.
“It’s ironic–you’d think a grad student would support Jimmy’s,” says Rebecca Janowitz, an aide to Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle. “Of course, I don’t know how anyone can be against Jimmy’s. It’s a neighborhood institution. Even my mother likes to have a beer there.”
Perhaps the bar wouldn’t have so much local value had the university not been so thorough all those years ago. Actually, the urban renewal of Hyde Park had more to do with race than alcohol. In the 50s black residents were rapidly moving in, and university officials felt they were “engaged in a literal struggle for survival” to keep Hyde Park from becoming a slum–to quote professor Arnold Hirsch in Making the Second Ghetto, his classic 1983 book on segregation in Chicago. To “save” Hyde Park, the university rallied local, state, and federal support for a multimillion-dollar effort to seize property, move out residents (most of them black), clear buildings, and build parks, shopping strips, and upscale housing. The 40 or so bars and liquor stores along 55th were among the “gangrenous appendages” that Hirsch said “had to be sacrificed to preserve the health of the larger organism.”
Of all those bars, only Jimmy’s, which opened in 1949, survived. “It survived because a bunch of professors said they’d have a fit if it was torn down,” says Janowitz, a faculty brat raised in Hyde Park. “The general feeling was that there had to be someplace where the faculty could go and drink.”
As Hyde Park prospered, attracting malls and upscale chains, Jimmy’s successfully resisted any temptation to bring in ferns, sports themes, or nouvelle cuisine. It remained what it always had been–a dark, dingy joint that served greasy burgers and fries. It had weekly poetry readings, Sunday jazz concerts, and regular games of poker, chess, and backgammon. It was a great place to have a conversation, and visiting celebrities (everyone from Dylan Thomas to Davy Jones of the Monkees) often stopped by. “Thomas was here before he died,” says Bill Callahan. “I hope we didn’t contribute.”
As the years passed, something strange began to happen: Jimmy’s became revered by the locals, particularly St. Thomas the Apostle, the church and school across the street. Wilson actually recruited Bill Callahan from St. Thomas in 1968. “Mr. Wilson made an offer that paid substantially more than teaching in a Catholic school,” says Callahan, who’d taught math, science, and gym.
The pastor at St. Thomas, Father Jack Farry, supports the bar’s reopening. He jokingly calls Jimmy’s “St. James Chapel. Whenever we’re missing a teacher we know where to look.”
When Wilson died, the bar’s liquor license died with him. “All rights die with the license holder,” says Winston Mardis, director of the Mayor’s License Commission. “That’s the law.” But the Callahans made it clear they intended to keep the bar open, and the university, apparently convinced the city would renew the license, began to make extensive renovations. That’s when Timothy Barnard started getting more concerned.
Barnard’s a graduate student in comparative literature who lives nearby. According to him, Jimmy’s is not such a great neighbor. In the year he’s lived there, Barnard says, he’s seen vomiting drunks stagger out of the bar and has been kept up late by clanking bottles, electric guitars, and a barking dog that some patron had left in the backyard. “They did solve the clanking bottle problem after I complained, by agreeing to dump them into their recycling bins after ten at night,” says Barnard. “But I became concerned the new owners would change it into more of a blues bar with electric guitars wailing into my apartment until one or two in the morning. So I wrote a letter to the university and pointed out that any change would change Jimmy’s from a local watering hole to a nightclub that would attract people from all across the town and create late-hour loitering problems. I wrote that letter right before Jimmy’s closed [after Wilson’s death]. Soon after I sent that letter the late-night music stopped.”
Barnard received a letter back from Henry Webber, the university’s vice president for community affairs, assuring him that “we expect [the Callahans] to operate the business in a manner mutually-acceptable to its neighbors.” But “We believe the Tap is an excellent venue for live music, reflecting the diversity of the community.”
Barnard says he found Webber’s response alarming. “I was getting two messages. In print Webber was telling me that they had every intention of continuing this music. In practice they stopped the music. Maybe I’m cynical, but I felt manipulated. I felt they did not want to antagonize the neighbors before they got their license, though perhaps they would do that afterward.”
While calling various city agencies, Barnard discovered that bars are prohibited within 100 feet of schools and churches. “That 100 feet is measured in one of two ways,” says Barnard. “If it’s a school, it goes from property line to property line. If it’s a church, it’s from building corner to building corner.”
In other words, the city permits a bar to be closer to a church than to a school. “The school’s playground is within 40 feet of Jimmy’s, which was only legal because Wilson had opened it before the proximity law was passed,” Barnard continues. “But the bar’s backers, including members of the church, argue that the school’s playground is not really a playground but a parking lot.
“Well, I think there’s a problem of definition here. If they’re arguing that the playground, which has a sign at its entrance saying drug-free school zone, is not a playground but in fact parish property, then they may be creating problems for themselves. I don’t imagine an insurance company would want children playing on property that’s not legally a school playground. I think this is a way to sneak around a law intended to keep bars away from schools.”
And even if you view the playground as a parking lot, Barnard says, the bar’s still within 100 feet of the school, as well as a Lutheran church on 55th Street. “I measured these distances with a piece of string,” he says. “I tied one end to the bar and walked across the street with the string in my hand. By my measurement it’s 85 feet to the St. Thomas school, as opposed to the playground, and 95 feet to the Lutheran church. Both distances are in violation of city ordinances. Therefore the bar can never be relicensed unless they change the law.”
So far, no one else in Hyde Park seems even vaguely disturbed by the matter. In a recent Hyde Park Herald story, the parish leaders came off as brilliant tacticians who’d found the loophole they needed to save a beloved landmark. And most observers don’t understand why Barnard’s making such a fuss. If the church isn’t complaining, what’s it to him? So, OK, the bar kept him up a few times. But what did he expect? It’s a bar. If he doesn’t like it he can always move. He probably shouldn’t have moved there in the first place.
As the bar’s backers see it, Barnard has no reason to fret. Jimmy’s is better managed than most bars; indeed, Bill Callahan recently called Barnard and apologized after a work crew drilled and sawed in the early morning. And Webber has promised Barnard that the university will carefully monitor the bar. Should Jimmy’s become a noisy nuisance, it wouldn’t be difficult to make the bar pay, not in the age of Mayor Daley, who has encouraged residents of other neighborhoods to vote precincts dry. “He complains about noise, but Jimmy’s isn’t noisy,” says Janowitz. “Believe me, this is not an issue. We’ve had 100 calls on this and only one complaint.”
The city hasn’t had to take an official position on the matter, since the Callahans have yet to submit their application (they’d better do it soon, since they want to open later this month). But church and university officials eagerly await the reopening. “It’s really been missed the time it’s been closed,” says Webber.
As for Bill Callahan, he says the locals need not worry about noise. Patrons are “probably a little more mellow in the 90s than they were in the 1960s, mellow in a way of life as opposed to what they smoked on the way to the bar. People are better behaved. The kids are more mature. They’re more aware of alcohol and its effects on behavior. It was a different attitude in the 60s. People did goofy things then–they’d write graffiti, break a window, somebody would punch a hole in the bathroom wall. Now the kids kind of police their own groups. You tell them to cool it and they usually do.”
Nonetheless, Barnard has gotten more forceful in his objections. On September 15 he wrote university president Hugo Sonnenschein asking him to “intervene personally to ensure” that the bar “comply with all applicable ordinances and laws.” If Sonnenschein doesn’t, “I will seek other redress, including seeking damages by civil action.”
Sonnenschein has not responded, says Barnard, who adds, “This is not a popularity contest–it’s a legal process. I believe that this application does not comply with city law and the issue is whether the city will enforce its own law. My position is that I am asking questions. For me to ask these types of questions does not require me to state an opinion as to whether Jimmy’s opens or stays closed at all.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Drea.