By Neal Pollack
On Thursday, March 19, Mayor Daley stood before hundreds of cheering congregants at Salem Baptist Church on the far southeast side and told them that his lawyers would help them vote their neighborhoods dry. “That’s what democracy is all about,” Daley said. “If you decide in your precinct to do this, you will have the full support of my administration.”
A vote-dry campaign had been cooking in Roseland for some time. The Reverend James Meeks, Salem’s ambitious young pastor, was in charge; he’d already tried to get a vote-dry referendum for the entire Ninth Ward onto the February 1997 ballot. The church collected more than 5,000 signatures but the petition had been rejected on technicalities. With the help of Daley’s law department, that wouldn’t happen this time.
The church was going after 43 liquor establishments, 28 in the 9th Ward and the others in the 34th. In particular, they were targeting South Michigan Avenue from 100th to 121st streets, a strip along which 25 liquor licensees operated. Once a thriving middle-class business district, South Michigan had gone to seed. If the neighborhood could get rid of the liquor vendors, Meeks said, other businesses might consider locating there. “You have to take the community and actually give it a face-lift. In every city you go in–Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Harlem–every poor urban area looks exactly the same. They are saturated and inundated with liquor stores.”
But the liquor licensees on South Michigan weren’t going down easily. In February, a former CTA clerk named Ralph Bellamy had formed the Greater Roseland Liquor Association, composed of 33 bar and liquor store owners. In his campaign to rid Roseland of liquor stores, Meeks was willing to shut down neighborhood bars as well, and Bellamy’s bar, Ralph’s Place, at 113th and Michigan, was in the way. He was ready to fight to keep it open.
“There are just as many storefront churches on Michigan as there are liquor stores,” Bellamy says. “He could have gotten them and the liquor people together and said, ‘You want to start a war? Let’s start a war against these drug dealers. Let’s walk in on Friday and Saturday nights and get these drug dealers out of these houses. Get these prostitutes out of these streets.’ We all could have worked together. Why try to put legal folks out of business?”
Meeks has always said that only by getting rid of liquor businesses could Roseland attract big-name merchants to its run-down retail district. “When Lee Iacocca has a plan and lays off 5,000 Chrysler workers, 5,000 people lose a job,” he says. “Five thousand people survive. They don’t die. They go somewhere else and they find other employment. These people who work in the bars will be able to do the same thing. So we lose 50 jobs. What about the ability after that to attract 500? We stand to gain more development than we’ll lose.”
Liquor store and bar owners, understandably, didn’t see the issue that way. They only saw that they were being driven out of business. After a photo of Meeks ran in the Sun-Times, one liquor store taped the picture to its cash register to let customers know their “enemy.” Meeks heard about the photo and walked into the store, demanding that the picture be taken down. The owner complied.
Meeks apologized about the neighborhood bars that would be closed down with the liquor stores. “When we go precinct by precinct, we will pick up some bars,” he says. “It happens. It’s the same as if they were going to put a highway through. We would lose them.”
That was hardly good enough for Bellamy, who stood to lose his livelihood. “When I close, it should be because I want to,” he said. “We’re businesspeople and we should be able to stay in business. Look, we’re not about confrontation. We are not the ones that started this.”
From its inception in 1989, the Daley administration has waged war on bars. Since 1991, the number of taverns in Chicago has dropped from 3,300 to slightly more than 1,800. The total number of liquor licenses in the city has gone from about 8,000 in 1990 to below 5,000.
Vote-dry campaigns–or “local-option petitions,” as they’re officially known–are the administration’s most powerful weapon against bars. These precinct-based referenda have been around since the repeal of Prohibition, but were used sparingly until Daley came to power. In 1988 the state legislature passed a “single address” statute that would allow voters to dry up one bar or liquor store instead of an entire precinct. After intense pressure from the liquor lobby, that law was repealed in 1990. It was reinstated in 1995, and since then vote-drys have become increasingly common.
To get a single-address vote-dry referendum on the ballot, campaign organizers need the signatures of at least 40 percent of registered voters in the precinct. To vote an entire precinct dry, they need to get only 25 percent. But electoral petitioning is a labyrinthine business, and in the hands of neophytes vote-dry petitions often fail. Some signatories aren’t registered to vote. Some don’t live in the precinct. Others sign false names. Husbands sign for wives, and vice versa. All this is illegal, and easily challenged in the courts.
In 1996, for example, 42 vote-dry petitions were filed with the city clerk and 25 of them were knocked off the ballot for one reason or another. But of the 17 precincts that did hold an election, 15 voted dry.
From February through April this year, the community policing program of every police district in the city held a vote-dry seminar. The mayor’s office and other city agencies sent out speakers who explained how to run a petition drive. They talked about assembling a poll sheet and assuring that the petition circulator was registered in the precinct.
On a sunny Saturday morning in late July, about 100 of James Meeks’s followers gathered in the gymnasium of Salem Baptist Church. On a table near the door were clipboards neatly arranged. They contained poll sheets, petitions, and a standard speech for petitioners to deliver. About 75 percent of the volunteers were women. Some wore T-shirts bearing Christian sayings such as “Friday he died…Sunday he rose” and “God has been soooo good to me!” As they waited for Meeks to arrive, gospel music played on tinny overhead speakers.
Not all the canvassers were from Roseland. One woman who lived in Hammond, Indiana, said she would vote her own community dry if she had the chance. “If this catches on, it’ll be like wildfire,” she said. “People’ll be calling the pastor, asking him how did he do it.”
Since Meeks took over the church eight years ago, it has developed into one of the largest black congregations in the city. Salem was once a 200-member storefront church on Jeffery Boulevard. Now it occupies a former Catholic school, boasts around 8,000 congregants, and holds three Sunday services. “Every Sunday, new people come to join our church,” one member says. “There’s never a Sunday where people don’t join. We’re sometimes baptizing 100 people a month. I know people who haven’t been to their church for 25 years, and they come to Salem. I’ve been a member for eight years. I’ve seen the power growing.”
Meeks has seen his own power grow. In 1994 and ’95 he appeared often in the local press, heading a march for troubled kids and sharing a stage with Governor Edgar around campaign time as sponsor of a church-based youth-mentoring program. “What we are trying to do is awake a sleeping giant against evil, of good men who can no longer sit back and do nothing.”
In October of 1995, Meeks, then the head of the Illinois Rainbow Coalition, wrote black ministers urging them not to support the Million Man March of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. “We who boldly name the name of Jesus should not align ourselves with those who stand boldly against what we believe,” the letter read. Nevertheless, Meeks later called on those Chicago men who had gone on the march to mentor kids in the juvenile justice system. He appeared at a few events to support the congressional candidacy of Jesse Jackson Jr. and was named by Edgar to a panel “to attack the scourge of street gangs,” then dropped out of the headlines for two years.
When Meeks reemerged, he was heading the largest vote-dry campaign in recent memory. He says he drew inspiration from In His Steps, a turn-of-the-century Christian novel by Charles Sheldon that’s the progenitor of the popular bumper sticker slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”
In the book, the Reverend Henry Maxwell, pastor of a church in the small midwestern town of Raymond, tries to rid the town of what he considers its main scourge–the saloon that “reared itself…like some deadly viper hissing and coiling, ready to strike its poison into any unguarded part.” Sheldon writes: “Was not the most Christian thing they could do to act as citizens in the matter, fight the saloon at the polls, elect good men to the city offices, and clean the municipality? How much had prayers helped to make Raymond better while votes and actions had really been on the side of the enemies of Jesus? Would not Jesus do this? What disciples could imagine Him refusing to suffer or to take up His cross in this matter?”
The church’s vote-dry campaign runs up against drunken politicians and the liquor lobby. “The issue of license or no-license had never been an issue under such circumstances,” Sheldon writes. “Never before had such elements in the city been arrayed against each other.”
The vote-dry fails, barely. A drunken mob riots in joy–“The air of the whole city seemed to be impregnated with the odor of beer”–and kills a churchgoer. But Maxwell tells a follower that God will rid the community of the saloon, just as he rid America of slavery.
Meeks says the book is always on his mind.
That Saturday in July, a casually dressed Meeks took the microphone at the front of the room.
“I’d like to say good morning to everybody.”
“And we are grateful that we are moving toward the homestretch. One of our goals is to have it happen today. I think it can happen today. We are 400 signatures or so away from getting our petition on the ballot. This is simple mathematics. If every team that goes out today is successful getting ten signatures, then we will accomplish our goal of the day. Now if you can get 20, great, but if you get 10– You cannot come back, you can’t come to church, you can’t go home, you can’t go to work, you can’t do nothing today until you get ten.”
“Let us pray. Let’s all bow our heads in prayer. God our Father we honor you, we praise your name…”
The petitioners dispersed to their various precincts. I went with a team in the Ninth Ward, 25th Precinct–Catherine Weddington, Linda Tigue, and Kimberly Moore, all veterans of the struggle. This was Moore and Tigue’s third consecutive weekend gathering signatures, Weddington’s second. The first week she’d been part of a group that stayed behind at the church and prayed for the petitioners.
The three women had various reasons for participating in the vote-dry campaign. Weddington had seen the destructive power of alcohol in her own family. She told me, “I have a great desire for all these places to be shut down if possible, because it destroys the whole person.”
Moore had grown up in Roseland, and she remembered when its parks were well kept, its streets clean, its families relatively prosperous. “When we moved down here you didn’t see a piece of paper on the ground. All them liquor stores? They weren’t around here. Everybody kept their yard up. But now most people don’t have a yard. What they do is stand on the corner and drink. All day long. All day long.” Tigue simply believed that she was doing what Jesus would do. “Reverend Meeks picked me because I’m charged and motivated,” she said.
We got into Moore’s Buick.
“Let’s say a prayer before we leave,” said Tigue. “Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus, we ask that you pray for us in all things, Lord Jesus, ask that you give us strength. We’re only asking, we’re thanking you for the houses that we’re going to, Lord Jesus. We ask that you give us the spirit, Lord Jesus, that you are the one that’s in control, Lord Jesus. And Lord, that you would get the glory out of this. We thank you in advance, Lord Jesus. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. Let’s go get ’em! Yeahhhh!”
They began at a building on 111th Place that was nearly collapsing from neglect. “This is gonna happen,” Weddington said. “There’s gonna be ice cream shops and nice stores, nice bookstores. Ain’t gonna have to worry about nobody standing on the corner asking for a dime all the time. It’s gonna happen. I see it coming.”
“My mom and dad drink at home,” Moore said. “They both do. And I’m trying to tell mom about it. She says, ‘Uh-uh. That’s not gonna happen. Y’all’s just wasting y’all’s time.’ I say, ‘You can have that attitude about it if you want to. Ain’t nobody gonna make you sign nothing. But it’s gonna happen.'”
The first building yielded no signatures. No one even opened the door. The second building brought two face-to-face rejections. Moore and Tigue went upstairs, while Weddington, a little older and slower, stayed on the first floor. They were about to get rejected again when Weddington came up the stairs and recognized the woman in the doorway. She’d taught her daughter at preschool.
“Heeeey girlfriend! Good to see you!” Weddington shouted.
“Are you with them?” the woman asked.
“Because if I’d seen you, I’d a signed right away.”
“You come to our church yet?”
“I told you to come on, girl! They’re waitin’ on you!”
The woman signed. One down, nine to go.
“People think we Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Moore said. “We gotta be clear.”
Their methods weren’t perfect. Tigue didn’t seem to know that odd and even building numbers were on opposite sides of the street. She also gave out strange information at times, such as “We got 98 percent liquor stores in our community.” But they trudged on, and the signatures began to accumulate.
People gave them various responses, from “No problem” to “It’s not something I focus on” to “I’m not concerned because I don’t imbibe.”
A wide-eyed shirtless man who claimed to be a community organizer screamed at them. Getting rid of liquor stores wouldn’t clean up the neighborhood, he reasoned. “Look at the front of my house! I throw out my garbage every day!”
They came upon a prosperous-looking couple who were loading their car. The man signed the petition immediately. The woman not only didn’t sign but also gave us a five-minute discourse on the medicinal properties of marijuana. “Well,” the man said, “that’s democracy for you.”
One woman, a baby on each hip, looked at Tigue and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t sign your petition.”
“May I ask why?”
She turned her eyes downward.
“Because,” she said, “I drink.”
“God can change that,” said Tigue.
Moore pointed at an empty bottle of Paul Masson brandy in the middle of the sidewalk. “Look!” she said.
An empty 40-ouncer of Miller sat a few feet away.
We walked along a railroad viaduct and passed by a tavern obviously long shuttered. “Thank you, Jesus!” Tigue shouted. “I’m doin’ this in the name of Jesus! I’m walkin’! I wouldn’t do this for no one but him!”
We turned onto 115th Street, which was busy with traffic, and began knocking on the doors of squat wood-frame houses.
A man was sitting on his porch. “Naw,” he said. “I can’t sign. We love liquor, love drugs. I’m just kidding. I’ll sign your petition.”
A woman came out the door.
“I know this lady here!” Tigue said.
The woman threw her arms around Tigue’s neck.
Moore got the man’s signature. Tigue and the woman began rocking back and forth, praying softly. From the sidewalk, Weddington saw what was happening.
“Hallelujah,” she whispered. “Thank you, Jesus.”
“Shoot,” the man said. “I ain’t come to church for a week because I was in the hospital.”
“Good,” said Moore, “real good.”
Tigue’s voice grew louder, the woman weeping in her arms.
“You can feel his power! It is the power of Jesus!”
“Hallelujah! Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord God!” Weddington shouted. She moved up the porch steps.
“You can do anything, Lord Jesus!”
“Hallelujah! Glory to God!”
Weddington and Tigue draped themselves over the woman, the porch rocking along with them, their voices rising.
“Thank you, Father, Lord Jesus! Oh glory, Lord Jesus! Hallelujah! OOOOOOOOOOOOOH! Hallelujaaaaaaaaaaah! Thank you, Jeeeeeeeeesuuuuuuuuuuus! You have to ask your Father to come in, Lord Jesus. This is Linda calling, Lord! You have it in your word!”
Then, gradually softening: “We’re saying it’s done. It’s done. We’re asking that the enemy take his hands offa her, Lord Jesus, off her family. We feel the power of prayer! Oh, thank you, Father! Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord!”
“Thank you,” the woman said. She signed their petition to vote Roseland dry.
“Rejoice!” Tigue shouted. “Rejoice! We’re gonna win!”
Joe Drennan owns a bar and restaurant. Over the last two years he’s often wished he didn’t. His place, Sedgwick’s, sits near the busy north-side intersection of Armitage and Lincoln. It’s not the city’s hottest area, but it boasts a substantial nightlife. Sedgwick’s is near two similar places, Stanley’s and Gamekeepers. Park West is down the street and other bars and restaurants are nearby.
Two years ago, a real estate agent named Debbie Arnold began calling Drennan from time to time, complaining about street noise and other disturbances. “Once in a while something goofy would happen and we’d take care of it,” Drennan says.
In a different political climate, complaints like Arnold’s wouldn’t be taken seriously, but for the last decade they’ve formed the basis for a tavern-busting campaign unlike any that Chicago’s seen since before Prohibition. In May 1990 the City Council passed an ordinance mandating that if someone applied for a liquor license, the Department of Revenue was required to send a notice to all legal voters within 250 feet of the premises. Voters were allowed to object to the license if they believed it would create a “law-enforcement problem,” would create an “undue concentration” of licensees in the area, or would have “a deleterious impact on health, safety, and welfare in the community.”
The language of this ordinance allowed for a loose, generous interpretation, so things might have gone well for potential licensees. But they didn’t.
Winston Mardis has been the head of the city’s Local Liquor Control Commission since June 1989, just two months after Mayor Daley took office. A longtime city bureaucrat, Mardis went to work for the Department of Human Services in 1977 and took a position at the Department of Aging in 1981. When he arrived at the liquor commission, he says, he was bombarded by complaints of public drinking, “loud and boisterous” patrons, and drug dealing. When it came down to shutting neighborhood bars, Mardis spoke, and still speaks, in the mayor’s voice.
“There has been a crackdown,” he says. “We have revoked a number of liquor licenses. The mayor basically feels that by removing bad liquor establishments from the city, there will be a better quality of life for all citizens….The vast majority of liquor establishments in the city are very good licensees, but there are pockets of problems.
“Say you live in a nice community of houses and bungalows and you want to sell your home. Gee, on that corner there’s that liquor establishment. A husband and wife come into the block and stand in front of the house. They say, ‘We’re willing to buy this,’ but right down the end of the block they see that darn liquor establishment. These are the problems that we’re addressing. We want the quality of life in these neighborhoods to be the best they can possibly be, and that’s what the mayor’s focus is.”
Mardis set up what he calls an “informal meeting process.” When his office receives a complaint about a bar, it sends a letter to the owner asking him to come downtown for a meeting. It also invites the police and “informed citizens”–meaning whoever filed the complaint. There will be three or four meetings if necessary, perhaps more. “Through that dialogue we will tell the licensee that they must do certain things to keep their license,” Mardis says.
In other words, behave or else. For bar owners, a letter from Mardis’s office is the equivalent of a detention slip. “Imagine getting called into the principal’s office,” a bar owner told me, “and along with the principal are your parents, your teachers, and anyone who ever had a grudge against you, and they’re all wagging their finger.”
In December 1996, Debbie Arnold assembled signatures on a petition and sent copies to Mayor Daley, to Alderman Charles Bernardini, to the local police commander, and to Mardis, whose office then invited Joe Drennan downtown. So began a long series of meetings between Arnold, Mardis, Drennan, and other neighborhood representatives. Arnold was accusing Drennan of serving alcohol to minors, so police conducted ID stings on Mardis’s orders a half dozen times, Drennan says. Each time Drennan passed.
Mardis also sent the police into Sedgwick’s to investigate Drennan’s liquor license, which stated he was legally authorized to operate as a restaurant. They were, Drennan says, looking for a technicality whereby they could shut him down. “There are no objective, quantitative measures as to what’s a restaurant or a bar,” Drennan says. “The rule they like to throw out is that if you’re not selling at least half food, you’re not a restaurant.” The police examined two years’ worth of payroll records, sales records, and receipts, decided Drennan ran a restaurant after all, and dropped the case.
All the while, Arnold continued to complain. Drennan said he’d done everything he reasonably could to be a good neighbor. He’d hired a full-time security guard on weekends. His place had adopted a segment of Sedgwick Street, bought new garbage cans, painted light poles. “I don’t know of anyone who does more than I do to try and placate my neighbors,” Drennan says. “I could have valet parking. That would be a great improvement to my business. But I said, fine, I won’t do it, because it will be a disruption to my neighborhood.”
Arnold still wasn’t satisfied, and eventually Drennan began to ignore her. But he lives above the business, and she knew where to find him. He says that at seven one morning his mother, who does his books, was drinking Coke out of an open cup as she took the previous night’s receipts to the bank. Arnold stopped her on the street and asked if there was liquor in the cup. It seemed that Arnold was looking for any excuse to shut him down.
“It used to drive me nuts when I was trying to make an effort,” Drennan says. “Now I try to isolate her and keep my mind open for other people. I don’t want to miff a reasonable neighbor if they had an issue. After a while I just want to laugh and say, ‘I wish you had more going on in your life so you didn’t have to bug me all the time.'”
In July, Drennan’s customers started bringing him copies of a letter they’d received.
“Dear Registered Voter,” the letter read. “We are trying to reclaim our streets and reinforce this neighborhood as residential. We would like to vote this precinct dry.” The letter said that a vote-dry campaign would eliminate Sedgwick’s, Gamekeepers, and Stanley’s. It asked recipients to call a number if they wanted to sign a petition or wished to become a “paid worker” circulating one. It was signed “the Sedgwick Neighbors.”
On the south side, vote-dry campaigns are about morality and community uplift. Petitioners literally pray that their neighborhoods will improve. On the north side, neighborhoods have, for the most part, already “improved,” and residents want to keep them that way. In the early phases of gentrification, bars and cafes draw people into the neighborhood who would never have thought about living there. As property values rise, condominium associations begin to take over neighborhood politics. They decide their neighborhoods are too noisy, and it’s time to kick out the so-called pioneers. The process has repeated itself numerous times over the last few years.
“It used to be nothing but renters around here,” Arnold says, “but now you have people who have to get up at six or seven in the morning to go to work. It’s hard to do that when there are people screaming in the streets at three in the morning. I think 25 years ago, if this had been going on it wouldn’t have bothered any of the neighbors because we would have been at these bars. But unfortunately now it does because we have to go to work, and it’s hard to do that if there are people vomiting and urinating in our gangways.”
This spring, Arnold heard about a meeting at a Park District building at Orleans and Elm. Attorneys from the city’s Law Department were there instructing residents on how to circulate a vote-dry petition. She learned she needed signatures of only 25 percent of the voters in the precinct. That will be easy, she thought.
The only catch was that the petitioner had to be a registered voter in the precinct where the bar was located. Arnold lived across the street, in another precinct. Thus came the letter that the bar owners began seeing in July; Arnold was looking for someone to do the petitioning for her.
Don Kruse, an owner of Stanley’s, hadn’t heard anything about voting his precinct dry. Stanley’s is, by any standard, a clean, spacious, and modern pub and restaurant; it’s frequented by cops, church groups, and lots of families. He hadn’t received a complaint of any kind in a year. “We didn’t know anything about any problems. Then all of a sudden, we get this letter,” Kruse says. “We wondered–who are these people? Where are they? What’s going on?”
The bar owners didn’t know who to trust. Kruse got a call from the alderman’s office asking what he was going to do about the threatened vote-dry campaign. But the owners couldn’t even find out for sure who was behind it. They suspected Arnold, but dialing the phone number fetched a recorded message in a man’s voice. And no one returned their calls.
They faced the prospect of losing their businesses to an anonymous enemy. “This isn’t a strip club,” says Jeff Kalish, another Stanley’s owner. “We’re not doing stuff like that. Sedgwick’s and Stanley’s are full-service restaurants. I think people move to this neighborhood because this is an amenity. Like a dry cleaner across the street, and a video store, and a grocery store….This isn’t like a corporate dump site where no one has a handle on what’s going on. These are, for the most part, owner-operated businesses. I’ve lived within a three-block radius for four years. A lot of my staff lives around here. These are our communities.”
The owners recalled the fate of the Ultimate Sports Bar, which had been a wildly successful club at Armitage and Lincoln in the early 1980s. The Ultimate Sports Bar was the first of its kind in Chicago. It took the sports bar concept to its extreme, with live boxing as part of the draw. Big crowds became common, with rafts of drunks spilling onto the streets.
Neighbors had threatened to vote the precinct dry, but businesses such as Geja’s and Park West would have gone down too. The alderman’s office redrew the neighborhood map to put the bar in its own precinct, and that precinct was voted dry. Since then the storefront has gone through many incarnations. And now it’s vacant.
The bar owners feared the same thing was about to happen to them. Debbie Arnold was past caring. She said that supply trucks were continually pulling up in front of her building, even at 8 AM on Saturdays. She complained that people were screaming in the streets at all hours, though Drennan and the local police say that’s not the case. She’d had enough.
“The bars were telling us how they add to the community,” she says. “Unfortunately, they’re not churches or museums. We don’t think that if they’re gone everything will blow up and die.”
In 1993, Paul Rosenfeld, a young aide to Alderman Richard Mell, found that he was spending a good part of his working day dealing with people who were having trouble getting a liquor license. He began researching the city’s licensing procedures. As far as he could see, Winston Mardis’s office was squeaky-clean; he recognized that as a problem. “I don’t think there’s any kind of shenanigans, any kind of payola whatsoever,” he says. “I think they took the pendulum and switched it way too far over to the other side. They’re too zealous about their job.”
He says, “One day it occurred to me that the people who see the alderman, who go to community meetings and complain, who vote, are not bar patrons. Until taverns and restaurants got their patrons involved in Chicago, they would continue to get screwed by a vocal minority.” Rosenfeld thought that if bars, particularly those on the north side, could organize, they would be a major political power.
He found that the struggles between taverns and neighborhood residents over noise, property values, and public morality went back more than 100 years. As early as 1878, writes University of Illinois at Chicago historian Perry Duis, in his book The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920, residents of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park were complaining in the Chicago Tribune that the “rough characters” who patronized beer gardens and dance halls were disrupting church services and breaking the neighborhood peace. Burghers on the near west side built wrought iron fences to keep away the riffraff who frequented flophouse taverns nearby.
Chicago certainly had its share of vice back then. Duis writes that an 1881 survey found 500 saloons, 1,000 concert halls (saloons that featured live entertainment), and 500 whorehouses within 20 square blocks on the south side. At the turn of the century muckraker Lincoln Steffens, noting the preponderance of bar owners on the City Council, wrote that the fastest way to empty the council chambers would be to stand in the rear and shout “Your saloon’s on fire!”
In 1889, Chicago incorporated several townships, including Lakeview and Hyde Park, increasing its territory by more than 100 square miles. Many of these new annexed neighborhoods were already dry, and they inspired other areas of the city to search for ways to, as Duis writes, “protect themselves from the saloon.” In 1894 the City Council adopted an unwritten policy that it would respect the wishes of any alderman who wanted the council to vote his ward–or at least its residential areas–dry, leading even the famous alderman and tavern keeper Bathhouse John Coughlin to say, “I’m not for gin mills in the residence district when there’s a roar against them.” In 1907 the Illinois legislature turned the power to vote dry over to the electorate, which proved less inclined than the council to exempt commercial districts. Writes Duis: “By 1909 nearly two-thirds of Chicago was dried up, and the remaining licensees were jammed into the slums, working-class neighborhoods, and the Loop.”
The phenomenon of concentration has begun to reassert itself today. The Loop, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, the near west side, and Wicker Park now have 31 percent of the city’s liquor licenses. Three wards on the south and west sides have none at all.
Rosenfeld met with about a dozen north-side tavern owners early in 1994. He advised them to organize themselves and their patrons before petitions ruined them. The owners thought it was a great idea and asked Rosenfeld to do it for them.
The next year, Rosenfeld founded the Chicago Area Social and Entertainment Organization (CASEO). Within two years he had more than 300 members. He went broke in the process and eventually turned CASEO over to a public-relations firm, while he took a job with the River North Association. He remains a “probar activist,” he says. “I still feel that CASEO could be a major political power. Did I have visions of grandeur for myself? Not really. I always knew that it was going to be much more of a political liability than a help. But I still know it was the right thing to do.”
CASEO finally gave tavern owners a voice in City Hall, where they’d come under frequent attack from moralizing aldermen. Rosenfeld publicly decried a new city ordinance that allowed owners to transfer licenses only to family members and majority shareholders or through a will. The law stuck, but CASEO was able to help kill a draconian 1995 ordinance proposed by Alderman Eugene Schulter that would have automatically revoked the license of any bar that generated five citizen complaints in a year. CASEO also protested a proposed 1997 law that would have made it illegal for children to enter a tavern at any time, even when accompanied by an adult. That law never made it out of committee.
Rosenfeld was joined at the helm of CASEO by Nick Novich, who has owned several bars on the north side in the last 20 years. Novich specializes in spotting business opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods. He grew up in Lincoln Park, and was a high school teacher when he opened a bar called Nick’s at Halsted and Armitage in 1977. He had seen the neighborhood change from middle-class white to working-class Puerto Rican, and sensed another transformation coming. With his boyhood friends Dennis and Tim Glascott, in 1979 he opened a renovated Glascott’s, a tavern at Webster and Halsted that had been in that family for generations. As the neighborhood developed, so did Glascott’s business.
In 1992 Glascott’s was hit with a vote-dry campaign. Among its opponents were members of the condo association that had sprung up in the former Page boiler factory next door. The vote-dry campaign would have affected 14 businesses, including Charlie Trotter’s and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba. At Winston Mardis’s suggestion, Novich had formed a group called the Lincoln Park Hospitality Council to defend these businesses. Within three days of learning about the vote-dry, he had his members on the street collecting signatures to challenge the petition–which failed.
Meanwhile, Novich had his eye on a tavern at Wolcott and Armitage. He transformed it into a nightclub called the Blue Note. By 1996 a frustrated neighbor named Stephen Parke was circulating a vote-dry petition against the Blue Note, complaining, as Ben Joravsky wrote in the Reader then, of a veritable Gotterdammerung of patrons “staggering from the bar at all hours of the night to pee, vomit, fight, fornicate, honk horns, smash beer bottles, scream, curse, and hop into their cars for the dangerous ride home.” Parke’s vote-dry campaign also failed. Novich moved his bar, now called the Note, to Milwaukee Avenue and became president of CASEO soon after.
“I realized when I started with CASEO that this could be a citywide problem,” Novich says. “Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t think so. I think it was William Burroughs who said that his definition of a paranoid is one who is in full command of all of the facts. People have tried to vote me dry twice already. I know what the facts are.”
On the south side, Ralph Bellamy had started a similar organization, the City-Wide Liquor Association, which soon had more than 100 members. Bellamy saw the Reverend Michael Pfleger campaigning against alcohol billboards on 79th Street and recognized that public morals had begun to change. Throughout the 80s, with Harold Washington and Alderman Robert Shaw campaigning and hanging out in neighborhood bars, Roseland had been a safe haven for liquor. It wasn’t any longer.
As the August 5 filing deadline for Meeks’s petitions neared, Fred Newman, who owns Two Aces, a bar on Michigan, was beside himself at the thought of losing his business.
“How can a preacher come around and do this? This is my job. I been there 22 years. I was a technician for Zenith and they laid me off. They shipped the work to Taiwan and Mexico, and I was out of a job. This tavern has been my means of supporting my family ever since then. Forget about the liquor. We’re businesspeople. That’s what we are. We’re average people who ain’t got too many jobs….The people here don’t realize what this man has done.
“You think you’re gonna solve the drug problem? People gonna party. They gonna set themselves up somewhere to party at. Maybe next door to the church this time. They gonna party. At least you know where these people are at. They’re gonna go back to these house parties or basement parties, or they’re gonna go get their stuff from out on the street. Go across the county line and then do what they gonna do. At least we’re inside, and we’re running decent businesses. They ain’t thinking. Meeks ain’t down to reality. Mayor Daley and him better come over here and get down to reality and know what this is all about. You cannot just change the world. Liquor’s been here all of our life. It’s downtown. Anywhere you stop they got liquor. Any big motel, anyplace you eat. They got some wine and liquor. So why they gonna attack us?”
Bellamy also distrusted Meeks’s motivations in his vote-dry campaign. Alderman Shaw has been slated for the Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals in November and will leave his aldermanic seat. The tax-appeals position is currently occupied by Wilson Frost, a longtime Daley ally and the political boss of the 34th Ward. Bellamy suspected that Daley cut a deal with Shaw, endorsing him over Frost for the tax board so he could appoint his own alderman in the 9th Ward. With a successful vote-dry campaign behind him, Reverend Meeks would perfectly fit the seat.
Meeks comes close to admitting aldermanic ambitions. “We’re the largest church in Roseland and one of the largest black churches in Illinois, so I think we should have a voice in some things,” he says. ‘We’re definitely looking in having a major say in who’s going to be alderman. If anybody would be appointed to that seat, I would like to know about it beforehand.”
Anyone who has a vote-dry petition filed against him has to prove that the signatures aren’t valid in order to keep the petition off the ballot. To get a list of signatures, the filed-against party must subpoena them. Bellamy retained the services of Terry Durkin, an attorney specializing in liquor laws. Durkin was Mayor Daley’s chief of staff when Daley was Cook County state’s attorney. He helped Ed Vrdolyak run the local Democratic Party when Vrdolyak was county chairman. Now he’s working as a liquor lawyer, but it’s no less political a position. Durkin says it’s rare for anyone but a lawyer to know how to file an election board review or a court petition and how to argue in front of a circuit court judge. “This is a quasi-political, quasi-legal function,” he says. “Technically, you don’t have to be a lawyer, but you’re better off if you are.”
On August 5, residents of 16 wards filed a total of 53 vote-dry petitions that threatened 88 liquor establishments across the city. This was a new city record for one election, but the number was somewhat misleading. Salem Baptist Church ended up filing in 8 precincts. Ralph Bellamy filed in 13. He and the other members of the Greater Roseland Liquor Association tried to take advantage of what they perceived to be a loophole in the state local-option law. Under that law, the first petition filed in any precinct was the only one that counted. If two or more petitions were filed in the same precinct and the first was flawed, all were thrown out.
The legislature spotted this flaw and corrected it in 1995, but Bellamy wasn’t aware of that. He had hoped to use the loophole to his side’s advantage by turning in his petitions first and seeing to it they were hopelessly flawed.
After this ploy failed, Roseland liquor business owners met with Terry Durkin, who told them his office would check the validity of Meeks’s signatures. Durkin sent a letter offering his services to every liquor business in Chicago threatened by vote-dry. Meanwhile, Bellamy’s members faced having to go door-to-door once again. If they could get people who had signed Meeks’s petitions to revoke their signatures by signing yet another petition, the original signatures would be ruled invalid.
“I’m kind of aggravated about it, because I did it before,” Bellamy said. “These residents get angry when you keep ringing their doorbells.”
Durkin intended to file a brief this week with the circuit court. Within ten days, he says, the court will rule on whether Meeks’s petitions are valid. Durkin says they won’t be–too many signatories don’t live in the precinct for which they signed. “You never know what the court will decide,” he says, “but we’re confident we have enough evidence to remove them from the ballot.”
For all the Daley administration’s work, says Durkin, this current round of vote-dry efforts has fallen flat. “When it’s all said and done, you’ll find that a number of these petitions got knocked off the ballot,” he says. “There was an increase in the filings, but the efficiency of the filings did not improve.”
In Lincoln Park, Debbie Arnold’s threats came to nothing. She couldn’t find a circulator for her petition, and the owners of Sedgwick’s, Gamekeepers, and Stanley’s were spared a vote-dry campaign. They also were saved the cost of paying Terry Durkin’s office to help them rescind the petitions.
On Monday morning, August 10, Joe Drennan came into his office to find a message on his voice mail from Arnold. She claimed that one of Drennan’s bouncers and some of the bouncer’s friends had stood under her window at 1:30 the previous night and “specifically tried to wake me up by screaming in the middle of the street and honking their horn.”
Later that day Drennan’s night manager told him what had happened. A truck had pulled up behind the bar to unload some kegs and sound equipment that Sedgwick’s had loaned out for a party. The truck had been parked five minutes when a woman driving a Jeep drove into the alley. She started honking her horn. Almost immediately Arnold was out of her building screaming at the driver. “That was my manager’s experience,” Drennan says.
But he believed Arnold would turn any incident against him. He was safe for the November elections, but the spring mayoral elections were almost upon the city. Even before the last round of vote-dry campaigns ended, another one was about to begin.
“I called the police and was able to register a complaint against you,” Arnold said in a voice mail message. “But I wanted to thank you. This morning another neighbor called me who wanted to vote you dry, which is very exciting. So I want to thank your manager. I hope to be awakened many more nights by him and his friends. I just want to thank you for his help in our efforts to vote you dry.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover photos by Nathan Mandell; James Meeks photo by Lloyd DeGrane; Ralph Bellamy photo by Lloyd DeGrane; Nick Novich, Paul Rosenfeld photo by Lloyd DeGrane; Catherine Weddington and Linda Tigue photos by Lloyd DeGrane;.