The vacant lot on the northwest corner of Lincoln and Diversey is an impressive eyesore, even by Chicago standards. It used to provide parking for Wallaby Station, a nearby clothing store. But Wallaby Station disappeared years ago, and sometime after that the center of the lot collapsed, creating a three-foot-deep sinkhole big enough to hold several cars. The lot’s strewn with paper, plastic bags, broken bottles, and chunks of asphalt. “People are always dumping trash there,” says Jay Zuckert, who lives nearby. “A few weeks ago someone dumped a lawn chair there. The chair’s still there. It’s a joke.”
As Zuckert sees it, the lot is an accident and a lawsuit waiting to happen, because it’s not fenced. “You’ve got a lot of kids in the area, and you have a lot of people walking their dogs,” he says. “Someday someone’s going to trip and break a leg–or worse. Then what?”
It’s especially strange that such a neglected lot is in the middle of a gentrifying community, where town houses go for as much as $700,000. “You have to wonder why it wasn’t developed years ago,” says Susan Zuckert, who’s married to Jay and works in the Reader’s advertising department. “Around here they’re building everywhere.”
In January the Zuckerts decided something had to be done. “We talked about it with other people in our building,” says Susan. “Everyone agreed it was awful.”
They decided to go first to the office of the local alderman, Ted Matlak. As an alderman, he has the power to make the lives of property owners miserable by denying their zoning-change requests or sending inspectors to hound them. He can threaten that he’ll never let them build in his ward if they don’t clean up their property. He can even identify absentee owners hiding behind a trust by getting the city to file a public-nuisance suit that forces them to appear in court. “We were hoping Matlak would at least make the owner put a fence around the lot,” says Jay.
Matlak didn’t even return their calls, though taking calls from constituents is something aldermen are supposed to do. “The best we got was when I talked to a woman named Sue in Matlak’s office,” says Susan. “I described the lot to her, and she told me Jim Thompson [a top Matlak aide] would call me to talk more about it. But Thompson never called back.”
The two buildings adjoining the lot–at 1210 W. Diversey and 2812 N. Lincoln–are for sale, so the Zuckerts called Peter Simatos, the real estate agent handling the sale for the church that owns them. “They wanted to know who owned the vacant lot, but I didn’t know,” says Simatos. “I told them if they found out, let me know. Maybe whoever owns it would be interested in buying my clients’ buildings.”
Like many observers, Simatos figures there’s a good chance someone will eventually buy the two church buildings and destroy them. Then the whole corner, including the vacant lot, will become the site of a large town-house or condo complex. “We have some bids for our buildings,” says Simatos. “I wonder if one of the bidders is the owner of the vacant lot.”
But without Matlak’s assistance, determining the identity of the owner isn’t easy. According to Askia Abdullah, a spokesman for the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, the lot’s title is held by a bank trust whose principals aren’t required to identify themselves. “We get lots of calls from people who want to know who owns a run-down lot on their block, but there’s not much we can do if it’s in a trust,” he said. “There are vacant lots all over the city. What makes this one unusual is that it’s in the high-end part of town. I’d check with the assessor’s office to see who’s paying the taxes.”
According to Maura Kownacki, a spokesman for the country assessor, the last taxpayer of record for the lot is Clare Group Ltd., whose address is listed as 400 W. Huron. “I don’t know who Clare Group is–I’ve never heard of them,” she said. “You might call the treasurer’s office to see if they’ve paid their taxes.”
According to Bob Benjamin, a spokesman for the treasurer’s office, the Clare Group is up-to-date on its property taxes for the lot. “Our records show that they paid their installment on February 26,” he said. “They paid $6,786.85. I guess that means they’re solvent.”
Clare Group, which could be paying the taxes on behalf of someone else, isn’t in the phone book, and information doesn’t have a listing either. “So we can’t reach the owner, and the alderman won’t call us back,” says Jay Zuckert. “And we have a sinkhole on our block without a fence around it. Now what?”
According to Jay Stone, Matlak’s opponent in the 2003 aldermanic election, the residents’ only option is to raise hell. “I know that vacant lot–it’s a disgrace,” he says. “There’s no excuse for not fencing it off. But the dirty little secret about city government is that it’s reactive–it’s not proactive. The aldermen and the mayor will react only if there’s enough of a public outcry.”
State representative John Fritchey, who might run against Matlak in the 2007 campaign, says the lot would be fenced if he were in charge. “It shouldn’t be that hard to fence off a lot–the city’s usually so big about fencing off things, particularly with wrought iron,” he says. “If you look at Armitage under the expressway, they fenced off that spot with wrought iron to keep homeless people from sleeping there. But this lot stays open. Go figure.”
The most baffling aspect of this story is Matlak’s lack of interest. The vacant lot is what politicians would call an easy issue, since Matlak has nothing to lose and everything to gain by standing up for his constituents and confronting the lot’s owner. Furthermore, providing basic services, like fencing vacant lots, is supposed to be Matlak’s strong suit. He’s certainly not known for coming up with innovative legislation or making illuminating speeches in the City Council. He rarely says anything in council debates, and almost always votes however Mayor Daley tells him to. In the last election Stone ran against him as a reformer, saying the 32nd Ward deserved an alderman who was willing to at least occasionally defy the mayor on crucial budget and planning matters. But Matlak racked up over 60 percent of the vote, running as a roll-up-his-sleeves service provider who uses his clout with Mayor Daley to get things done. Now the ward has the worst of both worlds–a toady who doesn’t even return constituents’ phone calls. “I hate to say I told you so,” says Stone, “but I told you so.”
The Zuckerts have tried to find the logic in Matlak’s behavior but can’t. Instead of currying favor with voters, he’s turning them off. Instead of ridding his ward of a potentially dangerous eyesore, he’s letting it fester. And he’s giving two of his strongest opponents–Stone and Fritchey–an issue on which to hammer him. So why doesn’t he force the owner to fence in the lot?
Matlak didn’t return my calls either, so I’ve come up with two theories. The first is that the lot’s owner–whoever he or she is–might be a big contributor, so Matlak would be reluctant to tell him or her what to do. The second is that Matlak wants to send the Zuckerts and their neighbors an “I’ll-do-things-when-I-want-to” message, letting them know who runs the show in the 32nd Ward.
Whatever the explanation, it’s telling that Matlak came out of Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and former alderman Terry Gabinski’s ward organization, in which clout and connections were everything. Rostenkowski and Gabinski seemed to take pleasure in keeping constituents waiting. Years ago I stood in the rain outside Rostenkowski’s Damen Avenue office with a bunch of Polish and Latino Stewart-Warner workers who were about to be laid off because the factory was moving to Mexico. They hoped that Rostenkowski–then one of the country’s most powerful congressmen–would take their case to the factory’s owners. Rostenkowski was in his office for an hour or so, then sent word through an aide that he was too busy to meet with the workers. The lesson those factory workers learned was that the bosses in the 32nd Ward don’t like to accommodate the people they represent–it only encourages them to make more demands.
So Matlak’s behavior isn’t surprising. It is surprising that voters keep reelecting incumbents who won’t do something as basic as fencing off a sinkhole, but don’t get me started.
Matlak did respond to the Zuckerts on another matter–well, sort of. In March, Jay e-mailed him about the “constant flow of trash blowing down” Lincoln Avenue “due to the fact that there are no garbage cans on the sidewalk.” He asked Matlak to “please place garbage cans on the sidewalk” along Lincoln “from Diversey north to Southport.”
A few weeks later, on April 13, Matlak, or his staff, e-mailed Zuckert back: “My office will contact Streets and Sanitation for possible wire baskets on Lincoln Avenue.” The Zuckerts and their neighbors are still waiting for them.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.