By Ben Joravsky

For nearly 20 years Michael Di Benedetto ran a currency exchange at Western and 47th Street. Then one day last year he learned it was illegal.

His business has been a “nonconforming use”–as zoning experts like to put it–ever since the local zoning was quietly changed by former 11th Ward alderman Patrick Huels.

Huels was a busy fellow in the months before his November resignation. He down-zoned eight bustling blocks of stores, shops, bars, and factories along Western and 47th in Brighton Park. The down-zoning (from commercial to residential) prevented nonconforming property owners from selling, expanding, or making basic improvements without aldermanic approval, leaving them at the mercy of virtually any city inspector who wanted to make their lives miserable. Merchants say it’s as if the city declared war on a working-class business strip that was barely hanging on as it was.

“I can’t understand why they would do this unless they want us to go out of business and the area to bottom out,” says Di Benedetto. “Because that’s what will happen if they don’t bring back the zoning.”

According to city records, Huels began to rezone the area after it was moved from the 12th Ward to the 11th by the 1991 redistricting. In October 1993 he proposed down-zoning the north side of 47th (the south side remains in the 12th Ward) from Western to Fairfield. “We’re supposed to get certified letters from the city telling us about down-zoning requests, but we never got them,” says Di Benedetto. “Those letters may be in a file in the zoning department downtown, but we were never notified. Believe me, if we were, we’d have been out protesting.”

Huels’s 47th Street down-zoning proposal sat around for three years before the City Council approved it in 1996. “The purpose of the proposed change is that West 47th Street has become a deteriorating business strip and the desire for residential use has increased tremendously,” Kathy Gurgone, an assistant to Huels, told the council’s zoning committee.

“So we are looking to do some planning here and create residential uses in the future?” Alderman William Banks asked Gurgone.

“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” Gurgone responded.

In August 1996 the city notified property owners by letter of a proposal to down-zone the west side of Western Avenue from 43rd to 47th Street. “I heard about that proposal from the man who was selling my property,” says Damaso Ramirez, who runs a body shop at 4646 S. Western. “I went down to the City Council meeting with my lawyer to protest. The [aides to the zoning committee] told me it was taken off the agenda. I asked them to let me know if they would reintroduce it. They said they would. But no one notified me. And by the end of the year the proposal had been quietly reintroduced and passed.”

As soon as he learned of the rezoning, Ramirez began spreading the word to nearby business operators. Most felt deceived. “There was no meeting,” says Jorge Trujillo, who owns El Ranchito, a grocery on 47th near Western. “Huels didn’t tell us what he was going to do–he just did it.”

Under the new zoning merchants can stay in business, but their options are limited. “To sell or make any changes to the property requires a substitute-of-use request,” says Keerthi Ravoori, a zoning department spokesman. “A substitution-of-use request is referred to the alderman to find out if he has any objections. We seek the alderman’s approval.”

In other words, down-zoned businesses are at the local alderman’s mercy. “If I want to expand or sell or even get a permit to make basic repairs, I gotta go to the alderman,” says Di Benedetto. “Say I want to sell. Who will buy my business knowing it’s not in compliance with zoning? Anyway you look at it, I’m screwed.”

Ramirez says he met with Huels last year to protest the down-zoning. “Huels said he did it because residents had asked him to down-zone the area to keep out bars,” says Ramirez. “First of all, there’s not many bars around here. Second of all, there’s gotta be a better way to deal with them. I asked him which residents? He didn’t say.”

Huels resigned on October 21, after a Sun-Times expose about a city trucking contractor who’d given a $1.25 million bailout loan to a security company the alderman owned. But property owners found no help from other 11th Ward officials. “I met with [Democratic] committeeman John Daley,” says Di Benedetto. “He said, ‘Sorry, I can’t change the zoning. That takes an alderman and I’m only the committeeman.’ Let me get this straight–he’s Mayor Daley’s brother and he can’t change zoning? Gimme a break.”

A few weeks after that meeting, Di Benedetto says his business was unexpectedly visited by city inspectors. “I’m thinking, ‘Hmm, what a coincidence–I complain about the zoning and then I get flooded with five inspectors,” says Di Benedetto. “They came up with all sorts of Mickey Mouse violations. One guy says I have the wrong toilet seat–it’s the round kind, not U-shaped. Another guy says I have [plastic] piping from the air conditioner to the sink and I need to replace it with copper.”

Another merchant says that after he was quoted by the Sun-Times on the down-zoning, he was visited by an 11th Ward precinct captain. “The precinct captain walked in and introduced himself, just to let us know he’s there,” says Joe Fronczak, who operates a hardware store on 47th. “We got the message.”

The message is that there’s a price to be paid by those who protest. “This is intimidation,” says Trujillo. “We’re small businessmen trying to run our businesses–and this is how they treat us?”

The down-zoning comes at a vulnerable time for a neighborhood that’s facing demographic, political, and economic changes. Politically it’s a no-man’s land, where older white ethnics are making way for Hispanics and nobody around has clout in the 11th Ward organization. Along 47th Street, prostitutes aggressively approach passersby even during the day.

“In most cases, the city would be helping merchants and residents get together to deal with the bums and the prostitutes,” says Michael McQuery, a local resident. “Instead, the city makes things worse by down-zoning.”

Despite Gurgone’s testimony, there’s no sign of demand for more residences. This stretch of 47th has traditionally been the community’s main business strip. And Western is a heavily trafficked road lined with factories. “Who would want to put new houses on Western? You have to raise your voice just to be heard above all the trucks,” says McQuery. “We have vacant stores on Western and on 47th. Who’s going to move in with the down-zoning? You watch, they’ll just stay vacant. Pretty soon the gangbangers will tag them. In the name of cleaning up a neighborhood they’ve made it worse.”

Adding insult to injury, someone hung banners along 47th Street calling on consumers to shop in Back of the Yards, to the northeast. “First, they run businesses out with the down-zoning, and then they tell people to shop somewhere else,” says McQuery. “Are they trying to turn this place into a slum?”

In the last few weeks merchants have become more vocal in their protests, joining forces with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a new community group. On August 27 more than 200 residents and merchants met with Alderman James Balcer, Huels’s successor. It was a stormy meeting, with some residents angrily accusing the city of devising an underhanded scheme to bring down property values, so land could be bought cheap by well-connected developers. Almost every speaker demanded that Balcer restore the old zoning.

Balcer says he knows of “no nefarious scheme to take the land and sell it to developers.” He continues, “I’ve only been in office for a few months–I had nothing to do with the new zoning. Alderman Huels down-zoned. I haven’t spoken to him about it. And I have to tell you–he didn’t just down-zone here. He down-zoned along Halsted and Ashland and 35th Street and other parts of the ward. I’ve had people come in from all over the ward complaining.

“People talk about intimidation from precinct captains. I don’t know anything about that. I wouldn’t want anyone to be intimidated by anyone. The precinct captains are good people. I trust them. Listen, are there problems on 47th? Yes. Are there drunks and prostitutes? Yes. But I’ve been making progress since I’ve been in office. I’ve brought in Human Services to talk to the drunks. I’ve brought in the police to get the prostitutes off the street. I had people from Planning look at beautifying. I’ll look into the zoning. But it’s not so easy to make the changes. I need to talk to everyone in the community. Give me time.”

Did you bring in the Back of the Yards banners?

“No. I don’t know who did that. I can’t explain that.”

Despite Balcer’s appeals for time, merchants and residents say they will move ahead with a direct appeal to Mayor Daley. “We’re going to send the mayor petitions asking to bring back the old zoning,” says Ramirez. “Maybe he’ll keep them from destroying our neighborhood.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Di Benedetto, Jorge Trujilo, Damaso Ramirez photo by Dan Machnik.