Last Call for Taverns

Chicago's mayor is encouraging citizens to exercise control over seedy bars in their neighborhoods.
by | August 2005

Anybody who runs a tavern in an urban residential area knows that it's dangerous to push the patience of the neighbors very far. Too much noise at closing time, too much litter outside the back door, a few gross incidents in the middle of the night--and you can be on the list for extra police attention and a visit to the licensing bureaucracy downtown.

That's true in any big city. In Chicago, however, the risk goes beyond that. The precinct you operate in--an area that can be as small as a block or two--can take a vote and declare itself dry, forcing your place and others near it to shut down. The local alderman can unilaterally place a moratorium on new tavern licenses, meaning that you lose the right to sell to a new owner and your property becomes, in market terms, essentially worthless.

Now there's another weapon being prepared. Mayor Richard M. Daley has sent to the city council an ordinance that would allow a majority of the residents living within 500 feet of any tavern, even if that's only a handful of people--to bring you before a special hearing board as a public nuisance. The burden of proof is on you to show that you aren't one. If you can't convince the board, you're gone.

In all of urban America, there is nothing quite like the liquor licensing system that prevails in Chicago. That's true in several respects. One is that the city is in full charge of the rules. The state of Illinois plays only a minor role in the process. But more interesting than that is the sheer quirkiness of the Chicago system, a complex network of regulations and categories that, over the past 70 years, has alternated between corrupt laxity and a draconian strictness bordering on the vindictive.

There is in all of this, as has probably occurred to you, no small measure of irony. Chicago not only is viewed by millions of Americans as a working-class shot-and-a-beer town, but it was the national capital of gangland bootlegging under Prohibition. And therein lies part of the explanation. In 1934, when Prohibition ended, and there seemed to be a sudden need for conspicuous virtue, the city council approved legislation that allowed precincts not only to vote themselves dry, but to vote for the closing of individual taverns they considered nuisances. The individual closing law was applied sporadically, and, in the view of many, inconsistently. In 1990, it was declared unconstitutional by a state court. The council passed another version with a few changes, but the courts voided that one as well. The dry-precinct vote option, however, remains on the books today.

That's part of the story of the Chicago tavern-closing wars. Another part has to do with the priorities and personalities of the Daley family. Both Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor from 1955 to 1976, and his son, current Mayor Richard M. Daley, grew up on the streets of Irish working-class Bridgeport, a South Side neighborhood with a tavern on virtually every corner. But both of them have possessed, if not a puritanical streak, then at least a profound distaste for disorder and unruly behavior. The elder Daley used to stop his limousine on Michigan Avenue to retrieve stray newspapers blowing around in the wind. One of his three rules of public speaking was "Don't get up with liquor on your breath."

The younger Daley has been particularly concerned about the disorder some Chicago taverns create. In 1988, the year before Richie Daley became mayor of Chicago, 11 taverns were closed as public nuisances. The next year, there were 49. All told, between 1990 and 2005, there have been more than 1,000 license revocations citywide.

Daley has encouraged many of the 2,700 precincts around the city to take advantage of their vote-dry electoral privilege. In 1998, he made this a personal priority, issuing a brochure for vote-dry activists to use and urging voters to look for the tavern question first when they got their ballots. "A bad liquor establishment," Daley warned that year, "can tear the fabric of a neighborhood and send it into decline." And when the votes were tallied, 14 precincts around the city had gone dry, and 42 taverns had been voted out of existence by precinct option.

Some of these places got what they deserved. In a neighborhood called Roseland, a once-prosperous shopping strip along Michigan Avenue had become a haven for bars that catered to drug deals and prostitution. These bars were making it difficult for nearby churches to proceed with redevelopment plans. The churches and local homeowners wanted the taverns gone, and there was little doubt that the precinct voting system had been employed as a sensible vehicle of community participation.

In other parts of the city, it was not so clear-cut. On the North and Northwest sides, there were slightly seedy but serviceable blue-collar bars functioning the way they had for generations. It was just that a new cohort of gentrifying homeowners, having paid handsomely to live in historic parts of the city, found the long-tolerated noise and late-night rowdiness of the bar scene to be inconsistent with their view of peaceful community life. And so a few precincts went dry without the targeted local drinking places understanding just what it was that they had done wrong.

But there was--and is--another problem with the vote-dry precinct option. It is, in the words of Liquor Control Commissioner Scott Bruner, "a sledgehammer." It imposes its will not only against those bars creating a neighborhood nuisance, but any establishment anywhere in the precinct that sells drinks for any reason. So in voting to shut down the all-night Kit-Kat Club, a precinct may be denying a white- tablecloth restaurant its right to serve white wine with dinner, or even padlocking the beer shelf at the local supermarket.

That's why opponents of public nuisance need something more finely targeted to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathtub gin. But the courts have made it clear twice that public votes on individual businesses will never pass constitutional muster.

And so Daley's people came up with their newest idea: Allow a majority of those living within 500 feet of a tavern to sign a piece of paper that sets up a hearing before the Liquor Control Commission. If the owner can't defend his conduct of business, he can be closed down by administrative order--no public vote required. This is the legislation Daley hopes will clear the city council sometime this fall.

"The mayor is not anti-liquor," insists Bruner, his liquor commissioner. "People aren't suffering because they're unable to get a drink here. But we have some problem licensees. They don't commit any violations, but they contribute to quality-of-life issues in the community--noise, litter, congestion, people hanging around all hours of the night. People think running a liquor joint is like Cheers, everyone just comes and has a good time. But people drink more than they should, urinate in the alleys and throw up in the street."

Even the most responsible tavern owners in Chicago concede that problems like this do come up from time to time. But they are scared to death of the current Daley proposal, which they feel would place too much power in the hands of what could be a very small corps of neighborhood activists, without placing many restrictions on the motives that might lie behind their move.

Joe Spagnoli, the proprietor of Yak-zie's Bar, is one of those. In the shadow of Wrigley Field, he does a huge business before and after Cubs home games. Yak-zie's is a big-time enterprise, dissimilar in every way from most of the rickety bars that Daley has been closing down, but Spagnoli is worried anyway. "Their goal is to get rid of the bad seeds," he admits. "But do you want to put your livelihood in the hands of a neighbor?" Especially, Spagnoli says, when the neighbor could even be one of your competitors.

The Daley administration and the local tavern owners have been fighting this issue out behind the scenes, and it is likely the bill will be modified at least a little bit before it passes the city council. Whatever happens in the Chicago tavern-closing wars, however, the broader future seems clear, all over urban America. The traditional tavern, as an institution licensed for drinking only, is on the way out.

Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Pittsburgh and most of the other older cities still have tavern-only licenses, but in each case, the number declines every year. Chicago had 6,979 taverns in 1947, 3,300 in 1989 and just 1,300 today. Some of that is because of Daley's obsessiveness on this issue, but another reason is simple demographics. The growth in the drinking business is in restaurants that serve alcohol along with meals. While taverns continue to go out of business, the restaurant/bars continue to sprout up all over the city. The number of incidental licenses, granted to restaurants that serve some alcohol, has grown more than 10 percent in the past five years.

Joe Spagnoli is ambivalent about that. "The neighborhood tavern," he says, "was about the last social point many people had left." But he accepts the reality of it. "Municipalities are deciding," he says, "that if you serve alcohol, you serve food."

Spagnoli himself serves food at Yak-zie's. It's mostly burgers and pizza, but there's also a house specialty, Tang Chicken, as well as Sheboygan bratwurst and catfish filet. Yak-zies is open until 2 a.m. on Friday nights and 3 a.m. on Saturdays. Mayor Daley hasn't been in lately, but he hasn't complained yet either."Do you want to put your livelihood in the hands of a neighbor?" asks one Chicago tavern owner. Especially, he points out, when the neighbor could even be one of your competitors.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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