By Neal Pollack
Matt Strama would be the first to admit his life is for the birds. He lives alone in a bungalow with two African gray parrots and keeps about 60 homing pigeons in a coop with an attached aviary in his backyard near Midway Airport. But for almost four years he's feared the city would shut him down.
Strama wasn't always into pigeons. In 1992 he retired from truck driving and was taking documentary photography classes at Columbia College. For a photo essay assignment, Strama says, his classmates "were doing battered women and garbage, you name it--kind of all the negative things in life, and I thought back to my childhood." He had fond memories. He grew up in Back of the Yards in the 50s, and his grandparents kept pigeons above a storage shed. "I grew up with pigeons one way or another. Either neighbors had pigeons, or kids would trade them back and forth. My family wasn't really into racing them. I guess because of the war or something, we just had them. Grandma would make soup. She would go grab a couple of pigeons to make soup."
With a plan to shoot photos of pigeons for his project, Strama tracked down a group of people who bred them not for dinner but for sport. After hanging out with members of a pigeon-racing association, his interest grew beyond documenting.
In 1993 a man Strama had known from Back of the Yards, Jim Bria, passed away, leaving behind a pigeon coop. During World War II, Bria had been a member of the U.S. Pigeon Reserve Signal Corps. He was also a previous president of the American Racing Pigeon Union, and had, Strama says, loved pigeons more than life itself. Bria's coop was the Rolls-Royce of pigeon-coop technology and represented the accumulated knowledge of 60 years of pigeon keeping.
Strama purchased the coop, dismantled it, and began to reconstruct it in his backyard. Then he found out he needed a building permit, so he called his alderman, John Madryzk, but never heard back. In the meantime he finished the coop and started breeding pigeons.
Soon afterward he got a ticket for building the coop without a permit. He went to City Hall and called on his alderman, who, Strama recalls, told him that "pigeons are dirty and they stink." The permit was denied. He thinks Madryzk was behind it because Strama had been circulating petitions to get more stop signs in the neighborhood.
Strama continued breeding pigeons anyway, and the city pursued him. On September 8, 1993, a judge ordered him to tear down the coop, saying that failure to comply with the order would cost him $200 a day. Strama refused to comply because he had unearthed a state law, the Carrier and Racing Pigeon Act of 1993, which stated that "a municipality or county shall not enact an ordinance which prohibits the orderly keeping of carrier pigeons."
But by that time the city was creating its own law. In February 1994, a new pigeon-keeping ordinance went into effect, and Strama went back to court five times to defend his rights, claiming state law was on his side. Finally, in December 1995, he gave up, held an auction, and sold off all his pigeons to other enthusiasts. Within several days, almost all of the birds had returned. Strama kept the money anyway. "They're homing pigeons," he says. "What can I do? One of the guys moved back to Poland."
Several months went by without any trouble. Madryzk was forced to resign in connection with a ghost-payrolling scandal. Strama returned to orderly pigeon keeping. But things got ugly again.
Strama says that last Fourth of July his pigeons were flying in a loop above a neighbor's yard party. Kids fired bottle rockets and M80s at Strama's pigeons. He had "several casualties." Three pigeons were wounded and four were killed. Strama took the neighbor to court, but the case was thrown out.
Then this February, Strama was cited by the city for another building-code violation. He went downtown to the library to research whether or not state pigeon-keeping laws had changed. Apparently, in August 1996 the state legislature amended the Carrier and Racing Pigeon Act of 1993. Now "any municipality located within a county having 3,000,000 or more inhabitants may enact an ordinance to prohibit or regulate the orderly keeping of carrier, racing, hobby, or show pigeons." That meant Cook County, and Cook County alone. Suddenly the city law was potentially valid, and Strama smelled a stacked deck.
He began to wonder if the city was out to get him. "They take the fun and enjoyment out of it," he says. "I don't know what the hell to do sometimes. It's unfortunate that they don't take the time to consider it. If they did, they wouldn't have done all this. They would have been, I don't know what the word is. Considerate. I don't know if it's part of City Hall philosophy. Sting operations. Stool pigeons. Mayor Daley don't like pigeons. And because maybe Mayor Daley don't like pigeons, all his followers don't like pigeons. On the other hand, I went down to the zoo with my grandson and daughter on Saturday. There's a zoo in the city. You go on the south side, there's stables in the city. The city has that. They stable their horses there in a country club. They have their horses. So they can get away with what they want, but if it ain't to their liking, it's like, tough shit. How else can you bluntly put it?"
On March 19, at 3 PM, Strama went to his hearing at the Department of Buildings, on the ninth floor of City Hall, prepared to do battle. He had his usual briefcase full of documents, including letters to the governor, copies of city ordinances and state laws, and a plastic bag full of movies that he'd checked out of the Harold Washington library earlier that day. He'd spent some time trying to persuade librarians to purchase movies about pigeons, but they told him that public interest wasn't high enough. So he settled on Alan Watts: The Art of Meditation, Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and a Dutch movie called The Lift, about an elevator that kills people.
Strama said he'd also contacted a local Catholic high school with a proposal. He would agree to show students the art of pigeon keeping, "which would be something positive to keep them off the streets." At the very least, he has prepared a slide show about pigeons that he could bring into the school. Unfortunately, he has no slide projector and has yet to hear back from the priest in charge.
Strama's hearing started on time. He showed the hearing officers the documents related to his case. He told them that he once tried to sell his pigeons, but that they returned home. He displayed pictures of his coop and of the plants with which he'd decorated it, saying he'd copied the design from an English gardening magazine.
The hearing officers said the coop looked fine to them. Strama just needed to make an appointment to have an inspector come out and look at the coop one more time. Strama began to argue with the officer anyway, not realizing what had happened. He'd won. Just like that.
Afterward, Strama was relieved, if a little shell-shocked. "It's been my hobby, and it's still my hobby," he said. "But who knows? Something may be up with this inspector. Who he's working with. If he's working with somebody that definitely don't want me to have the birds, he can write anything he wants. He could be at my house every day. But if they don't bother me, I can get back into my interest in life. Start racing the birds. But if I've got that hanging over me, I'm in trouble. If they keep bothering you, then you're in--what's that word--limbo." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Katrina Witkamp (bird man and pigeons).