News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

The only independent vendor left in a prime spot by Wrigley is fighting to stay there

It's a matter of free speech, says Left Field Media, which has filed a federal lawsuit against the city.

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It's a half hour before game time at Wrigley Field, and a river of fans is streaming toward the stadium. There's a carnival atmosphere on the street, a loud, happy stew of anticipation and solicitation. On the north side of Addison, between the Red Line station and Sheffield Avenue, a vocal cadre of sidewalk vendors is hawking T-shirts, pennants, peanuts, bottled water, and tickets by the fistful.

Between Sheffield and Clark, however, on the sidewalk adjacent to the stadium, the motley array of independent vendors disappears. Since 2006, when the city passed an ordinance barring peddling there, they've been forced across the street, away from the major pedestrian path. There's still plenty of vending going on next to the stadium—folks working out of stands and trailers and under tents, offering programs, photos, premium tickets, souvenirs, and product samples. But with a single exception, they're all working for (or with) the Cubs.

The only independent vendors left on the stadium side of the street are a couple of guys in mustard yellow shirts, waving copies of Chicago Baseball, a Cubs-centric but staunchly nonofficial 20-year-old magazine that's published four times each season, sells for $2 a copy, comes with a free pencil, and functions as an alternative program. They're still there because Chicago Baseball, which carries stats, news, features, humor, analysis, and opinion about the team along with a scorecard, falls under constitutional protection for free speech on the public way.

But they might not be there much longer. On opening day this year, publisher Matt Smerge was smacked with a ticket for violating the 2006 ordinance. A few days later, Smerge's Left Field Media filed a federal lawsuit against the city (and former 19th District police commander Elias Voulgaris, who issued the ticket), challenging its peddling laws, and they're now engaged in a legal battle that'll decide if they can stand their ground. The only reason you can still find them at their regular spots is that they got a temporary restraining order early on.

Mark Weinberg, one of Left Field Media's attorneys and a veteran of a similar lawsuit that established his right to sell a book critical of Blackhawks management outside the United Center, says the context for this battle includes the park makeover, the related ceding of public sidewalks on Waveland and Sheffield to the Cubs, and a concern that the area will be sanitized and in effect Disneyfied. "There's tension between First Amendment rights and our society's love of gentrification," Weinberg says. "And there's a parallel in the fight over the Lucas Museum—a trend of selling off public space to private entities."

Weinberg wonders if the real goal is to sweep peddlers from the area. In 2009, after the Ricketts family made its winning bid for the team, 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney introduced an ordinance that would have greatly increased the no-peddling zone around the stadium, barring street sales from an area bordered by Racine, Grace, Wilton, and Newport. It wasn't enacted, but if it had been the effect would be to virtually eliminate all non-Cubs vending competition.

Smerge, a lifelong Cubs fan and season ticket holder who's worked on Chicago Baseball for 19 of its 20 years and has owned it since last season, says it's an alternative to the cheerleading that's standard in institutional publications. He writes for it, edits it, publishes it, and—for night and weekend games—he's out on the corner of Clark and Addison hawking it.

His attorneys have been seeking an injunction that would keep the cops from booting him, but after hearings conducted in June and July, magistrate judge Michael T. Mason recently concluded that concerns about safety and congestion are serious enough to warrant a move across the street, where "it is undisputed that peddling is permitted," and "vendors remain in plain view and earshot of [the] fans."

But that corner across the street at Addison and Clark is already one of the worst points of pregame congestion, rivaled only by the bag-check tables at the stadium entrances. While Smerge, perched on the narrow strip of remaining public sidewalk, moving with each change of the traffic light to meet the oncoming crowd, is a pebble in a stream that mostly flows quickly past him.

Mason presided over the injunction hearings on behalf of U.S. District Court judge Jorge L. Alonso, who'll make the deciding call.  v

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