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Lights and liquor: Wrigleyville residents are losing the power of the beer ban

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For almost a year now peace has reigned at Wrigley Field. The Cubs have their lights, the fans a pennant run, and the residents of nearby Lakeview, well, they've more or less accepted the fact of night baseball.

But last month the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would abolish one of home rule's most sacred tenets: the right of residents to decide whether liquor is sold in their community. As the law now stands, most Chicagoans can still vote to ban the sale of alcohol in their precincts. However, if Governor Thompson signs the bill into law, that right will no longer exist for residents of the 44th Ward's 31st Precinct, whose rough boundaries run north to south from Grace to Addison and east to west from Sheffield to Racine. They can ban the sale of alcohol everywhere in that precinct--except Wrigley Field.

"The state has deprived us of our rights," says Charlotte Newfeld, president of Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine, the neighborhood group that led the fight against lights in Wrigley Field. "They took away our power to stop beer sales at Wrigley. That was one of our biggest weapons to make sure the Tribune lived up to all of its Wrigley Field obligations."

"Am I happy about this law? Absolutely not," says Alderman Bernard Hansen, in whose ward Wrigley Field lies. "I didn't know anything about it until after it happened. The state came into my ward and didn't tell me a thing. You bet I'm unhappy."

Not that it matters how Hansen or local residents feel. The law was passed with almost no opposition. Mayor Daley did not publicly endorse it. But his brother--state senator John Daley--did. Worse, the proposal was introduced by a Chicago state senator--Thaddeus Lechowicz, a Daley ally from the northwest side. Lechowicz introduced it near the end of the spring session as an amendment to the bill that set aside state money for a new basketball-hockey arena on the west side.

"The mayor did not lobby for this amendment," says a high-ranking Daley aide. "He did not come out against it either. He took a more benign role. He supported the stadium package, but not necessarily this amendment. It was part of the package."

The aide did not speculate as to why Daley did not vociferously push to pass the stadium deal without the Wrigley Field amendment, or why a Chicago Democrat like Lechowicz would be so gullible as to do the Tribune Company's bidding. Other observers, however, have their opinions.

"There is a perception that the Tribune newspaper's editorial policy is not divorced from the needs of the Tribune Company's baseball team," says state representative John Cullerton, a north-lakefront politician who opposed lights in Wrigley Field. "The perception is that if you oppose the Tribune Company on lights, their editorial writers will clobber you. You won't find a lot of people eager to take our side."

Tribune editors deny any such bias in their editorials; they say they have never received writing orders from their bosses, and that they wouldn't follow them if they did. Nevertheless, most pols share Cullerton's view, and on issues important to the Tribune Company--whether lights in Wrigley Field or a convention center by the lake--they generally vote the Tribune's way.

In general, the public's attitude toward the Cubs has been much different since the Tribune Company bought the team. The previous owners, the Wrigley family, treated the Cubs like an adorable plaything. Under the Wrigleys there were no box-office lines, no TV-hyped excitement. With the exception of a few misguided fanatics, no one took them seriously.

Then in the summer of 1981 the Tribune Company bought the Cubs and hired the dour Dallas Green to run them. As a baseball team, the Cubs continued to flounder. But as a business, they boomed. The Tribune Company jacked up ticket prices, abolished Ladies' Day, blemished the bleachers with billboards advertising beer and cigarettes, and insisted on installing lights--although no one is certain just why. Originally, Green argued that the team needed to play night ball in order to remain competitive (ball players, the thinking goes, wilt in the sun's heat).

That theory melted when the team won the Eastern Division in 1984, and Cubs officials took to saying that they needed the income from night baseball to cover the team members' salaries. (However, no one outside the Tribune organization has ever demonstrated that night games at Wrigley generate more income than day games.) Eventually, they said that the television networks made them install lights--a confusing explanation, since it was Green who started all the bellyaching about night games in the first place.

Through it all the residents of Lakeview fought hard against night baseball. "You have some tenants who say, 'Oh, it will be cool to play night ball at Wrigley,'" says Newfeld. "But they tend to be renters. They're more transient--they'll move out in one or two years.

"Then you have the people who are investing here. These are people who worry about property values. They don't like the idea of huge crowds filing past their houses at night. We worry about congestion and noise and dirt. We worry about parking. Our needs are not the same as the Cubs'."

In the early days public opinion seemed to side with the residents. Mayor Washington and his chief aldermanic rival, Edward Vrdolyak, courted their support. The General Assembly even passed a law--barring the Cubs from operating mechanical sound equipment after ten o'clock--intended to block night games. The Tribune Company sued, calling the law unconstitutional. But it lost the case. It wasn't until 1987, when the new Sox stadium was approved, that the tide turned.

"Washington had promised to keep lights out of Wrigley Field unless the neighborhood supported them," says Newfeld. "But then he had to go against the residents on the south side who opposed the new White Sox park. That changed his attitude. He told us, 'If they have to bleed, you have to bleed too.'"

Without Washington's support, the residents' fight was all but over. Tribune columnist Mike Royko called them crybabies and mocked their fear about fans urinating on their lawns. The City Council approved an agreement that allowed the Cubs to play 18 night games, and the state simply ignored its ban on late-night noise at Wrigley Field.

"No one's going to enforce that noise law," says Hansen. "Do you think that Big Jim will have the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tell the Cubs they have to turn their loudspeaker off? The governor realizes that if he's going to run for reelection, he'll need the Tribune's endorsement. Need I go any further?"

Without many options, Lakeview's residents decided to play along. "This is a group of people who have exercised great restraint," says Newfeld. "They could have put a referendum on the November [1988] ballot to vote the precinct dry. Some people wanted to do that. But voting the precinct dry hurts more than the Cubs. You're also hurting the taverns that have been good neighbors. Besides I think a lot of people just wanted to give night baseball a chance."

Little did they know what the Cubs had in store for them. Cubs officials would not respond for comment, but they have sought to deny residents prohibition powers for several years.

"When the White Sox got their new stadium in 1986, they also got a provision in the law that prohibits the residents from voting that precinct dry," says state senator William Marovitz, who lives near Wrigley Field. "The Bulls and Blackhawks got the same deal with their west-side stadium. The Cubs figured that they should get the same deal. So when the Bulls stadium deal came up, the Cubs went to Governor Thompson. And Thompson made it clear that this amendment had to be in the stadium bill."

Of course, just because some Chicagoans tolerate injustice does not make that injustice right. The fact is no well-to-do suburbanite would sit back passively while the state denied his town its say-so on liquor outlets. In a related issue, when Addison residents--voting in a nonbinding referendum--rejected plans to build a White Sox stadium there, Addison officials pretty much told the Sox, sorry, but all deals are off.

At the very least Chicago's Democrats could have insisted that Thompson get some Republican flunky (and not Lechowicz) to do his dirty work. Apparently, Chicago's leaders will toady before any corporate power--Sears, the White Sox, the Tribune Company--regardless of what local residents think.

"I think this amendment is bad legislation," says Newfeld. "You shouldn't be allowed to go around exempting these monolithic stadiums from the law. What's next, the big downtown hotels? Are they going to deny local control every time they have a development that local residents don't like?"

Unfortunately for the Lakeview residents there were few politicians in Springfield willing to plead their case. "No way we could stop it in the senate," says Marovitz, who opposed the amendment. "Dawn Clark Netsch [another north-side state senator] and I were like Don Quixote fighting windmills. The attitude down here is that they want this lights issue to go away. People who don't live on the lakefront figure, "Lights have not been terrible. There are more-pressing problems. Just forget it already."'

The amendment was guaranteed passage after house speaker Michael Madigan signed on. "Madigan has been with me all along on the lights," says Cullerton. "What did he get for it? Unbelievable abuse from the Tribune. They kill him in their editorials. They don't come out and say, 'We're against Madigan because he stopped our lights.' But most people understand what's going on. So Madigan decided he would go along with this amendment. At this point he's taken enough abuse from the Tribune."

Thompson is expected to sign the bill into law this summer, which leaves residents with very few options. They could go to court and challenge the new law as unconstitutional. But that would take more money than they can afford. They could lobby for a new law that would enable them to vote dry a single business or building, as opposed to an entire precinct. That way they could stop the sale of beer at Wrigley Field and not punish nearby taverns. But that surely would take more political clout than they can muster.

Most likely all they can do is wait, and hope the Tribune Company becomes somewhat magnanimous. "After 28 years in Lakeview, I know that problems don't go away--they just come back in different forms," says Newfeld. "Who's to say the Tribune will own the Cubs forever, or that they will always want to stay in Wrigley? Maybe someday the Tribune will want to move to a bigger stadium. All we can do is make sure that they keep up to their end of the bargain, that they don't try to ram more night games down our throats, and that the city tows the cars and keeps order. Our new slogan is 'It ain't over till it's over.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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