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The bad news stand: Can Rick Graff fight City Hall?

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Is there a newsstand vendor who does not occasionally dream about making news instead of selling it? Rick Graff is getting his chance. Graff and fellow proprietors Rocky and Tasha--two Alsatians with a knack for public relations--run Rick's News on Randolph just west of Michigan, outside the Cultural Center. In December Graff was threatened with eviction by city authorities, who want him off his accustomed spot on the sidewalk by mid-January. This is Chicago, not Calcutta, City Hall has said in effect, and we don't want downtown streets in the Second City looking like a third-world bazaar.

That location reportedly has been home to one newsstand or another for some 70 years. But when the Cultural Center's management was transferred in 1990 from the library board to City Hall, Graff found himself with a new landlord with narrow aesthetic views. Mayor Richard M. Daley is from Bridgeport, a neighborhood that equates civic virtue with tidiness. Graff, alas, houses his enterprise in a plywood shanty. Worse, Rick's operates rent free and without a permit on city property.

The city's decision stirred much comment, most of it from Graff. He accused the city of treating him as if he were a piece of plywood; the city replied, in effect, that if anybody ought to know about plywood abuse it would be Graff. Graff even called up two of the city officials involved and threatened to kill them. No charges have been filed against him; as in any Chicago street fight, death threats are considered evidence of earnestness in debate.

Local history buffs read the reports of these negotiations with smiles. It's as if Cap'n George Wellington Streeter himself had come back to life. Streeter was the circus proprietor, river pilot, and would-be gunrunner who in the 1880s laid claim to several acres of brand-new Lake Michigan frontage that had accreted around his grounded boat. For some 30 years his dispute with the city festered, erupting occasionally in gunfire, lawsuits, and arrests, once even in a pot of boiling water Streeter's wife heaved at cops trying to serve an eviction notice. The city eventually reclaimed Streeter's "District of Lake Michigan"; when the Captain shot a trespasser to death, a lot of his supporters began to think that maybe the folk-hero stuff had gone to his head, and City Hall was emboldened to move against him decisively.

Graff's violence has been merely rhetorical. He is talking to reporters and passing out petitions supporting his continued operation at the site, which customers and sympathetic passersby are eagerly signing. To romantics, the newsstand remains one of the essential big-city institutions, and its demise in a world of cable news and convenience stores has brought the usual laments. Rick's matters not only because it is one of the best but because it is one of the last of its kind. Stumbling upon such dispatches as Der Kicker, the Economist, and the Harvard Business Review at Rick's provides a heady whiff of faraway places.

Opinion makers in Chicago are mostly C-average fraternity brothers from lesser midwest universities, and thus natural allies of any person or institution threatened by the forces of good taste. The Tribune, which has a tradition of backing management in its disputes with government meddlers, was quick to mount the stump. "Plenty of folks," the paper asserted in November, "would say that there is at least as much culture embodied in Rick's seedy newsstand as there is in the stately gray Cultural Center behind it." (Or in the Trib. The paper's assertion that the best cities "have their own pastiche" lacked panache, not to mention a knowledge of first-year French.)

Culture does not seem to be the issue with Mayor Daley. Daley has worked hard to make Chicago a prettier place; if new trees could vote, he'd already have a patronage army as formidable as the one his late father amassed. The younger Daley finds ramshackle newsstands on the public ways as offensive as his predecessors found ethics laws or Republican state's attorneys. He is working just as hard to get rid of them, proposing tough new regulations governing the look and location of newsstands.

Indeed, if City Hall had gone after the speakeasies as hard as it has gone after newsstands in the last decade, Al Capone would have died a busboy. In his book The Man-Made City, Gerald Suttles tells this story. In December 1979, the Greater State Street Council, the clouty merchants' association, asked Mayor Jane Byrne to revoke the permits of the newsstands operating on the brand-new State Street mall, even though the stands provided much of what the Tribune praised as the "variety and unexpectedness" of State Street. The merchants knew, however, that the appetite of most average American shoppers for unexpectedness is probably satisfied just by their trips into the Loop; to the merchants, the familiar, comfortable sheds suddenly looked as out of place as a Porta Potti at a cocktail party.

"Byrne . . . rushed to the street," writes Suttles, "embraced one of the eldest of the news vendors and promised them they could stay put: "You are a State Street tradition.' She was a momentary Christmas heroine." The gesture helped Byrne more than it helped the news vendors. True, the stands were not banned. But they were replaced: the merchants got their revenge by relocating them in new kiosks set well away from the busy street corners.

A sidewalk newsstand is not a boutique. In some neighborhoods, newsies subsist by selling as few as 200 papers a day, which nets them, according to published figures, maybe $14. That doesn't leave a lot in the budget for capital improvements. Besides, in most neighborhoods a fresh coat of paint is regarded as a dare by graffitists. The city has had strict regulations for years governing the size and sites of such structures, but like most city regulations they were passed less to enhance the look of the city than the cash flow of aldermen and inspectors willing to be bribed into not enforcing them.

The present Mayor Daley apparently means actually to administer his proposed new standards. Such fussiness is of value to the extent that it enhances public safety or convenience. But the Daley proposals mandate that the design, materials, and color schemes of newsstands "enhance the quality and character of the streetscape." Such requirements take the proposed rules out of the realm of public safety and into the realm of public opinion. As former city planning director Elizabeth Hollander put it while speaking extempore to a gathering of the Friends of Downtown two years ago, "Government has no business regulating an aesthetic."

Trying to convert the Loop into an open-air Woodfield Mall is folly. As the Trib pointed out, cities have never been particularly neat. The Piazza San Marco revealed in Canaletto's canvases must have appalled the Venetian merchants' associations of the 18th century. Sheets were hung from balconies to dry, and below them vendors laid out their goods beneath rickety awnings.

Rick's is indeed a forlorn-looking affair when closed. But the real question is whether Rick's demeans or detracts from or in any other way diminishes the old main library. Mayoral press secretary Avis Lavelle for one has complained that the stand threatens the sanctity of one of the city's architectural landmarks, opened in 1897. While the Cultural Center's vaguely Italian Renaissance exterior is inoffensive (and its ornate interiors, restored in 1977, are spectacular), it is unlikely that many tourists go back home ready to face their Maker with peaceful hearts because they finally got the chance to see a building by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge.

A better question is how many of the people passing Rick's even notice the Cultural Center. (It would be interesting to poll Chicagoans to learn how many remember Rick's as the newsstand in front of the Cultural Center and how many know the Cultural Center as the building behind Rick's.) People perceive a streetscape on two scales, the sidewalk scale and the urban scale. The more intimate sidewalk scale takes in shop windows and the sidewalk itself, including the people on it. The urban scale is measured in blocks rather than steps; buildings are perceived more or less whole. On the sidewalk scale, the typical passerby is distracted by Rick's displays, the dogs, the crowds, the cars. If the Cultural Center registers on his consciousness at all, it is as an indistinct mass, a backdrop for the sidewalk street theater.

On the sidewalk scale, the Cultural Center offers only a dingy stone facade punctuated by recessed double windows; even the Randolph Street entrance, considered the lesser of the building's two main doorways, is scaled too grandly to be taken in except in parts. The portico, like the larger elements of the facade, needs to be looked at from a distance of yards to be even seen, much less appreciated from the perspective intended by the architects. And at that distance, Rick's is diminished to insignificance.

The real blight on Loop sidewalks is not its few surviving newsstands but the hundreds of newspaper vending boxes. (Graff does not sell the Tribune or Sun-Times, as an act of protest against vending boxes on his block.) A ban on vending boxes would be manifestly in the public interest, but the same Tribune editorial writers who sang so eloquently of Rick's role in city life would no doubt be just as eloquent in decrying any ban on vending boxes as an infringement of free speech.

The fuss over Rick's suggests that City Hall has finally realized the crucial role architecture plays in the city's burgeoning tourist trade. But it ought to be kept in mind that, while landmark buildings may lure many people to Chicago, it is not only the landmarks that visitors remember when they get back home. Send a hick to the top of the Sears Tower and all he'll talk about for weeks is not the view but the harrowing cab ride from the hotel.

Its architecture may provide an education, in short, but Chicago's sidewalks and shops provide the experience. Just the other day I watched as Rocky and Tasha, sprawled blissfully on the sidewalk, had their bellies scratched by two young passersby, a brother and sister aged about eight and ten, shopping with their suburban-looking parents. The boy had arrived at an insight. "If somebody steals something," he explained to his sister, "the dogs will chase them."

It didn't appear to me that Rocky and Tasha were likely to rouse themselves to chase a prime steak. To the boy, however, the moment provided a precious bit of gritty big-city wisdom he could show off to his buddies. It is those kinds of moments that make the Loop a different place from Kankakee or Kokomo.

Protecting and enhancing Loop street life has been the official ambition of the last two City Hall planning regimes. For example, city regulations now require that parking garages have retail space at street level in order to eliminate the sort of deadening blank spot on the sidewalk that Rick's eviction would create on Randolph.

The city reportedly has made Graff an offer that would keep him at Randolph and Michigan. Not on Randolph and Michigan, unfortunately, but beneath it, in rented space in the underground pedway that connects the Randolph Street IC station to Marshall Field's and points west.

Graff objects that he would not make as much money, but there are other grounds for opposing the move. True, a pedway location would give Rick's protection from the rain and cold that cut into sales, as well as make his stand more convenient for the thousand commuters who already use the pedway daily. It does not follow, however, that moving Rick's into the pedway would be as good for either Graff or the street as the city would like to think.

That segment of Randolph has seen significant decreases in foot traffic, as was revealed by a survey commissioned by the city and the Greater State Street Council. Using a ten-hour weekday test period, the survey found that the number of pedestrians on that block had decreased by nearly 40 percent since 1981. Much of that decline can probably be attributed to the pedway running roughly parallel with Randolph, the busiest segment in the Loop pedway system, now carrying roughly 65 percent as many pedestrians as the sidewalk above it. To the extent that Rick's sidewalk customers follow him underground, the move will further deaden that block of Randolph; to the extent they do not, it will deaden Graff's sales.

The amount of traffic in the pedways depends on the weather, so sales will be as vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather as they are on the sidewalk, though a "good" day will be a rainy one. More important, the sidewalk is used by tens of thousands of noncommuters--tourists, occasional visitors, conventioneers--who do not use, indeed do not even know about, the pedway; to them, a pedway Rick's will not have moved, it will have disappeared.

The city's determined attempt to prod Graff into signing a pedway lease suggests that it isn't so much Rick's appearance that offends but the money Graff is making on city property. The case against Graff's free use of public property seems clear-cut as a matter of principle, but precedent rather favors him. So should policy.

Graff is in fact precisely the kind of businessman every city administration says it wants to encourage. When he noticed that immigrant African cab drivers were buying a lot of news weeklies from that continent, he began displaying them nearer the street, where the drivers could find them and get back on the street in a hurry. That, in miniature, is the kind of thinking that made rich men of Chicago's A. Montgomery Ward, Richard Sears, and Julius Rosenwald.

Solving the problem of Rick's presence on Randolph doesn't require eviction, only imagination. If a plywood shack on Randolph and Michigan offends, City Hall needs only to redefine it as an example of vernacular architecture. If Graff's use of public property violates civic decorum, just reclassify his newsstand as a tourist amenity. If his subsidy appears unfair, then call it an economic-development incentive. Graff is thus transformed instantly into an upright citizen, and the Loop retains a bit of its personality.

Best of all, the mayor no longer risks being embarrassed if he takes his counterpart from Paris on a stroll down Randolph. "You have your bookstalls, we have our comics racks," the proud Mr. Daley can explain, handing his guest a copy of She-Hulk. "Rick's is one of the places that gives Chicago its pastiche."

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

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