The unpaved alley behind Draper Street is eight feet wide, less than one block long, and cluttered with weeds, dog turds, and clumps of brown grass. And yet it's been the booty in a bizarre and bitter yearlong struggle waged by the neighbors on its north and south sides.
The chief combatants--Robert Chodos and Ceil Schuller--live across the alley from one another (Chodos on the 1200 block of Wrightwood, Schuller to the south on the 1200 block of Draper). Chodos says that the water spewing from Schuller's drain spout floods the area outside his garage. Schuller says Chodos has been a royal pain in the neck ever since he shoveled snow onto her property. Both claim the support of most of their neighbors.
"The nicest thing I can say about [Chodos] is that he is not a pleasant person," says Schuller. "I get along with all the other neighbors. I never had any problems--until him."
"She [Schuller] has been a miserable person ever since I laid eyes on her," says Chodos. "The whole thing makes me sick to my stomach. I live under tension and with great emotional trauma. I bought a beautiful house and invested a lot of money into it, and it has been turned into a nightmare."
Perhaps the clash was inevitable. The neighborhood around Draper Street, in western Lincoln Park, has been a working-class community, but it's changing. Chodos, a successful developer, moved in last year. His home--which he had gutted and rebuilt--is the fanciest house on the block. He drives a red sports car. It's pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about these things that Chodos probably makes more money than most of his neighbors.
"We are dealing with people who have lived here for the last couple of generations," says Chodos. "They look at me as the new young rich kid on the block. They see this as their neighborhood."
The first incident happened last winter.
"There was a heavy snowfall, and I shoveled the snow so I could get my car out of the garage," says Chodos. "But Schuller, or one of her sons, came out in the middle of the night and shoveled it back. Now I was wrong, and I admit it, because I had shoveled the snow onto her side of the alley. But to go and shovel the snow back is guerrilla warfare. I was fairly heated, to say the least."
"What does he expect I should do?" says Schuller, a housewife who has lived, with her husband and children, on Draper Street for 17 years. "He threw that snow against my back fence. And when he shovels, he just doesn't shovel snow; he shovels mud and dirt. He was throwing mud, dirt, and snow against my fence. It was blocking my exit to the alley. What if there was a fire in the front, how could I get out? It was dangerous.
The next showdown was over Schuller's drain spouts.
"Schuller and her next-door neighbor live in buildings that are venting rainwater into the alley," says Chodos. "It makes a swamp in front of my garage, and it flooded my house once. That's a violation of section 82-61 of the Chicago public code, which basically says that if you have a sewer near your property, you have to drain into it. There's a sewer on Draper, so Schuller and [her neighbor] should take all their vents and move them onto Draper."
That, of course, would have cost Schuller and her neighbor money--money that they didn't want to spend. So Chodos devised a plan. Let's have the city pave the alley and install a sewer line there, he suggested. That way he could drive his car in and out of the alley without it being muddied, and Schuller's drain spout would no longer violate the law.
Schuller saw things differently.
"He was the cause of the drainage problem--not me," Schuller says. "There's a hole back there in the alley which he caused by driving his car back and forth. If he only filled that hole up with some gravel, he wouldn't have to pave the alley or have me move the drain spout. But he won't do that."
With no resolution in sight, Chodos called in the city. To be more exact, he brought Schuller's illegal drain spout to the attention of city building inspectors.
"I had no choice," says Chodos. "I don't think it's fair for them to break the law, and for me to suffer because of that. This is the United States, and building codes are there for a reason. They should be enforced."
"I got called downtown for a compliance hearing," says Schuller. "Can you believe that? So I went down there with some pictures of the problem--I've got a lot of pictures of the alley--and showed them to an inspector. I told them that Chodos was causing his own problems with water in the alley and that he should fix them without involving me. I told them that my drainpipes had been draining into that alley for 17 years, and no one complained. And I told them that they had better things to do with their time than investigate pointless disputes between neighbors. They agreed."
After that, it was war. Chodos says that his house was egged and that nails were left outside his garage. Eventually, Chodos says, a city building inspector came calling on him looking for an "illegal fire pit," whatever that is. The inspector found no such pit.
Schuller says she knows nothing about Chodos's allegations of harassment, adding that if Chodos doesn't like the neighborhood, he can always leave. Chodos says he might just do that, rather than live next to someone so nasty and mean. In time, the fight made its way to Alderman Edwin Eisendrath's office (the alley is in his 43rd Ward). Several residents (Chodos and Schuller included) gathered last summer to discuss the suggestion to pave the alley and add the sewer.
"I told them it's a win-win situation," says Chodos. "They would have a sewer to drain their water into, and I wouldn't have to drive my car through a swamp every time it rained." Chodos also pointed out that there are five other garages in the alley (although Schuller does not own one), so he's not the only resident who drives his car through.
On the other hand, Schuller quickly noted, the alley narrows to about seven feet wide just west of her house. Paving the alley, she says, would only encourage more people to build garages--and realistically, there is not enough room for them. People might use the alley as a place to work on their cars, she says. It would make things noisier and dirtier than they already are. Why not just close the alley west of Schuller's house, she suggested, which is what most people around here have been trying to get the city to do for the last few years? Besides, the city would pay only half of the $72,000 it says paving the alley would cost; the remainder would have to be covered by property owners on either side of the alley.
"We made it clear at that meeting at the alderman's office that we didn't want to pay for the alley," says Schuller. "Why should we pay for something we don't want? Most of us don't even use the alley."
At this point, Eisendrath's aides suggested that the residents ask the city to survey the alley, to figure out who owns it and what its precise dimensions are. That in itself would not resolve the conflict, but it gave them all something to agree on. The residents said OK.
But unfortunately the city mistook the land-survey request as a request to pave the alley. It wasn't long before property owners on the 1200 blocks of Draper and Wrightwood received notices of a public hearing from the Board of Local Improvements regarding their request to have their alley paved. Schuller and her allies were dumbfounded.
There's no saying how much that mix-up set back the cause of neighborhood peace. To this date, no city official has been able to convince Schuller that the hearing (which happened last summer) resulted from a misunderstanding and not some insidious plot to pave the Draper Street alley. "We were deceived," says Schuller. "All we wanted was to have our alley surveyed. And instead they suddenly had plans to pave it."
In actuality, however, the public hearing worked to the advantage of the antipaving side. It was there that the residents learned that the alley would not be paved if a majority of those whose property abutted the alley opposed paving. So Schuller and company took to the streets, gathering signatures for an antipaving petition.
"If a majority of the property owners want the alley paved, we pave it," explains Morgan Connolly, superintendent of special assessments for the Board of Local Improvements. "If they don't, we don't pave it. It's that simple. The folks over there came back with a petition against paving that was signed by 72 percent of the property owners. I verified the legitimacy of those signatures, too. Now I know that fellow [Chodos] is a little disappointed, and he's nice enough guy, but 72 percent is 72 percent. That's a lot of people. I love building alleys, but I'm not going to build one that the people don't want."
Turned back on this front, Chodos made an offer he thought no one could refuse. In a letter to Schuller, he offered to pay almost all of the property owners' construction costs for paving the alley.
"In many respects you and I seem to be cut from the same cloth: we are both stubborn, opinionated people," Chodos wrote in his October 18 letter. "I will not attempt to impose my beliefs on you and your neighbors further. I do not relish living in strife with my neighbors, therefore, I would like to attempt to mend our fences somehow. . . . I ask that you and your neighbors give this proposal your serious consideration. It is not clear which group will have enough votes to block or pass this improvement, and in either case, no one wins if half of the neighborhood is angry at the other half. We should all be looking out for each other and protecting our neighborhood together."
Schuller did not respond.
"Why should I write him back?" Schuller says. "We don't need the alley, so we shouldn't have one built. Like I said, if he just put some gravel in that hole, all his problems would be over."
"It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys back there," says Eisendrath. "In a way, both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. There are no villains. The bottom line is that this feud has made everybody's life over there a little more miserable." Most outside observers--like Eisendrath--have run out of ideas for making peace. As for Schuller and Chodos, they aren't talking to one another.
"I've got nothing to say to that man or his family," says Schuller.
"I don't even talk to her," says Chodos. "If I saw her on the street, I would turn the other way."
Chodos says he may have a lawyer scrutinize the signatures on Schuller's antipaving petition. If some of the signers are not property owners, the petition would be nullified and the alley could be paved.
Schuller and her allies are also looking for a lawyer. They want someone to wade through land records to determine who owns the alley. If they can prove that the city owns the alley, then they can press Eisendrath to introduce an ordinance to close most of it. Eisendrath doubts he would ever do that--he'd rather remain neutral. And even if he did, Chodos would probably challenge such an ordinance in court--which is probably where this tangled web will wind up in any case.
"I've gone out to that alley each time either side has called me," says Eisendrath. "I've been out in that alley on weekdays and weekends. My whole staff has been out in that alley. The fact that after all of this time and effort both sides still feel so miserable is very frustrating. I suppose it would be unrealistically optimistic of me to think that we've heard the last of the Draper Street alley."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.