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Bracing for the battle of Uptown

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For 26 years Peter Florakos has been grilling meat and serving up Old Style at the Best Steak House, located at Wilson and Broadway, the epicenter of Uptown. Despite a spotless record with the liquor commission, however, Florakos could be forced to close if newer residents of the 32nd Precinct pass a vote-dry initiative. "These new people come to the neighborhood and think they can just change everything," says the beleaguered businessman. "You come here, fine. Just don't kick me out. I am the victim, not the problem."

Others targeted by the initiative are equally frustrated. "After 36 years in the neighborhood, they just want to kick me out," protests Marylinda Alejandro of Sheridan Park Food & Liquors. "People here respect me and I respect them. They call me Miss Mary or Grandma....I work here alone every day with no problems." Across the street, in the 35th Precinct, Mike Siegel faces a similar drive by block clubs and condo associations that want to shut down his 32-year-old establishment the Wooden Nickel. "They evidently think that by getting rid of the tavern they're going to increase the value of their properties," says Siegel. "But that's not going [to happen], because as long as you've got the churches and Salvation Army feeding these people around here, they're never going to get rid of the bums."

Michael McElroy, a young attorney and two-year resident of the 35th, scoffs at the idea that he and his fellow petitioners are trying to gentrify Uptown by means of the ballot box. "Preposterous! Those people are essentially saying that the people who live here, who range over all economic levels, don't deserve to live in a good neighborhood." McElroy says the petitioners are concerned about safety, "business management," and "quality of life"; by banning the sale of liquor they hope to eliminate littering, fighting, prostitution, public drunkenness and defecation, aggressive panhandling, and verbal harassment. "Walking down Wilson, people think their lives are in jeopardy because of the crime and chaos," says David Rowe, a building manager in the area for six years. "Quality businesses won't open up around here. The only things we can attract are pawnshops, beeper stores, and liquor stores."

Rae Mindock, president of the Sheridan Park Neighbors Association, sees a clear cause and effect between liquor sales and neighborhood problems. "We want to have streets that are cleaner, that are safer, so we don't have to worry about the drunks," she says. "The liquor stores are enforcing the behavior that's going on, and the behavior has to be addressed." As far as she's concerned, the homeless don't qualify as neighbors. "You would think that those social services are doing something to provide for those people," she sniffs. "Those individuals inviting social services into the community [should be] understanding of what is needed to support [the homeless] population. It shouldn't be the burden of the community."

Some neighbors say most of the 32nd's problems stem from Sunrise Liquors at 1231 W. Wilson, a place that draws the ire of both activists and liquor licensees. Residents say Sunrise maintains a laissez-faire attitude toward the gangbangers and drug dealers loitering around it. Sunrise's management did not respond to interview requests, but the mayor's licensing committee confirms that it has litigation pending against Sunrise based on two allegations of selling to minors and five allegations relating to having an unlicensed firearm on the premises. No other Uptown establishments targeted by the vote-dry initiatives have such charges pending against them. Anger with Sunrise boiled over after a drive-by shooting took place outside the store in March, but according to Rowe, repeated attempts to get Sunrise to clean up its act, including a turnout of 70 residents for a recent liquor commission hearing, have been ignored.

To get on the November ballot with an initiative to vote a specific address dry--like the 35th's Wooden Nickel--petitioners must collect signatures from 40 percent of that precinct's registered voters. But pulling every liquor license in the precinct requires only 25 percent, so instead of targeting Sunrise, organizers in the 32nd chose the easier route, a tactic that bothers 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller. She notes that license revocation procedures are already under way against Sunrise and says, "No distinction is made between the different establishments. For example the steak house, to my knowledge, has never had a complaint against it. So it's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

To Mindock, such distinctions are beside the point: "The community has gone to the other liquor establishments [to talk about improvements]. It's just a matter of who is the biggest problem at the time. All of the liquor establishments have been a problem and continue to be a problem. Sunrise is just the most blatant." Nicole Watson, who's lived in the 32nd for one year, confirms that petitioners have "tried to work with the liquor store owners...but have seen no improvement." Yet few of the activists interviewed had ever been inside the establishments they wanted to shut down, and none of them had consulted Florakos, Alejandro, or Kenny Ghawi, who owns Azusa Liquors. Mindock, McElroy, and Rowe all say "someone from Sheridan Park Neighbors" has contacted Siegel about recent problems at the Wooden Nickel, but none could provide a name or any details. The owners interviewed claim they learned about the vote-dry effort only after a defense attorney versed in liquor license proceedings notified them that signed petitions had been filed with the city. Now Florakos and other owners are going door-to-door asking signers to revoke their signatures and keep the initiative off the ballot. Florakos claims that organizers misled potential signers; one of his own employees, he says, signed without understanding the implications of the initiative for the steak house.

Siegel supports the residents' right to organize. "After all, this is America. But first find the facts out. Find out what it's all about and stop worrying about how much you're going to increase the value of your condos." Siegel is frank about past violations: he says a couple years ago his liquor license was suspended, and in 1993 he was charged with possessing an unlicensed weapon. Police reports for the 23rd District, which encompasses voting precincts 32 and 35, list two narcotics arrests at the Wooden Nickel's address in 1996 but none since; in the past three years there have been six arrests for weapons possession, though the records don't reflect whether the crimes occurred inside or out. "The bar has a bad reputation, but I've never had a problem there," says Pete Whitmer, a veteran beat cop in the area. "Mike, he's good people....If the Wooden Nickel was a yuppie bar with ferns, they wouldn't bother with it. It's the type of people drinking in there they don't like. The so-called undesirables."

Petitioners might number Siegel among them: the 75-year-old businessman houses single men in his SRO Bachelor Hotel, sends workers off to perform manual day labor for his All Help temporary agency, and sells drinks at the Wooden Nickel. In August, looking to expand his businesses, he sent 100 copies of a handwritten letter to registered voters inquiring about available property in the area to build new SROs. "If they put me out of business, I'm doing it," he says now. "If they want to screw with me, I'll screw with them....I've got the option on two pieces of property--one on Malden and one on Magnolia. If I put up two SROs there, that's the end of it. You won't even get back what you paid for it....Yeah, that's a threat. They're threatening me! What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

Other voices in the community oppose the vote-dry movement on more principled grounds. "Complaining about people, driving [them] into somebody else's neighborhood is not necessarily the model of good citizenship," says Phoebe Helm, president of Truman College near Wilson and Broadway. "It's not a very neighborly solution. We ought to be working together to help folks obtain the housing and services they need. All of us can have an improved quality of life, but it must include all of the people around us." Shiller seconds that view: "These questions which on their face appear to be so simple rarely are. We're better served, rather than pointing the finger, by really looking at solutions that have some depth to them." And Solomon Chu, executive director of Uptown's chamber of commerce, thinks banning liquor sales could actually hurt the rehabilitation of the neighborhood, particularly regarding the Wilson Yard redevelopment plan, which is trying to attract new enterprises to the corner of Broadway and Montrose, where a CTA bus barn was destroyed by fire in 1996. Says Chu, "You eliminate the possibility of better-run stores, new restaurants, whatever, from opening up here when you handcuff them with restrictions."

But the Sheridan Park organizers seem more interested in purging than building. Several note a drift of transients into their precinct from the nearby 22nd, which has already been voted dry, and they intend to keep them moving. Says McElroy, "If the problem goes somewhere else, it goes somewhere else. But it won't be here anymore." --Joy Bergmann

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Florakos photo by Nathan Mandell.

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