One day two years ago a demolition crew sent by the city knocked down Dennis Perez's near-west-side two-flat.
They came in the early morning on a Saturday when he was barely awake, without warning, invitation, or proper permit, slamming down his building even as he begged them to stop.
Now the city's trying to stick him with a $3,000 demolition bill. "Can you believe their arrogance?" says Perez. "They basically said, 'We can do whatever we want to your property and it doesn't matter what you think.'"
The demolished building adjoined his home and real estate office at 2204 N. California. At the time of demolition, August 27, 1994, it was vacant but not abandoned, a crucial distinction in whether a building should be destroyed. An abandoned building has the telltale signs of neglect: it's open and unattended and can quickly become a haven for dope dealers, prostitutes, and gangs.
But Perez's two-flat was surrounded by a chain-link fence and guarded by a German shepherd. He'd posted a large sign in front announcing his plans to convert the building into a dentist's office. "I even had a dumpster in the front with a building permit attached, a sure sign that the owner plans to do some construction and that it's not abandoned," says Perez, who owns the Montana Realty Company. "I was going to fix it up and rent it out to a dentist."
However, Perez was haggling with the Building Department over his plan to build a brick addition to the wood-frame structure. "The city said you may have to demolish the building and build from the ground up if you want to add this much space," says Perez. "I didn't want to demolish because it would raise my construction costs, and my rent from the dentist wouldn't cover the increased construction cost of demolition. I'd wind up losing money on the building."
But Perez signed a contingent demolition agreement with a private wrecking crew, just in case his renovation plans didn't win city approval. "I didn't want to demolish the building, but if I had to--if there was no other way to get the project done--I'd do it," says Perez. "It was a contingency I didn't want to have to deal with. I told the demolition crew, 'Don't do anything until you hear from me.'"
Nonetheless, Perez was awakened five days later by the sounds of work crews smashing down the fence that surrounded his building. "My watchdog was barking like crazy and there was this big tractor and bulldozer on my property and I'm thinking, 'What the hell is going on! This is Saturday morning, for goodness' sake,'" says Perez. "The joke around the neighborhood was that I was out there in my pink chiffon robe with a shotgun, but that's just a myth. Anyway, I told the guy in charge, 'Don't do anything. Let me call the Hall.' But they wouldn't stop. The guy said, 'I have authority with the city through the fast-track demolition program.' I said, 'Where's your permit?' He said, 'I don't need it.' Then they started tearing into my building. I couldn't believe it. I'm standing out there begging this guy to stop and he's ripping into my property like he was empowered by God Almighty to do whatever he wanted to my building."
Eventually Perez contacted the police, his lawyer (Gloria Chevere), and John Kallianis, an official with the Building Department. He soon discovered the wrecking crew was violating the city's rules governing fast-track demolition, a program devised by Mayor Daley in 1993 to speed up the process of tearing down dangerous buildings. Under fast-track, the city requires "owners to board, repair, or demolish residential buildings...that are vacant, open and constitute a hazard to the community." Before demolition the city must post a large sign on the building and send the owner a warning by certified mail. After 30 days the building can be demolished.
But the city hadn't sent a warning letter or posted any signs, and Perez's fenced-off building was not even the most hazardous vacant structure in the neighborhood. So why the urgency? "This program's supposed to get dangerous buildings that have clearly been abandoned off the streets," says Perez, accurately representing the fast-track demolition ordinance. "But if they see a fence around the building, they're supposed to call their boss and say, 'Something's going on here. I don't think this building has been abandoned.' But these guys see the fence and what do they do? They take it down."
By the time Chevere and Kallianis arrived, half of the building was destroyed. "They had torn down the roof and gone through the second-floor beam. Now it really was a danger and it was too far gone to be saved," says Perez. "So I had Chevere draft up a letter then and there in which the city admits that they didn't give me any warning or have the proper permits and agrees not to charge me for the cost of demolition."
Kallianis signed the letter, and as far as the city was concerned the matter might have ended. But Perez says the demolition scotched his deal with the dentist. "Constructing a new building costs more money than rehab, and I didn't have the financing for that," says Perez. "I couldn't meet my dentist's needs and he moved somewhere else. I didn't have a deal anymore and I'm stuck with a hole in the ground where my building used to be. And if that's not bad enough, the city sent an inspector over who said he was gonna ticket me for knocking down a building without the proper approval. Can you believe that? I thought, 'When is this going to end?'"
Last summer Perez sued the city for $90,000. In pretrial proceedings, city lawyers ignored the issue of whether the Building Department or wrecking crew followed proper procedures. Instead, they argued that Perez suffered no "injury or damages," since he'd already contracted to demolish the building. On the contrary, the city had done him a favor by demolishing the building; as a result, he owed $3,300 in demolition costs.
"That's the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard," says Perez. "That's like saying a painter can just go trespass on your property and start painting your house and then you have to pay him for doing a nice paint job. Give me a break."
To Perez's dismay, a Cook County judge bought the city's argument and his case was dismissed. Perez is appealing.
City officials won't say why or how Perez's building was rushed to the head of the fast-track list and knocked down without proper notification. "I can't comment on the case while it remains under litigation," said one Building Department official. But Perez has his theories. He insists he's the victim of a "political hit" engineered by Congressman Luis Gutierrez. It turns out that Perez (and his lawyer Chevere) are leaders of a small but fierce faction of anti-Gutierrez politicos. In their zeal, they oppose anything Gutierrez supports and support anything he opposes. Most observers figure they're the ones who publish El Pito ("The Whistle"), a viciously irreverent, anonymously written free newspaper that mocks and taunts Gutierrez, calling him, among other things, "Louie the Rat." (For what it's worth, Perez and Chevere say they don't write El Pito, "although I think it's great--funny as hell," says Perez.)
Perez says he had a run-in with one of Gutierrez's aides about a month before his building was demolished. "He said, 'You'd better watch yourself or you can get hurt,'" says Perez. "A little while later [one of my employees] said she saw [the aide] pull a copy of my building permit off my dumpster. A few weeks later my building was knocked down. Now you tell me, why in the world would the city move so quickly if someone strong wasn't behind it? I've been around this town long enough to know how things work. The word on the street is that this was political and there's nothing I can do about it."
Gutierrez scoffs at the accusation. "Let me get this straight. Here I am, hundreds of miles away, doing the people's business in Washington, and now I'm supposed to be knocking down buildings? They have no evidence, but that's OK. If some knuckleheaded nobody wants to take a crack at the congressman, the reporters will print it. Meanwhile, when I send out a press release about all the good things we're doing for senior citizens and veterans and people in the community you reporters put me through a million-and-one rings. Well, I don't know anything about this. I don't know Dennis Perez. If he walked into the room I wouldn't know him; I don't even know what he looks like."
And while he's on the subject, Gutierrez has this to say about El Pito: "I look at El Pito and I think of child molesters and the most degenerate kind of scummy people in the world. Whoever publishes that paper goes along with sexual deviants, but since they won't put their name on it I don't know who they are. I think my old man said it best--"If you're not ready to put your name on it you're a coward.'"
Perez is equally adamant. "If Louie says he doesn't know me he's full of crap. If he doesn't know me, how come every time he sees me he turns around like he's ashamed of something? I stand by my story. I'll die by it. I'll write it on my gravestone. They screwed the wrong man, because I'm not just gonna walk away."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.