As Chicago goes upscale, we experience periodic waves of nostalgia as one lowlife icon after another bites the dust. Or, more accurately, we experience them in the media. My own recollections of these places are somewhat less rosy. First, there was Maxwell Street, whose motto was "cheat you fair," which I took to mean that it was fair to cheat the public by selling them merchandise that many assumed was hot anyway.
Now you've added a couple of new chapters (Reader, November 27) to our ongoing saga: Ronny's Steak Palace and Betty's Resale Shop. Some years ago I walked through the latter and concluded that it was a junk shop. I did not find one thing on the entire lot that I would allow into my home. The main thing that elevated this particular junk shop to a new level of importance was the fact that, unlike other junk shops, most of the junk was right out in the open, where everyone in the neighborhood had to look at it all the time. There is a certain poetic justice in noting that most of the junk has now been placed in a dumpster, or, given the peculiar capitalization of your article, a Dumpster. If there is any irony in the situation, it's that a place like Betty's managed to remain open as long as it did. Do not shed too many tears--there is still no shortage of junk, or junk shops, in Chicago.
Ronny's, on the other hand, deserves special mention. In between the old Loop of the 40s and 50s and the gentrifying Loop of today, there was an increasingly seedy and run-down Loop in the 60s and 70s, which found its most perfect expression in the Ronny's Steak House empire. Fondly do I recall my first excursion to Ronny's early one Sunday morning in 1969 on my way with my brother to catch reduced-rate showings of films such as Easy Rider, The Wild Angels, and Where Eagles Dare. I assure you the steaks were every bit as tough and inedible then as they are today, and the baked potato served with them felt like a brick in your stomach.
Your article mounted a rather curious, backhanded defense of Herman Munic and his 80 building-code violations. It did not deny the allegations of open running sewage, rats, or food stored at improper temperatures. Mr. Munic's explanation is that "Over the years, things do get deteriorated." Yes, they do--and if Mr. Munic had been as enthusiastic about sanitation as he is about ordering more plates, the city couldn't have closed him down. The second part of Mr. Munic's defense is that he sold 700 steaks in one day and "nobody gave their steak back." Aren't we the lucky ones.
You would think that Mr. Munic might have learned something from this. He had to have workers work around the clock to get Ronny's back in compliance with city health and building codes. What did he do next? He didn't lift a finger to correct the same problems at his other steak palace. He waited for the city to catch him again.
Maybe it is true that the city is protecting its big-money investment in renovating the Oriental Theatre by picking on the little guy who built up a business out of nothing and persevered. Yes, maybe the city is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but it is still the right thing. I am glad to live in a city where the mayor can order that all restaurants in the Loop be inspected. Maybe they need inspecting. Maybe the public needs protecting. One reason it took millions to renovate the Oriental probably involved the cost of scraping rat droppings and rotten chicken bones off the floor after decades of abuse.
Maybe Nelson Algren has left town after all. And if the Art Institute buys the Old Heidelberg Building and Ronny's goes out of business, that won't be such a great loss. After all, there's no shortage of fast-food restaurants downtown.
Now if the Art Institute could be persuaded to save Tree Studios before part of it meets a scheduled date with a wrecking ball, that would be a story.