Until recently, Harley Budd's big black 1979 Cadillac sat in front of his restaurant at Willow and Howe streets as if waiting for him to return and drive it maniacally through the side streets, never giving way, deliberately intimidating small foreign cars. Now only the Tap Root Pub sign remains.
Budd and the first incarnation of his restaurant--at Willow and Larrabee--were once a cause. In the late 60s folks like Studs Terkel crowed about the virtue of one
man standing fast against the development of land that had once been designated for urban renewal but that became the site of middle-six-figure town houses instead. There were news stories, petition drives (200,000 signatures, according to news accounts), and red-and-white bumper stickers that said "Save the Tap Root Pub."
The city was determined to tear down Budd's restaurant, which he had bought in 1962 and which he claimed had been a gathering place for the neighborhood since 1862. The city had other plans for the block in the mostly black and Latino neighborhood where Budd had lived his entire life, and the restaurant was the last building standing on it.
In 1972 Budd was dragged from the bar by police--a big man in the clutch of officers, a big picture in the papers. Shortly after, the city demolished the building. Budd moved his ambition one block west on Willow in the mid-1970s.
He died this spring without much notice taken of his death. Few people who now live in the area were aware of Budd or his campaigns. But every so often, a car will still pull up, and someone will get out and try to open the front door. Finally the visitor will find among the various restaurant-association stickers and credit-card logos attached to the inside of the door a scribbled note that says "temporarily closed," though "temporarily" is scratched out.
The restaurant has been stripped of furniture and fixtures-- only naked light bulbs sprout from the walls and hang from the ceiling. With the exception of a school down the block, it's the last public landmark in this neighborhood. The old fire station is now a photographer's studio, and the other public places--movie theaters, a Chicago Boys Club--are long gone.
Like his car, Budd had been an anachronism for years. His restaurant was an anomaly in a neighborhood whose demographics had changed dramatically and whose residents and visitors were looking for something more exciting than traditional clambakes or all-you-can-eat seafood specials that, in truth, were at best average.
But it had a good bar and a bizarre ambience. A gas fireplace that was almost always on, it seemed, even in summer. An old wooden telephone booth. A tin ceiling painted black. Architectural details that must have been plucked from 15 different buildings--Victorian doorjambs, plain wooden benches, cigarette signs. The television above the bar tuned to some strange program, often competing with jukebox music of wildly different genres. Budd's gravel voice emanating from the turn of the bar.
It was a friendly place, and the few locals left from the old neighborhood mixed with the construction workers who were creating its new look. It was also a favorite with the police.
Budd alternately took notice of the changing neighborhood and ignored it, perhaps tired from all the fighting many years earlier. He profited handsomely from the sale of real estate he had been smart enough to purchase long ago. Developers scrambled over the odd lots he owned, and he irritated them by holding out just long enough to get what he wanted.
In this part of the city--too close to the pricey neighborhoods to remain middle-class--the urban-renewal parcels were large enough for the 40- to 60-unit developments that have changed the area from small frame houses, a few of which Budd owned, to urban communities where the focus of activity is behind six-foot retainer walls.
Whoever moved Budd's car took away his presence on the corner. That car, with its fragments of carpeting and other detritus attached to the undercarriage, used to evoke fear in kids riding bikes or older folks trying to maneuver around it.
The outside patio of the Tap Root Pub would have been crowded now, as it often was in the summer. One can only guess what Budd would have stirred up trying to get a coveted city permit to operate an outdoor space.
The exterior of the building bulges where age has come down hard on the foundation. The paint has cracked from the stress of Chicago weather. Whoever takes it over is likely to have a difficult time renovating, and so will probably tear it down without much ado.