Some day years from now the city may regret ticketing Mark Thomas's car for violating a residents-only parking zone in Lakeview.
So enraged was Thomas by that ticket that he's done what other motorists only fantasize about: he's gone to court and challenged the constitutionality of the city ordinance that allows residents to prohibit parking in their neighborhoods by anyone other than themselves. "The law is stupid, discriminatory, and unconstitutional and I want to have all the fines refunded," Thomas says, as his voice rises with indignation. "You bet I'm angry. It pisses me off. It's personal. I'm going to see this thing through the end."
If he wins--a very unlikely outcome--the city would have to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars generated over the last few years in about 350 different residential parking zones. Ironically, many residents root for Thomas, loathing parking laws almost as much as taxes, even as more and more neighborhoods enact parking zones. People may despise parking laws when they are ticketed, but they would all but write the tickets themselves to keep outsiders out of their communities.
"It's another case of watch what I do, not what I say," says Nina Cadsawan, spokeswoman for the city's law department, which is handling the suit.
Thomas says he's not inconsistent. Life, he argues, is a series of compromises; very rarely, almost never, do we do exactly what we want. In his case, Thomas, 40, was an idealistic and entrepreneurial hippie who developed three pricey north-side clothing stores from a funky little head shop he opened in Old Town more than 20 years ago. Along the way he married, had two children, and socked away enough money to contemplate a house in the suburbs with a big yard in the back and a pristine public school just down the street.
"I could have opted for that suburban lifestyle--in some ways it would have been easier--but I didn't want to have to make the commute to work," says Thomas. "So what did I do? I compromised. I bought a house in the city. I spend $12,000 a year to send my kids to private school. I'm not complaining. I like my house, my kids love their school. But I had to make compromises. Who was it--Don Corleone in The Godfather?--who said, "This is the life we have chosen'?"
And yet the vexing problem of parking is another sign that people are not satisfied with their chosen lives, he says. "When I was young I lived on the 2600 block of Halsted," says Thomas. "It was a hip scene and I moved there because I was young, I was single, I wanted to enjoy a particular lifestyle. I knew I had one parking spot so I only had one car. That's what I accepted when I moved there--I could only have one car. But now we're older, we have kids, suddenly we have to have two cars. The wife needs a car, the husband needs a car. We need more parking spaces. The city wasn't made for so many cars. So you have people circling their neighborhood for hours looking for a place to land, and they're tired and they resent it and they think they're the only one with a right to park in the neighborhood. And they never stop to realize that maybe they should only own one car.
"It's like those people who moved near Wrigley Field. They're always bitching about nighttime parking, but is there anybody alive who bought property before the Cubs were there? What, they didn't know the ballpark was there, they missed it, when they bought the house? Now all they do is complain about the parking. Excuse me, but you have to make compromises."
On weekend nights almost every inch of street space is taken in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, including spots in front of fire hydrants, as valets from the trendy restaurants shoot up and down residential streets, double-parking whenever they can get away with it. In response, more and more block clubs and neighborhood groups are pressuring the city to enact residential zones.
"The way the law works is if 50 percent of the people sign a petition requesting residential parking, they get it," says Alderman Bernie Hansen, whose 44th Ward covers Lakeview. "I'd say at least 35 percent of Lakeview's got some kind of permit parking. It's 65 percent if you include the Cubs' nighttime parking provisions. You even have the battle of the zones, where Zone 381 can't park in 383 and vice versa. It gets crazy. But if most of the people want the permit restrictions, who am I to tell them no?"
Many drivers ignore the residents-only signs, figuring police have better things to do than enforce this law. On March 30, Thomas discovered otherwise. "I had parked on a side street and gone off to have dinner with my wife and the kids, and lo and behold, when I got back I had a ticket," says Thomas. "I looked at my wife and she started laughing. Because she knew what was coming. It was time for me to put up or shut up."
According to Thomas, the parking zones unconstitutionally restrict public space for private use. "The street belongs to everyone," says Thomas. "I own a building at Belmont and Clark. My real estate taxes are double or triple what someone who owns a residence pays. Now they are telling me I can't park on the street? I call that discrimination. There are ways to handle the parking problem, like building spaces beneath the el. But don't try to solve it by discriminating."
On May 2 Thomas filed his suit. "I wanted to file in pro se court, where average citizens get to handle their own cases and you don't need a lawyer," says Thomas. "But the clerk says, "You can't sue here over parking tickets.' See, right away they're telling me what I can and can't do. He sends me to a supervisor who sends me to a clerk who hands me a complaint form and sends me to the cashier, and I end up paying $125 to have the sheriff serve the city with a notice telling them I'm suing them. So I'm spending $125 to get back $2 and the city's using my tax dollars to fight me."
Thomas's case is the first to challenge the constitutionality of Chicago's residential zone parking ordinance, says the law department's Nina Cadsawan. "But as far as I know, similar laws have been challenged in other states," she says. "In each case the law was upheld."
Thomas says he'll take his case all the way to the Supreme Court if he has to. "You know what I really need is a lawyer, because, let's admit it, as nuts as I am I'm in over my head," he says. "What I'm hoping for is to have some credible lawyer take me on. The way it works is I filed a class-action suit asking for the court to order refunds. There's got to be a lawyer who will see all the potential refunds and take the case for 20 to 25 percent of the action. Yeah, I'm looking for at least one good lawyer; otherwise the city's gonna kick my butt, even though they know I'm right."
Honoring Those Who Serve
Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about AIDS is that like any crisis it sometimes brings out the best in people. So it is with Open Hand Chicago, a meals-on-wheels program that delivers free food to incapacitated AIDS patients across the city (Neighborhood News, December 17, 1993).
Started six years ago by a handful of volunteers, Open Hand is now a $1.6 million operation that includes 500 volunteers. In addition to the delivery service, it operates food pantries on the south, west, and north sides. For its efforts the group was recently awarded the Sara Lee Foundation's annual Chicago Spirit Award, a prestigious honor made nicer by its $50,000 booty.
"We deliver 1,000 meals every night, we've never had a waiting list, no one's ever been turned down--it's kind of impressive," says Lori Cannon, Open Hand's pantry director. "It's the volunteers that make us go, God bless them. If anyone wants to volunteer they can call 665-1000."
Actually, just about everyone agrees that Cannon's the driving force behind Open Hand. She was there at its start, schlepping food to people across the city, and she still works long hours, getting the new west-side pantry off the ground. "We were one of 71 community-based groups that Sara Lee considered," says Cannon. "They did their homework. They spent time with clients and volunteers, they went on delivery runs. They must have liked what they saw. The first time they came to meet us I had a bunch of volunteers sitting around eating various Sara Lee products. I commissioned a neighborhood artist to paint a poster saying "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee.' If they didn't give us the award I was going to scratch out "nobody' and write "everybody."'
Cannon, a quick-witted activist with a background in independent politics, has never been reluctant to denounce City Hall. But she may be softening with the years, at least regarding Mayor Daley. "I can't complain too much about the city since the Health Department funds us, and I do like how Daley's standing up for the city against the state," she says. "But the stuff that guy says. I saw him at a reception and he says, "This is the lady with the wheels-on-meals program.' I said, "Richie, what, do we serve roadkill?' He's such a knucklehead. But he's our knucklehead."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.