By Ben Joravsky
In the predawn hours of a cold November day, six or seven city tow trucks came to Salvador Vazquez's used-car lot in Pilsen and hauled away 29 of his cars.
As Vazquez tells the story, it was a nightmarish scene: "I said, 'What are you doing?' And they said, 'We don't have to tell you anything.' I said, 'How can you do this? This is my life.' They said, 'We have the right.'"
The cars were impounded and eventually destroyed. "I'm out $15,000," says Vazquez. "They're bringing me to my knees. Why are they doing this to me?"
Vazquez, city officials counter, knows the answer quite well. "He was warned that he had to clean up his lot or face the consequences," says Terry Levin, a spokesperson for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which towed the cars. "He was basically running an illegal junkyard, storing cars to cannibalize the spare parts. It was a safety hazard."
Yet Vazquez swears he received no warning and that while his yard was messy at times it was no hazard. Moreover, he says, five different city departments have sent inspectors to his car lot since May. The real issue, he says, is why the city cares so much about his business.
"Why are they doing this to me? I ask that question every day," he says. "They got people storing hazardous wastes in some places, you got murders and robberies, but they're spending all this time with my little lot in Pilsen."
The little lot in question, Automotriz Monterrey, is at 2000 S. Western Avenue, squeezed between the el and a bumpy, dead-end industrial stretch of Cullerton Street. The business is run by Vazquez, his brothers, and their father from a heated trailer on the eastern end of the lot. Surrounding the trailer are about 50 used cars, and in the rear of the lot is the controversial "storage yard," where old junkers are kept, waiting to be restored.
"I buy old cars, keep them in the back, fix them up, and then move them up front where I sell them," says Vazquez. "OK, it's not Joe Rizza Ford, but it's how my family and I make a living."
They've operated out of that lot for almost ten years, a bother to no one, and until recently they'd had no run-ins with the law, Vazquez says. To demonstrate their civic worthiness, Vazquez's father, Salvador senior, keeps a three-ring notebook filled with plastic-encased letters of reference (predating the family's recent hassles) written by local business, community, and civic leaders.
"From what I see they run a stand-up business," says Laura Lopez, commercial development specialist for the 18th Street Development Corporation, a not-for-profit business group in Pilsen. "I called Consumer Service to see if there were any complaints against them, and there weren't. The lot the city complains about is in the rear, away from Western; you can't really see it from the street. No one goes back there. It's not a serious concern. Believe me there are other lots in this community that are worse. I call the city about them all the time, but there's been no response. At least nothing like this."
In May the Vazquez lot was visited by an inspector from the Department of Revenue and ticketed for not having a proper operating license. In July an inspector from the Department of Transportation came.
"He told me I had to pay a driveway fee because I was operating a driveway," says Vazquez. "I said, 'I don't have a driveway.' He said, 'According to our records you have five.'"
As Vazquez discovered, the city requires an annual driveway fee from those who drive cars across a sidewalk in the course of operating a business. "I told the guy there are no sidewalks on Cullerton 'cause we don't need them. This is a dead-end industrial road. There are no pedestrians here. He said I might have to put a sidewalk in. I'm thinking, 'What? That will cost me $20,000.'"
Vazquez went to court and wound up paying $510 in driveway fees. Then on August 25 he was visited by a building inspector who ordered him to repair the rear fence and to clear the weeds and garbage that had accumulated in the back lot. "I can understand why the city would want him to clear up that rear lot," says Lopez. "There had been fly dumping in there, and the city wanted him to take down the fence to have the garbage hauled away. He did what they wanted."
Vazquez admits he hadn't been very diligent about keeping the back lot clean. "This was a very rough time for me," says Vazquez. "My wife was in and out of the hospital. I had a lot on my mind." (His wife died from a brain tumor last month.)
On November 3, he says, city inspectors came and told him to repair the back fence. Four days later his cars were towed. "I was mad as hell," says Vazquez. "I had some good cars back there. I had an '82 Camaro, an '81 Buick, a '79 Jeep, a '69 Jeep,...a bunch of cars. They left an old pickup and took everything else. I said, 'What the hell are you doing?' They said, 'Watch it, we'll have you arrested.' So I cooled off. I called my alderman [Ambrosio Medrano] and he said he'll take care of it."
But the best Medrano could do was arrange a December meeting between Vazquez and an official from Streets and Sanitation.
"At that meeting they told me I could pay $150 a car and a storage fee of $10 a car for the first ten days and $20 a car for every day after that," says Vazquez. "But I'd have to sell the cars to make the money I needed to get them out, and how could I sell them if I couldn't get them out? I was trapped."
One week later the cars were destroyed.
Streets and Sanitation has a sharply different account of the meeting.
"A day or two before the cars were towed a Chicago police officer warned him [Vazquez] that he had to move those cars or they would be towed," says Levin. "We considered them a safety hazard. A kid could have walked in and cut himself. People use abandoned cars in crime. There's broken glass; sharp metals are out in the open. He did not put up the fence and he did not remove the cars, so we removed them.
"Later at the meeting in the alderman's office he only wanted three cars back. We agreed we would give them back assuming he would not put them on that lot. He never came to pick them up so they were junked and sold for scrap."
And how much would it have cost to get the cars back?
Levin says there was "no storage fee, no towing fee, just whatever it would have cost to take them. He was told, 'You can have them back, just take them away.'"
According to Levin, the only mystery is why the Transportation and Buildings departments have no record of having inspected Vazquez's business. (Vazquez has copies of all the tickets he received.) "Whatever problem he was having with those departments has nothing to do with the towing of the cars," says Levin.
Vazquez vehemently disputes Levin's account. "They told me I had to pay all those fees, otherwise I'd never get the cars. And I never said I only wanted three. I wanted them all. For God's sake, they took everything, even my snowplows. Of course I wanted them back."
Vazquez's battle with the city didn't end even after his cars were destroyed. On December 13 an inspector from the Department of Consumer Services ticketed him for not having a license to repair cars. "He said I needed a special license to repair cars that don't belong to me," says Vazquez. "I said, 'But these cars do belong to me. I fix them up and then I sell them. He says, 'Did you ever repair a car for a customer after he bought it?' I said, 'Well yeah, if they're unsatisfied.' He says, 'Ha, you need the license.'"
So the saga continues. "Did I offend someone who's powerful? I don't think so, but if I did I'm sorry," says Vazquez. "All I want to do is sell cars."
The phone rang, and I picked it up to find Congressman Luis Gutierrez chiding me for a December 22 Neighborhood News about the Anixter Center's proposal to build a 17-unit apartment building for AIDS patients in Humboldt Park.
My article said that Gutierrez helped Anixter purchase the vacant land from the city for a nominal fee in 1992 so it could be used to house people with disabilities. The project appeared dead in November, when Alderman Billy Ocasio, a Gutierrez ally, came out against it.
My article suggested that Gutierrez had flip-flopped, while Ocasio had bowed to a handful of virulent neighborhood opponents. Neither Gutierrez nor Ocasio was quoted because neither returned my phone calls.
In fact, Gutierrez told me, he helped some other social service agency (not Anixter) buy the lot "in 1991, guy, not 1992." He said he only recently learned that Anixter owned the property and that they intend to limit occupancy in the project to people with AIDS. "I didn't flip-flop," he said. "As soon as I heard about their project, I supported it."
After I humbly apologized for getting the year wrong, I asked him why he didn't return my call.
"I never got the message--I swear," he said. From there he proceeded to give me every one of his phone numbers in Washington and Chicago so we would never be out of touch again.
"And Ocasio, how come he didn't return my call?"
"I don't know, maybe he didn't get his message either."
"Well, he publicly opposed the AIDS project only a few weeks ago. What's his excuse?"
"Look, maybe Anixter didn't do a great job of building public support--an alderman can't be too far ahead of his constituents. But things are happening. Ocasio and Anixter will have a press conference announcing his support. Together we'll find the best possible site. You watch, that building will go up and everyone will be happy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.