By Ben Joravsky
Almost since his first days in office Mayor Daley has been waging war against disruptive taverns, vehemently vowing to shut them all down. His aides, for instance, tried to put the well-known west-side blues club, Rosa's, out of business--and even out of the Blues Festival--after a drug bust. And Daley has introduced legislation that would make it virtually impossible for new liquor establishments to open without close scrutiny and public hearings. So it has come as a surprise to many Bucktown residents that the mayor's Local Liquor Control Commission has employed legal technicalities to stifle their attempts to force the Blue Note, a bar at Wolcott and Armitage, to close at 2 AM rather than 4 AM.
As a result a nasty neighborhood fight continues. While residents complain of loud, crude, and drunken wee-hour carousing, the Blue Note's owner complains about his "Carry Nation" neighbors, who shouldn't have moved to the city if they can't take a little late-night noise. The only thing both sides agree on is that the mayor's hand-picked liquor commission had been surprisingly accommodating to the tavern. "I don't understand why the city's making it so tough for us," says Stephen Parke, who lives near the Blue Note. "We're all wondering what's going on."
The controversy goes back to the summer of 1992, when Nick Novich bought the bar, then an innocuous neighborhood hangout, and transformed it into the late-night place to be. "It was a dive when I bought it," says Novich, who also owns Nick's, a Wicker Park bar on Milwaukee Avenue. "I cleaned it up and brought in a jukebox with over 1,400 selections of jazz and blues classics, and let the word spread. We became popular very fast. Musicians love it; where else are you going to hear Betty Carter or Eddie Harris on a jukebox? And I get all the industry people: bartenders, waiters, and waitresses."
But with the crowds came complaints of drunks staggering from the bar at all hours of the night to pee, vomit, fight, fornicate, honk horns, smash beer bottles, scream, curse, and hop into their cars for the dangerous ride home. "I used to run a little neighborhood tavern called the Lucky Corner over at Shakespeare and Hoyne, but that was nothing like this," says Ted Slosarzyk, a retired machinist who lives near the Blue Note. "I ran a neighborhood bar; you knew the people who came in. They'd bring the wife in to have a good time, and we didn't have no trouble. People certainly didn't fight in the streets or have sex in public or urinate in the alley. No matter how many commodes he [Novich] puts in, people still use the alley. What really surprises me is that girls are doing it. I looked out my window one night and saw one girl squatting there doing her business, while three guys were standing around her doing theirs. These young people are getting pretty weird."
In the summer of 1992 one resident began collecting signatures on a petition to revoke the Blue Note's 4 AM license. But the commission dismissed the matter without a hearing for the flimsiest of reasons.
"They said we had cited the wrong address for the Blue Note on our petition," says Parke. "The fact is that it's a corner building and there are at least three applicable addresses. We cited 1901 W. Armitage, which is the address in the phone book and on the front door. But the correct address on the application is 1946 N. Wolcott. You'd think the commission would have been a little less rigid and more understanding. After all, what's more important: public safety or the trivialities of an address?"
In the fall of 1993, as complaints mounted, Novich met with neighbors in the office of Alderman Terry Gabinski. "I asked them what they wanted and they told me more lights, better security," says Novich. "So I hired security guards; I posted signs asking patrons to be respectful. I spent $40,000 taking care of their complaints. I gave them my home phone number. I said, 'Call anytime if something's wrong.'"
For a few months the carousing subsided, only to get worse in the summers of 1994 and 1995, residents say.
On September 13 they met again with Novich, this time in the office of Winston Mardis, the Liquor Control Commission's director. "We told Nick that if he didn't clear it up we were going to collect signatures to have his [4 AM] license revoked," says Parke. "Mardis told him, 'This license is worth a lot of money to you; it's in your best interest to take care of the problem.'"
But the noise didn't subside, so Parke and about five others began collecting signatures.
"The law says that to initiate a revocation hearing you need 50 percent plus one of all the registered voters within 500 feet of the bar," says Parke. "So we went to the buildings department and had them draw us a map of the area within 500 feet of the Blue Note. Then we got the list of registered voters and we started going door-to-door for signatures."
On October 11 they filed their signatures with Mardis. "I was surprised that they did that," says Novich. "Remember, at that meeting at Gabinski's I told them to call if they had any complaints. For two years there's silence, which implies everything's OK. Then all of a sudden they're coming after my license. That's an ambush.
"I grant you, we do a good business, and OK, you can't stop everything from happening. But some people, anything happens anywhere and they blame us. I got two people at the front door and a person outdoors. Think about that, at $28 an hour that's got to cost me $200 a weekend. They police the area. They pick up the trash. They stop people from urinating in the alley.
"I'll tell you something else: I do a lot for the neighborhood. The Blue Note attracts an incredible variety of people: John Cusack, Uma Thurman, sports celebrities. It creates exposure for the community and [property] values go up. When I opened, people asked me, 'Where's Bucktown?' Now they go, 'Oh, Bucktown'--like they know it. Hey, come on, this is the city. And if you live 50 feet from a 4 AM bar, you gotta expect something. You gotta ask yourself why you bought there."
Such comments, counter Parke and others, are outrageous. "Novich talks a good game, but he doesn't come through," says Parke. "One time at about 3:30 in the morning it was absolutely unbearable with people yelling and screaming. So I went out and saw a security guard leaning against a pole and a group of patrons arguing over whose taxi it was and a guy parked in the bus stop [on Armitage]. I took out my camera and started taking pictures, and within a few minutes five security men were out there quieting the people down. That's when I realized he [Novich] doesn't care about us. They have the people to keep it quiet, but they don't. They just want to make money."
The two sides were heading for a showdown at the Liquor Control Commission when the city intervened. It turns out that there's a special division of the police department to investigate revocation petitions. And an investigation found that only 166 of the 228 signatures submitted were valid. "Since the total number of valid signatures did not equal 50% plus one of the voters registered within 500 feet," Mardis wrote Parke, "this petition does not legally qualify and therefore must be denied."
Now it was Parke's turn to be outraged. He wonders why the city would choose to verify the authenticity of petitions to revoke liquor licenses but not those to nominate election candidates. The result in the case of the Blue Note, Parke believes, is an added layer of bureaucracy that has needlessly dragged out the matter.
"Doesn't the police department have something better to do with its time than review signatures on a petition? We have notarized, signed statements by many residents complaining of late-night noise and fighting, but no one's talking about that," he says. "I collected a lot of those signatures, I stood in the doorways--I know they're real. The only thing [the police and we] agree on is that we collected 228 signatures. After that we agree on nothing. We say there are 330 eligible voters within 500 feet of the Blue Note, they say there are 396. I don't know where they got that number. That means we say we need 166 signatures, they say 199. They threw out 26 signatures because they said the names weren't on poll sheets; I counted only 21 that weren't on poll sheets. They discarded eight others because they said they were in the same penmanship and another 28 because they said the names were illegible. But those signatures aren't illegible--I have copies of all the petitions."
The police report left residents with two options: circulate another batch of petitions or appeal Mardis's decision to the Liquor Board of Appeals. "We decided to appeal, which means hiring a lawyer and paying legal fees," says Parke. "I felt that the resolution would only be the same if we collected more signatures. We could ask people, 'Write your name as clearly as you can.' And then the police would probably toss them out for not matching the signatures on their voting cards. In other words we can't win."
Novich welcomes the city's scrutiny, even if it surprises him. "This is not a case of a big bad bar owner being protected by the city--I'm the underdog," says Novich. "The city's just enforcing the laws that are out there."
Mardis says he can't comment on the case because it's pending.
"Meanwhile the Blue Note stays open [until 4 AM]," says Parke. "I guess this is how the city works."
The Blue Note controversy might eventually be moot since Novich recently applied for a liquor license for a new establishment on a commercial stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. If he gets that license he has a number of options, including moving the Blue Note there.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Yael Routtenberg.