In 1986 Chester Kiercul opened the Capitol Club at 4244 N. Milwaukee, featuring a band that one patron describes as a Polish Miami Sound Machine, and catering to a crowd of young, newly arrived Polish immigrants. Kiercul billed it as his attempt to run an orderly but upbeat nightclub for the immigrants, but it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Over the last six years Kiercul has been in and out of court, locked in a bitter feud with neighbors and city officials who want the club's liquor license revoked. He has even hired a public-relations consultant to help defend him.
Kiercul says his opponents have ulterior motives. "We run a good club," he says. "They must not like Polish people. They have had marches outside the club, and I have heard them shout 'Poles go home.'"
Kiercul's neighborhood critics, many of whom are Polish, vigorously deny these allegations. They say the club is a source of excessive noise and drunken brawls. "This has nothing to do with Poles--this has to do with drunks," says Fred Stucker, who lives across the street from the club. "Chester insults us when he says that anti-Polish stuff. It makes me feel really bad because I have many Polish friends, and the Polish business owners on Milwaukee Avenue know me by my first name. This block was peaceful until he opened his club. Now we have drunks staggering around here at all times of the night, urinating on lawns or getting into fights. It's terrible."
Kiercul moved to Chicago from Poland in 1976 when he was 19. "I didn't speak English and I didn't have much money. I came here because this is the land of opportunity." He says he worked two factory jobs to save enough money to open his first club, the Podlasie Club at 2918 N. Central Park. In 1985 he and his partners applied for a 4 AM closing license for the club, hiring a company to gather signatures of support from at least 51 percent of nearby residents, as application rules require. They got the license, but the city later revoked it, stating, "the licensee obtained its late-hour liquor license by submitting a petition that contained less than a majority of the legal voters residing within 400 feet of the premises in that the petition contained forged signatures and other irregularities." Kiercul says "I didn't know about the [forged] signatures. I wouldn't have done that." City records also show that Kiercul's old club was a source of continual complaints about fights, prostitution, and excessive noise. "It was a Polish polka place," Kiercul protests. "It had an older crowd--they didn't give anybody no trouble at all."
Yet the irregularities and complaints didn't stop the city from issuing a liquor license in 1986 for the Capitol Club, which has had problems with its neighbors almost from the start.
Kiercul blames the troubles on Stucker, who happens to be a Chicago police officer. "After we opened, Stucker walked in and asked for a job." Later, in a lawsuit against Stucker, Kiercul would charge "that Stucker personally 'suggested' to Plaintiff that if Plaintiff would hire an off duty police officer of Defendant Chicago Police Department to 'watch over everything,' the conspiracy against Plaintiff would cease."
Stucker says, "I never asked for a job, nor would I ever ask for a job. I don't even want a second job--the one I have is hard enough. What happened is that from the time he opened there was noise. We put up with it for six months, and then a lady on the block called Chester and said, 'Can you close the back door?' Chester said, 'I won't do a damn thing for you.' I went to Chester and said, 'Please close your back door.' And he said, "I don't have to close it.' I said 'Yes, you do,' and I cited the noise-pollution law. He said, 'Why don't you come inside and we'll talk this thing over?' I said, 'Number one, I don't drink on duty, and number two, I don't play that game.'"
Nearby residents say Stucker is not the problem. "For Kiercul to reduce this to a fight with Fred is ridiculous," says Fran Murray. "Fred has been very fair to Kiercul and has only been looking out for the neighborhood. Kiercul's been awful. There isn't a resident around here who's not against that bar." They contend that Kiercul can't control his patrons. "You should see them staggering into their cars drunk," says Murray. "Then they sideswipe other cars." Indeed, from February 28, 1987, until October 14, 1990, there were at least 38 separate police reports of auto accidents occurring within a block of the club.
In June 1987 Stucker and his patrol partner filed a complaint with the Police Department accusing Kiercul of setting off a false police alarm. Kiercul denies he set off the alarm, and in July 1987 he filed a federal lawsuit against Stucker and the Chicago Police Department, accusing them of having "conspired to deprive [Kiercul] of his rights and privileges as a United States citizen by initiating, either personally, through agents, or coconspirators, more than 75 complaints . . . for alleged instances of excessive noise, traffic congestion and illegal parking." Kiercul also alleged that he had "suffered extreme mental anguish, worry and distress about the future of his good business reputation. . . . As a consequence of his extreme mental anguish [he] has been under a physician's care." Kiercul asked for $70,000 as well as lawyer's fees.
Several months later Kiercul dropped the suit, saying his alderman, Pat Levar of the 45th Ward, had told him Stucker was moving out of the neighborhood. Stucker had intended to but didn't
"That lawsuit was the biggest pile of bull," says Stucker. "If anything, I'm the one who's suffered anguish. Chester has filed many internal departmental complaints against me--none of which are valid. He initiated an internal corruption investigation, saying that I called in a bomb threat, and said I wanted to kill his family. That's crazy. Another time, after residents started putting cones and wooden horses in front of their houses to keep patrons from parking there, Chester filed a complaint saying that I was the one putting out all the cones. The department sent a cop to look in my house for the cones. Of course he didn't find any. There were never any there."
Slowly city officials were drawn into the dispute. Sometime after he dropped his suit Kiercul paved his backyard so it could be used for a parking lot. The city said he had never been issued a permit for the lot and demanded that he close its entrance onto Hutchinson, the street just north of the club. Eventually the city installed permanent barricades to keep people from using the entrance.
In 1988 Levar restricted parking on the stretch of Hutchinson north of the club to residents. But the complaints mounted. "I got a call at 11 or so one rainy Saturday night from residents complaining about cars parked on Hutchinson," Levar says. "So I got out of bed and went down there, and sure enough there were cars parked all over. I called the local watch commander and told him about it, and then I went over to the taco stand across the street to wait for the police. Well, I had a portable police scanner with me. And as soon as I hear the call go out, I see a bunch of people run out of the club and head over to move their cars. You bet I was livid."
Some residents believe Kiercul told patrons to move their cars after he heard the call go out on his own police scanner, an accusation Kiercul denies. Stan Hollenbeck, the publicist Kiercul hired, says "I doubt Chester has a scanner--until recently he didn't even know what a beeper was. Probably what happened is that right after Levar's call the watch commander called Chester and said, 'What the hell's going on that I have to detail men at this hour for parking?' And Chester said, 'I'll handle it.' Now, what's the matter with that?"
In 1990 the dispute became citywide news when Channel Two aired videotapes Stucker had made of patrons urinating on lawns, staggering to their cars, and in one case firing a gun. Kiercul accused Stucker of manufacturing the footage and filed another Police Department complaint against him.
In December 1990 the Mayor's License Commission suspended the club's license for serving drinks to minors. Kiercul claims the minors were only drinking Coca-Cola, and the case is still being appealed. In the meantime the city discovered Kiercul's connection with the Podlasie Club, and in June 1991 ordered the Capitol Club's liquor license revoked because Kiercul hadn't reported that the Podlasie's license had been revoked five years earlier. "We rejoiced when his license was revoked," says Jennifer Stucker, Fred Stucker's daughter. "For the first time in years we had some peace and quiet on the block."
Their jubilation was short-lived. In August 1991 the License Appeal Commission, the state board that oversees such disputes, overruled the city, and the Capitol Club was again open for business.
"The commission reversed without comment--they are not required to say why they make their decisions," says James Reilly, legal counsel for the Mayor's License Commission. "It's frustrating, and we feel for the residents. But we can't just shut a club down. We have to follow the law."
Now the residents were outraged at the city. "The city's lawyers never told us when the appeal commission was having its hearing," says Fran Murray. "Kiercul and his lawyers were there, but we weren't. They don't give a damn."
Not so, says Reilly. "This administration has revoked over 100 licenses since January of 1991. I don't know why residents were not notified of the hearing, but even if they were there the commission would not have heard them. Testimony in these proceedings is limited to lawyers from both sides."
The city appealed, and on June 16, 1992, the case came before Cook County Circuit Court judge Arthur Dunne. The judge denied the city's request to overturn the appeal commission's decision, chiding the city's lawyer for failing to bring to court a complete copy of Kiercul's original application for a license for the Capitol Club. Without the application, Dunne said he couldn't determine the validity of the city's charges against Kiercul. "I don't know what's on the application," Dunne said, adding, "It is clear that the city of Chicago has treated this man [Kiercul] unfairly."
The previous year Kiercul had hired Hollenbeck, who wrote letters to prominent Chicago Poles and the Polish consulate charging that the residents had formed "a special interest group to protest the club's existence . . . [with] marches and picketing that has some distinctly anti-Polish and anti-immigrant overtones."
Hollenbeck says Kiercul has attempted to make peace with the neighbors. "Chester's past problems had to do with the fact that he wasn't aware of things," says Hollenbeck. "I don't think he gave people too much to drink, but some people may have come to his club already drunk. Chester didn't understand that he is responsible for making sure that people are not drunk when they come to his club. He's learning. He sent his bartender to an alcohol-awareness course. He even bought a beeper so residents can reach him at any time."
Neighbors remain doubtful. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about poor Chester who doesn't understand the system," says Stucker. "Let's face it. The guy hired a publicist. He hired a well-connected lawyer. He's beat the rap on almost every instance. It seems he knows the system very well."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.