By Ben Joravsky
It wouldn't be spring if Lakeview residents weren't gearing up for another war over boozing baseball fans invading their neighborhood.
This time the fight's not centered around the Tribune Company, vilified in the past for installing lights in Wrigley Field and greedily gobbling up every inch of vacant property for parking. Instead, the central player is the Cubby Bear Lounge, one of the area's busiest clubs.
Cubby Bear owner George Loukas wants to put a beer garden in the parking lot behind his establishment at Addison and Clark, arguing it can't disturb an area already buzzing with late-night festivity. "If you're worried about a beer garden, you have to ask yourself why you moved near Wrigley Field," says Loukas.
Residents counter that a line on development must be drawn somewhere or else the area will become even noisier and more decadent than Rush Street. The intriguing question for Alderman Bernie Hansen and city planners is whether it's in the city's best interest to devote at least one section of town to mindless fun and boundless consumption.
It's odd that the Cubby Bear would be in the hot seat, since it's not known for dangerous or lawless behavior. But in many ways Loukas has been his own worst public-relations enemy by failing to woo his neighbors. He is, by his own admission, a proud and stubborn entrepreneur, who claims credit for helping spur Lakeview's economic growth. "What irks me about this is that people don't realize how much I helped contribute to what this neighborhood is," he says. "It was nothing like it is now."
Loukas bought his first building in Lakeview in the early 1970s with his brother. "It was a down-and-out 16-flat at Sheffield and Waveland, which we got for $135,000 with a down payment of $5,000," he says. "We weren't rich. My parents are Greek immigrants. We grew up on the southeast side. When I bought that building I was still living at home with my parents, working days as a [high school] teacher and nights as a doorman at Butch McGuire's. I rehabbed it myself. I'd move into an apartment, fix it up, and move on to another. I had this attitude: 'I'm under 30; if I lose everything, so what? I'll start all over--let's go for it.' People don't realize the intestinal fortitude that took."
Within a few years he and his brother had purchased at least six other buildings in Lakeview, including the Sports Corner (a bar and restaurant at Sheffield and Addison) and the Cubby Bear. "The Cubby Bear was just a little watering hole for Cub fans when we bought it," says Loukas. "We didn't know anyone, we didn't have connections. An inspector came in here after we bought it and said, 'You need to give us money.' What did we know? We paid him 50 bucks. Three weeks later someone else came in and wanted money. I said, 'The hell with this.' I'd have been paying off inspectors for the rest of my life. They made us put in $50,000 in plumbing but no more bribes."
By the mid-80s Loukas had converted the Cubby Bear into a music and sports hangout with big crowds gathering on fall and winter weekends to watch football games and rock 'n' rollers streaming in for concerts at night. "We've booked all sorts of jazz and rock acts," says Loukas. "What other club can say they had Soul Asylum and Johnny Cash and Gato Barbieri? The things that we've been able to accomplish is the American dream."
Maybe so, but nearby residents say they have less lofty, more pressing concerns--like getting a good night's sleep. "The turning point came with lights in Wrigley," says Carol Zintel, a Lakeview resident. "After that the night scene expanded, and we became everyone's playland--where college kids and suburbanites feel safe to party and play. There must be at least 70 or so restaurants, bars, or clubs between Belmont and Irving. Oh sure, it's fun and exciting for the patrons, but what about the people who live here? It's loud at night, there's trash in the morning. You have tons of traffic and honking horns and people urinating on your lawns. The latest things are the beer gardens and outdoor cafes. Every restaurant's got to have one. Try walking up Clark Street in the summer--you're winding through tables and chairs, watching people guzzle beer. People say, 'Oh, you shouldn't have moved there if you can't take it.' But 17 years ago when my husband and I bought our house here, it wasn't like this; it wasn't a Rush Street scene; it was much quieter. Hardly any of these bars were here. Do you realize that a lot of people thought it was a rough neighborhood? We couldn't even get a subscription to the Tribune--they told us the neighborhood was too dangerous for their drivers. Isn't that ironic? Now the Tribune Company owns Wrigley Field and most of the land around it."
Nonetheless, Loukas says he didn't expect any opposition when he sought a zoning variance to open his beer garden. "I want to put in 25 tables for about 100 people, and it would only be open until 11," Loukas says. "In September we got approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Maybe four residents showed up for the hearing. All we needed was a permit from the liquor commission. I expected to have it open for the summer."
But local opposition grew as word of the beer garden spread. In March the Hawthorne Neighbors, an influential community group, distributed a flyer headlined "Neighborhood Alert!" that called on residents to write letters of opposition to Winston Mardis, director of the Mayor's Local Liquor Control Commission. "Now it is up to the neighbors in the area to respond and let [the city] know what we think about the possible expansion of the Cubby Bear Lounge," the flyer reads. "Specifics that could be included in your letter include excessively loud sidewalk conversations and shouting matches on the public sidewalks, as well as vomiting and urination."
A few days after that flyer was sent Loukas attended a Hawthorne Neighbors meeting. "I was hoping to defuse things, but they were against me from the start," he says. "One gentleman said my beer garden would be too noisy and bring people to the neighborhood. Who's he kidding? This is the busiest area in the city. Most bars don't get kicking until 10 or 11 at night--how much difference can one beer garden make?
"Another guy told me, 'George, your beer garden will have a negative effect if I try to sell my condo.' But he's wrong. His property escalates in value because this area is hot, and this area is hot because of people like me who purchase and renovate property. People don't say: 'Don't move to Lakeview because the Cubby Bear's there.' It's just the opposite. They say: 'Come to Lakeview because that's where it's at.'"
So far Loukas has won over few locals. "He's taking it too personally," says Zintel, who's a member of the Hawthorne Neighbors. "It's not so much that we're against George Loukas or the Cubby Bear. We're just fed up with the accumulative effect of all these bars and clubs. He says, 'Because of me your property values have gone up.' But so have our taxes. We started at around $300 a year, and now we're at $3,000. Where's it going to stop? Look at what we're doing to our neighborhood. It's not just the bars, it's all the development. Nowadays it's nothing for a developer to come in and rip down a factory and put up condos and town houses that don't keep in with the look of the neighborhood. This area's far more densely populated than it ought to be. Is anybody in the city paying attention?"
So far Alderman Hansen, who didn't return a call for comment, has publicly taken no stand on the matter, which is still pending before the liquor control commission. But Michael Quigley, one of Hansen's top advisers and a Lakeview activist, remains sympathetic to the residents. "Bernie's neutral because if he takes a stand the matter becomes a fait accompli," he says. "In general I think George could have handled it better. He's a nice guy but he doesn't always understand community dynamics, and he takes things personally when he shouldn't. Developers have to understand the need to reach out to a community."
As an example, Quigley points to the developers of a proposed restaurant brewery at 3535 N. Clark, who won local support by meeting with residents and promising to bring in an upscale crowd. The lesson was not lost on Loukas. "This developer comes in and tells everyone what they want to hear," he says. "Meanwhile, people are stereotyping my bar and my clientele. Many residents haven't been to the Cubby Bear in years. Do they know we have 35 toilets? No other place has that many toilets around here, except for Wrigley Field. It's not the Cubby Bear patrons urinating on the lawns. And if they did, we'd call the police and have them arrested.
"What I have to do is communicate better with the residents. I have to invite them to the Cubby Bear, show them what we've got--let them see those toilets. We can win them over if we just do better communications."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.