Friday, July 23, 2010

Beirut in Chicago: who's responsible?

1:30 a.m.: The dark spot in the photo at left is just a small pool of stinking urine in the alley behind Allende Restaurant at 2221 N. Lincoln Ave. this hot summer night. I estimate that's the urine of about 20 guys (and probably a couple of gals). Normally, when there is no police presence back there, on a warm July night you will observe a much larger and more malodorous sea of urine, running across the entire driveway -- easily the effluvia of 80 to 100 intoxicated young people, concentrated in a 10' x 10' area. Tonight, police responded to several calls when someone was also seen smashing cinder blocks there. Normally, they don't have time to deter the hundreds of urinators who stroll back there three to four nights a week.

This was at 1:30 in the morning. In the very middle of Lincoln Park, supposedly one of the finest residential neighborhoods in the world.

And not two minutes after the three police cars responding to this mess left, people again began streaming into the alley to relieve themselves, because there is noplace else to go. Police apprehended a young Northeastern University pre-law student who lied through his teeth about it to try to avoid the ticket. He's learning fast.

Is it the young man's fault that there is so much urine in the alley? He is only responsible for what he did, yet he will pay a very high price. Allende Restaurant will never be ticketed for not letting its paying customers use their bathroom (though they can be). Is this their fault? They certainly don't want to clean up after these kids missing the bowl and vomiting everywhere. But they sure are profiting from it all, selling tens of thousands of dollars of burritos a week here at their two locations on the street.

Is it the bars' fault? They certainly aren't ever being ticketed for regularly violating fire code, filling their bars beyond bursting and illegally pumping patrons with $2 Bud Light specials, never stopping until they're puking everywhere. And they're making far more money than Allende.

Is it 18th District Chicago Police Cmdr. Angarone's fault? His officers are stretched to the limit. Mayor Daley insists on cutting police staff. The commander now rotates a single detail car from Lincoln Avenue, to Weed Street, to Webster Street on busy nights. There's just not enough money to go around.

Is this the SSA's fault? Commissioners doling out the money from the Special Service Area surtax on these blocks (which I opposed and still oppose) turn a deaf ear to pleas to stop spending residents' taxes on Chamber of Commerce brochures and flowerpots, and to start spending the bars' money on security, porta-potties, and trash pickup.

But then why would they do that? The SSA was created by the Chamber of Commerce and alderman, originally prompted by Sam "John Barleycorn" Sanchez and Bobby "Kelsey's-Kendall's-Kincade's" Burleson, two of the most successful bar owners in the city. They created and effectively run the SSA, bilking residents out of additional taxes and spending the money to benefit -- big surprise! -- themselves, and Lincoln Avenue residents and small businesses are none the wiser. Is it their fault for being clever enough to know a good opportunity when the see one, clever enough to find just the right way to quietly cheat other people?

Oh, they can't claim that I don't try to get involved -- I asked several times to be placed on the SSA commission and they bent over backward to find others, because they knew I would be a strong dissenting voice in how they spend our money. Sam "John Barleycorn" Sanchez -- who created the tax so that residents can foot the bill to beautify the neighborhood for his own drunk customers -- is an SSA commissioner. Here's an excerpt from the Janary 2010 Lincoln Avenue SSA meeting minutes:
"Sanchez explained that he employs one person to clean up around his Wriggleville [sic] bar after Cubs games and that one person is able to clean sufficiently."
What does Sam's comment tell us? It tells us that in Wriggleville, Sam (properly) has to pay to clean up all of the trash and vomit that his patrons spew on the sidewalk in front of his extremely profitable bar. But at his Lincoln Avenue bar, clever Sam Sanchez can wriggle out of his responsibilities and make residents and small businesses foot the bill. Isn't that just brilliant?

(You can read all of the minutes at There's some interesting stuff in there. A minimal level of transparency is one concession I managed to squeeze out of these thieves with great difficulty. But if residents don't have time to watchdog these crooks, they will get away with whatever they want despite the transparency. Neer Patel, whom I helped get onto the commission as the residential representative -- can you believe that, they had to be coerced to get a resident commissioner on a tax that is being paid 84% by residents? -- doesn't seem to have any objection at all.)

Is this all Sam's fault for being such a shrewd businessman? Residents of Lincoln Park sure think his restaurant's great. And so does Ald. Daley, who holds many of her fundraisers there.

Or is this Gina Caruso's fault? Gina's a high-level commissioner at Chicago's Department of Planning and Development. Gina and her pal Brad Leibov, another perky city planner, first came up with the sneaky idea of taking a simple statutory tax like the SSA (normally for basic infrastructure, like paving roads) and repurposing it to prey on the greedy instincts of filthy-rich bar owners and cash-strapped chambers of commerce. It's the same thing Daley's clever whiz-kids did with TIFs, except these are on a mini-level that aldermen can fully control.

So, is it Ald. Vi Daley's fault? Vi is the one who has repeatedly ignored my requests for help on these things. Five years ago, I had a meeting with her and (very nicely) asked her for trash cans on Lincoln Avenue and additional lighting in the alley. She completely ignored me, perhaps because I didn't offer her a big campaign contribution at the same meeting. That usually gets a lot done in this city. Instead, she pushed the SSA tax through and packed the commission with her friends.

When, defeated on the tax issue, I made repeated requests to use much of these extra taxes for security services, porta-johns, and trash cans, they giggled, and wriggled, and spent it instead on dozens of $800 cast-iron streetlamp flowerpots -- just what Sam Sanchez wanted for Christmas.

I really don't know who's responsible for this. All I know is that it's now 4 a.m. on Friday morning, and Vi Daley's sleeping soundly on Hudson Street while my son and I are wide awake on Lincoln Avenue. The screaming continues outside, and it will go on tomorrow night and the next night.

Vi, maybe you can tell me who's responsible for all of this.

P.S. Here's a tidbit from the end of the minutes of that same January, 2010 SSA meeting, regarding re-election of the commission:
"Sanchez expressed that he is planning on building a new restaurant and needs less responsibility. Patel asked if there were any term limit issues. Dineen explained there were none. Proposed 2010 officers are: Patel-chair; Quartana-vice chair; Simkus-treasurer. Motion to approve 2010 Lincoln SSA #35 officers. Motion seconded. Motion unanimously approved."
Let's set aside the little detail that the SSA is supposed to have five commissioners. Note two things: that multimillionaire Sanchez will momentarily step away from the SSA duties, though he certainly knows just what a powerful, unregulated cash cow this is. But, even more importantly, SSA officers get to re-elect themselves, with no term limits! Now, who came up with that clever idea? It sounds like something the mayor himself could have cooked up!