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The Dry Season

In recent years, Chicago has become a tough town in which to get a liquor license. Credit Mayor Daley’s strict policies on booze—and enforcement by a stern and obscure bureaucrat.

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Let’s face it: Chicago is no longer a shot-and-a-beer town. The rep lingers, but reality has moved on, sort of like the notion of the Chicago Bears as skull-cracking Monsters of the Midway. The city of neighborhoods was once the city of neighborhood taverns. No more. There are just over half as many taverns in the city today (1,479) as there were a decade ago (2,728).

This isn’t just a reflection of the changing attitudes toward drinking in America, though that is certainly a part of it. It is more squarely the result of the aggressive liquor policy of Mayor Richard M. Daley, with an assist from numerous aldermen. In one respect, the mayor has cleaned up the town, creating stringent new liquor licensing procedures that keep out the riffraff, including organized crime, more effectively than in the past. His administration has shut down scores of bad bars and troublesome taverns with histories of selling drugs, serving minors, or disturbing the neighbors.

In another respect, though, the clampdown on Chicago’s drinking life has eroded one of the city’s special charms, a development that troubles Ray Oldenburg, a retired sociologist whose widely praised 1989 book The Great Good Place celebrated neighborhood bars, coffee shops, bookstores, and salons as being at the heart of communities. “I guess the city is being rendered safe for puritans,” he says. In Chicago, bars that are purely places to drink are a diminishing breed; in at least some parts of the city, it’s nearly impossible to get a liquor license if you don’t serve food. “If someone came in here wanting to get a tavern license, I’d pretty much let them know right up front that the answer is no,” says North Side alderman Vi Daley (43rd). “We haven’t done a tavern license in a long time.”

Some 37 of the city’s 50 wards are covered at least in part by moratoriums prohibiting new liquor licenses-except for restaurants. “That’s why there are so many Bar Louies,” complains one of the city’s prominent restaurateurs.

It’s not that restaurants have it easy, either. Even upscale restaurants backed by well-known owners and chefs routinely open without their liquor licenses, due to the arduous application process, which requires, among other things, that every investor&38212;and investor’s spouse-be fingerprinted for a police background check. “Every opening is without a license,” the prominent restaurateur says. “When Mia Francesca opened on Bryn Mawr, the license was three weeks late. There were seven [other Francesca restaurants] already. C’mon!”

While many cities have instituted more restrictive liquor policies in recent years, it’s particularly striking to see it happen in Chicago. Yes, the temperance movement had deep roots here. But if ever there was a city whose history has been tied up with booze, this is it. “Free-flowing alcohol is what cemented the original relationships between fur trappers, settlers, soldiers, and local Indians in the 1600s and 1700s,” Robert G. Spinney wrote in his history, City of Big Shoulders (2000). In 1855, Mayor Levi Boone, of the Know-Nothing Party, touched off the Lager Beer Riot when he banned alcohol sales on Sundays. Al Capone built his empire as a bootlegger. In 1931, Anton Cermak was elected in part on a pledge to end Prohibition; the mayor was known as the “wettest man in Chicago.” And let’s not forget that when Alderman “Paddy” Bauler famously declared Chicago was not ready for reform, he worked out of a saloon that doubled as his ward office. The “wets” and “drys” have always competed for power in Chicago.

Daley isn’t dry. But though he’s not a teetotaler, he certainly is not wet.

About a year ago, Jerry Roper, the president and chief executive of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, acting on business owners’ rising frustration with the city’s liquor policy and its stranglehold on the hospitality industry, arranged a meeting with Daley’s liquor czar, Winston Mardis. Roper had a single question: Why has it become so hard to get a liquor license in Chicago?

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