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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The short answer: Because that's the way Daley wants it. Even during the 1989 special primary, before he was first elected mayor, Daley thought Chicago was awash in neighborhood nuisances, and he consulted with experts about how to gain greater control over liquor licensing in the city. "A bad liquor establishment can tear the fabric of a neighborhood and send it into a decline," he would later declare. (Daley did not comment for this story.)
By state law, the mayor is the city's liquor commissioner. But in practical terms, the job's daily decision making falls to the director of the Mayor's License Commission and Local Liquor Control Commission. After he became mayor, Daley appointed a little-known bureaucrat named Winston Mardis to that job. His ability to implement the mayor's vision is the (not so secret) key to his success. "If he didn't do the mayor's bidding, he wouldn't have lasted," says former Far Southeast Side alderman John Buchanan (10th), who was often at odds with Daley and Mardis.
Mardis, who describes himself as a moderate drinker, is known as a tough operator whose strict adherence to the letter of the law and closely guarded decision-making style have infuriated liquor purveyors. Peeved aldermen who feel he doesn't accord them the attention they deserve have occasionally called for his resignation. And yet, Mardis has managed to keep a relatively low public profile.
(His job performance, however-good or bad-is bound to come up when the results are in from a Cook County grand jury investigation and from a separate investigation ordered by Daley, both examining the E2 nightclub tragedy in February, when 21 people died. Mardis apparently had been trying to revoke E2's liquor license in the months prior to the tragedy because of various alleged violations.)
No one denies that Mardis has a tough job-or that he rules with an iron fist. Perhaps his disciplined approach and attention to detail explain how he survived and apparently thrived inside City Hall for 12 years before becoming the city's liquor czar.
Mardis, 50, grew up in Hyde Park with at least some exposure to politics. His family was friends with Cecil Partee, the former state senate president and Cook County state's attorney. Mardis left the city to earn a political science degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then returned and took a job in the city's Department of Human Services.
His early assignments-specialist on aging and disability; running the Meals on Wheels program-were not sexy, but he must have made an impression. It also did not hurt that he was friends with a longtime Daley fundraiser and former park district board chairman, the financial manager John Rogers Jr. Rogers, who is now an economic adviser to Governor Rod Blagojevich, reportedly recommended Mardis to Frank Kruesi, who was Daley's policy chief at the time and now is the head of the Chicago Transit Authority. ("I have no comment on that," Mardis says.)
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Daley's liquor policy is clearly informed by his vision of the city as an orderly, clean, family-friendly place. In his first year in office, he set about reworking the city's liquor ordinance, making it tougher to get a license, and giving residents a say in allowing new liquor establishments in their neighborhoods.
The city's new rules required notification, with invitation to comment, to voters living within 250 feet of any establishment seeking a new liquor license; disclosure of the names of all financial backers owning 5 percent or more of the business; and increased dram shop insurance coverage. The city even began requiring liquor license applicants to pay all outstanding parking tickets and water bills.
The new rules sparked problems almost immediately, best exemplified by the Great Beer Garden Brouhaha. In the fall of 1989, the city decided to require a separate new license-at a cost of $418-for beer gardens. Obtaining the license involved, at minimum, a seven-week ordeal, including a visit to the Building Department to get a list of addresses within 250 feet of the beer garden, and to the Board of Election Commissioners to get a list of voters at those addresses. License applicants next had to mail out certified letters to those voters and wait 30 days for responses. Only then could the application be filed-initiating a 21-day period for fire, health, and building inspections.
When the next beer garden season arrived, applications from more than 100 businesses were still pending. Dozens of livid tavern and restaurant owners jammed a license appeal commission meeting in protest-to no avail. Nevertheless, two tavern owners sued the city, and won. Cook County judge Kenneth Gillis declared that the new procedure was a poor substitute for what could be accomplished merely by better policing of rowdy beer gardens. The lack of consistent licensing standards, Gillis said, created a situation where "every government official can be a tyrant."
The city was sent back to the drawing board. Still, the Great Beer Garden Brouhaha was just a sign of things to come, the beginning of a battle between City Hall and owners of taverns and restaurants that has lasted to this day.
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Over the years, the Daley administration has tried a variety of measures to crack down on liquor establishments, including an aggressive sting program involving undercover minors. In 1993, Daley said the city had "far too many liquor licenses" and called for a freeze on new licenses. It's hard to know if the mayor was serious or just keeping the pressure on. No new bars or restaurants that serve alcohol at all? It's hard to imagine a robust Chicago under those conditions.
"We are not looking to systematically reduce the number of licenses in Chicago," Mardis says. "Absolutely not." And in fact, while the number of tavern and liquor store licenses has dropped dramatically in the past decade, the number of incidental licenses-for restaurants and other establishments that do not serve primarily liquor-has risen slightly (1,610 to 1,881).
But it sure can be tough to get a new license. Besides the stringent measures Daley has installed and Mardis has enforced, aldermen have developed their own tool for controlling liquor in their wards: the moratorium. And citizens also have a tool at their disposal that they are wielding often: the power to vote entire precincts dry.
Aldermen can slap moratoriums on new liquor licenses in areas as small as two blocks throughout their wards. Existing licenses are allowed to stay in these areas, and existing or new restaurants and hotels can apply for licenses, but no new bars or liquor stores can open. (An alderman can lift a moratorium to allow an establishment he or she wants to open, though the moratorium then cannot be put back into effect for a year.)
The stringent policy has its proponents. "I really feel that that ordinance has probably done more towards the renaissance that is occurring throughout the city of Chicago than all of the dollars that you could spend on putting new sidewalks in, putting new trees in, things like that," says North Side alderman Eugene Schulter (47th), who wrote the moratorium ordinance. "It's almost being used as a zoning tool. It was felt years ago that the biggest problem we had in the city of Chicago was those bar owners [who] had really bad establishments, and you [had to go] through this lengthy process of trying to revoke their liquor licenses."
While the moratoriums have had a tremendous impact, it's the dry precinct movement that has really caught the imagination of the public-and the mayor. Daley has directed city agencies to aggressively counsel residents about how to vote their precincts dry, once prompting Jerry Rosen, one of the state's top liquor lobbyists, to say, "He's been anti-restaurant, anti-lounge, anti-alcohol all along, and he just keeps going. He's trying to cripple the industry."
Sometimes just the threat of a dry vote is enough to get area bars and restaurants to clean up their act. In 1992, residents of the 41st precinct of the 43rd Ward filed petitions to get a vote-dry referendum on the ballot. Among the 14 establishments selling liquor at that time in that precinct: Charlie Trotter's.
Trotter threatened to leave town if the referendum succeeded. Residents halted the referendum after bar and restaurant owners agreed to provide additional security and a litter patrol.
In 1998, residents of Marina City threatened to vote their precinct dry because of noise and after-hours ruckuses emanating from the House of Blues, at the base of the corncob towers. Their alderman, Burton Natarus (42nd), intervened to settle the matter. "When you vote an area dry, you really rip the economic vitality out of the whole area," says Natarus.
Daley later acknowledged that the dry precinct mechanism wasn't intended to shut down vibrant downtown hot spots.
But it could happen. Natarus still bemoans a vote in 1982 that left the southeast corner of State and Division Streets dry. "There were many, many opportunities with regard to State and Division where high-grade restaurants-French, Italian, what have you-wanted to go in there," he says, "but they wouldn't rent the space because it was dry and they couldn't get a liquor license." Recently, a bank was in negotiations to occupy the property.
Some aldermen representing poorer wards also think the dry precinct movement has stifled economic development. "Taverns are not the problem," says Far Southeast Side alderman William Beavers (7th). "When I was elected over here they had five times as many taverns as I have now. They ‘kept community.' A guy could walk to the neighborhood bar." He cites a stretch of 75th Street where taverns were banned nearly 30 years ago. "All we've got there now is storefront churches and abandoned stores," he says.
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Woodlawn Tap is a Hyde Park institution where Nobel Prize winners famously quaff beers with students, police officers, tradesmen, and all manner of neighborhood folk. The tavern is so integral to the University of Chicago community that after the death in 1999 of the founder, Jimmy Wilson, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution in his memory that read, in part, "Jimmy Wilson and the Woodlawn Tap built a tradition of bringing together community residents . . . crossing divides of race, class, and ethnicity." The resolution concluded with the "fond hope that his institution, the Woodlawn Tap, continues to thrive."
But the tavern lives today only because it survived a near-death experience with Mardis. A few months after Wilson died, the bar's liquor license needed to be renewed. Because the license had been in Wilson's name, however, a new application was required. Wilson's longtime bar managers, Jim and Bill Callahan, who had taken over the bar, closed for a year while upgrading the building to meet the new inspection standards that went along with their application. But then a nearby resident objected, pointing out to city bureaucrats that the bar was 89 feet from St. Thomas the Apostle church and school-violating a city ordinance requiring bars to be at least 100 feet from schools. In fact, the bar was 89 feet from the parking lot, not the actual building. But no matter. Mardis rejected the application.
A campaign was mounted on behalf of the tavern. The Chicago Tribune editorialized that the Daley administration needed to come to its senses, and the Liquor Appeal Commission, where Mardis's decisions can go for review, decided that the parking lot really belonged to the church, not the school, and thus the bar was not in violation.
The case of the Woodlawn Tap isn't unusual. The list of bars and restaurants that have had harrowing experiences with Mardis is long. Mardis insists that, with the exception of the citizen objection process, it isn't harder to get a liquor license today than it was in 1989. But that's not what many bar and restaurant owners say. "Maybe it's the way it's perceived," Mardis says. "I have been appointed to review applications at this commission and to regulate all city licenses, including liquor, and also to approve liquor licenses. That's my job and that's what I do."
One thing is for sure: Mardis is feared, enough so that many bar and restaurant owners would not recount their tales for publication. Restaurateurs like to point out, though, that such well-known enterprises as Spring, Capital Grille, MK, and Nine have opened without initially being able to serve liquor. A long wait for a license is the rule, not the exception, industry insiders say. Indeed, getting a liquor license-and keeping it-is the most challenging part of opening a restaurant in Chicago, says chef Ted Cizma, who in 1999 founded the widely acclaimed but now shuttered Grace, on Randolph Street. Cizma recalls that a renewal of his liquor license was once delayed because he had an unpaid ticket for an overflowing garbage can. In 2001, Cizma opened Elaine in Naperville. It took him just two days to get his liquor license (and building permits). In Chicago, Cizma says, it had taken him six months.
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Mardis isn't a favorite among pols, either. He is required to appear annually before the City Council's budget committee, where aldermen sometimes take out their frustrations against him. In 1996, two aldermen, John Buchanan and the Northwest Side's Ray Suarez (31st), tore into Mardis for not returning their phone calls. "You should be available to us," an agitated Suarez said. "You're the head of the department!"
Mardis responded coolly. "I talk to aldermen routinely," he said, "but the calls are deflected to my attorney if it's regarding a pending application. Every alderman has their idea of how they think government should operate. Unfortunately, we can't make all of them happy."
A month later, South Side alderman Shirley Coleman (16th), joined by five other aldermen, called a press conference and demanded that Mardis resign. Coleman's central indictment: Mardis's arrogance.
In 1998, some state legislators, angry over the severity of Mardis's penalties against wayward taverns, threatened to pass a bill that would have given a three-member legislative committee the power to overrule Mardis's decisions. "It's unfortunate when I have people talk to me who would like to open a business in the city but who are scared to do so because of the reputation Mr. Mardis has garnered for himself," state representative John Fritchey (D-Chicago) said at the time.
In 2001, Alderman (and budget committee chairman) William Beavers, angered at what was then a four-month delay on a liquor license for a Midway Airport concessionaire, said of Mardis: "He's on a power trip. There's something wrong with him." (Two years later, the concessionaire's license is still pending.)
At Mardis's most recent budget committee appearance, last October, Natarus returned to the theme of Mardis's inscrutability. "Are you more sacrosanct than the CIA?" Natarus said. "What is so secret? Is this a matter of national security . . . ?"
I asked Mardis about the succession of angry aldermen. "I have no comment on any aldermen getting upset," he said. "I'm here to do a job."
And to be fair, a few aldermen usually praise Mardis during hearings, though with a touch of obsequious flattery. In any case, the city's aldermen are a somewhat erratic bunch for whom influence, proper or not, is the coin of the realm. They are not necessarily given to doing things by the book if that diminishes their power. Beavers, after all, is described in his official bio as "a master of the backroom deals." I asked Mardis if in fact he wasn't trying to insulate himself from even the appearance of backroom dealing. "The aldermen certainly have the ability to introduce ordinances through the City Council, and then whatever passes, I'll enforce," he said.
Mayor Daley has passionately defended Mardis. After Natarus called the liquor ordinance confusing during a 1996 City Council meeting, Daley bristled. "I just want to congratulate Winston Mardis and all those involved who have withstood a lot of attacks," he declared, "and say to you this is the first time that citizens [have the power], not the lobbyists, not the liquor money and all those involved dealing with the liquor industry. They are not good citizens. Some are, but they will not say there is one bad liquor establishment in the city of Chicago."
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It wasn't the Lager Beer Riot, but a surprising development on the Northwest Side this past February had to hearten those who thought the city had gone too far in bringing the liquor industry to heel. Three precincts in the Edgebrook neighborhood that had been dry since 1947 voted themselves wet. "I thought it was time," says Donna Dynek, a drugstore manager who led the vote-wet campaign. "The neighborhood is rolling. The empty nesters have moved out, and the new residents are coming from Lincoln Park and Near North and all the areas where you walk out your door and you've got a choice of 20 places to go to. Would a wine boutique do well here? It would probably be packed."
Dynek denies rumors, however, that she'll start stocking wine and beer in her drugstore. She has no plans to sell liquor herself. "I would never want to go through the licensing procedure," she says.
Research assistance by Drew Adamek
Below is a map depicting the geography of local liquor regulation.
The legend is as follows:
Maroon: Moratorium, meaning new liquor licenses are prohibited for taverns and package stores.
Orange: Dry, meaning liquor sales of any kind are prohibited.
Light brown: Partially dry, meaning liquor sales are permitted in certain areas.
Yellow: Areas where liquor sales are permitted only in liquor stores and other package retailers.