Ban First, Ask Questions Later | Essay | Chicago Reader

Ban First, Ask Questions Later 

Angry merchants in Wrigleyville can't believe their alderman--himself a small-business veteran--prohibited meter parking on game days without even talking to them.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

For more than 20 years before he became alderman of the 44th Ward, Tom Tunney worked full-time as a small businessman, running the Ann Sather's restaurant near the Belmont el station. So you'd figure he'd be sensitive to the needs of other small businessmen in his ward. Yet merchants along Clark between Addison and Roscoe say he didn't seem to have a clue that their businesses would be hurt when he banned parking at meters outside their stores before, during, and after Cubs games. "What were they thinking?" says Bob Roschke, who owns Bookworks, a used-book store at 3444 N. Clark. "I don't know how we can stay in business if there's no parking during games for the whole season."

According to the merchants, Mayor Daley was disgusted by the trash, debris, horn honking, and traffic congestion he saw while passing through the area one night last summer. He called Tunney, who called the business owners. "Tom told us the mayor told him he didn't want it to look like Bourbon Street around here," says one owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating Tunney and Daley. "We got a memo from Tom's office telling us that we had to do a better job of sweeping up the sidewalks."

To alleviate the congestion, a group of planners and bureaucrats from the transportation and streets and sanitation departments started meeting with Tunney last summer. By April they'd decided to ban parking at meters on Clark from two hours before games start until an hour after they end, making Clark four lanes wide from Addison to Roscoe. "It's all about giving traffic more room so it moves faster," Tunney explains. "We already ban parking at some of the meters north of Addison."

It's not clear how having just a few short blocks with four lanes is going to ease congestion much. At any rate, no one asked the merchants what impact the ban might have on their businesses--or even bothered to warn them it was coming. "The first I heard about it was when I showed up to work on opening day"--April 8--"and I saw all these tow-zone signs tied to the parking meters," says Roschke. "There was a sign tied to every meter from Clark to Roscoe." He was livid. "I know this is a relatively small thing in the total scheme of things, but this is our livelihood."

Roschke says that banning parking at meters just north of Addison during games isn't nearly as big a deal, because there are so few of them--less than a dozen. Moreover, most of the businesses near them are bars and restaurants that cater to the Cubs crowd and don't depend on customers who drop in while games are going on. But south of Addison there are 30 or so meters and a wide variety of businesses--clothing store, bank, barbershop, beauty parlor, nail salon, auto-repair shop, sign company--that do depend on such customers. And these customers don't have many alternatives, since you can't park on most of the surrounding streets unless you're a resident with a permit. "While the games are going on people are coming here to shop," says Jay Schwartz, who owns Strange Cargo, a clothing store at 3448 N. Clark. "Our customers need parking."

Eighty-one home games are scheduled this season, and a typical game takes three to four hours. That means no one can park at the meters for up to seven hours each game day and on doubleheader days from 10 AM to as late as 10 PM. Yet Clark is relatively free of traffic much of that time. "The great congestion happens after a game, when everyone's leaving at once," says Schwartz. "If you're going to close off the meters, you don't have to do it for so many hours."

Tunney's staffers weren't prepared for the calls they got from irate merchants after the ban went into effect. "I called on opening day and talked to one of Tunney's aides, who told me he didn't know anything about it," says Roschke. "Then he called me back and said it came through the city clerk's office. I'm thinking, the city clerk? What do they have to do with parking?"

Roschke called the clerk's office anyway. "I talked to a secretary who said she didn't know anything about it, and she transferred me to the city's legal department," he says. "But the phone just kept ringing--no one picked up. I think each department has a little office with a phone in it where they send calls that no one wants to answer."

Eventually Tunney's aide called back to say he'd been wrong--the ban had nothing to do with the city clerk. "He told me there was really nothing anyone could do about it, that it was there for the whole season," says Roschke. "He said it was a done deal."

Other Clark Street merchants calculated how much business they were losing, circulated petitions, passed out flyers, and cursed the city. "In its infinite wisdom, the city's fixed a problem that didn't need fixing--because, let's face it, how big a problem is this anyway, for an hour or so after a game lets out--by fucking over the small businesspeople," says another merchant who wanted to remain anonymous. "The city doesn't give a shit about small businesses."

The barrage of calls left Tunney a little irritated. Merchants say he hung up on one of them and swore at another. But he also backed away from his aide's initial assertion that the ban was a done deal. "I don't think people should get too worked up--it's only an experiment, OK?" he told me testily. "We have to make innovations. The sidewalks are very narrow. We want to provide a safe walking street. It's not permanent--if it was permanent, we'd use metal signs. We're going to evaluate the results, and we'll be meeting with people to evaluate the pros and cons, OK?"

That conversation took place on Tuesday, April 12. The next day I got calls from several merchants who told me the no-parking signs were gone, even though the Cubs were playing a doubleheader. "People are actually parked at meters again," said Roschke. "Your call to Tunney must have triggered it. It's amazing--the power of the press."

I called Tunney's office to ask why the signs were gone. It had rained, the aide explained. The signs were soggy, so the city removed them a day early and didn't bother putting up new ones for just a day. He said they'd be up again on April 22, when the Cubs were back in town.

On Friday Tunney met with eight Wrigleyville merchants, who persuaded him to compromise. So now the ban will extend only from Addison to Cornelia, and it will be in place only during Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day games and night games.

Publicly, both sides are calling it a win-win deal. Privately, the merchants are still rolling their eyes. "They're only freeing up Clark for two blocks," says one. "After Cornelia it just gets jammed again--so really, what have you saved? It's a way for Tom and the city to save face. But please keep my name out--Tom's really sensitive these days. God, I don't need him going off on me."

Most of the merchants are hoping the city will drop the ban altogether sometime over the summer, when no one's paying attention.

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ben Joravsky

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Not One Batu Berger Park Cultural Center
July 04
Performing Arts
Guards at the Taj Steppenwolf Theatre
June 13

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories