Taverns and booze are entwined with Chicago's history and lore — from Al Capone's bootlegging empire to the tavern owner whose curse on the Cubs is blamed for keeping them out of the World Series for a half century. But the dark, cool watering holes where for decades laborers dropped by for a belt on the way home are drying up.
The city that once boasted as many 7,600 taverns in the early 1900s has just over 1,300 today. Now Mayor Richard Daley (search) is pushing an ordinance that would make it easier to close taverns — the latest volley in a battle against the kinds of liquor-selling establishments that some say are magnets for everything from prostitution to littering.
Add to that rapidly changing neighborhoods and a growing number of upscale residents who'd rather see a bistro than a bar on the corner, and it keeps getting tougher to find an honest-to-goodness bar to belly up to.
"The neighborhood bar used to be the country club of the community," said John Kelly, whose father opened Kelly's Pub the day after Prohibition ended and who started running it in 1957. "They've kind of gone by the wayside."
It's a similar story in other cities, including Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston. One official thinks the trend will continue, in large part because elected officials don't want to be seen as advocates for bars.
"If it's going to be (a liquor license) for a chi chi restaurant with a celebrity chef, wonderful," said Daniel Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board. "But if it's for a corner bar, forget it... They are deathly afraid of their own shadows in those situations."
In Chicago's days gone by, poor and blue-collar neighborhoods looked to taverns as community centers, hiring halls, and banks. Often it seemed taverns were the only places to watch a ball game or just escape the sweltering heat.
Though those days were long gone by the time Daley took office in 1989, there still were well over 3,000 taverns in the city.
Intent on making Chicago a more attractive and family-friendly city, Daley pointed to the corner tavern. Careful to say he wasn't opposed to all of them, the mayor said some were havens for crime, garbage and noise. As evidence that the mayor is not trying to impose his own kind of Prohibition, city officials point out that the number of restaurants that serve alcohol has actually climbed in recent years.
Still, in Daley's first full year on the job, the Liquor Control Commission revoked 49 liquor licenses, compared with 11 the year before he took office. Since then, about 1,000 licenses for taverns, liquor stores and other businesses that sell liquor have been revoked.
Daley also dusted off a largely unknown law that allows residents to vote their precincts dry.
Since 1990, dozens of precincts have been voted dry (a handful have been voted wet), putting many taverns, liquor stores and restaurants out of business. Today, some 430 of the city's 2,706 precincts are dry.
The city initiated an aggressive sting operation in which the police sent minors into taverns to see if they'd sell them liquor. And Daley pushed for a state law — which ultimately passed in the mid-1990s — that allowed voters to shut down individual liquor-serving establishments.
Many residents were receptive to Daley's efforts.
"I didn't want to send my kids to the grocery store because they'd have to walk past it," Felicia Sciascia said of a tavern with a soundtrack that routinely included shattering glass, fights and even gunfire for years until it closed last year.
Tavern owners and others say some of the loudest complaints have come not from longtime residents like Sciascia but from newcomers who are turning once blue-collar enclaves into pricey hot spots.
"These people move in, pay $1 million or $2 million for houses and they have a little bit of a feeling they are entitled to say what the neighborhood should be," said Timothy Glascott, whose father in 1937 opened a tavern that today is Glascott's Groggery.
"It's like the way people will buy a house under the flight path at O'Hare and complain about the noise," said Perry Duis, author of "The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920," and a University of Illinois-Chicago history professor.
A vote-dry referendum that came close to getting on the ballot in one precinct in the early 1990s could have forced the closure of the acclaimed restaurant Charlie Trotter's. Trotter said he would have left the city had the referendum passed — but understands residents' concerns.
"The bars are filthy and nasty behind them, they smell like urine (and they're) noisy," he said. "If I were a neighbor living here and had to deal with... these grim, pathetic places, I would get mad enough to vote the neighborhood dry."
Daley is seeking a new ordinance that would enable residents to take on individual taverns. Under his proposal, the burden of proof would be on the owners of bars or liquor stores to show they aren't hurting their neighborhoods.
"A good liquor store can be a worthwhile part of a commercial strip," Daley said when he announced the plan last month. "But a bad liquor establishment can destroy the quality of life."
But others counter that all taverns are at risk, whether they are run responsibly or not. And that, they say, will ultimately hurt the city.
"We complain about the fact that we've become cities of strangers," said Duis, "and yet for some strange reason we go out and destroy places where people meet face to face."