One fact that few people know about me is that before I went to law school, I was a working stiff journalist (Medill, MSJ ‘73), and I spent a fair part of my life attending various meetings. So I was a bit surprised, even dismayed when I saw the headline on the Roscoe View Journal’s article about the meeting at which South Lakeview Neighbors discussed, then voted on a “special use” permit for a hookah lounge: “Proposed Hookah Lounge Meets Ethnic Prejudice at SLVN Meeting.” I wasn’t sure that Mr. Fourcher and I had been at the same meeting.
But first a bit of background. The developer needs a “special use” permit for his hookah lounge. Although the Chicago zoning code puts the responsibility for granting special uses on the Zoning Board of Appeals (§ 17-13-0901 and following), our alderman has a policy of letting the neighborhood organizations in his ward give an advisory vote on any zoning matters. So I scheduled the proposal for our inaugural meeting of the new year. My only prior knowledge of the proposal came via a two-page “business plan” for the Shisha Lounge, reprised in our newsletter which had been distributed the prior week. SLN also left flyers announcing the meeting in the mailboxes and on fences of those near the building on Belmont at Southport where the developer, Nihad Avdic proposed to build this use. Before our Sept. 6 meeting, I had received a couple of e-mails from neighbors, none favorably disposed.
As has been our custom at our meetings, I offered Mr. Avdic the floor and sat down. Not using audio-visual aids, Mr. Avdic explained the concept, described a “state of the art” ventilation system, noted that he did not intend to keep the facility open as long as his business plan had stated, and opened the floor for questions. Some of the questions bore on public concerns such as safety, whether there would be “bouncers” there; others bore on the “philosophy” of hookah bars, which apparently skirt the state’s ban on smoking in public places and provide a social outlet for those of a culture that eschews, as a matter of faith, alcohol. Neither I nor anyone else at SLN curtailed the type or tone of the questions. Were I to describe it, the attitude of the majority of those at the meeting was skeptical but respectful.
One person commented that, per a Google search on his smart phone, hookah lounges act as crime magnets (I’m paraphrasing). That may not have been a politically correct observation, but it is hardly outside the realm of polite discourse. Bars, clubs, lounges and banks also attract crime, and we put up with them. But with a murder last weekend in the 1100 block of Wrightwood (less than a mile away from this use) and a series of home invasions around the corner on Barry, public safety is a legitimate concern. Then came the bombshell. One person (I do not know who: his voice came from over my shoulder) said: “since we have bombed them, what difference does it make if some of them shoot up Belmont Avenue.” (I believe that Mr. Fourcher misquoted this comment in his article, as I recall no mention of Iraq or any other Middle Eastern or Islamic country, nor any body count.) I stood up immediately and gained control of the meeting. [Ed. Note: It was not a misquote, it was taken from an audio recording of the meeting.]
Regardless of whose recollection is correct, to suggest that casualties from our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan justify or excuse murders in Chicago is absurd, and I believe that the rest of the audience saw it as such. There were a couple of other questions and comments following that, including one from our former president Bill Haderlein. He stated that a special use had to enhance the existing community, because it would attract those from outside of it. This may not be a precise legal definition, but no tinge of “ethnic prejudice” can be found in this comment. Not long ago, a blues bar on Belmont provoked no community backlash. If a single malt scotch emporium wanted to open on Belmont and it needed a special use permit, surely we would be in our rights to worry whether the limousines and Rolls Royces transporting the blue-blazer-and-Lilly- Pulitzer-wearing-crowd from Lake Forest would cause too much commotion.
Fortunately, Ald. Waguespack was there to witness this and will undoubtedly draw his own conclusion as to whether this “special use” squares with, for instance, a new medical building four doors to the east. I have followed the on-line comments posted following Mr. Fourcher’s article and to say no more, I reject any notion that our members are parochial, narrow-minded or prejudiced. For more than half-a-century, South Lakeview Neighbors has provided an open forum for the discussion of development in our 24-square block area. We have welcomed a shelter for homeless women (the former St. Al’s convent), an art party venue (Bottles & Bottega on Lincoln), theaters and performance venues (Elbow Room, Athenaeum, Schuba’s, the Wit). We would be faithless to our past and the trust that our alderman and members place in us if we abdicated our role in overseeing the responsible development of our neighborhood.
David Duggan is the President of the South Lakeview Neighbors Association. Mr. Duggan was invited by Roscoe View Journal to respond to the September 7 article.