January 14, 2003

Liquor license revoked by community referendum

Once known as "Baby Skid Row," the Woodlawn neighborhood just south of campus recently passed a referendum banning liquor sales in a small precinct in the western part of the community. The referendum is specifically directed at barring the sale of alcohol at Steve's Food and Liquor on 63rd Street and Lawrence Avenue. Local activists argue that Steve's brings crime, prostitution, and illegal drug sales to the neighborhood.

"There is strong evidence that bars and street corners where liquor is publicly consumed often become lightning rods for crime," said economics professor Steve Levitt, who teaches the economics of crime at the University.

With this decision, residents of Woodlawn continue to send the message that the crime and gang activity that has plagued Woodlawn since the 1960s will not be tolerated.

"The referendum sent a pretty clear message to others who operate businesses in the Woodlawn community that are perceived as undesirable by community residents, that they need to clean up their act," said Rudy Nimocks, executive director of the University police.

Residents contend that the referendum is just one of many steps they will take to rid the neighborhood of crime and fear. With its growing diversity, and the addition of 140 new homes costing up to $300,000 along 63rd Street between Stony Island and Kimbark Avenue, officials expect to see positive changes in the Woodlawn area.

"Crime seems to be gradually going away in Woodlawn because of the community activism that's taking place," Nimocks said. "Combined with vigorous enforcement of ordinances and statutes related to the problem, the community's collaborative efforts with police and community organizations are creating change."

According to Nimocks, Woodlawn residents almost single-handedly led efforts to keep Steve's Food and Liquor from selling alcohol.

The neighborhood has begun experiencing a dramatic facelift as a result of recent renewal initiatives. For 30 years, there were no banks in the Woodlawn area. Recently, two banks have located there, along with numerous new residents from other parts of the city.

Growing numbers of University students, faculty, and staff are also joining the community, which has resulted in plans to increase the University police force by six officers, Nimocks said.

"Before all of the community effort, there were a lot of unsavory people hanging out over there [near Steve's Food and Liquor]," he said. "People were afraid to come out of their homes at night and during the day."

Reverend Stanley Watkins, consultant and campaign manager to 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, believes that the efforts of the community will help stave off negative influences and bring investment back into the neighborhood.

"Steve's Food and Liquor, this particular site, created an environment that bred a lot of negative influences," Watkins said. "Those influences could deter investors and government from helping the neighborhood. But community efforts have brought significant investment of public and private dollars for renovation and new construction."

Steve's Food and Liquor, despite the nearly unanimous community vote to ban it, argues it has a right to exist and has filed an appeal. Pending a decision, the owner, Jamal Al-Sallal, was able to re-apply for and gain a new liquor license from the mayor's License Commission.

Al-Sallal was unavailable for comment.

The surrounding community, which has picketed at Steve's Food and Liquor since last summer, does not intend to leave the store alone any time soon.

"We're sending a message that if it's not good for the community, then we don't want it to be here. If Steve's Food and Liquor was doing what it was supposed to do, there wouldn't have been complaints filed. It's a magnet for certain activities. And on November 5, the community overwhelmingly voted to make this district dry."

Al-Sallal's appeal will be heard in the circuit court of Cook County on February 19.