Prohibition: All About Economics

'90s Twist

They say history repeats itself. Well, maybe we're in the 1920s all over again.

Dancers are filling ballrooms. The economy's been roaring. And, particularly in Chicago, prohibition is making a comeback.

Residents have filed 53 petitions to shut down liquor stores or make neighborhoods "dry" - a city record.

Perhaps that's not surprising, given Chicago's long history of acrimony over alcohol. One of its suburbs is home to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a key force during Prohibition. And Al Capone and his gun-wielding heavies famously kept liquor flowing in the '20s.

Today, however, anti-alcohol efforts aren't about morals. They're about economics. Many of the 53 petitions for this fall's ballot were filed in poor, mostly black neighborhoods. Residents say liquor stores attract shady customers and make other businesses leery of coming in. In the South Side's Roseland neighborhood, for instance, there are 25 liquor stores along a 21-block stretch - and little else.

"These businesses, with the loitering, prostitution, and drugs they attract, put an economic stranglehold on a community," says the Rev. James Meeks, pastor of the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago and a prime player in the petition drive.

Chicago's move to crack down on liquor stores mirrors other revolts in different areas around the country.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for instance, black residents prevented the rebuilding of many of the 100 or so liquor stores that were burned out.

And more recently, residents in Indianapolis's west side persuaded the owner of several liquor stores to close the one in their neighborhood last year. This year, neighborhood groups in West Phoenix, Ariz., shut down two liquor stores.

But today, as before, Chicago is leading the way in the great alcohol debate, and according to Mr. Meeks, the prosperity of communities hangs in the balance.

While some businesses along Roseland's grimy but busy streets thrive - Foot Locker, for example, and a Family Dollar general store - many store fronts are boarded up.

The liquor stores and bars such as Hilltop Liquors, Ralph's Place, and The Why Not Lounge often attract listless groups of men who perch out front. The occasional prostitute lingers nearby.

A turning point?

If the dry initiatives pass, 38 liquor stores and bars would be forced to close in this area alone. Meeks, whose double-spired, former Roman Catholic church stands near the main street, says the initiatives are a turning point for his neighborhood. "There's not a white community in this country that would stand for this," he says of the oversaturation of liquor stores. "But minority communities are used to just playing the hand we're dealt. Now that's changing."

For Chicagoans, closing liquor stores is a way of addressing the underlying problem in their neighborhoods: a lack of new money and jobs. "I can continue to treat the symptoms of poverty by handing out food," says Meeks. "But why not treat the root cause?"

Taking this road less traveled, however, can be tough. In the spirit of Al Capone's hand-greasing bribes and his mobsters dressing up as cops to fake out rival groups, there's a fair amount of chicanery in today's alcohol battles, too.

Thirteen of this year's petitions were filed by liquor-store owners themselves. They won't explain, but it's likely that they plan to yank their signature collections at the last minute to try to make the initiatives fail.

And while no mob-style brass knuckles have shown up yet, a resident says opposing forces have supposedly told signature-seekers in ominous tones that they "could get hurt out here."

That's where the churches come in. Says one church staff member, "We're the big brother backing them up."

But while individual liquor-store owners are reluctant to allow their shops to be closed - and declined to be interviewed about the petitions - the industry as a whole says it wants to help address residents' concerns.

In fact, it is backing the city in trimming the number of liquor licenses, thus cutting down on overcrowding.

It also wants the city to fix up troubled neighborhoods. When streetlights are broken, roads are potholed, and there are too many liquor stores, "you create natural dens of scurrilous activity," says Paul Jenkins, an industry spokesman.

Concerns about the petitions

But to impose blanket prohibitions could hurt neighborhoods economically, he says. "If you throw the good out with the bad, you're throwing out jobs." He estimates 5,000 to 7,000 jobs would be lost if all the initiatives succeed.

There are other problems with prohibition, critics add, saying that's why it was repealed in 1933. For one thing, bootleggers like Capone thrived, and corruption mounted. Today, observers worry that residents might drive out of the neighborhood to get liquor - and drive back drunk. Closing so many businesses would also leave many vacant buildings, a further drag on the economy and community morale.

But for Meeks and others, getting rid of the stores is just the first step.

His church recently bought an old liquor store and is installing the city's largest Christian bookstore. As the young pastor proudly tours the about-to-be opened, Barnes-&-Noble-like store, complete with cafe, children's puppet theater, and music section, he says, "See what can happen when you get rid of liquor stores?"

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