Tattoo Or Not Tattoo: Aprimer in Chicago Politics

We call Chicago The Great American City not because its so great; we call it that because its so American. And by American, we mean it really, really likes money. The unfettered love of capitalism in Chicago is its hallmark. Tear down landmarks, pave the parks, rename the stadiums: whatever it takes to make a buck.

So imagine Keith Underwood’s surprise when he was told that he would not be allowed to open a tattoo parlor on the 1100 block of West Taylor Street. Tattoos are hot fashion right now, and not just among the lumpenproletariat or hipster crowd. Sunny public relations associates lift up Diesel pant legs to reveal butterflies or angels on their ankles; computer programmers with slouched shoulders and bad skin will peel back sleeves to show the nautical stars or Chicago flags on their upper arms. Any tattoo parlor, especially one located in the vicinity of a college campus as Underwood’s proposed parlor would be, figures to be a huge success.

But Underwood was told, point-blank, No. And the reason why — and how — it could happen tells us all something about how Chicago’s political system really works.

Underwood, like any good businessman and citizen, brought his proposal for a tattoo parlor to the University Village Association, a non-political organization of “concerned interests’ who are to serve, supposedly, as an advisory board for planning and development in the Taylor Street neighborhood. Theoretically, the University Village Association has absolutely no say in whether or not Underwood can open his business or not. Except when they can, which is now.

The men and women who sit on the UVA’s board are all representatives of major real estate interests, UIC, the Illinois Medical District (including Rush-Presbyterian), and Chicago power-broker, Operation Greylord casualty and eccentric millionaire Oscar D’Angelo. So when issues come to the attention of the central zoning and permit committees in the City Council, it is only natural that they turn to locals for advice. And what locals could possibly give better advice than the one manned by the people who own everything?

So the UVA’s “no” was essentially a “no” from the City.

Underwood appealed to the neighborhood, handing out fliers introducing himself and holding a Meet The Proprietor type meeting at a local bar. Underwood did his best to show everybody present, which included neighbors, UVA representatives, and emissaries from 25th Ward Alderman and HDO chairman Danny Solis that he was legit. The erstwhile tattoo artist — who, we were informed, holds a US patent for a safer tattoo gun and has won numerous awards for his craft — talked about his commitment to the neighborhood, where he and his wife reside, and showed his skill for business by narrating a spiffy Powerpoint presentation.

No dice. UVA board members and, to be fair, a few neighboring business proprietors, grumbled about the potential clientele. Specifically, they were worried about “bikers and gangbangers.” And, I suppose, they have a point. I mean, we’ve all seen bikers and gangbangers. They all have tattoos! Have you ever seen a tattoo-less gangbanger? It’s kind of part-and-parcel of the whole gangbanger thing. But you know what else gangbangers do? Eat. Buy cigarettes and alcohol. And candy. All of which they can do on Taylor Street. To be less smug about it, their argument was specious.

Don Oder, the president of the UVA, made matters worse when he informed the increasingly agitated audience that the UVA was under no obligation to bend to the majority in this instance. When pressed, D’Angelo jumped to his defense, asking the assembled, “You think every time I take a vote, I do a plebiscite?” Maybe he expected warm-hearted laughter, but it was chilling.

The UVA is a non-governmental, non-elected committee run by the major interests in the area, and they use their clout with City Hall as a club against independent business people on Taylor Street and the surrounding area; that would be bad enough, but they have also attacked the CHA and challenged the renovation and rebuilding of the squat housing projects in the area. They want them completely eliminated. And the residents of the Taylor Street area, once known as “The Patch,” have no say in what happens; and the UVA makes no bones about it.

This problem isn’t specific to Taylor Street, either. For every neighborhood, there is a “community organization” that represents the major interests and has exclusive access to the ears at City Hall. The Bucktown Community Organization, supposedly a community enterprise, serves the real estate powerhouses in that neighborhood. The Near South Planning Board has dictated the major changes in the South Loop over the last few years. Edgewater, Bronzeville, Beverly, Archer Heights, the Near North all feature groups with varying levels of power and influence — not all malevolent, but almost all exclusionary and therefore dangerous. Hyde Park is especially plagued with such community associations, and I use the word plagued because many of them have conflicting views and agendas. The historied and esteemed HPKCC — Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference — has always fought, though often ineffectively, for a compromise between the Universty of Chicago’s expansionist “redevelopment” aims and peace with the neighboring (read: Black) community.

In many ways, these neighborhood associations and real estate developers groups have replaced the traditional Chicago precinct captain organization. There are still thousands of precinct captains in Chicago, but can you name yours? There was a time when your captain was your direct link to the Alderman. Well, actually, your building or street captain would have been a link to your block captain, who would be your link to the precinct captain, who would be a link to the Ward’s Democratic Committeeman, who would then tell your Alderman what to do. Except when they were the same person. The precinct machine mobilized opinion and regulated the neighborhood based on what was sure to bring in the most votes. This seems to have been traded for what can bring the most money into the neighborhood, relying on voter apathy to keep the incumbent in power.

Meanwhile, Keith Underwood sits at home with fallow ink, wondering why an unelected club for the wealthy won’t let him work.

Wanna put in a word for Keith Underwood? Call the UVA at (312) 243-3773, or email Alderman Danny Solis (25th) at [email protected]