The most theatrically corrupt city in America
November 2, 2017 10:09 PM   Subscribe

The story behind the Chicago newspaper that bought a bar: "One of our customers who came in every day, suddenly said to no one in particular, but loudly, “I’ve figured it out, I’ve finally figured it out, this place is a front! It’s gotta be a front for something.”" Ron Howard: "It was."
posted by Eyebrows McGee (29 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
The nyu link ("it was") collects all the original articles, and a bunch of related material -- reactions, controversy, commentary, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:10 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


Mind blown that they spent $25k in 70s dollars and literally today journalists are suddenly out of work and the recent drama with our alt-weekly.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:29 PM on November 2, 2017 [5 favorites]


This is so great!! I'd never heard of this expose.. really cool story.

One derailing question: what's the deal with this caption: "From left are: Sun-Times reporters William Recktenwald, better Government Ass. Investigator, Pamela Zekman, Zay Smith and Jeff Allen, who posed as the Mirage’s owner."? The article also mentioned that the reporter managed to include the word "ass" in one of the original articles. What is the deal??!
posted by latkes at 10:58 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


"better Government Ass. Investigator"

Better Government Association (BGA) investigator. I think that's smartassery on the part of topic.com, not the original use of ass. The BGA still exists, btw, and they do good work! For all your Illinois corruption related needs.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:03 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]


I thought that Ron Howard was the guy who said that the bar was a front, but it was so much better than that.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:19 PM on November 2, 2017


Ha ha ha!! Better Government Association, which is named in the article several times!! Oy it's past my bedtime.
posted by latkes at 11:30 PM on November 2, 2017


Why hasn’t anybody made a movie about this?
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:31 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


Why hasn’t anybody made a movie about this?

Well, the 1979 film Hot Stuff is vaguely similar. It's about a police team setting up a shop to buy stolen merchandise.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:39 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


FWIW, based on Google maps that location is apparently still a bar. It's the location of the Brehon Pub ("Old-school Irish bar & restaurant").
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:43 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


Absolutely fascinating and worth the read. I didn't know about this at all.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:49 PM on November 2, 2017


Wow, that's fascinating. And the photos are really evocative; they feel greasy.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:07 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


> Pam and Bill bought the bar—for $5,000 down on the $18,000 asking price.

For a downtown bar less than two miles from Millennium Park. Times change, huh?
posted by ardgedee at 5:10 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


I just the returned the book to the Chicago Public Library yesterday. The Mirage by Zay N Smith.

The bar still exists and still has the observation deck that they created for this sting. It''s the Brehon pub on Wells St. It's the last stop on the Chicago corruption tour.
posted by srboisvert at 5:29 AM on November 3, 2017 [5 favorites]


Why hasn’t anybody made a movie about this?

Seems to me there was a TV Movie of the Week in the early 1980s that was actually about the case, but I don't remember any real details.

When I was an undergrad at Northwestern, a friend of mine who was a journalism major actually got to work for Pam Zekman as an internship. Zekman was a big deal in Chicago journalism at the time, so it was a pretty plum assignment to get.
posted by briank at 5:40 AM on November 3, 2017


I had a somewhat different experience with officialdom. I worked a bar that was a hop and a skip from the headquarters of the TABC, the dreaded Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commision. These guys had discretionary enforcement powers that made the Stasi look like crossing guards. There literally wasn't a place in the state they couldn't close or license they couldn't suspend with or without cause in an instant. And we were their secret neighborhood watering hole.

Apparently is was against regulations to fraternize or be seen publically bending an elbow. We knew who they were but never identified them to any of the other patrons. Not even all our employees knew. They were just another table of business guys with a fondness for baggy suits and flattops. In exchange for our discretion, occasionally one would saunter to the bar and say something like, "Jim, be sure everything is kosher and correct tomorrow night about eight o'clock." I would smile, thank him for the heads up and we would both go about our business...
posted by jim in austin at 6:24 AM on November 3, 2017 [12 favorites]


I was curious about the book so I looked it up on my library's Overdrive site, to see if it was available as an eBook. Nothing. So then I looked it up on Amazon. Still no eBook, paper only. There are two listings and they are both conflating this story, with a book about a young Saudi Arabian woman. Both listings have reviews for both books and neither have new copies available. I don't know what you'll get if you order it.
posted by elizilla at 6:43 AM on November 3, 2017


> I think that's smartassery on the part of topic.com, not the original use of ass.

Ahem:
Zay: I walked back down from the City Room, heading to my desk, and we had a row of desks down the middle and it was called “Murderers Row” because columnists—the stars—sat in that row. And as I walked past them, they looked up at me—they were obviously reading the papers that had just come out—and they smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s nice! They liked it!’ And it made me feel good. I was later told they gave me a thumbs-up because I got the word ‘ass’ in the paper. They’d been trying to get the word ‘ass’ past the copy desk for years.
Great post!
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on November 3, 2017 [9 favorites]


I'm kind of mixed on all of this. The blog Granola Shotgun has occasional stories of code compliance in the modern, non-grafty world which well documents and closely mimics my own personal experience. Also, the codes change every year , so declaring that a bathroom is not 'up to code' really just means it is not brand new, and does not imply anything like dangerous or unsafe, which it could also be as they say the specific bar in the story was a dump.

It's a bit worse than your personal home when it comes to businesses, as to get a permit to open as a commercial venture, you have to pass all inspections even if you don't do any renovations.

In my opinion, much of the codes discussed are major in hysterics, overblown minor problems, and political graft, with a minor in safety, so inspectors allowing middle class people to throw out a shingle and start a business is a good thing. Because that is really what they were doing. Modern inspectors fail you for not being up to code and you don't get to slip them a $20, you have to drop $X thousand for an independent construction company to fix it before you can pass. But if you don't have that money, then the building remains empty and a drag on the local economy until someone with the spare cash and fix everything or knock it down and build something up to code.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:16 AM on November 3, 2017


Forgot to add: yes that does make it slightly safer, but also reinforces the tiers of society.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:18 AM on November 3, 2017


you could do worse than to drink in a joint run by old-timey newspaper people
posted by thelonius at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]


> Also, the codes change every year , so declaring that a bathroom is not 'up to code' really just means it is not brand new [...] In my opinion, much of the codes discussed are major in hysterics...

I'm not clear which revision of building and sanitation codes would allow maggots, or sinks that drain to the basement, but hey, I don't know everything.
posted by ardgedee at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]


you could do worse than to drink in a joint run by old-timey newspaper people

Indeed. My wife and I used to frequent a dive run by an old capitol stringer. The place was always crawling with newspaper and broadcast types. A great crowd. Whenever the owner got a bit too much in his cups the regulars would take turns running the bar for him. It happened frequently. Oh, and absolutely the wittiest bathroom graffiti in the city...
posted by jim in austin at 9:52 AM on November 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


In my opinion, much of the codes discussed are major in hysterics, overblown minor problems, and political graft, with a minor in safety, so inspectors allowing middle class people to throw out a shingle and start a business is a good thing.

This is generally a fair assessment when it comes to people overreacting, but I've been in places that are grandfathered in that are just as much of a drag on the local infrastructure because either the building owner or the bar/restaurant leasing the space was relatively grandfathered in. There's a difference between a place not being up to code when it comes to accessibility or plumbing safety features and having water leaking from the bathroom's sewage pipe into the area where you store your beer kegs. Or having the city repave your sidewalk, only for it to start to sink because your basement's foundation is about to fall over, with no consideration of whether someone's in the bar at the time.

I love going to a local hole in the wall place, but it's generally a good idea to make sure it's not a hole in the floor place, if you catch my meaning.
posted by mikeh at 10:02 AM on November 3, 2017


I'm not clear which revision of building and sanitation codes would allow maggots, or sinks that drain to the basement, but hey, I don't know everything.

Pest (although maggots are more of a cleanliness problem than a true pest) infestations and leaky pipes are insanely common. Most leak straight into the ground though, which is no better for society.

So I mean, the solution for the maggots is to tell the person to simply clean the place up. The solution for a leaky pipe at an existing gas station (for example) is an eventual MSD - which allows the ground water to remain polluted forever, or at least until the Feds declare it a superfund site and pay to clean it up.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2017


Sink water is often considered "grey water" which people regularly use to water their lawns where there aren't laws against it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:25 AM on November 3, 2017


you could do worse than to drink in a joint run by old-timey newspaper people

In theory, on the other hand she didn't know what a shot and a beer was, so....
posted by DynamiteToast at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


The NY Department of Buildings has become my home away from home, due to issues that have arisen in my life, that I won't go into right now. But it is a fascinating and excruciatingly arcane universe over there.

There has always been a class of licensed professionals known as "expediters", at one time officially, now colloquially. Expediters used to be pretty much a layer between the inspectors and the applicants, and they took and passed the bribes. This system got "cleaned up" but the expediters didn't go away, their role just changed.

Now, every single thing you try to do at the DOB involves so many latches and mazes and hoops to jump through, that a civilian like me will be frustrated and flummoxed. The purpose, it seems, is to create a "make work" culture, where everything takes a long time and requires the employment of many people.

I have witnessed expediters colluding with inspectors to file this form that requires that form, and to extend the amount of billable time involved in just about everything.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:03 PM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


I used to take breakfast at a place that labeled their bathrooms Either and Or.
posted by Oyéah at 2:50 PM on November 3, 2017


I don't think I'd heard of this - what a great few months of undercover.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:17 PM on November 3, 2017


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