For four decades until two weeks ago, Hazel Smith-Jones ran the New Glass House Lounge in Auburn Gresham, a South Side neighborhood known for a sometimes-dicey clientele.
The New Glass House wasn’t always the safest bar in the city, as its 75-year-old owner acknowledges. Two years ago, a gunfight inside the bar injured four people, including the man who smuggled a weapon in through the rear entrance. Then, in February, Vaughn T. Holeman, 30, was shot and killed on the sidewalk just outside Smith-Jones’s place.
Last year, the city cited the building for dozens of building code violations. Smith-Jones, who also owns the building, couldn’t afford the corrections, which she estimated would cost about $100,000, so she boarded up the windows two week’s ago.
“Well,” she said, seated on a suede sofa in her South Street Lawrence Avenue apartment, “we had a good run.”
What came as a surprise to Smith-Jones, however, was that nobody from the city contacted her about being listed in March as the first of 13 “Drug & Gang Buildings” on a new City of Chicago Web site. A phone call from a reporter last month was her first notice of the listing.
The list falls under the purview of the Chicago Buildings Department, which has partnered to create it with the police and law departments, buildings spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. But even after interviewing McCaffrey and a police department representative, it is unclear just how these 13 properties were chosen and what the city hopes to accomplish by listing them.
Asked whether these buildings were more dangerous or worse-off than some other alleged drug-related properties, McCaffrey said, “there’s really no way to make a comparison. I will say that what this does suggest is that the building is in disrepair.”
Along with a photo of the building is the name of the owner, Hazel Smith (she took the name Smith-Jones when she married several years ago), and the bar’s address, 7911 S. Halsted.
“Sure, I’m angry,” Smith-Jones said. About the city officials not attempting to contact her, she said, “That’s what crooks do to you.”
McCaffrey acknowledged that the Web site can’t possibly act as a catchall for every drug-and-gang-related building, of which there inarguably are more than 13.
“We don’t have any concerns about that,” said McCaffrey, confirming that his department hadn’t attempted to contact the owners. “At the very least, in addition to the drug or criminal violations, these houses all have building code violations.”
While Smith-Jones recognized that the Glass House occasionally has attracted some rough customers, she insisted the bar is not a gang hangout or drug-affiliated building. The drugs, she insists, are on the outside.
“We open at 1 o’clock and when we open we can keep them off the ledge,” Smith-Jones said, referring to an area where drugs are sold. “Anything that happens around the lounge, they want to put it on me.”
Chicago Police Sgt. Antoinette Ursitti confirmed that her department has been included in discussions about which buildings to put on the Web site. But Ursitti stopped short of any detailed description of the process. The sergeant also declined to list any crimes involved with specific addresses, citing department policy. She redirected questions about each building to either the law or buildings departments. Calls to the law department were not immediately returned.
Law enforcement online
Chicago isn’t alone in employing the Internet to fight crime. Across the country, there are police and city Web sites springing up with crime-centric mapping. One of the largest is the Los Angeles Police Department’s, which tracks burglaries, robberies and shootings throughout the city. And there’s CrimeReports.com, a recent start-up website attempting to collect and post crime maps from around the country.
But identifying a specific building as a drug or gang hangout is unique, McCaffrey maintained-he’s unaware of any other city that’s using the Web to post pictures of specific buildings.
The Web site’s launch coincides with a separate effort by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration to keep the city free of vacant buildings that can harbor drug-and-gang-related activity. At a May 18 press conference, Daley said that the scourge of foreclosures in Illinois-up 38 percent year-over-year-has led to a glut of vacant and potentially dangerous properties.
Daley’s administration is attempting to streamline the demolition process for those properties. But none of the buildings listed by the Buildings Department as drug and gang properties are vacant, McCaffrey said. In fact, the majority are residential.
McCaffrey said the city has little concern about whether the listing will drag down the value of the buildings, or the value of those nearby, because all of the information posted is available to the public anyway. And, he said, “There is an active court case connected to each-the owner is aware that they have violations.”
That’s at least true in Smith-Jones’s situation. In 2008, she was hit with a list of 38 building code violations. According to records supplied by the Buildings Department, those violations range from torn linoleum on the men’s bathroom floor to “washed out” mortar on the façade.
Denying any involvement in narcotics activity, Smith-Jones insisted, “If we had the drug money, we would have been able to pay for the violations.” The Web site, which the city hasn’t called attention to, started out with just eight buildings. The Buildings Department plans to continue adding to the list. New entries include scheduled court appearances and addresses for absentee landlords.
Smith-Jones said the city complained to her about “somebody urinating in the alley” near The New Glass House Lounge. “Now how can we control somebody who is urinating in the alley?”