Easter blog special: Can Mayor Daley save Uncle George's eggs -- South Loop

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Mayor Daley takes his eggs fluffy and likes them with tomatoes at Cafe Society, hizzoner's neighborhood breakfast spot.

"He always eat healthy, with a nice cappuccino," says the mustachioed proprietor, Jorge Anafador.

"I like area, many people move here. First they have doggies. I put out free doggie cookies. ... Den dey have babies. Babies call me Uncle George."

There are pictures of neighborhood babies and doggies on the wall, and a framed portrait of Uncle George rubbing the mayor's belly hanging in the dining room.

Keepers of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum own the building at 18th and Indiana. They're trying to evict Uncle George. They claim he doesn't pay his rent on time, among other things.

If you've never heard of the museum, don't be alarmed. Practically no one has.

In fact, the museum's past executive director says he convinced Uncle George to expand his dining room just so folks might see the place, stop for a bite and notice the museum.

Still, the museum doesn't draw much of a crowd. It's sinking in debt enough to convince its board of directors to cut a rather hinky rent-to-own deal with the guy who owns Black Orchid, a swanky Old Town supper club. But Uncle George has to go first to make the deal stick.

Winning over neighbors
The plan is to turn much of the building -- including Uncle George's space -- into a wedding hall, with a florist, photo studio, event planner and some kind of rental showroom.
Museum treasurer Jim Holtzman insists they're evicting Uncle George because he's a bad tenant, and it has nothing to do with the $3.5 million wedding hall deal.

"Lies, lies, lies," Uncle George says. He claims the museum people owe him money for cleaning up the place and taking care of the bathrooms. He says he's being harassed by the building manager, who called Uncle George and his employees "wetbacks" -- which isn't a nice name to call anyone, especially a Colombian who has lived in Chicago since 1979 and served in the Navy.

It's such a big mess that it could wind up ruining Mayor Daley's weekend breakfast plans. He's probably not happy about that. The guy likes to eat.

Uncle George has been in the museum building since 2001, before expensive condos replaced the cab stand across the street.

It took him a while, but eventually Uncle George won over the folks moving in with his crepes, charisma, live music and doggie cookies.

"I have jazz under stars on patio. It catch lot of attention. Den dey started to liking me," Uncle George says. "And de doggies and de babies I have to tank de most. Dey want to see Uncle George."

He starts to cry at the very mention that there's a chance he'll lose his business and not see the doggies and babies, or feed the mayor eggs.

"I feel very betrayed," he says. "With my way of being I will show dem dere is only one way to be, dat is honesty. We not take anything else but honesty."

And honestly, Holtzman says, evicting the cafe and making a deal with Black Orchid is necessary to save the museum, which has a leaky roof and more debt than it can handle. He wants people to see the bright side of all this: Saving the museum is good for the community and good for the veterans it gives a voice through their art.

But it also bails out a museum board that even the former executive director says was troubled with mismanagement, personal power struggles and bad decisions.

In fact the whole board was reconstituted, and Holtzman is among the new additions. He says the goal is to fix problems and not dwell on past mistakes.

Emotional investment
But history matters here. The museum opened in 1996 with Mayor Daley's blessing and $1.7 million in tax increment financing to fix up the building and set up shop before living in the South Loop was cool. So taxpayers have a stake.
Uncle George invested all his money and heart in a restaurant and neighborhood, only to face losing out when both finally became desirable.

Now, the museum and cafe both add character to a bland community of fancy condos that a wedding hall can never replace.

Despite the name-calling and neighborhood support for Uncle George, there's only one neighborhood guy who can help settle this stupid mess.

He takes his eggs fluffy and likes them with tomatoes, and a nice cup of cappuccino.

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Uncle George also should worry about the food he serves. It's nothing special and overpriced, and my order was messed up twice and then served cold. I had better food at Lemmy's at 64th & Stony Island, which was an old greasy spoon that served fries with the grease and whose owner was shot in a drive-by back in the early '90's.

Lemmy's guy wasn't shot in a driveby. He was shot in a cold-blooded robbery attempt. Back before my buddy Jeff Fort went to prison, we used to hit that place all the time. Then, I rediscovered it when my son had doubles over at Jackson Park. The guy was Greek who got shit. His brother had a joint on 43rd & Indiana too. Just so you know.

Konks is an MC guy, right? Tell him the score. It was Fall of '91, if I'm not mistaken?

Konkol adds: Thornwood, not Mount Carmel.

Konkol would never admit he likes MC, but he especially likes Coach Frank Lenti.
Regarding Lemmy, the word at MC was that it was a drive by. But I'll take your word for it that it was a straight-up robbery attempt. It's too bad that place was razed. I'd love to go back there for one of Lemmy's pizza puffs.

Konkol adds: Yes, Frank Lenti is like God. I washed his windows once.

Taters, what does the quality of food have to do with discrimination, intimidation, and an organization that is trying to force aguy out with a legal lease? The NVVAM is only forcing him out so they can do a scam deal with Black Orchid to pay off their debt in exchange for a building that they do not rightfully own (taxpayers still on the hook for $2MM). Besides being the 3rd Board to continue to drive the National Vietnam Veterans Art Organization in $600K debt, the previous board was investigated by the FBI for dissappearing money among other things. Why did the investigation go quite? Also, who really owns Black Orchid; is it the big guy from MCL development, the same who built Mayor Daley's Townhome Complex?

I was merely taking a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek approach to the issue. Of course, I feel bad that George may be forced out. Anytime a local joint started with hard work and dedication is forced out by some big shots, I get perturbed. But we all know the deal: business is business. Money talks, and most times the little guy isn't even invited to join the conversation.

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Mark Konkol

Mark Konkol covers city neighborhoods for the Chicago Sun-Times. You can e-mail him or call (312) 321-2146.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Konkol published on April 8, 2007 11:22 AM.

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