The BC Tap is the sort of place that sponsors softball teams, whose patrons have "usuals," and where "everybody knows your name." Outside, nothing identifies the bar at Balmoral and Clark but its Old Style sign and large windows, which show off the homey interior's tall comfortable stools and a carpeted floor.
More than just a down-to-earth watering hole, the BC Tap is, by nearly unanimous local agreement, the model of a responsible, community-minded business. Under the management of Brendan Clancy, every year for the last four the bar has sponsored AIDS Ride and AIDS Walk teams, as well as runners in the Race for the Cure. It's supported the Griffin Theatre across the street (and several others), organized and hosted fund-raisers for local parishes, and helped make the Andersonville summer festival one of the most popular in the city. The bar hosts the East Andersonville Residents Council's wine and cheese events, and it raised money for the firefighters who died September 11. There's even a free turkey buffet on Thanksgiving. If you were a college admissions officer and the BC Tap were a high school senior, you'd look at the list of extracurriculars and admit it on the spot.
But for the past two years the city liquor commissioner has been trying to shut the bar down, and Brendan Clancy can't for the life of him figure out why. Clancy, 37, is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. Born in Edgewater Hospital, raised a few blocks from the bar on Gregory Street, he graduated from Saint Gregory's High School, where he was elected class president his junior and senior years. The BC Tap has been in the neighborhood for as long as Clancy can remember. "It was where I had my first drink," he says, quickly adding, "when I was 21."
Clancy grew up with the previous owner, Michael Doherty, who bought the bar in the early 1990s. Over the years, Doherty began to spend less and less time there. "I had a lot of different managers going through there," he says. "I wanted to raise a family and get out of the business." Perhaps because Doherty wasn't around much, the BC Tap became a problem spot. According to Mary Ann Smith, the 48th Ward alderman, "It was a place that was generating crime and that people in the neighborhood could not use because of the drug dealing and so forth. It was just a mess."
"Of course the bar was being run poorly," says Clancy. "If you're not gonna be there, people are going to take advantage of you. In a cash business, you know, that's how that goes."
"We never condoned any wrongdoing whatsoever," says Doherty. "I never condoned anything illegal. I never had a problem with police." But he admits to absenteeism. "Not being there as much, I couldn't keep my eye on it as much."
In early 1997 the police began investigating the bar for possible subterfuge. That's what the city calls the illegal transfer of a liquor license without city and state notification. Clancy thinks the investigation was launched because the bar had gone through so many different managers. "Every time you saw a different person in there running it people assumed a different person owned it, because you'd only see Doherty every two weeks or so."
About that same time, Doherty moved to Normal, Illinois, and hired Clancy to manage the bar. By all accounts, he turned the BC Tap around. "He cleaned the place up and got rid of all the punks," recalls Doherty. Clancy says, "I got rid of just about everybody [working there], you know, to turn the place around. I got rid of the pool table, totally redid the bar, raised the prices to eliminate some of the problems, brought in premium drafts, made it into a higher-end place."
Clancy wanted to buy the bar, and Doherty thought he'd be perfect. But when Clancy went before the city's liquor commission in early 1998, he was told no one could purchase the BC Tap because of the ongoing investigation into subterfuge.
Doherty insists he never sold the bar, and Clancy is sure of it. Figuring that confusion would sort itself out, Clancy pressed on. The BC Tap is located in a moratorium area--an area where because of community pressure no new liquor licenses can be issued and the transfer of old ones is strictly regulated. This meant that Clancy had to win over the local community organizations and collect signatures from 51 percent of the registered voters who lived within 500 feet of the bar.
In March 1998 the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, the Edgewater Community Council, the Edgewater Development Corporation, and the East Andersonville Residents Council all sent letters to Mary Ann Smith supporting the transfer of the license. The alderman forwarded the letters to Winston Mardis, director of the liquor commission, along with her own letter of support. With help from the East Andersonville Residents Council, the BC Tap obtained the signatures of over 70 percent of the registered voters living near the bar. Everything seemed set to move forward.
But because of the subterfuge investigation, the hold remained on the license. And on August 5, 1999, the commission ruled that the city had proved the charge of subterfuge and ordered the BC Tap's retail and tavern license revoked. The city had presented evidence that the bar's day-to-day operations were being run by Doherty's accountant and his son. A lease on behalf of the BC Tap had been signed by a Doherty associate. Company checks had been signed by the accountant, his son, and two employees.
At no point, however, did the city provide any evidence of either a transfer of stock or a transfer of a percentage of the business's gross profits. These are the two criteria that, according to James Donoval, former chief legal counsel to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, constitute subterfuge.
When the commission issued the revocation order, Clancy figured it was over. "I was pretty done. It was just like, what else do I have to do? So I said, you know what, I'm just gonna close the place." But Madeline Khan-Roberts, owner of Cafe Boost across the street, convinced Clancy to fight the ruling. That week the East Andersonville Residents Council covered the neighborhood with flyers announcing an emergency meeting to "Save the BC Tap."
"To be honest with you, I thought maybe five or six people would show up," says Clancy. "There was well over 200 people, they were spilling out to the street, they couldn't get in. The committeeman showed up. The state rep showed up. It was pretty inspirational."
The following week the BC Tap and other community organizations circulated a petition urging Mardis "to provide all necessary support and action to ensure that our neighborhood will continue to be served so well by this business." In less than a week it received 6,000 signatures. "As bad as things were," says Clancy with a smile, "I was the richest man in the world."
Clancy decided to appeal the liquor commission's ruling. In August 2000, letters of support from aldermen Mary Ann Smith and Patrick O'Connor, state representative Harry Osterman, and committeeman Mike Volini, as well as dozens of local commercial and civic groups--including churches--began pouring into the Chicago License Appeals Commission.
On November 1, 2000, the three-member License Appeals Commission held a hearing. Dozens of community residents, including Alderman Smith, testified and submitted affidavits asserting the BC Tap's value to the community. The appeals commission found Mardis's decision to have been "ill informed" and remanded the case to him. The commission regretted that when Mardis ruled the first time he did not "have the opportunity to have a full understanding of the nature of this establishment and the impact of the closing of the establishment might well have on the community."
But Mardis didn't take the hint. Unmoved by all the new testimony, two weeks later he reaffirmed his original decision. "I'm baffled by this," says Alderman Smith, "because you can punish someone without destroying someone, and you can punish a business and hold it accountable, if that need be, without destroying it. My hunch is that Winston Mardis feels--really feels--he's doing the right thing. I mean he strikes me as the kind of person who is not vindictive. He strikes me as the kind of person who wants to do the right thing. But I think he's off in his perspective on this."
The BC Tap appealed Mardis's ruling to the Cook County Circuit Court, where it won a stay of execution that will keep the bar open until the case is settled. (Mardis declined to comment on the pending case.) But legal costs are starting to pile up. On November 30, Alderman Smith and committeeman Volini organized a fund-raiser at Smith's house, just down the block from the BC Tap. The event was attended by nearly 200 people from the community and raised over $6,000. Clancy estimates his legal fees will end up totaling in the neighborhood of $60,000.
At the fund-raiser, Volini, who has been one of the BC Tap's strongest advocates, feared the impact the bar's closing would have on the neighborhood. "I'm afraid it will turn into a Payless Shoes. I'm afraid it will turn into some other run-of-the-mill chain location and it will lose a sense of neighborhood, a sense of locale, and a sense of community....In literature, there's a reference to what they call a third place. Every person needs a home, and every person needs work, but everyone needs a third place to go to, that they can go and relax at, and this is a third place for me and many of my friends, and many of our neighbors, and that's why it is so important."
The three-year battle for the BC Tap has taken its toll on Clancy and his family. "Watching Brendan for the past several years," says Mike Cosgrove, a BC Tap patron and retired firefighter, "this is his livelihood and it has caused serious problems for his wife and their two little girls. Not to know what's going to happen next. It's a hell of a thing."
"Not to mention my staff," Clancy adds quickly. "Jesse has two kids, Michele has three kids, all the people that work here are family people."
If the circuit court rules against the BC Tap, there might be other options. Recently the East Andersonville Residents Council sent Smith a letter informing her of its willingness to consider lifting the area's liquor moratorium for the single purpose of helping Clancy out. Clancy says his problem has nothing to do with the city's push in the last ten years to restrict liquor licenses. "Any place that a neighborhood wants to close down, they should have the right to close it down. But I think that should be a two-way street, and this neighborhood fully supports this place."
He muses, "I know Mayor Daley is a good family man. I know he knows what it takes to run a small business. And I know he loves Chicago as much as I do. And I think if he knew all the details of this, I don't think we'd be in this situation now.
"Maybe," he says with a smile, "there's a way we can work this into the O'Hare deal for the south runway--'We'll give 'em Meigs Field and a license for the BC Tap.'"