Making way for change
Former Calumet City Mayor Jerry Genova reflects on his work tearing down the buildings on the old Sin Strip and creating a TIF district there
By the 1980s, the paint was peeling on the old Sin Strip. Crime and homelessness was up. Times archive photo
Former Calumet City Mayor Jerry Genova stands in a lot on State St. in Calumet City. Genova was behind the demolition of the old Sin Strip. photo by Christopher smith | the times
In 1993, Jerry Genova was 30 years old, fresh out of law school and campaigning for Calumet City mayor on the promise to clean up the formerly thriving Sin Strip.
He knew the area well. His dad grew up on Plummer Avenue just one block from the strip's infamous night clubs and taverns. His grandfather ran a hot dog stand there called Moe's.
Where big-name headliners once attracted standing-room-only crowds at nightclubs, prostitutes and drug dealers now made their living alongside the homeless and the addicts.
When Genova was elected mayor, he realized how daunting the task of tearing down the now run-down strip would be.
"I remember sitting in my new home, with a new mortgage and a baby on the way, and every day I'd read in the newspaper about (crime on the strip)," he said. "I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
John Bacino, who along with his father ran John's Pizza on the strip for 64 years, saw the changes first hand. When the post-World War II prosperity left, so did the classier acts at the night clubs.
In the 1960s, the economy forced many of the clubs to leave.
Times archive photos
"The sailors from Great Lakes (Naval Base) stopped coming," he said. "The steel mills cut back, and there were less people (coming to the strip) and less entertainment. That's what prompted the strip shows - to get people in."
As the businesses brought in raunchier acts or closed down altogether, prostitution became a serious problem along the strip, as did drug sales and use.
"It was an issue we had to resolve quickly," Genova said.
Mike Zimmerman served as alderman of the 1st Ward from 1989 to 1999, when he was appointed City Treasurer by Genova.
Zimmerman knew the ward he served well, having grown up in the house his grandfather built on Forsythe Avenue, just four houses south of State Street.
"I lived four houses down from John's Pizza," he said. "We were embarrassed to have people come to our home and go down State Street and see the prostitution and things there."
Genova decided to use tax increment financing, or TIF, laws as a means to redevelop the area. A TIF district allows municipalities to collect all of the property tax increases in an area. Municipalities retain sole authority to create TIF districts and the power to use the revenue of all the affected taxing bodies, including schools, libraries, park districts, counties, townships and municipalities.
"I was just out of law school and eminent domain was fresh in my mind," Genova said. "We had the ability to condemn an area that was blighted."
The City Council created a TIF district on State Street and Plummer Avenue from State Line Road to the Burnham Avenue bridge and on the west side of State Line Road south to Pulaski Road.
The city floated a $15 million bond issue to pay for the land acquisitions and demolitions, which Genova described as "a large amount of money for a community our size."
Zimmerman said creating a TIF district was the right approach.
"Whether people agree with it or not, it's all about who can offer the developers the most and the TIF (district) gave us the opportunity to offer them something some other areas couldn't," he said.
Genova and Zimmerman said their position was to level the strip first, then worry about attracting new business.
"Doreen's Pizza was not going to build a $1 million facility next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, so that has to go," Genova said. "You get rid of the blight, the land is clean, the land is free, we'll give it to you."
While it may have been the right thing to do for the future of the city, the hardest part, Genova said, was having to displace some longtime residents who didn't want to leave.
"One of the saddest parts of my tenure was I had to take down some of those old neighborhoods," he said. "But, progress comes."
"She was heartbroken"
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Ed Antonietti grew up on the strip where his mother, Mary, ran Barney's, a neighborhood tavern, for more than 50 years.
When it was time for Ed Antonietti's mother to leave her home, she didn't want to leave, Antonietti said. His mother wanted to take every little piece of her old home and tavern with her. "She said, 'If I could have peeled the paint off the walls, I would have done that,'" Antonietti said. photo by Christopher smith | the times
"When the city started their thing with the TIF district and they wanted to demolish my Mom's place, it was very difficult for her," Antonietti said. "It was her home and it was where she wanted to die. ... She was heartbroken."
When it was time to go, Antonietti said, his mother wanted to take every little piece of her old home and tavern with her.
"She said, 'If I could have peeled the paint off the walls, I would have done that,'" he said.
Antonietti wasn't there the day the tavern and his childhood home fell to the wrecking ball.
"It had maybe just too many memories for me," he said.
Antonietti said he and his sister were thankful the city got his mother away from the crime on the strip.
"My mom was in her middle to late 80s when they took the place down," he said. "I thought it was good. She never thought it was good, never, ever, ever. I don't know until the day she died that she ever gave that up."
Sin Strip at night. Times archive photo
His mother died three years ago at the age of 96.
Former Calumet City Police Capt. Tony Lucito retired from the police force in 1990 and moved to Florida. He had been gone for five years when the strip came down.
Lucito lived on Garfield Avenue near Wentworth Avenue, just one block south of State Street.
"When we came back from Florida to visit, it was just astonishing," Lucito said. "One year, I came back and my parents' house was gone. It was devastating."
Genova recalled meeting with a senior citizen who was going to lose her home.
"I remember one poor woman who lived with her sister. She was elderly and she said, 'Your grandmother would never approve of this,'" he said. "I felt bad about that, but I knew they'd be safer and more financially secure as a result."
The strip wasn't home to just longtime residents. As the taverns and clubs fell to the economy, the homeless came in and claimed the area as their own.
"I felt bad for the people who had nowhere else to go, the homeless people who were again being displaced," he said.
As a result, Genova convinced the City Council to begin funding the homeless shelter across the state line in Hammond as a way to help and created the city's Special Needs and Homeless Committee, with which residents could donate $1 on their water bill to assist other residents in need.
John Bacino, former owner of John's Pizzeria in Calumet City, stands where his grandmother's home was on State St. Central Door now stands there. photo by Christopher smith | the times
"It was very, very disappointing"
Bacino said crime never hit John's Pizza directly, but it did have an indirect impact.
"People were afraid to come," he said.
Bacino said he supported former Mayor Jerry Genova's move to tear down the taverns and homes along the strip to make way for new businesses in the TIF district.
"I thought it was great," he said. "I thought the tearing down of the old businesses would bring new business in."
Genova personally asked Bacino to keep John's Pizza on the strip.
"I was thinking about leaving," Bacino said, but he figured the people coming in to the new businesses would need a place to have lunch, so he decided to stay.
Another look at a nighttime Sin Strip. Times archive photo
For those businesses that were bought out, the city handled them much the way they did the residents. The city did an appraisal of the property, and the business owner got an appraisal. If they were in dispute, they met in the middle on a price.
In addition to buying out the business properties, the city also paid to extinguish their liquor licenses.
The first building to come down was the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in the first block of State Street in September 1995.
By the time it was all over, nearly 100 homes and businesses were demolished.
When the bars and homes came down, nothing came in their place for several years.
Bacino was worried.
"It was very, very disappointing, because we thought the properties would come back to the area. We were the only place there," he said.
"We were kind of lonely there. It was kind of like an island."