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Taxing the tradition of rooftop revelry

Citing growth of sky-high meets for Cubs games, Chicago officials say regulation is in order. Fans cry foul, but building owners play ball.


CHICAGO — In faded old photos on the walls of bars here, you can see them--beyond the fence, beyond the stands, across the street from Wrigley Field: Cubs fans, two or three or four of them, standing on the rooftop of an apartment building, watching the game.

During televised contests today, you can see them as well--hundreds of them, lounging on aluminum bleachers on rooftops rented by printing companies and software firms, smoking Dominican cigars while caterers tend the barbecue.

The canted roof of one building is wrapped in an enormous red Budweiser banner. The rental rate at another is $3,500 for a weekend game.

The time has come, the city decreed earlier this summer, to regulate the rooftop shindigs. And, inevitably, the time has come to tax them.

"Before, it was Joe Six-Pack and a few of his friends. But it turned into a business," said Alderman Bernard J. Hansen, who proposed the ordinance. "And we're going to regulate it like every other business in the city."

Loyal Cubs fans, who have been known to scale walls and employ aliases in an effort to gain entrance to a rooftop, booed loudly.

"If it's fun," one local newspaper writer groaned, "count on the Chicago City Council to put a stop to it, or at least regulate it."

Ironically, the landlords have acquiesced with hardly a fight, grumbling mainly that the new rules should have been imposed after this season is over and pleading for simple bookkeeping procedures. It's almost as if the building owners knew they were getting a freebie, earning an untaxed dime off their beloved Cubs, and are quite willing to do their part now--if not for the City Council, then for the team.

"It's been a business since 1989, when the Cubs were last in the playoffs," said Beth Murphy, who along with her husband, Jim, owns an apartment building and an adjacent bar called Murphy's Bleachers. "It's not like cockfighting in the basement. Everyone knew what was going on."

And so, even before the final draft of the ordinance was adopted in May, the Murphys began installing a new fire-resistant floor on their rooftop, a second restroom, two cinder-block stairwells and an awning for protection from summer thunderstorms that roll in fast from the Northern Plains. The price tag: $300,000.

That doesn't include the 8 1/2% state sales tax on every hot dog and soda and beer, an "amusement tax" and a $500 annual license.

"But if the Cubs make the playoffs," Murphy said just before her team started really beating up on the Montreal Expos one recent evening, "I think we'll be all right."

Indeed, the whole thing has been a bit more palatable, because the most lovable losers in baseball, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, are winning. Outfielder Sammy Sosa is one of three major leaguers chasing Roger Maris' 1961 record of 61 homers in a season. And old-timers say rookie pitcher Kerry Wood--at 21--has the best "stuff" they've ever seen in a pitcher his age, and could do for the Cubs what Michael Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls.

Besides, even if the rooftops are taxed, regulated, subjected to unannounced safety inspections and filled with young executives in Polo shirts, they are still the rooftops--the same rooftops generations of young Cubs fans have gazed at from the cheap seats with longing.

They are the same rooftops lucky young Cubs fans, in just the right place at just the right time, might still get to visit.

"You got tickets?" George Loukas, who owns three of the apartment buildings, asked after running into a friend of his daughter's, and the friend's friend, as this recent game was getting underway.

"Nah," the two young men replied.

"Come to the roof."

Northern Printing Co. had rented the roof on North Sheffield Avenue for this game. It was a party for employees and prized clients, complete with name tags and raffle tickets.

There was room, however, for Seth Greene, 19, and Bryan Mack, 18, who sat by themselves, grinning, on the top bleacher.

"I thought the players were going to just look like these little dots," Mack said. "But you can see them great. You can see everything."

They watched the stadium crowd erupt with glee as a giddy fan took off across the field, security guards giving chase. Out of one eye they could catch two would-be big leaguers practicing their knuckle ball in the street below, and out of the other see outfielder Lance Johnson slap a two-run single up the middle to put the Cubs ahead for good.

Then, Sosa stepped up to the plate in the eighth inning. He hit his 37th homer of the season, and the fans in the center-field bleachers heaved their cups of beer into the air. From the rooftop, the rain of suds was back-lit by the stadium lights, glittering as it fell.

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