Sunday, February 03, 2008

Banks Family Rules

In the overly gentrified Bucktown community on the city's North Side, neighbors call the gigantic gray stone home on Wood Street by a special name: the "French Embassy." But why not give it a proper name -- "La Palais de la famiglia du Pastries Banks."

The massive single-family home that dwarfs neighbors and casts a humongous shadow was featured in the Tribune's amazing series on zoning this week "Neighborhoods for Sale."

Written by Tribune reporters Dan Mihalopoulos, Robert Becker and Darnell Little, the series -- with more installments to come -- focused on what critics call Chicago's corrupt pay-to-play zoning system, and how neighborhoods suffer as real estate developers intersect with aldermanic ambition.

So I stood there on Wood Street on Wednesday, staring at the so-called French Embassy, the mountain of frozen gray stone, the wrought iron-covered balconies, the security cameras right out of a Ludlum novel. It didn't feel like Paris.

It felt more like Albania, at some Ministry of Information, or perhaps the compound of their late dictator, the psychotic communist Enver Hoxha. But I say live and let live. A property owner has the right to build what they choose to build on their own land. Yet not at the expense of their neighbors, merely because they touched their alderman with contributions and got the zoning lawyer whose uncle runs the zoning committee.

The problem with Chicago zoning, according to this series, is that everything is so haphazard, with some aldermen invoking some standards and other aldermen invoking other standards, so there is no one standard.

Except for the Banks Family Standard.

They're the powerful political family on the Northwest Side, picking judges, congressmen and Department of Transportation bosses. Some even consider them the second most powerful family in Chicago politics, behind, of course, Bruno and Toots Caruso from Chinatown.

I don't know if the Banks Family Standard is measured in pounds sterling, or cannoli from the city's finest bakeries, but when it comes to zoning in Chicago, the Banks Family Rules. After the mayor's brother Michael, the Banks family is the alpha and omega of zoning.

You'll find a Banks that sells property. Another that buys property. Another Banks is the city's busiest zoning lawyer.

Ald. William J.P. Banks, chairman of the Committee on Zoning, is the powerful boss of the 36th Ward. He's the boss when his big brother Sam "Pastries" Banks, a powerful attorney, lets him run things. And Pastries is the boss when state Sen. Jimmy DeLeo (D-How You Dooin?) is busy in Springfield, where he's the real governor, having to sometimes keep the pretend governor, Rod Blagojevich, in line.

And what about Jimmy Banks, son of Pastries, and a top zoning lawyer in his own right?

Jimmy Banks was the zoning lawyer for the "French Embassy" expansion, or, as neighbors may call it forevermore, "La Palais de la famiglia du Pastries Banks," and guess what?

It got approved. And the Bankses don't even live there.

His uncle, the alderman, excuses himself from the zoning meeting, as he does periodically when nephew Jimmy's cases come up. He walks into the City Council's back room, and has a sandwich and waits. And like so many times before, the aldermen approve Jimmy's zoning cases, not because he's Pastries' son or the alderman's nephew, or on account of 36th Ward muscle, but because of Jimmy's amazing legal abilities.

Cynics may scoff at such intellectual purity coming from City Hall on zoning issues, but don't be fooled. Chicago aldermen are known to be prisoners of their own virtue.

Pastries and his 36th Ward boys were also mentioned in the recent federal Family Secrets trial of Chicago Outfit crime bosses.

An Outfit sanctioned burglar, Sal Romano, testified that he bribed corrupt police with the help of Sam Banks, though Banks remained mum at the time of the testimony. And Annie Spilotro, widow of Michael "Magnum P.I." Spilotro, also testified that she had disagreements with DeLeo and Jimmy Banks over the sale of her husband's restaurant, after Michael and his brother Tony were murdered.

Apparently, there is bad blood between the families. Annie Spilotro testified that she appealed to Outfit boss James Marcello to iron out things between the Spilotros and Bankses. But the sit-down never took place. And that should have told the Spilotros where they stood.

Like those neighbors living next to the gargantuan structure on Wood Street, there are certain political dictums, (or is that dicta?) in Chicago, as "Neighborhoods For Sale" proved.

One is that you can't fight City Hall. And the other is that when it comes to building and zoning, the Banks Family Rules.

Thanks to John Kass

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