Is Prohibition in Chicago Possible Today?

Is Prohibition in Chicago Possible Today?

Part of the allure of Prohibition and the 1920’s is the nostalgia for a glamorous time in America’s history, distant enough to be remembered through rose colored shot glasses.  The concept of Prohibition, though, is more recent than you might think.  Do you know what year the Chicago Tribune reported a story about loud music, unruly bar patrons, and taverns claiming to be made scapegoats while the city pressed local neighborhoods to vote themselves dry?  It wasn’t 1920-something, it was 1998.

If you lived in Chicago in the late 1990’s under Mayor Daley, your ballot in the fall election of 1998 might have included an option to go dry or to terminate the liquor licenses of particular taverns or liquor stores within your precinct.

As recently as 1998, Daley was known to support a “vote dry” campaign that would let precincts vote on whether to allow alcohol within its limits.  In fact, Daley’s administration went so far as to offer services to precincts training for the spirited initiative.  (It might have gone better if he had actually called it a “spirit initiative.”)  Prominent clergy and neighborhood groups backed the 1990’s version of the Temperance Movement, complaining that some parts of the city were so overrun with liquor stores and taverns that there wasn’t room for clean family living.  The tavern owners and liquor industry complained that not all taverns generated general civil disobedience.  If forty percent of the precinct’s total electorate signed a petition to go dry, the measure would be put on the ballot.  Once on the ballot, just a simple majority could essentially create a miniature version of Prohibition within a small area of the City.  During the 1980’s, it’s estimated that fifty precincts voted to go dry.  Don’t fret, there are 2,069 precincts within the City of Chicago, so chances remained excellent that you could still shop locally in your precinct and drink to your fill.

Pause here and enjoy the mental image of a miniature Prohibition with miniature gangsters and flappers and a little music, but not too much so as to disturb the neighbors!

The Courts eventually ruled Daley’s plan unconstitutional, denying voters the right to shut down liquor sales precinct by precinct, but it wasn’t the same luck for the twenty-seven liquor stores and bars that were put out of business in Roseland in the fall of 2001.  Those establishments were not reinstated by courts and were effectively punished for the perceived bad behavior of their customers.

The Chicago Tribune quoted Mayor Daley on March 28, 1998, as saying, “Sometimes you have to do drastic things in a community.  That is democracy.” How could you possibly survive American politics in the 21st century without access to liquor?  If you were looking for a reason to register to vote, this is it!  We can’t speak for everyone, but we much prefer drinking our way through reminiscing about the past than we would reliving it.

Written by Amy Williams

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