BY MARK BROWN, Columnist
A group of Chicago aldermen’s sudden interest in the welfare of the residents of the decrepit Ewing Annex Hotel would no doubt be a source of some amusement to one of the property’s original owners — the infamous 1st Ward Ald. Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna.
Kenna was one of the Lords of the Levee who oversaw the city’s notorious vice district at the turn of the 20th century, helping set local standards for political corruption.
Kenna worked his magic from his saloon, The Workingmen’s Exchange, located in this very same building now at issue in the 400 block of South Clark Street.
Above the saloon was Kenna’s Alaska Hotel, a cubicle-style, men-only rooming house that even in its heyday lodged mainly those at the very bottom rung of the economic ladder.
More than a century later, the Ewing Annex — as the Alaska has been known since the 1950s — operates much as it always did, taking in men off the street and housing them in dismal accommodations notable for the chicken wire covering the tiny individual sleeping stalls. The wire is used as a cheap method of allowing access for fire sprinkler protection plus a bare minimum of security.
It is these primitive living conditions that Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) says convinced him that it’s time to shut down the Ewing and the city’s only other remaining cubicle hotel, the Wilson Men’s Club in Uptown.
Only it doesn’t take a sharp operator like Hinky Dink Kenna — or even a cynical newspaper reporter — to smell a real estate play at work.
“Someone’s trying to get this property,” speculates Randy Cohen, who co-owns the building with his brother Scott and says he doesn’t know who that someone is.
“They’re not going to get it so easy,” declared Cohen, who also owns a pawn shop housed in the street-level space where Hinky Dink served up Manhattan beer from famously hefty mugs — and bought votes for 50 cents apiece.
The Cohens, who are stars of their own reality TV show, “Hardcore Pawn: Chicago,” altogether control half of the west side of the 400 block of South Clark, a seedy strip that is clearly ripe for development once the real estate market picks up again.
To be clear, I have no interest in protecting the Cohens, who can take care of themselves and will no doubt sell in a minute when the price is right — despite Randy’s protestations of having only the interests of the Ewing’s residents at heart.
The Cohens had been slow to invest money in fixing up the property before recently being forced by the city to make $500,000 in improvements.
Even with a major upgrade to the hotel’s electrical and plumbing systems, along with new windows and a security system, the Ewing is no place you’d ever want to live.
But you might be happy to have found it if your options were limited, as is the case for nearly all the 180 men who can typically be found there on a winter’s night.
These are men like Clifford Castelli, 58, who grew up near Belmont and Cicero and worked all his life as a truck driver before the lung disease COPD forced him to quit, part of a spiral that saw him lose his home and his marriage to end up here.
“We’re not bums,” said Castelli, who answers his door with oxygen tubes running to his nose. “These guys aren’t bad. They’re like me. They probably lost everything.”
What the Ewing’s residents understand better than the aldermen who say they want to protect them is that places such as this can be all that separates them from spending these same nights in a homeless shelter or on the street.
That’s why the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has taken up the cause before another 450 beds have been removed from the city’s low-income housing stock.
Jim Field, an organizer for the coalition, said the conditions at the Ewing are decent enough and that many of the men who live there truly consider it home.
Ald. Reilly sees it differently.
“Average Chicagoans wouldn’t want to house their dogs in this type of facility. We need to ensure living conditions are fit for human beings,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times last month when he unveiled the ordinance.
Unfortunately, Reilly hasn’t returned my phone calls seeking to explore the matter further.
Michael Bush, the hotel’s manager, said the alderman has never paid a visit.