The Baron of Wrigleyville has a catbird seat
Baseball People - Folks who make the game go
George Loukas is a Greek immigrant who's living and loving an American baseball dream.
You see, Mr. Loukas is the owner of what almost every committed Chicago Cubs fan (and there are quite a few in this city) dreams of owning: a building across the street from Wrigley Field with a rooftop view of one of the nation's grandest old ballparks.
Now, these aren't those peer-through-a-telescope kind of views. Standing on one of these rooftops, you're practically sharing right field with Sammy Sosa.
People are willing to pay a lot to be here on game day.
During just about every Cubs game, the rooftops around Wrigley are packed with folks who've paid as much as $75 each to munch, mingle, and schmooze - and cheer a little for the Cubs while they're at it. Actually, it's often their companies who are footing the bill - firms like Lehman Brothers, Motorola, and Ameritech.
Loukas owns two of these properties and manages a third. He bought his first one in 1974, when he and his brother paid $150,000 for a 16-unit building near the corner of Sheffield and Waveland Avenues - just over Wrigley's left-center-field fence.
That was back when a two-bedroom apartment went for between $80 and $100 a month. Now they fetch about $1,300.
And what's the building worth today?
"A lot," Loukas says with a flick of an eyebrow and a smile.
In all, Loukas now owns 16 properties, including parking lots and rooftop-view buildings, in the area, which real estate agents call "Wrigleyville."
In fact, you could call Loukas the Baron of Wrigleyville. Spend an afternoon walking around the neighborhood with him, and you'll see why.
"Hiyah, George," people croon as he walks by. "Hey, George, how yah doin'?"
Climbing to Cubbie heaven
One day last week, two classmates of his sixth-grade daughter, Jonathan Jacobson and Josh Nacey with parents in tow, stopped by to see Loukas just before the game. And they got what they came for - an invitation up onto one of the roofs.
As the boys and their parents buzz with delight, Loukas leads them through the crowds of poor souls who'll have to watch the game from the ballpark.
Down Waveland Avenue they tromp, around the back of No. 1034, through an unlocked chain-link gate, across a few backyard mud puddles, up some well-used stairs, past a couple of burly bouncers, and into Cubbie heaven.
Hovering above the building's tar-paper top is a sturdy-but-worn wooden deck. None of the angles are quite right. But that adds to the charm.
There's a kind of double-wide outhouse for guests perched on the back of the roof. A monster grill bellows smoke as it browns burgers and bratwursts.
As the boys come around the front of the aluminum bleachers, they gawk with joy. There's Wrigley Field, practically close enough to pinch.
It's a good thing they brought their baseball gloves: Sammy Sosa has been known to hit home runs right onto the rooftops. (He broke one of this building's first-floor windows with a homer two years ago.)
"I've been really blessed," says Loukas, "and I try to share it with my friends."
Today's paying customers are a group of workers and their friends from a suburban engineering firm.
"I'm here 'cause I could finally afford it," proclaims Dan Crosson, the group's leader.
As part of the rooftop royalty, Loukas also has to decide which of his subjects to bestow his riches on. One acquaintance, Jimmy, who he's invited up, tells Loukas several times that his cousin is driving up to the game.
"He'll be here in a few minutes," Jimmy says suggestively, apparently hoping Loukas will extend an invitation. "He'll be here in a few minutes."
"That's nice, Jimmy," says Loukas in a friendly enough tone.
But it hasn't always been this way for Loukas.
His father brought the family from Greece in 1953, and after college, George became a public school gym teacher. He and his brother experimented in real estate, and in 1974 bought their first building near Wrigley. The neighborhood was different then - poor and mostly Hispanic. Drug dealers hung out on the corners. Prostitutes frequented the bars.
Back then, Loukas and a few friends would scamper up onto the roofs and watch the "Loveable Losers" try their darnedest. Loukas didn't charge a thing.
But as the Cubs started winning a bit more - and as the neighborhood got better - he was one of the first to see the rooftops' potential. He hauled up some bleachers and started charging a fee.
Today, there's a whole rooftop culture. One popular spot, the Lakeview Baseball Club, even has an utterly high-brow sign next to its royal-blue awnings that says "Eamus Catuli" ("Let's Go Cubs" in Latin).
But now the trend that Loukas and others started has really taken off - too fast for some tastes. In fact, some Wrigleyville residents complain that the rooftops only add to the traffic and alcohol-induced reveling that engulfs their streets on game day.
"Forty-thousand people in the park is enough," says Gary Bonikowski, a member of a neighborhood group. "We don't need more people up on the roofs."
In a nod to such sentiments, last year the city began taxing and regulating the rooftops.
(Loukas says the Cubs organization has never given him any flak about his rooftop viewing, even though presumably he takes customers away from seats in the ballpark. The Cubs consistently refuse to comment on the rooftop Cubs-watchers, and refused again for this story.)
Sky-high, but down-home too
Loukas says people in the neighborhood should have known the ballpark would generate activity. And he points to projects like the one next door to his building as the real culprits. This brand-new structure has an oversize concrete roof that stands out more than a bad toupee. Its fold-down stadium seats stretch many rows back. It all makes Loukas's five-row bleachers look a bit dumpy.
Loukas says he plans to modernize his rooftop, but won't add seats. He wants to keep a low-key approach to rooftop viewing.
His neighbors, on the other hand, are "trying to maximize the profits out of their situation," and he says that hurts the informal atmosphere.
Call it one of the burdens of Loukas's baronship - preserving a down-home feel up here in a sky-high baseball realm.
*First in a series on "Baseball People: folks who make the game go" running on Tuesdays through the summer.