Grapes of Change

Jane Fentress

The Raber House, a four-story Italianate building in Englewood, is a relic of the South Side’s aristocratic past. The structure, commissioned by politician John Raber in 1870, was once the centerpiece of a great, thirteen-acre estate, surrounded by evergreen hedges and small man-made lakes. Now, however, Raber’s mansion at 5760 S. Lafayette Ave. is marred by decay. The sidewalks leading up to the house are cracked and crowded with crabgrass, and spindly, overgrown trees scratch the tops of cars passing on the street. The windows of the Raber House are boarded, its backyard is filled with trash and broken glass, and, though the building has been registered and protected by the city as a Chicago landmark, there seems to be little capable of saving the home from the surrounding urban blight.

While a few voices have spoken up about what to do with the historic property, the strongest call for change has come from a soft-spoken, 66-year-old man with an unusual plan. Bill Lavicka, an eccentric rehabber and preservationist, has proposed turning the Raber House into a winery and vineyard. The rehab initiative, which he refers to as the “Chateau Chicago” project, aims to transform the long-abandoned building into a multiuse space for grape cultivation and wine sales. Chateau Chicago is a very personal project for Lavicka, who has been making wine in the bathroom of his home for the past 35 years, though the project will also have reprucussions in a broader social setting.

Englewood “needs a spark,” Lavicka said in his April 21 interview with the Chicago Tribune. He hopes to strike the match with Chateau Chicago, which has the potential to inject Englewood with a new dose of energy and capital. Lavicka was not available for comment before this story went to print.

Others, however, argue that a winery isn’t really what’s in the neighborhood’s best interest.

“Oh God no, we don’t need wine!” shouts Pastor Bernice Jenkins. This is the first time she’s heard about Lavicka’s Chateau Chicago project. Her church, the Deliverance Healing Temple, is one of the only buildings on the block that has stood against the tide of Englewood’s decline. Though the white-and-red painted church stands out prominently from its surroundings and is located just a few doors down from the Raber House, its Pastor says she hasn’t heard anything from Lavicka.

“If they’re going to turn it into anything, they need to make a shelter,” she suggests, “a shelter for the drugs.”

Englewood has one of the highest rates of drug abuse and addiction in Chicago, so it’s no surprise that the arrival of a new liquor shop is viewed with some suspicion. Though Jenkins is not a resident of the neighborhood, she believes that her role as a local pastor has opened her eyes to much of its ugliness. “Until recently there was a house of prostitution right over there,” she says, pointing across the street. “Thank the Lord they shut that down. But we still have problems, and we don’t need wine.”

A few of the congregants at the church heard about the project after seeing Lavicka interviewed on the local Fox news affiliate. Their reactions to the plans for Raber House were less critical than their Pastor’s, but there was a distinct note of skepticism about the feasibility of the vineyard in those gathered this past Sunday at the Deliverance Healing Temple. “I just don’t understand how or why he’s going to try and grow grapes here,” said one member.

Despite the concerns of some in the community, it is now fairly certain that Lavicka’s winemaking project will get underway. Chateau Chicago’s innovative plan has attracted the attention of city politicians and urban planners, and 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran publicly backed the proposal. According to the plan, Lavicka would purchase the land and the winery would be accompanied by other renovation projects in the area, including a baseball field and an urban farm.

While Pastor Jenkins may advocate for drug treatment centers and other government institutions to address Englewood’s existing problems, Englewood may need something more than these “band-aid” programs, which only address the symptoms of larger problems of substance abuse and economic stagnation. As Englewood attempts to revive its economy, community initiatives and creative business models like Chateau Chicago’s could make a perfect pairing.