On Smurf patrol

Posted: August 16, 2013

THE SUN IS HANGING low in the muggy air, shadows are stretching on Fairmount Avenue, and three guys are looking for trouble.

The trouble they are looking for is unlicensed sidewalk cafés, or licensed cafés in violation, such as taking up too much sidewalk or chairs on Bilco doors, which cover the steps to the basement.

The one-year license must be renewed annually by June 30, so summer is prime time for enforcement by the 17-member Streets Department Right-of-Way Unit, seven of whom are inspectors. (Licenses are issued by Licenses and Inspections.)

The three guys are Jim Gartland, a Streets inspector; Right-of-Way supervisor Shawn McKeown; and a columnist, tagging along with a notebook and cell camera.

We are looking for trouble and we find it at our first stop, Fare on Fairmount and Corinthian. Clad in a blue T-shirt with a Streets Department logo, a handheld electronic device and a bulky stainless-steel tape measure hanging from his belt, Gartland asks to see the license, which is not produced. Gartland starts a conversation with owner Andrew Siegel and invites him outside.

McKeown and Gartland wrote the book on café enforcement procedure and invite owners outside, rather than into a back room, to avoid suspicion of a payoff. [Begin sarcasm font] City workers on the take? Who would believe that? [End sarcasm font.]

I can think of three reasons for not having a license: Ignorance of the law, forgetfulness, or the brand of Philadelphian libertarianism that insists the law doesn't apply to me.

With Siegel, it's forgetfulness. A later stop is stubbornness.

In the two hours I am with the Boss and the Smurf (slowing them down with my questions) we hit seven of the roughly 500 sidewalk restaurants in Philly. Four businesses produce licenses, three don't. Not exactly sterling compliance.

I ask Fare owner Siegel if he wants to vent and he starts out by saying, "They come in during business hours. It's like harassment." He ends by saying he doesn't really have a problem with Streets.

When inspectors started to enforce the regulations in 2005, "It used to be very confrontational," Boss McKeown tells me. (Because of the blue shirts, they became known as Smurfs.)

Back then, it was name-calling, or a shrug, along with, "Write me up. I don't give a sh--."

They didn't care because a ticket is $75 once or twice a season, while the illegal tables produce that much, or quadruple that, a day.

I jokingly ask the Smurf who we "harass" next.

That's the OCF Coffee House, where the counterman thinks there's a license, somewhere.

"There's nothing I would like better than for you to produce it," Gartland says, without sarcasm.

When it isn't, OCF gets a CVN - Code Violation Notice, a/k/a ticket - for operating without a license.

Everything Gartland does is recorded on his handheld device, a combination of a camera, computer and printer. Each ticket bears a time-stamped image of the violation. Hard to argue with that.

At the Urban Saloon, Gartland asks for the owner and out trots Kelly Beene, her hand extended in greeting, a big smile on her face as she produces her license.

"It's $200 a year, people should buy it and comply," she says. It's actually only $180.

At Jack's Firehouse, the license is produced and there are no violations, so we are on our way to Zorba's Tavern. A license is shown and Gartland invites the manager outside. A table has been set up on Bilco doors. That's a no-no for safety reasons. Just a warning and it is entered in his handheld.

Some chairs and tables are out at the Garden Fresh Produce Deli at the corner of 23rd Street. As Gartland takes out his handheld to take a picture, someone emerges from the deli and starts to remove them.

A chronic violator, Garden Fresh gets written up.

Gartland crosses Fairmount to the London Grill, where a license is produced. The manager is invited outside and is told the space is "a little tight here, a little tight there" and tables are encroaching on the corner. The manager nods and agrees to fix it. Warning, no ticket.

Inspectors are trained to give advice and be helpful to keep owners within the rules, not to just write tickets, McKeown says.

Dusk has fallen and the sweaty columnist calls it quits.

The Smurf still has a few more businesses to "harass."

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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