Amid the squalor, the building's owner, Greg Tsevis, navigates the darkened stairs and crawl spaces with the ease afforded by 30 years of familiarity, oblivious to the ruin around him.
Unfortunately for Tsevis, the old theater's problems are not confined to its rickety walls. Pressured by 14th Ward Alderman Stephen Gregali and unhappy neighbors, the city soon plans to seize the building through eminent domain. The city argues that Tsevis has been unresponsive to offers to buy or develop the Avalon and that he's let the structure deteriorate to the point that it was condemned in March.
"Mr. Tsevis is just an unreasonable individual. He's been in court and he's been delinquent in taxes. He's unreachable, which is a problem because people have wanted to buy the property," Gregali says. "We're going to move forward. We're going to take him to court."
Tsevis contends that he's being hassled because of the city's failed development efforts in the Southampton neighborhood specifically, Gregali's opposition in 2002 to the construction of a Kmart across the street from the Avalon, a move Tsevis claims cost the city millions in lost tax revenues.
"[Gregali] blew it and he wants to scapegoat me," Tsevis complains.
"Absolutely not," Gregali counters. "I, and we in the city, treat him no different than any property owner who doesn't take care of his property."
Further complicating matters is that many in this south city community consider the Avalon a neighborhood landmark, a movie palace that seated nearly 650 when it was built in 1935. They are adamant that it be preserved so much so that Gregali claims he's received death threats, warning him not to demolish the building.
Tsevis' father purchased the Avalon in 1977 when its previous owner filed for bankruptcy. After his father's death, Tsevis became a do-everything owner, running the projector, selling tickets and working the concession counter.
In 1994 Tsevis leased the space to John Moseley, who, after paying for some repairs, began showing second-run movies for a dollar. The cinema went dark on January 31, 1999, with a screening of I Know What You Did Last Summer, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Since quitting the business, Tsevis has taken to doing odd jobs, mainly mowing lawns and working for his brother's Kansas City-based landscaping business. These days he's often found in front of the theater, push broom in hand.
Frank Oswald, the city's deputy building commissioner, says the walls of the Avalon are structurally unsafe, and the broken windows leave the building open to vagrants and pigeons "lots of pigeons."
Tsevis is evasive when asked how the Avalon went from a fully functioning movie theater to its current haggard state, refusing to elaborate on the theater's demise.
In 1999, shortly after the theater closed, Gregali, as part of a neighborhood program, offered Tsevis and Moseley funds to partially renovate the building, which Tsevis declined.
In the following years, the city responded to complaints from Southampton neighbors, including graffiti smeared on the theater walls and an abandoned vehicle in its parking lot.
In April 2006, says Oswald, the building department stepped in and slapped Tsevis with the first in a series of fines for building-code violations.
Following a city building inspection one day in March, Tsevis was hit with thirteen violations, fined and summoned to appear in court. Tsevis failed to appear and now has a warrant out for his arrest, according to Oswald. The building will be re-inspected next month. If Tsevis fails to bring it up to code, he'll face additional fines.
Says Gregali, "We have processes to take these kinds of properties. I extended an olive branch to him years ago and he slapped it out my hand. So guess what? We're going to go through the process."
Despite the building's poor condition, Tsevis has listed the property at prices ranging from $1.2 million to his current estimate of $900,000. These numbers are sharply at odds with the city, who appraised its worth at approximately $340,000.
On the day of the Avalon tour, Tsevis, in his sun-bleached gray cap and with a deep tan from his routine bike-ride from his Clayton apartment, tries to avoid being photographed for this story. As he explains, "I owe a lot of people small change."
Some of that change belongs to the city to the tune of more than $13,000 for unpaid property taxes over the past two years. "It doesn't matter," he says. "You got three years you don't have to pay it. The third year if you don't pay it, they come and take your stuff away."
Neighbors claim Tsevis tears down the condemned signs the city posts on the Avalon, ignoring the threatened penalty of a fine and jail time. "I did one time," he concedes, "but that was just a natural reflex."
Tsevis is a hard man to find. He doesn't have a phone, and most mail sent to him is returned unopened, marked undeliverable. "Unless I can talk the police chief into having a police officer park out front, I don't know how you can catch the guy, because he's unavailable," says Gregali.
Tsevis offers many excuses for failing to sell the building or respond to inquiries. At one point he'll say no one has come forward with the money to buy it. Later, he says he wants to wait and see what's going to happen with the development across the street. Finally, he'll argue that earlier this year he twice submitted plans to the city to renovate and rent out the building's space, but was denied. City records, however, show no such permit applications.
Fred Discher, a one-time employee of the Avalon and friend of the embattled owner, theorizes that Tsevis refuses to sell because the theater holds some kind of sentimental value. "Maybe it's an heirloom type thing," says Discher, "and he doesn't want to get rid of it because of that."
Says Tsevis, "I don't care if [the city] tears it down. It'd be the best thing that ever happened to me."
That attitude doesn't go over well with many in the community. "I really, really hope the Avalon can be saved and used," says Chad Stockel, president of the Southampton Neighborhood Association. "From a historic perspective it would be a tragedy [if it were torn down]. But a parking lot, as it stands now, would be just as ugly or pretty."
Late last month a defiant Tsevis emerged from the darkened Avalon into the blinding afternoon sunlight and announced that he's not worried about losing the theater to eminent domain.
"They've tried it so many times," he says. "The old days, I would have been scared. I'm not scared anymore."
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