Famous deli hopes council will see the light Chick & Ruth's seeks exception from neon ban ANNAPOLIS/SOUTH COUNTY -- Davidsonville * Edgewater * Shady Side * Deale


The blue and orange neon has beckoned the famous, scandal-ridden and just plain hungry for more than two decades: "Delicatessen" . . . "Breakfast" . . . "Kosher-Style Sandwiches."

And Chick Levitt would like to keep it that way.

The bow-tied proprietor of Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street is planning to appear before the City Council tonight to ask for an exception to a recently passed ordinance banning neon signs in the Historic District.

"The front of my store is my image," says Mr. Levitt, 65, poking the elbow of his interviewer for emphasis just before the lunch-hour rush, "just like my bow tie."

Every inch of the downtown landmark's orange and yellow walls is covered with photos. Round, hubcap-sized signs detail the sandwiches, named after politicians from City Council members to President Clinton.

There are pictures of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who eats breakfast here almost every weekday at 8:30.

He sits at a cordoned-off booth with the stenciled letters reading: "Governor's Office."

Mr. Levitt quickly shifts around in the "Governor's Office" and points to a print of a 1988 painting portraying a rain-splattered downtown illuminated by the neon of you-know-where.

The signs went up not long after the deli opened in 1965.

"All I want is my lights to be on," he says.

The City Council voted 8-to-1 two weeks ago to ban all neon signs in the Historic District, which encompasses the streets that fan out from Church and State circles.

The council wanted to retain the Colonial nature of the district, fearing it would become another Ocean City.

Besides Chick & Ruth's, the new ordinance is expected to affect more than 21 businesses.

Only Subway on Maryland Avenue was be allowed to keep its neon sign, since it received approval from the Historic District Commission several years ago.

Although the original ordinance would have grandfathered neon signs that existed lawfully before 1970 -- saving Chick & Ruth's signs -- the council deleted that portion in the name of fairness.

But Mr. Levitt argues that his longevity should count for something. Businesses have come and gone in downtown Annapolis, where stores and boutiques change faster than you can say Crabtown.

When he opened in 1965, the downtown was run-down. There were more than a dozen vacancies, he recalls.

"We've been here 28 years," he says. "You've got to give respect to what was."

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins (whose namesake sandwich is tuna, onions, lettuce and tomato on rye toast) is leading the charge to allow Mr. Levitt to keep his neon.

"He had [the signs] prior to the Historic District Commission," said the mayor. "He should have been grandfathered in. That's the only reason it's being done. It's not favoritism."

The commission was formed in 1968.

But Alderman John Hammond, R-Ward 1, whose ward includes the famous deli, is against any changes.

"I told Chick my personal preference is I'd just as soon see all of the neon go," says Mr. Hammond (grilled Swiss cheese, bacon and tomato on rye.).

Mr. Hammond, who sponsored the neon measure, said the grandfather clause was added by city officials and that he never supported it. "I think it's out of character with the downtown," he said.

But Mr. Levitt said he is not looking for trouble, and he hopes he can convince a majority tonight that neon and Chick & Ruth are inseparable, sort of like a bagel and cream cheese.

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