Woe, Pioneers

A year and a half ago, artist Mary Anne Cataldi wrote a letter to the Reader taking contributor Cara Jepsen to task for writing about dripping water and other problems Woman Made Gallery was having in its brand-new quarters at the Acme Artists’ Community. We should applaud the developer’s “tireless efforts,” Cataldi wrote. “Most of the minor concerns the article focused on have already been rectified or are being addressed.” She suggested that in the future Jepsen should “focus on the art and the positive, creative energy in the Acme building.”

Now Cataldi is at the forefront of a group of disillusioned residents complaining publicly that the project is plagued by problems caused by shoddy construction. None of them want to see their beautiful new homes get a bad rap–but they also don’t want to sit quietly while Acme is held up as a perfect model of affordable artists’ housing. In a letter they sent the Department of Housing in late April asking the city to step in, Cataldi wrote, “We are at a loss to explain why so many corners were cut during the construction phase of this project.”

In an interview with the Reader in early April, Laura Weathered, executive director of Near Northwest Arts Council–which developed the $3.2 million, 25-unit condominium building at 2418 W. Bloomingdale with the help of city subsidies–characterized residents as nervous first-time home buyers, a position she reiterated this week. “Every condo association faces the same issues,” she says. “We’re like a new family business that’s working out the kinks.” But residents don’t think the troubles they described in a fat dossier for the city are routine. Here’s Cataldi: “Shortly after I moved in it rained into my home through every pipe in my utility closet. Rivers of water swept through my living area. Following a few more rains I was without plumbing for four weeks. I showered at a friend’s house and used a bucket in lieu of a toilet.” Three months after Laura Cohen closed on her unit she was startled to find that “the center of my condo had ‘erupted.’… My wood floor separated and rose at least 2 feet.” Over the next few weeks, she wrote, about 95 percent of her floorboards cupped and about 50 percent separated. By late summer, “ants started to infest my condo and I began to smell mold.” David and Batya Hernandez reported “an onslaught of water seeping into the entire north face” of their two-story unit; in one hour on May 20 this year, David Selsley collected ten gallons of water that fell from the ceiling and around the windows of his home. He collected another ten gallons on each of the next two days and observed that the “drywall has been soaked and is starting to fall out.”

Heather Lindahl and Michael Graham say their unit flooded two days before they closed on its purchase, but no one told them about it at the time. On the day of the closing it flooded again. Excited and unsuspecting, Graham says, “we walked into our new home, half of which was covered in about two inches of water.” An independent inspection revealed that “there was enough water in the walls to rot the wooden floors.” Neighboring units were flooding with rainwater and sewage backup, problems only partially solved when the city repaired a collapsed sewer in front of the building, and the walls of Lindahl and Graham’s utility closet were “coated with a thick tarlike substance.” Concerned about bringing their baby into this environment, Lindahl says, “We closed in July but couldn’t live there until October.”

After Lindahl and Graham complained about the problems and had an attorney send a letter to Weathered, they say, the atmosphere turned subtly ugly and they began to feel unliked and unwanted in the collective. “We took turns accusing each other of being paranoid…but there was an attempt to scapegoat us,” Lindahl says. Several residents concur with this assessment, citing a formal statement that Warren Leming–who shares Weathered’s unit, serves on the NNWAC board, and has also been a paid NNWAC employee–presented at an association meeting in March. “The situation between Mike, Heather and Laura has already fractured alliances, made for distrust and an ongoing sense of paranoia,” he read. “I have observed, in both meetings and in conversations with community members, what I can only call panic mongering.” Frank Crowley, the condo association’s original president, says the problems reported to the city “are issues we started bringing up a year ago” to little avail. Last August, as things heated up, Crowley resigned.

Last week the city’s housing department issued a report on the building, which lists, among other things, unacceptable roofing, undersize gutters and downspouts, evidence of storm- and sewer-water backup, flooring that needs to be replaced, insect infestation, and the need for mold testing in 13 of the units. Deputy commissioner Patrick Curtin instructed Weathered and the contractor, Brickyard Development and Construction, that the corrective work is to be completed by August 1. “We just want them to do what should have been done a year ago,” Cataldi says. “Everyone here shares the same vision of an affordable community for artists, but the dream has turned into a nightmare.”

Meanwhile, the disgruntled residents say they’ve passed a resolution to change the name of the building. They want to distance themselves from NNWAC’s Acme Art Works, a gallery and studio space run by Weathered across the street on Western. At a condo association meeting governed by what Selsley describes as a “shoutocracy,” the resolution was contested.

A Brit Booster; Teeter Trots

Last week longtime London Guardian theater critic Michael Billington proclaimed Chicago the “current theatre capital of America.” Never mind New York, “with its suffocating commercialism,” he wrote. “It is to Chicago, with its predominantly nonprofit 156 companies, that the true theatregoer now avidly looks.” That’s not stopping Lara Teeter, who announced this week that he’s leaving his position as Light Opera Works’ artistic director for a teaching job at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.