7/19: The votes are in and have been counted, and the neighbors have gone in favor of Haymarket. See the update at the end of this post.
The stately redbrick mansion at the corner of Buena and Clarendon in Buena Park, currently the home of the Menomonee Club, a 71-year-old nonprofit community center that runs after-school programs for kids, has been on the market for the past two years. In that time, the asking price has steadily slipped from $3.6 million to $2.3 million. Finally this spring, a buyer emerged: Haymarket Books, a self-described “radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher” currently located in North Center. But now some of the neighbors are complaining. They don’t want to live near radicals, even if they’re books.
Named for the 1886 event that began as a peaceful May Day demonstration to promote an eight-hour workday for workers and devolved into a deadly riot after someone threw a bomb, Haymarket makes no secret of its political leanings. Some of the authors it publishes, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Ali Abunimah, have had to cancel events due to backlash and death threats. But book publishing is generally a peaceful business, and Haymarket’s offices are no exception, says Jim Plank, the publicity director. More importantly, Haymarket had received a grant from the Lannan Foundation that is, financial director Behzad Raghian says, sufficient to cover the cost of the building, plus renovation and remodeling. Haymarket plans to house the publishing offices on the upper floors and use the downstairs to host readings and other events. Capacity would be no more than 100 people.
At first the process went smoothly. Raghian and his Haymarket colleagues met with alderman James Cappleman’s office and Buena Park Neighbors, the neighborhood association. Raghian says they were warmly received. But in order for Haymarket to move in, the neighborhood association would have to approve a special permit that would allow Haymarket to host community events, although the building would still be zoned residential. The Menomonee Club has the same permit, but permits are issued to owners, not buildings, so Haymarket would have to reapply.
Per the city code, a notice was sent out to all neighborhood residents living within 250 feet of the property on Buena to alert them about the permit, and a meeting was scheduled for June 14 for neighbors to ask questions and raise concerns. The notice listed the applicant not as Haymarket, but as the publisher’s umbrella organization, the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), which also runs, among other things, an annual socialism conference and a website called Mondoweiss that describes itself as “devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective.”
Then things began to get weird. A few days before the meeting, the alderman’s office began to receive what Raghian describes as “wacky phone calls” about Haymarket and its activities.
June 14 was a dark and stormy night. About 80 people crammed into Klein’s Bakery and Cafe. It did not go well.
“I was completely surprised by it,” says Tressa Feher, the alderman’s chief of staff, who was chairing the meeting. “A question was asked to the group about whether Haymarket and the website [Mondoweiss] were anti-Semitic. They tried to explain how the website discusses anti-Semitism versus anti-Zionism and where they were within supporting Palestinians. People didn’t really understand. People reacted before they looked into what it was. They weren’t really listening, and that was the problem.”
The opposition, which Raghian estimates was less than half of the people present, was loud and vehement. Raghian and Julie Fain, Haymarket’s managing editor, tried to answer questions and explain Mondoweiss’s position and that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were not the same thing. “I’m Jewish and I’m also anti-Zionist,” Fain told one of the protesters. The protester responded, “There’s a term for that: self-hating Jew.”
“A tone was established that allowed someone to say that,” Raghian says. “Anytime somebody had a question either perceived as neutral or positive, the people opposed shouted over them, spoke over them, or spoke out of turn. One woman reiterated five times, ‘We don’t want you here.’ I said, ‘I don’t think everyone agrees.'”
Jonathon Wells, who’s lived in the neighborhood since 2013, was part of the opposition. He says he didn’t learn about the connection between Haymarket and CERSC until just before the June 14 meeting, which is why he didn’t speak up sooner. “The CERSC is kind of a scary organization,” he says. “Based on the information from their websites, if you look at the quotes in their own words, they’re an activist, radical, anti-capitalist organization.”
Although Wells isn’t Jewish himself, he says he finds Mondoweiss’s positions particularly alarming, and all his Jewish friends agree. At the meeting, some of the opposition said that the writer David Horowitz had referred to Mondoweiss as a “hate group.” (Raghian responded that Horowitz was on the far right politically and that none of his claims have been substantiated.)
As it happens, Mondoweiss will not be housed in the building on Buena; none of its editors or contributors live in Chicago. But that’s not Wells’s biggest concern.
“While they are saying they are a not-for-profit,” he says, “in fact they are a book publisher. It’s a commercial endeavor in a residential neighborhood. That’s the core issue at hand. It’s historical, quiet, and peaceful. With the radical and activist activities of its parent company, Haymarket is not a fit for neighborhood.”
He’s also concerned that Haymarket will make renovations to the building that will destroy its historic character.
In the days after the meeting, Wells and others who oppose Haymarket started a Twitter account (it currently has three followers) and began distributing flyers around the neighborhood describing how the publisher would bring in more traffic. “On the web, they openly invite to their meetings ‘radicals, activists, and self-described revolutionaries,'” the flyer read. One confused resident called up the executive director of the Menomonee Club to ask if that meant people would be building bombs in the basement.
Because the meeting got out of control so quickly, Feher says, there wasn’t much of a chance for her or any other members of the alderman’s staff to allay concerns about traffic and historic preservation. The Buena Park Neighbors, the neighborhood association that normally would’ve made the decision about whether to approve Haymarket’s permit, decided to leave the decision up to the alderman’s office. In order to get the matter resolved as quickly as possible, the alderman’s office decided to put it up to a vote to the neighbors who live within 250 feet of the property, about 500 people. (Wells is not among them.)
“Because the city requires notices to anyone who lives within 250 feet, we decided do this for now,” Feher explains.
Voting began on Tuesday at another neighborhood meeting and will continue online through tomorrow. This most recent meeting, Feher says, was much more peaceful than the last. The management of the Menomonee Club was on hand to explain the building’s current usage and how it affected traffic in the neighborhood. “Hundreds of people are coming in every day,” Feher says, “and people didn’t know.”
The Haymarket contingent has said they would be amenable to looking into getting the building listed as a historic landmark and also to signing a good neighbor agreement, a written document with information about who neighbors can contact if they have a problem with noise or parking. Other property owners in the neighborhood have done this, Feher says, and nothing has ever escalated to the point of requiring mediation from the alderman’s office.
Meanwhile, another group, Neighbors for Haymarket Books, has been lobbying on behalf of the publisher. Though Raghian wishes the vote were more democratic and included more of the neighborhood besides just people who live within 250 feet, he finds this show of support reassuring. “If we felt the community as a whole was overwhelmingly against us,” he says, “that would be one thing. So many people told us they wanted us to be there. Even after that meeting, people approached us and thanked us for maintaining our composure. They said, ‘I may not agree with your politics, but I think you should be in the building.’ So we’re still moving forward.”
Update 7/19: The votes are in and have been counted: 50 for Haymarket moving into the neighborhood, 30 against, along with what Alderman James Cappleman describes as “overwhelming support of residents outside the 250′ range.”
In a statement, the alderman wrote:
Ald. Cappleman supports this decision because the concerns of the neighbors regarding parking and congestion issues were adequately addressed by having parking available at both Brennemann and Disney Schools and the limited number of evening events they normally host. This special use also helps to protect the historic nature of this home. While many viewed the politics of this organization as controversial, their community meetings would meet the very same criteria that any Chicago public library uses for allowing such events. In addition, the value of diversity that so many residents desire is reinforced when differing political beliefs are tolerated and respected. Ald. Cappleman will work with this organization and the local neighbors to create a Good Neighbor Agreement so that the organization’s events do not put an undue hardship on the surrounding residents.