Activist Gale Cincotta leads a protest outside of the American Bankers Association meeting at McCormick Place in 1980. Credit: Sun-Times Library

Six months ago a community meeting about affordable housing in Jefferson Park erupted in angry, racist protests. At issue was a seven-story, 100-unit building that would house low-income veterans, families, and people with disabilities going up on the corner of Northwest Highway and Milwaukee Avenue. The backlash against a development seen as a possible conduit for African-Americans into the predominately white neighborhood was nothing new for Chicago—and it turns out that the backlash to the backlash also has historical precedent.

After being publicly shamed for its openly racist rhetoric, the opposition to the development, led by members of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and Northwest Side GOP, adjusted its messaging to focus on the unsuitability of a seven-story building in an otherwise suburban-style neighborhood. But many residents weren’t buying it. Galvanized by the hostility of some of their neighbors and the blatant pivot from chants of “No Section 8!” to “Everybody’s welcome! Four stories or less!,” a group of locals formed Neighbors for Affordable Housing in Jefferson Park. In the months since, the organization has steadily gained members, and last Thursday night it hosted a well-attended panel discussion at the Filament Theatre about the legacy of segregation on the northwest side.

Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, along with University of Chicago history PhD candidate Nick Kryczka and Daniel Kay Hertz of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability gave a compact lesson on the history of opposition to integration in Jefferson Park (which in the 1970s included protests of Chicago Housing Authority scattered-site public housing and the busing in of black students from overcrowded schools in Austin), the economic and social toll segregation takes on the city, and the public policy interventions that could address the seemingly intractable problem.

As a way of showing how little things had changed, Kryczka displayed a pair of photographs side by side: one taken by the Reader last February at a housing opposition rally in front of the 45th Ward office and the other a Tribune photo from 1971 taken at the same spot. The latter shot featured well-coiffed white women picketing against proposed Chicago Housing Authority scattered-site housing developments in the neighborhood. The women’s signs read “Stay away CHA,” “CHA: slum builders,” and “First Hitler! Now Austin!”

Kryczka reassured the crowd: “This brand of politics is not destiny.” While 45th Ward alderman Edwin Fifielski backed the segregationists, powerful grassroots organizations sprung from that struggle to fight for inclusion. Chief among them was the Metropolitan Area Housing Alliance, led by legendary community organizer Gale Cincotta.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, as real estate interests backed by federal policies block-busted and redlined their way to maximum profits in west-side neighborhoods, Cincotta organized a racially diverse coalition to push back. MAHA organizers and other groups that grew out of the coalition “redlined” politicians’ homes by wrapping them in red cellophane and picketed the Chicago offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to pressure for federal oversight of unscrupulous mortgage lenders. Cincotta’s work led to Illinois becoming, in 1975, the first state in the nation to outlaw redlining and the passage in 1977 of the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which required credit to be extended equally in communities regardless of their relative wealth or poverty. This dealt a blow to real-estate practices that deemed black neighborhoods and low-income immigrant communities more risky investments, and led to a ballooning predatory mortgage market.

Cincotta, who died in 2001, didn’t come from a highly educated or politicized background. She was from a white, working-class immigrant family, married at 16, and raised six sons as a widow. But in a time of heightened racial animus and violent backlash against integration, which included neo-Nazi rallies across the city, she saw a moral responsibility in banding disparate groups together against the corporate and political interests who fed on the frenzy. Her legacy of legislative and grassroots organizing has been freshly revived on the northwest side this year by Neighbors for Affordable Housing in Jefferson Park and their allies.

NFAH cofounder Sara Gronkiewicz-Doran says that the affordable apartment building, while a catalyst for the group’s work, isn’t going to be the only focus. “We’re not going away. We’ll get this building built and we’ll keep working,” she said. After the Thursday event she excitedly solicited the audience to sign up for the group’s mailing list. They now have several dozen attendees at monthly meetings and are strategizing about how to fight the development’s opponents, who’ve gathered more than $13,000 in donations to bankroll a lawsuit against Arena and the city.

The suit and several more rounds of City Council zoning committee hearings are formidable obstacles that must be overcome before the development is built. But its proponents are focused on the long term, channeling their energy into building networks with existing organizations such as the Chicago Housing Initiative and the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing that have a track record for winning such fights.

Some of the development’s detractors, organized in a Facebook group called Residents Against Upzoning at 5150 N Northwest Highway have now shifted their attention to protesting a controversial play at the upcoming Chicago Fringe Festival. Meanwhile NFAH is focused on holding more public events and demonstrations as well as mounting canvassing campaigns to build support for affordable housing development in Jefferson Park.

“In this neighborhood a lot of people have heard about [affordable housing], a lot of people have opinions about it, and a lot of people want to tell you their opinions about it,” Gronkiewicz-Doran says. “So that for me is the most exciting part of this—just meeting my neighbors and having a very real conversation with them about the need for affordable housing in our community and what we’re going to do about it. And it’s not [being conducted] on Facebook, it’s not across a City Council chamber. You’re literally standing face-to-face with your neighbor and talking about what you can do to make your city and your neighborhood better.”

Chicago is known for this sort of neighborhood-based community organizing as much as it’s infamous for a virulent strain of white ethnic racism. Grassroots campaigns to fight discriminatory government policies, ruthless corporate profiteering, and the more vile responses to societal change have spawned organizations such as Cincotta’s, a plethora of environmental justice groups, the Contract Buyers League, and many others. The NFAH offers just the latest glimpse into the possibility of mobilizing our city’s better nature.