By Ben Joravsky

Medrano’s replacement is another Daley special

Last week Mayor Daley added an ironic twist to the ongoing saga of politics in Pilsen: he appointed Danny Solis to fill the aldermanic vacancy in the 25th Ward.

Solis doesn’t live in the ward, and he’s never run for office there or even participated in a political campaign. But he’s unswerving in his allegiance to Daley, and apparently that’s what matters. For years Mexican-American activists in Pilsen fought for self-determination, only to see Daley select a loyal novice to fill the vacancy created in January when Alderman Ambrosio Medrano resigned after pleading guilty to taking some $31,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI mole.

The irony in the selection was not lost on Fred Montejano, a lifelong Pilsen resident and activist who openly sought the job. “I wish Danny well, but yes, I’m disappointed,” says Montejano. “I think the level of politics in the Latino community has changed. You shouldn’t be anyone’s gofer or automatic vote.”

Pilsen is a predominantly Latino community, but until the mid-1980s it was controlled by the late alderman Vito Marzullo and his predominantly white 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. Marzullo stepped down in 1986 after a federal judge ordered the ward redrawn so Latinos would have a majority of voting-age residents. Juan Soliz, then a young lawyer, defeated several candidates in a special election. A year later Soliz defeated Medrano, the machine’s candidate, by all of three votes. In 1991 Medrano beat Soliz.

These elections were brutal battles rife with fraud and hooligan tactics. In Medrano Pilsen wound up with a Daley hack. He might have stayed in office for life had he not been so greedy and stupid as to take the mole’s cash.

For over two months rumors swirled about whom Daley would name; the list of candidates included such mayoral loyalists as Leonard Dominguez, Daley’s former deputy mayor for education, Teresa Fraga, a former schoolteacher, and Solis, who’s the director of the community group UNO (United Neighborhood Organization) and whom Daley had already appointed to the school board nominating commission and the boards of the CHA and the RTA.

In the days before the announcement Solis and Dominguez played things close to the chest. “I’d be interested if asked, though I have not spoken with the mayor,” Dominguez said. “I am purchasing a home in the ward. But that purchase was done long before Medrano stepped down. This is in the mayor’s hands and I respect that.”

Montejano, on the other hand, made no secret about his ambition for the job. He wrote Daley a letter asking to be considered and laying out his qualifications: a former president of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and a leader in the fights for a new YMCA, library, high school, and technical center.

According to City Hall officials, at least 20 people were considered for the job. In the end Daley selected Solis, a man so loyal he supported Daley’s decision to close the Maxwell Street market, even though it put about 100 or so Mexican-American vendors out of work. (When Solis, speaking as a private citizen, testified in favor of closing the market at a City Council hearing, many vendors booed, hissed, and called him a traitor.)

At last week’s press conference Daley called Solis a “grassroots leader,” and Solis promised to move into the ward as soon as he could find a home. “I presently don’t live there, but I will live there,” Solis was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying. “But, more importantly, the work–the 20-some-odd years work that I’ve done–has probably impacted the 25th Ward more than any other part of the city.”

For his part, Montejano says he doesn’t rule out running in next year’s election.

“I could have been alderman back in 1986,” he says. “I was managing the aldermanic campaign of [his ex-wife] Virginia Martinez, and the old committeeman Marco Domico told me, ‘Look, if you want to be alderman, we’ll put you in; just get Virginia out of the race.’ I said, ‘Listen, this is a commitment I made to my wife.’ That’s how things were done–deals in back rooms. That’s what’s so sad about Latino politics. Our vote totals are so small because people aren’t encouraged to get involved. The standard operating procedure is to deliver your voters and keep the other voters from coming out by injecting negative gangbanging stuff so people are intimidated. The decent people who go to church and send their kids to school and work hard figure, ‘Do we need this crap?’ Most say, ‘No, we don’t.’ And on election day they leave the politics to the thugs. That’s the way it’s been for too long in Pilsen; I’m hoping someday it changes.”

Rock in a Hard Place

Light a match of peace and take a moment of silence: FreeFest is over. At least, it won’t be the way it was. The three-day summer festival of local rock music has been moved from the hallowed grounds of Cricket Hill–at Montrose and the lake–to the Petrillo bandshell; in other words, blankets on the grass have been replaced by rows of metal seats.

“I loved Cricket Hill–the vibes we got there were good,” says Wayne Kusy, who along with Michelle Lozins is coorganizer of the festival. “But the Park District says we outgrew Cricket Hill, and I guess maybe they’re right.”

Kusy got the idea for FreeFest from festivals and parties he attended as a teenager growing up on the north side in the 70s. “When I was a kid, Cricket Hill and Montrose Harbor were the hangouts for white kids who wanted to smoke dope and party,” he says. “They called it Pill Hill because of all the drugs consumed and sold around there.”

In the early 80s the police ran off most of the party dudes. But the hill remains a gathering ground for free spirits and counterculture types, perhaps because it’s the highest point in the park and a great place to watch the sun rise or set. It was the site of the tenth anniversary celebration of the ’68 Democratic convention and of a memorial service for John Lennon. In 1994, while thousands flocked to Montrose Harbor to watch men with guns reenact the storming of Normandy, activists gathered on the hill for a quiet, more sober rumination on the horrors of war. Every day hardy souls–who wouldn’t waste their time in antiseptic health clubs–jog up and down the hill. Kids sled there in the winter and fly kites in the spring. In the summer Hispanic soccer leagues play at the foot of the hill.

By the mid-1980s the Park District was allowing music festivals in the parks–backing away from a ban that goes back to the riots that occurred in Grant Park when Sly and the Family Stone failed to show up for a concert. In 1986 Kusy and other north-side musicians and activists organized Peacefest, and by the early 90s Weed Fest and the African Music Festival were also taking place each summer at Cricket Hill.

But FreeFest, first held in 1990, was the most popular. “With Peacefest we had themes of peace–it was like a 60s revival,” says Kusy. “I like the idea–the enthusiasm and positiveness of the 60s. But I don’t want to reverberate exactly the kind of music you had back then.

“The point of FreeFest is to give exposure to contemporary music: rap, world beat, alternative, heavy metal, grunge, pop, and funk. All the bands are local. That first year we had a few hundred people, and the Smashing Pumpkins played.”

Over time it grew; last year police estimated that a crowd of 20,000 came to the Saturday night show. “The whole hill was covered–it looked like an anthill,” says Lozins. “It was big, but we didn’t lose our spirit. There was no fighting, no arrests. And everyone volunteered their time, including our stage manager, Randy Venhuizen. The bands played for free. Smashing Pumpkins, Green, Social Act, Johnny Chainsaw–they all played for free.”

But the larger crowds brought new complications. There were more volunteers to coordinate, more bands to recruit, and more garbage to collect. “Our budget last year was almost $20,000,” says Lozins. “Most of it came from vendors.”

In January Lozins and Kusy got a letter from the Park District saying they and all the other festivals would have to move. “We called them up, and they told us they wanted to fix up the soccer fields,” says Kusy. “Someone even said there was talk of tearing it down. You hear all sorts of crazy things, but I can’t imagine they’d try something that ridiculous.

“They suggested we move FreeFest to the Soldier Field parking lot. They said, ‘It’s perfect–it’s enclosed, you can charge admission.’ We said, ‘But that’s a parking lot; we want picnics. And besides, we don’t want to charge admission–this is FreeFest.'”

Park District officials say there is no truth to the rumor that Cricket Hill will be leveled, and that they wish nothing but the best for FreeFest. “They have outgrown their location,” says Nora Moreno, a district spokesperson. “There’s nothing against the festival.”

After several weeks of negotiations with the Park District, Kusy and Lozins decided to move to the Petrillo bandshell. “Now we’re dealing with unions and concessionaires,” says Kusy. “We’re looking for sponsors, maybe a radio station. We’re going to have band auditions at the Dome Room starting in April. We’re operating in the mainstream, but FreeFest will be back.”

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