From the western edges of the Loop, the medical center complex along the Eisenhower Expressway looks awesome and foreboding. Its buildings stand as if in a separate, self-contained world of steel-and-concrete slabs, completely detached from the surrounding unvariegated urban sprawl. Even when viewed from the westbound lanes of the expressway, the complex seems remote–like an ever-receding Emerald City at the end of a never-ending Yellow Brick Road.

But a ride along the CTA’s Douglas el line makes it clear that the medical center is anything but remote. As the train sweeps up into the midst of the expressway to an old wooden platform, the space between the medical center and downtown seems to shrink to nothing. The Sears Tower is no more than a five-minute cab ride from the Polk Street/Medical Center station of the Douglas line. The University of Illinois campus could easily be reached on foot. And, perhaps most important, the Chicago Stadium and the potential site of the new Chicago Bears stadium are no more than a stone’s throw away.

The area surrounding the medical center, with its base of well-moneyed professionals, is smack-dab in the middle of what is becoming one of Chicago’s hottest real estate markets. For proof, one need look no further than the tony new Garibaldi Square townhouse development now under construction at Harrison and Ashland. Prices for the two- and three-bedroom units start in the area of $350,000.

But less than a mile south of the busy construction cranes at Garibaldi Square, life goes on as it has for decades for some of Chicago’s poorest residents. An area once known as the Valley–bounded on the north by Roosevelt Road and on the south by the swath of railroad tracks that run roughly along 14th Street–is without a doubt one of the most bombed-out places in Chicago. Hints of grandeur can still be found in the architecture of the neighborhood’s brick two- and three-flats, but for the most part unchecked decay is the area’s most distinguishing feature. Roughly half the area is overgrown and vacant. Many of the remaining buildings are unoccupied, and several have collapsed under their own weight and are still waiting to be hauled away.

Now, after years of stagnation and decline, sudden change appears to be in store for the dilapidated area. The medical center has developed an interest in the Valley, and controversy is brewing over its fate and the fate of other neighborhoods on the near west side.

The Valley is within the jurisdiction of the Illinois Medical Center Commission, a nearly invisible, quasi-governmental agency that has quietly used the powers of eminent domain (which allow the commission to condemn and acquire property in its district–between Ashland and Oakley, from the railroad tracks north to the Eisenhower) to acquire land for the construction and expansion of the medical center.

As public agencies in Chicago go, the Medical Center Commission is certainly one of the more obscure, despite the fact it has been in existence for nearly a half century. It was established by state law in 1941 following the lobbying of Vito Marzullo, then a state representative. According to a recent commission report, it was Marzullo, “a great statesman,” who had “a dream” to make Chicago “an international health care and research capital.”

Over the years, the commission has used its authority to gradually assemble the land that now holds the sprawling complexes of Cook County Hospital, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, the University of Illinois Medical Center, the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, and numerous other schools, clinics, and health care institutions.

But by the commission’s own account, the complex’s growth has never been more explosive than over the past five years, during which a staggering $300 million worth of construction and renovation projects have been completed. Projects worth another $90 million are already on the drawing boards. The largest of the new projects is the Chicago Technology Park at Congress and Oakley, the district’s northwest corner. Commission members hope it will someday be to the medical and pharmaceutical industries what Silicon Valley is to computers.

The commission recently took steps to acquire for free about 325 properties in the Valley through the county’s scavenger sale of tax-delinquent real estate. If the commission is granted its no-cash bids by the County Board, it could gain control of as much as 28 percent of the neighborhood’s land, which totals nearly 80 acres.

“This land is absolutely critical for the continued growth of the medical center,” says Raymond Bayster, the executive director of the commission, as he grimly points to an enormous aerial photograph of the near west side and downtown Chicago.

“We’re landlocked. All of the land in the commission’s district north of Roosevelt Road has been developed. We have no other place to go. If we were able to acquire that land [in the Valley], we could see a lot of major institutional expansion in the medical center. Without it, we could easily lose some of our institutions.”

Bayster insists that the commission has no immediate plans for the land south of Roosevelt, but says if it could get a foothold in the area it would most likely get commitments for several major developments. The commission has already retained the services of urban planner Jared Shlaes to begin preliminary studies of what the area is capable of accommodating.

Bayster notes that in the past, land availability weighed heavily in the Chicago Medical School’s decision to leave the medical center for the Waukegan area, and in the near departure of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists for Long Beach, California. With thousands of jobs, the medical center is indisputably the near west side’s economic linchpin and the only economic hope for the area on the horizon.

But the commission isn’t the only group with redevelopment plans for the Valley. Earlier this year, members of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 1901 W. Washburne, proposed ambitious plans to develop hundreds of units of senior citizen housing and a Christian school and day-care center in the area. Members of New Zion have been meeting with a variety of planners, developers, and public officials for more than 18 months.

“Our congregation has been a part of this community for over 50 years,” says New Zion’s pastor, the Reverend Napoleon Wordlaw. “We just want to develop housing that will allow our congregation to remain intact. We have the resources and we have the inspiration. If the medical commission pushes us out of the area, most of our members will have to move either to the far west or far south sides. Many of our members are elderly and can’t travel. So if we don’t have any housing, we won’t have any congregation.”

The plans proposed by New Zion include units for both low-income and middle-class congregation members. “There are a lot of middle- and upper-income members of the congregation who would like to invest in the area, but they have been reluctant to because the cloud of the medical commission has been hanging over the area for so long.”

As Reverend Wordlaw envisions it, the development could counter the increasing separation of poor and middle-income blacks.

Although Bayster said the commission has not yet ruled out residential development in the Valley, he has suggested that if the New Zion plans are carried out to their fullest, there might well be a shortage of land for medical center expansion.

Reverend Wordlaw disputes this contention, claiming that when fully completed the church’s plan would need only about seven acres, less than 10 percent of all the land in the area. Additionally, the church is flexible and open to any changes the medical commission might want to propose.

The commission’s plan to acquire the land first became public on August 26, during an otherwise drowsy subcommittee hearing of the Cook County Board. Lisa Ruble, an attorney representing the commission, formally submitted the requests to the board, but didn’t appear to know much else about the proposal.

“What does the medical commission want with this land?” asked County Board Commissioner Rose-Marie Love.

“It’s for the benefit of the medical center,” was Ruble’s only response.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” said Love, a Democrat from Chicago’s west side who was first elected to the board last fall. After a brief dispute among board members, the request was sidelined pending further information and consideration.

Love later charged that the Medical Center Commission is trying to orchestrate “a land grab,” and that the commission is trying to become “a little landholding company” that might be planning to build upper-income housing in the Valley, thus forcing out the area’s long-term, primarily black residents.

“They are definitely trying to short-sell this thing to the county,” Love said.

“These requests were handled routinely in the past, but that was before I got on the board,” she continued. “The medical center has been throwing people out of their homes for at least 25 or 30 years. I’ve known a lot of people who were among the evicted.” According to Love, as many as several hundred people could be forced out of their homes if the Medical Center Commission gets control of the property.

George Davis, the commission’s chief attorney, flatly denied Love’s displacement figures, insisting the commission would mainly be acquiring vacant land and buildings. Buildings that are occupied would continue to be rented to the residents until redevelopment plans are on the block, he said.

Raymond Bayster adds that because owners of tax-delinquent property can pay off their back taxes after no-cash bids are made, the commission will likely obtain only a portion of the property it is seeking in the scavenger sale.

Since the County Board’s first meeting on the matter, Love has enlisted the aid of Vernon Ford, a savvy black lawyer and real estate dabbler from the west side, to provide technical assistance to the church planners.

Interest in the matter escalated dramatically following the first hearing. During the board’s next meeting, Reverend Wordlaw and nine other church members were present. Also in attendance were Bayster and Park Livingston, president of the commission’s board and a former Republican candidate for governor. Before the meeting, Ford, Livingston, and Bayster energetically debated the conflicting interests in the Valley and agreed to discuss possible compromise solutions in the future.

Ford says that the residents in the Valley are still not sure what the commission is planning for the area and that their ability to compromise is limited by the mystery.

“What we don’t want is to have the commission acquire all the land south of Roosevelt and force out all the residents,” Ford said. Many signs indicate brighter economic days ahead for the area in and around the medical center; Ford wants to be sure that the current residents get to stay and reap the benefits.

One reason residents are nervous about the medical commission’s plans is that in this case the commission is trying to acquire land not through eminent domain, as it usually does, but through the tax scavenger sale. There are certain criteria that must be met in an eminent domain case. First, fair market value must be paid to property owners. Second, and perhaps more important, the commission must show that land being acquired will be used for medical or medical-related purposes. By bypassing the eminent domain procedure, Ford says, the commission avoids having to pay fair market value and does not have to say what the property will be used for.

“Eminent domain has a built-in checkpoint which makes sure the property is being used for the public good,” said Ford. “By going through the scavenger sale, the commission does not have to be specific about its plans for the land. This lends itself to a lot of potential abuse. Should the County Board facilitate such abuse? I think it should be the county’s duty to hold the commission to a more specific standard of what the land will be used for.

“Without any external pressures, the district area will probably be cleared of all its poor, black people,” Ford said. “If that happened and if you had a Bears stadium north of the Eisenhower, the medical center district would effectively create an enormous wall stretching roughly along Oakley from 15th to Lake Street, neatly shielding downtown development from the west side.”

Whether there is a deliberate plan to develop the medical center hand in hand with a Bears stadium is still a topic of much debate. Now-dead legislation that would have expanded the medical center district north to Lake Street, south to Cullerton, and west to Kedzie certainly left that impression. The legislation was proposed by Medical Center Commissioner Christopher B. Cohen and introduced last year in the Illinois General Assembly by Chicago representative John Cullerton.

News of the legislation rang like a shot through the west side. Community residents and west-side political leaders blasted the move as a land grab. Later, Cullerton quietly killed the bill, but the ire of near-west-side residents hasn’t died. In many ways, the protest following Cohen’s legislation set the stage for the current protests against both the Bears stadium and the medical center expansion.

Bayster denies the medical commission had any knowledge of the legislation; he says that Cohen, an appointee to the commission of Mayor Harold Washington, was acting completely on his own without consulting any of the other commission members.

Ford says some past decisions of the commission certainly appear to have racial overtones. For example, the predominantly Italian and Hispanic Tri-Taylor neighborhood is also located within the medical center’s district; the commission seems to have no interest in expanding that way, and instead is actively encouraging the neighborhood’s residential growth and gentrification. Racial motives were also suggested when the commission waged a drawn-out legal battle to prevent a black-owned Popeye’s fried chicken restaurant from being built in the medical center district, even though it had allowed another restaurant in the area previously.

Urbanologist Pierre De Vise says that race consciousness has always been extremely acute in the medical center. De Vise, who recently testified as an expert witness in a court battle by mobile food vendors who are fighting to remain in the area, says the commission members’ decisions are most heavily influenced by the needs of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s.

“Some of the wealthiest people in the country are patients at Rush-Presbyterian,” De Vise said. “Part of the commission’s goal is to prevent a cultural clash between the poor people who go to Cook County Hospital and the rich people who go to Rush-Presbyterian.”

The commission itself suggests as much in its annual report when it argues for moving south of Roosevelt Road so as to eliminate “the urban blight which besmirches the area and poses security problems for the area’s neighborhoods and institutions.”

Vernon Ford counters that if the Medical Center Commission would help in establishing a stable community south of Roosevelt Road, security would follow as a natural result.

“The commission has found that housing in the Tri-Taylor District can be an appropriate use for the medical center land,” Ford says. “But why isn’t that also the case in the area south of Roosevelt Road? Race and class are clearly the determining factors. And the commission’s failure to admit that only makes matters worse. So far, the commission has been dealing with the problem in euphemisms. When they say they are concerned about security problems, what they are really saying is they are concerned about blacks in the area. When they say housing south of Roosevelt Road is incompatible with the medical center plan, what they really mean is it is undesirable. To put it in simple terms, the commission is trying to determine who goes and who stays,” Ford said.

Although members of New Zion Church say they have gotten a cool reception from the commission in the past, Reverend Wordlaw believes a compromise can be reached. “We have left ourselves flexible,” he says. “We ultimately think there will be some softening of hearts among the commissioners.”

Ford too sees some room for compromise.

“The problem with the medical center commissioners is that they tend to view all black people the same,” Ford said. “But if they would take the time to sort out the good people from the bad, they would realize they might be able to start a viable, integrated community in the area. The area may have the potential to become a bridge for the redevelopment of the west side. Instead of a wall.”

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