By Gina Frangello
Brad Suster sat wedged in the back of the packed basement of Beth-el All Nations church. It was an early August evening and an agitated crowd of almost 80 people had gathered. Bishop Edgar Jackson followed his opening prayer with a brief speech about the hardships facing this West Englewood community, whose main commercial district–the 6200 block of South Ashland– as well as the residential area stretching two blocks east to Laflin (and including the church on the corner of 63rd and Justine), was scheduled to be demolished to clear land for a new police station.
For several hours residents rose to argue that while a new station was direly needed, it should not come at the expense of a thriving business district. But the deal was done. Appraisers were already visiting each building in the condemned area; a representative from the city had been sent to discuss compensation and relocation.
Though Suster hadn’t spoken, he suspected he–the only white person in the room–was assumed by many to be another city agent. In fact, he had been canvassing the area for days to gather support in protesting the planned demolition, going so far as to contact the Sun-Times, which had consequently run a short but sympathetic piece on the issue the day before. He waited while question after question was asked. Finally, he raised his hand.
When called upon to speak, he began by explaining that while he didn’t live in the neighborhood, he managed a two-flat in the area scheduled for demolition. He had come to the meeting in part to represent his tenants, an immigrant Thai family who run a take-out restaurant, China Express. His tenants, the Ketbangs, were worried about the city’s plan, though he wasn’t primarily concerned with the fate of their building. His main worries were the two-story building with a terra-cotta facade on the corner, which anchored the commercial district, and the two-story classical revival bank building that had been converted into the church in which they were meeting. West Englewood is home to ten potential landmark buildings. This former bank building was one, yet despite the vacant lots nearby, it had been scheduled for demolition.
In the last year several potential landmarks had been torn down at 79th and Halsted, with an Osco and a LaSalle bank rising in their place. Suster noted that, while Mayor Daley bemoans big-box developments and helps fight them on the north side, he has been known to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies for these same “monstrosities” in poorer areas, where they are believed to be good for the local economy. He rattled off several other examples: at the northwest corner of 87th and Ashland another landmark-quality building was scheduled to be replaced by a Walgreens (it has since been demolished). At 47th and King, Gerri’s Palm Tavern, home to much of Chicago’s rich blues history, would become part of a newly constructed “African village” if Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s redevelopment plans for Bronzeville went through. At 47th and Ashland a historic theater designed by Rapp and Rapp was set to be replaced by a strip mall. And the redevelopment of Kennedy-King College at 63rd and Halsted had no plan for preserving the area’s historic buildings, including the grand South Side Masonic temple.
“I live in West Town,” he concluded, “and I notice there are many differences between our areas. We’ve been trying for years to fill up the vacant stores on our primary commercial strip, whereas here I see every store is occupied. I wish we could say that. The second difference is that our community gets to decide what happens in it. When the city threatened to demolish our community anchor–not even a church like this but a vacant store–they listened. In fact, the city just invested over 30 million dollars to renovate the landmark Goldblatt’s building. Not only that, but we’re also looking forward to median planters on our stretch of Ashland, as well as trees that will line our partially vacant strip on Chicago Avenue. We even have a committee to decide on our own lighting for the area. Now, why is it that we can have input on lamp design, but this neighborhood has no say when it comes to its entire uprooting? Is it that the city thinks we’re smarter up north and can handle these decisions, but the community down here needs to be treated like children? Or is this simply an economic or racial issue that needs to be investigated?”
The crowd went wild. A few days earlier, while posing for a picture for the Sun-Times article, Hattie Goosby, a neighborhood resident supporting the demolition, had advised Suster, “Just give up. This is a done deal–don’t waste your time.” Suster had no intention of doing so.
Brad Suster talks fast, walks fast, gestures wildly, affects voices when relaying dialogue, and often speaks self-deprecatingly of himself in the third person. His habitual black pea coat, with all but one button missing, is coated with a layer of coarse white hair from the three bulldogs who share his home, a dilapidated but still majestic graystone in Wicker Park.
Suster and his uncle Dewey Suster (who has the controlling interest in their partnership), own 250 rental properties in the Chicago area. Most are single-family homes, but some are apartment buildings with up to 18 units. Most–roughly 55 percent–are on the south side. The rest are spread throughout Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, and Evanston, with a few on the west side and in the south suburbs. Brad, who was raised in Kenilworth and attended New Trier, began working with his uncle shortly after graduating from DePauw University. Dewey, a 58-year-old attorney, did not go into real estate out of concern for preservation. “It was just the direction I went with the law firm,” he says. When asked if he now considers himself a preservationist like his nephew, he says, “Yes and no. I’m interested, but not the way Brad is–not to that extent. I like to preserve cool old buildings, but I’m more interested in the rural than the urban.” Of his nephew he says, “He has tremendous energy, which reminds me of myself when I got started in this business. I don’t have to keep tabs on him–I hear about things he’s done after the fact. We each have our own areas in the business, independent of each other.”
“I’ve always been obsessed with buildings,” says Brad Suster. “When I was ten and first encountered the Chicago housing projects, I had this fantasy about creating ‘rainbow projects.’ So instead of being a uniform, ugly brown, the projects would be painted colorful and pretty. Of course, it didn’t occur to me to be concerned about what was going on inside the buildings, as long as they looked beautiful.”
Suster was initially attracted to real estate because of his love of architecture, mixed with what he jokes was a typical sociology major’s vague desire to “help people.” He hadn’t been working for Dewey long when his romantic visions of himself as a do-gooder came to a crashing halt. In 1993, he’d been sent to handle an eviction in a south suburb. “I didn’t want to evict anyone,” he recalls, “particularly anyone living in one of the poorest cities in Illinois. There were no sewers–I felt awful.” The woman he’d been assigned to evict, however, turned out to be one of the wealthiest and most influential women in town. Suster soon realized that she lived in a mansion among shacks, “and must have figured she could avoid real estate tax because of her money and political connections.” As a result of her nonpayment, Dewey was to acquire her property on a tax lien. When Suster turned up, he found the tenant with suitcases packed, headed for a trip overseas. Her boyfriend circumvented the eviction by paying off the $8,000 owed. “He paid in full–I always wondered where he got that money so quick,” Suster says. “That was my introduction to the way things really work.”
Some tips about working outside the system came from unlikely sources; Suster grew to appreciate them and acquired some tricks of his own. He recalls an elderly tenant whose disability checks paid her rent. Suster never understood why the woman qualified, since she seemed perfectly fine. When he asked, she went into a blind act: “She’s certified blind even though she sees quite well. I clapped. I was very impressed by her performance and knew any doctor would be too.”
Such survival skills now inspire Suster when properties with historic significance are scheduled for “fast track demolition.” Fast track demolition (FTD) is the result of a 1993 ordinance that allows the city to board up, repair, or demolish abandoned residences and commercial buildings of three stories or less. Owners and interested parties of record are notified four ways: a large sign is posted at the building, and notice is sent via certified mail, filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, and published in the legal notices section of a newspaper. If the owner doesn’t respond in 30 days, FTD empowers the city to evaluate the building and, if it’s found to be a hazard, demolish it without a court order. This can result in property being torn down for a temporary violation, such as a broken window, since property owners can easily miss the notifications, especially if they own multiple buildings.
According to Marty Shalloo, director of the Acorn Housing Corporation of Illinois, a nonprofit developer and counseling agency, FTD is “administered with a sledgehammer instead of properly.” Shalloo, who rehabs mostly in Englewood and West Englewood, has lost three buildings to FTD. Still he acknowledges that “many landlords are going strictly for financial gain and don’t care if a building is a blight on the neighborhood. Fast track is a useful tool to go after those people–some buildings need to be torn down.
“But,” he continues, “sometimes mistakes are made and the wrong building is torn down, and often buildings are demolished that could easily be rehabbed because they’re opened when somebody breaks in to escape the cold. Also, the time between notification and teardown is inconsistent; the person next door may be a squeaky wheel or may be friends with the committeeman. There are problems with notification too. For example, the city looks at county records to see who the owner is, and the county is always behind, so sometimes a notice is even sent to the wrong person….If there were no housing problems in the city it might be a different story. But there are.”
Though Suster also agrees with FTD in principle–vacant, unsecured buildings can quickly become sites for drug dealing and prostitution–he opposes the city’s enforcement tactics. He visits his south side properties several days a week but at least five times he has arrived and found a building leveled. Once, when a property he liked at 36th and Indiana was set to fall, rather than attempting to counter the city’s decision legally, he wrote a letter and signed it “Willa Mae White,” sentimentally appealing the city not to destroy her block and her memories of the “beautiful home next door.” The ruse worked and the city halted demolition long enough for him to secure the building and petition for its preservation. He later bought the property.
In February of last year, the city knocked down a home Suster owned at 1639 W. Waseca. “A neighbor had told me that the property was the first African-American-owned home in the neighborhood, so I was really interested in its potential historic significance,” he says. However, there’d been a fire in the building and Suster’s insurance company told him not to touch it before it could be assessed. When the adjuster arrived he found a bulldozer in front of the house. He immediately called Suster, who attempted to contact the Department of Buildings, but found it was too late in the day; the building was knocked down the next morning. Suster says he was never formally notified.
Suster has long advocated that the city brick up rather than tear down buildings deemed unsafe, at least when historic significance is an issue. In 1995 the city completed the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a ten-year comprehensive study of all buildings constructed before 1940 that color-codes them by level of significance: red for buildings considered significant in a broader city, state, or national context, orange for properties deemed “potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community,” green, yellow green, and yellow for buildings that to various degrees lack historic significance. According to Suster, that survey sits on a shelf and isn’t consulted when regular or fast track demolition is planned. Planning Department spokesperson Pete Scales disputes this, saying the survey is “a very active list and something the landmarks commission refers to often when looking for potential candidates for future landmarks.” But, Scales notes, the list is very large and, while it is consulted often, sometimes orange-rated buildings do come down.
Suster isn’t convinced that proper procedures are followed. When he tried to find out exactly what the process had been regarding the house on Waseca, he was told that the demolition had been done on police orders. “Huh?” Suster says. “I don’t even know what that means. Can you really imagine a property owner on the north side having a fire that was not his fault, and the city’s response being, before the owner even knew what was going on, to swoop in and tear the place to the ground?” The fast track office says that their policies are aimed mainly at areas on the south and west sides that are “very dangerous and quite run-down.” A source inside the office who preferred to remain anonymous singled out conditions in Englewood in particular as “nasty.”
After the Waseca incident, Suster wrote letters to the media–including Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, who has written more than 50 pieces on south-side preservation–campaigning for a change in policy. But his efforts fell flat–“Daley doesn’t like the way bricked-up buildings look,” he says. Eight months later he was at City Hall to get a sign-off on another property when, he says, the clerk scurried into the back upon seeing him. Suster overheard her telling someone, “That guy’s here, you know, that Waseca piece, what should I do?” When she returned, he says, she was abrupt and rude. “Why are you worried about Waseca?” Suster asked her. “I’m not here about Waseca.” She countered, “I never said Waseca. You’re crazy.” Suster was shaken. “I never wanted anything to get personal–to be perceived as a troublemaker by people whose assistance I need on a daily basis. I’m only trying to save buildings.”
If the road to keeping buildings standing is twisted and convoluted, acquiring them is sometimes equally so. Each spring the city holds a tax sale–essentially an auction where property owners who haven’t paid real estate taxes have them put up for bid by investors, including developers like Suster and his uncle. The buyer pays the amount due and acquires a tax lien on the property; the aim is to pressure the original owner to pay the money due (plus interest to the buyer) in order to regain a clear title to the property. After the buyer acquires a lien, the owner has a set amount of time to pay the back taxes. If this doesn’t happen, or the owner again becomes delinquent, the buyer can acquire the property for the cost of only taxes, interest, and fees, though the process can take up to three years.
“If nobody comes forward to hold on to the property,” says Suster, “then after a lawsuit, we finally have our opportunity.” He then has to decide if he’s interested in going to deed or if he wants to do a “sale and error,” a legal procedure to get his money back if the building has deteriorated so far as to be unrehabilitable. In order to make this determination, Suster examines the property in detail. He speaks matter-of-factly about his routine practice of breaking into unoccupied buildings to see what potential they hold. “He calls me on his cell phone before he goes in,” says Rebecca Bullard, his longtime assistant and close friend. “He says, OK, if I don’t call back, I’ve been attacked, call the police.”
He’s not paranoid–he guesses that one in ten buildings he enters houses squatters, some of whom are violent. He’s had knives and guns pulled on him. After he acquired one property, dealers and prostitutes continued to use it. Suster chased everybody out and dragged the mattresses into the street. The next day the squatters were back. Suster kept returning, day after day for several months, despite threats, and sent his workers in to begin renovation, until eventually the gang relocated. And even empty buildings hold hidden hazards–once he fell through the floorboards and had to hang on to a beam to avoid falling into a basement swarming with rats.
Unlike many developers, Suster doesn’t sell most of his landmark-quality properties after renovation. He holds on to them, even if the rents are too low for him to break even, intending to sit on them for ten or twenty years, “if not forever.” He strives to maintain the integrity of original features. Miguel Salgado, captain of one of Suster’s work crews, has often found himself trying to persuade him of the impossibility of preserving certain damaged vintage elements. Once the two argued about a badly mangled front door. Salgado said it was beyond salvation but Suster wouldn’t hear of buying “some new door from Home Depot.” “This is beautiful!” Suster implored. “Please, fix it–whatever it takes.”
While some of Suster’s buildings lose money and many others only break even, the profits from those that do generate income get funneled back into the business. He takes a salary but is largely financially dependent on his domestic partner, Tom Hernandez, a trader at a downtown options-trading firm. Hernandez isn’t exactly a preservationist; on their first date he riled Suster up by quipping that the Medinah Temple should be torn down.
Since he’s been involved with Hernandez, Suster’s made an effort to lighten his workload a little. “I used to work seven days a week, but Tom insisted I cut back so now I work a normal amount.” But he still begins taking phone calls at five in the morning and doesn’t return home until six at night. “Originally,” he says, “like in 1991, Dewey and I hired people to do the jobs I do now–I was going to be behind the scenes, at the office managing. But through the early 90s, we hired four different burly straight men, and they all quit ’cause they were too scared to go into unoccupied buildings, or collect rent from tenants who’d been threatening, or deal with workmen in gangs. I started coming down to the south side myself out of dire necessity. Now it’s my life.”
That life has included being threatened by his tenants–or people staying in their apartments–and once being assaulted and beaten up fairly badly by a total stranger. Another time, while collecting rent, he unwittingly found himself in the middle of a drug raid. He, like the others in the apartment, jumped out a back window and escaped down the alley.
In a story Sara Wise, his former roommate, tells, his office was once robbed by some of his tenants. “The office was broken into,” she says. “He also managed the building on the corner, which had been damaged by a fire, so he was converting it to condominiums. Some of the original tenants were bad news–they sold coke out of the apartment–so Brad wanted them to move, but they refused. I was with him when he went over to ‘reason with them,’ but as soon as we walked in, I guess he noticed the phones from his office just sitting there. Only the guys’ girlfriends were home, so Brad started walking around collecting his equipment–fax machines, everything the guys had stolen. The girlfriends were protesting, like, ‘Hey, you can’t take our stuff,’ and Brad got pissed off and started actually taking things besides what they’d stolen from him. He took their TV and stereo, and basically we just walked out the door.”
Suster doesn’t deny it. “The main dealer called later and demanded I return everything, so I claimed I’d taken Polaroids of all my possessions sitting in his apartment when he wasn’t home and said if he wanted to call the police to be my guest. Of course he didn’t. After that I evicted them and never saw them again.” He laughs. “Sometimes I get a little psycho.”
Suzie Ketbang is one of Suster’s long-term tenants, and one of the few who’s not a south-side native. Last July she got a letter stating that the two-flat at 6239 S. Ashland, where China Express is housed, had been “designated for acquisition” in connection with construction of the new police station, and that the property’s owner was “entitled to fair market value” and should schedule an immediate inspection to determine the price of sale. The letter, printed on city stationery, was written in legalese, signed by attorneys, and copied to a building inspector–Ketbang was confused and alarmed. “I called Brad right away,” she says. “I don’t want to go somewhere else–I spend seven, eight years here, a lot of money. To start somewhere else is hard.”
“It’s a good thing she called, or I wouldn’t even have known they wanted to tear the building down,” Suster says. “I mean, they’d have tracked me down eventually so they’d have somebody to pay, but by then it might have been too late to act.” The first thing he did was target the healthiest business on the block–the one with the most to lose–Ali Munasser’s Extra Value liquor store on the corner of 63rd and Ashland. Munasser had received a notice too and was receptive to Suster’s invitation to fight the city. “We’ve been here 17 years,” Munasser says. “Now they’re destroying us with a 33-cent stamp that says you have to leave? I called the city, but they said ‘You have no choice.’ They said they’d give us good money and relocate us in a better place. But it’s too hard to start a new business. There are a lot of liquor stores around, and if I go somewhere else, those people already have the store they go to. This is my store.”
Next Suster called Lee Bey. He put Suster in touch with Brenda Warner Rotzoll, a Sun-Times staff writer who took an interest in the story. Hoping to capitalize on the attention, Suster and residents Earskin Leach and Robert Merriweather began campaigning door-to-door to draw people to the church meeting. “At first I was greeted with suspicion,” Suster says. “You don’t see many white people down here, especially knocking on doors at night. But once Rotzoll’s article came out, people started talking, and the piece was passed around. Then when I’d go to a door, people recognized my face and trusted me.”
After the first meeting things began to move quickly. Though a second meeting had been called and the church began putting up flyers, it never took place. “Things got really weird,” Suster says. “Suddenly, after all the publicity and the clear outpouring of neighborhood activism, Alderman Thomas took our side, even though his office had been the ones telling me and everyone else how hopeless our cause was.” It started to look like the city might back off.
Emerson Pope, chief of staff for 15th Ward alderman Theodore Thomas, says that the alderman once supported the plans but changed his position once he became aware of how much “sentimental value” the residents’ homes held to them. After the community meeting Thomas realized that most of those protesting the station had been in their homes 30 or 40 years, and that even if they got good prices for their properties, they would not want to move. “The alderman sided with the community because he believed in their cause–he’s been there also,” says Pope. “And without the alderman’s opposing the city to join with the community, that fight could have gone either way.”
As late as last December, Munasser was still skeptical about the future. “The city told us the plans were on hold. They’ve never given us a final decision to say they won’t bother us no more.” Added Suster, “Anyone driving around here can see dozens of leveled lots where a police station would be appreciated. But I guess that won’t happen; that’s our punishment for daring to oppose their original plan.” Both were proven overly cynical. In February Suster was surprised to read in the Sun-Times that the city planned to construct a new police station in West Englewood on 63rd, between Loomis and Laflin, two blocks east of the originally proposed site. “Community opposition” was cited as the cause for the change.
Years back, when Suster and his uncle faced the problem of having their unoccupied units broken into at night, their initial solution was to put watchdogs on the premises. “That was pretty stupid,” Suster says, “because people just killed the dogs. Some were poisoned and some were shot. We didn’t know what to do. Gang types would break in to sell drugs or run whatever illegal activities out of our buildings, or thieves would come steal the furnaces and pipes to sell, or homeless people would want somewhere to sleep, which could be even more dangerous for me because if a window was broken or anything, the building could be put on the fast track demolition hit list just because somebody needed shelter from the cold.”
Out of this problem came the most innovative aspect of Suster’s business. “One day,” he says, “I found a woman huddled up trying to keep warm. I’d secured the building but she’d broken in. Instead of yelling at her and chasing her out, I asked her how she’d like to work for me. Of course she was suspicious–she was like, ‘Doing what?’ And I said, ‘Exactly what you’re doing now.'”
Thus began Suster’s “house sitting” program. He supplied the woman, Penny Jones, with a heater, hot water, a television, a hot plate, and a small monthly stipend and asked if she would continue living in the building to keep others from breaking in. She agreed, and it worked. When that building’s renovation was complete, Suster moved her to another of his unoccupied buildings, with the same deal. Shortly afterward, she began sending other homeless friends his way. Suster now has a team of eight sitters, Jones still among them. He’s in the process of rehabbing several larger, multiunit apartment buildings for the team to manage permanently; the basement apartments are slated to become their homes.
Jones, who’d been homeless for two years before meeting Suster, walks with a cane, and she’s been involved for a number of years with Henry, who’s also homeless. The two met when he chastised Jones’s male drinking buddies for failing to help her carry her groceries. “They were willing to drink my beer,” Jones says, “but not to help me carry it. Henry doesn’t think that’s how you treat a woman.” The two have been together ever since, and Henry accompanies Jones when she moves to a new location for Suster.
Last winter she and Henry slept in the front bedroom of one of Suster properties because it was small, easy to heat with the space heater Suster supplies, and farthest from the kitchen and bathroom, where the contractors were working. While most of Suster’s buildings have hot water, this one didn’t, so she improvised, heating water in empty beer bottles in front of the heater. The rest of the two-flat was icy cold and the bathroom was rusted and full of rubble. One might expect Jones to have a long list of complaints for Suster, but when he dropped by, after hugs and jokes, she just reminded him that the bathroom needed a door to ensure her privacy and that she needed cleaning supplies because the tub was too dirty to use. “I hate to tell you about the door,” she said. “The men you used to have fixing things, they would have hung it for me without me asking, but these new ones act like I’m just supposed to–excuse me–go to the bathroom right in front of them. You got to tell them for me.” Suster promised to take care of it, and then the two commiserated about the difficulty of finding good contractors.
Aside from Henry, Suster may be Jones’s closest friend, and she touches him often in a maternal, affectionate way. “When I first met Brad, things were so low,” she says. “He gave me a place to live, and he’d come round himself to pay me and take me to the store ’cause you see I walk with this cane. That’s how I fell in love with Brad. He’ll do anything I want, within reason.”
She says Suster has wised up considerably since they first met. “He might be nice, but he’s not naive–not anymore. Because he’s a white man, people always think they can take advantage, like he won’t know what’s going on. They used to steal from him–use and abuse him. His own workers would sell a furnace out from under him, or the carpet. He learned.” Even when Suster’s out of earshot she continues to sing his praises. “No matter where I’ve lived since I hooked up with Brad, he’s upgraded the neighborhood,” she says. “One place I lived, I used to have to crawl up the stairs ’cause of my leg, they were so bad. Brad fixed them up so they were the nicest on the street. People see that–across the way or next door–and all of a sudden you see them tilling their yards, taking pride.
“Brad’s for the underdog. You always gotta pay, you know, security and first month’s rent, but Brad makes a waive on that for all the folks he rents to. Look at here, this used to be the worst house on the block, and he’s making it the nicest. I believe in what he’s doing–he’s doing good.”
Suster seems partial to those looking for second chances. Brenda Emersen has lived in one of Suster’s buildings for a year–ever since she was approved for a HUD program that helps subsidize the housing of recovering addicts. Emersen’s case manager knew Suster and gave her his phone number. Suster found a four-bedroom house for her and her three children and she now works part-time and cares for her two-year-old son while her other children go to school. “This block is real quiet…,” she says. “It’s not easy. They do random testing–you have to stay clean. But I love living here and so do my kids.”
Amy Chandler, a counselor at Pickard Elementary in Pilsen, went to college with Tom Hernandez and learned of Suster’s business when she ran into him at a south-side gas station on her way home from a funeral. “He was exchanging what looked to be a lot of money with this really big African-American guy. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing–I was like, does Brad have some double life as a drug dealer or something?” When the details of Suster’s business became clear she–like many of his friends, he says–assumed he was “a slumlord.” But when she later discovered that an eight-year-old student at Pickard was homeless and living with her family in the basement of an abandoned building, Chandler remembered what she’d heard about Suster’s work with the homeless and gave him a call.
Suster moved quickly. He owned a two-flat not far from the school and arranged for the family to be given keys to the building, which was being renovated. He supplied space heaters, got the hot water turned on, and had the workmen hang doors in the apartment for privacy.
Ultimately, the family didn’t stay long. Some of Suster’s house sitters were living in the building, and the family didn’t feel safe with strangers. But Chandler and her colleagues, accustomed to the red tape of social service agencies, were impressed by Suster’s efficiency. “Brad tends to be very involved in the communities he’s working in,” says Chandler. “He says it’s all about preservation, but he’s well connected with social services and hooks a lot of people up with those agencies to find them housing or even for help with things like substance abuse, none of which is part of his job or, as far as I can see, of any concrete benefit to him or his buildings.”
Such testimonials recall a story Suster told when giving me a tour of his properties. Though he was generally eager to stop and speak with tenants and workers, he didn’t want to stop at one particular house because, as he put it, “The old woman who lives there doesn’t know she doesn’t own the building anymore.” The former owner still lives on the second floor, but her daughter sold to Suster several years ago. “Her daughter, Sandy, couldn’t make it financially–the building was falling apart and they had no money to fix it up or pay their mortgage. Sandy came to me and asked me to buy it because she knew I do good work and I’d preserve the integrity of the house.” Suster rehabbed it and charges them only $300 a month in rent, which Sandy pays on the sly.
Yet despite the enthusiasm of Jones and Emersen and Chandler, there’s an unavoidable contradiction embedded in Suster’s good works. Even if his house sitters have their futures secured as building managers, many of his tenants stand to suffer if, as Suster hopes, other developers and preservationists begin to take an interest in Englewood and the south side. Should the area gentrify, his low-income tenants would probably be displaced. And, of course, if this turnaround occurs, Suster and his Uncle Dewey stand to make a lot of money.
As a developer who “shudders at the sight of uniform rows of new-construction condos and town homes,” Suster’s mindful of the dangers inherent in his campaign, noting the effect such efforts have had on neighboring communities such as Bronzeville. There, Suster cites “the ultimate marriage of ills”–demolition still rages in residential areas while the commercial district is being rapidly built up by speculators, both at the expense of landmark preservation.
But, Suster says, “The truth is that I can’t afford to spend my time in that kind of philosophical double bind. There are buildings being compromised every day that are at risk of being demolished or being so ill-treated that their original features are destroyed beyond the possibility of repair. There are people living in huge project situations because there aren’t enough single-family homes–so many have been torn down or are just unoccupied–and good people, especially women on their own, are safer in small homes like the ones I’m restoring. Ignoring the situation because I’m afraid of being considered some monster gentrifier is just not an option for me.”
Particularly since right now the notion of Suster as fat-cat developer has more comedy than reality. Late for an appointment and driving too fast in the 1994 Saturn that doubles as his office, Suster takes incessant calls to his cell phone from various creditors. He’s eating his usual lunch, a large salad from Soul Vegetarian East, a Muslim health-food restaurant on East 76th. The dressing dribbles down his right hand as he picks up gobs of lettuce and shoves them into his mouth while steering with the other.
When he’s finished he chucks the empty container onto the floor of the passenger seat–a makeshift trash can already littered with apple pie wrappers and red McDonald’s fries containers. The backseat is cluttered too. “That’s the library,” he says, gesturing at the mountain of newspapers and books. “I need something to read when I’m at court–I can’t sit still.” When he pulls up to a meter, he unlocks the trunk and grabs a coin from one of two giant buckets of quarters.
Walking down the street (others must run to keep up with him), he ticks off his list of standing debts. Although he says he’s never been late on a payment, he has a hard time getting loans since he’s “high risk” according to his credit score, which is low because he has so many loans and properties already. When his phone rings again, he tells the person on the other end, “I’m financing 11 properties right now–I’ll have $600,000 by the first of the month.” His most frequent refrain is “Don’t worry, everything will be OK, let’s discuss this more on Monday.” Second to that is: “Call Rebecca.”
While Suster juggles funds with bravado, the renovation of his own home, which has gaping holes in the roof, languishes. Work likely will not be complete for another ten years, and Hernandez has more than once moaned that they should move into a hotel. The house has landmark status as part of the Wicker Park Historic District, but its dilapidated shape belies its history and size. The bathrooms are only marginally better than those used by Penny Jones.
But Suster is accustomed to seeking out beauty amid decay. In 1999, when he and Hernandez decided to hold a commitment ceremony, he was determined to have the 200-person event at the historic Uptown Theater at Broadway and Lawrence. The venue has been closed to the public for decades, but because of his affiliation with Friends of the Uptown, an organization devoted to saving the majestic theater–which was designated a landmark in 1991–he was able to secure one night’s use of the building for “a nominal fee.” Says Kathryn Kosmeja, a close friend of the pair, “He got the Uptown in exactly the condition it’d been in the whole time it’d been closed. We had to go in with cleaning supplies and scrub on our hands and knees until the mildew gleamed. Tom was suicidal–nobody could believe it would look presentable in time for the ceremony. But Brad had everyone he knew helping, and in the end it was spectacular.”
Suster expects everyone to pitch in. When he needs bodies to picket for a cause, the first person he calls is his 91-year-old grandmother, Leila Dodge, “because she doesn’t have a job and can come during the day.” “Grammie” has attended pickets to save the Goldblatt’s building and Saint Boniface Church, among others, and has protested in arctic conditions while suffering from a cold, in order to “avoid my wrath,” Suster jokes. “I always forget she’s old, so if she tries to bail out, I get all upset.”
If he ever does become rich, he says, “I’d like to stay home–to be the behind-the-scenes manager I initially planned on being, and to be a parent.” But when asked whether he believes Suster will ever stop answering his beeper every five minutes, Hernandez is dubious. “He’s got all these big plans–he’s going to raise bulldog pups and be home to wipe their butts; he’s going to be a stay-at-home dad; he’s going to be a great chef. We have every cooking apparatus known to God and man, and right now he doesn’t know how to use any of them, but apparently someday he’s going to be making pastry and subscribing to a farm commune. Yeah, right. Preservation is his passion. If he ever pulls back from his own properties, it’d only be to focus on other issues like picketing and writing letters to newspapers and attending more meetings, instead of having to collect rent and things that keep him from the activism side. He could never give it up completely–it’s who he is.”
“I’m not a great, grand preservationist,” Suster says. “I do a bit here, a bit there. I’m not a ringleader. I’m involved with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois–I go to all the board meetings–I’m the annoying guy who brings up issues on the south side that nobody else knows about.” But the LPCI is spread thin and, says Suster, its members have other priorities. Even when the LPCI formed a task force to oppose fast track demolition, Suster remained skeptical. “It seemed like they spent more time trying to come up with a mission statement for the new committee than on activism,” he recalls. “At every meeting, they’d sit around reviewing the previous meeting. I mean, fuck the mission statement, when it comes to fast track demolition, you’ve got to rock.”
However, the LPCI has scored major victories that Suster realizes no one person could achieve, and lately he has begun to reevaluate his position on the group’s methods. He’s impressed that they’ve hired an intern to track properties threatened with fast track demolition. The LPCI also works closely with aldermen, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, and the city’s corporation counsel, and in one instance was able to buy a set of condemned Frank Lloyd Wright row houses in East Garfield Park so they could bring them up to code, restore, and rehabilitate them. Julia Evans, the LPCI’s advocacy coordinator, says, “We recognize fast track as a real problem now. Everything’s done within the Department of Buildings–there’s no check on what properties go down. Fast track is supposed to contact the landmark division, but that’s only for undisputed landmarks.” There are 9,600 buildings rated “orange” says Evans, yet “these go down with no regulation, when they’re beautiful and could be reused. The city’s always talking about a shortage of housing–these buildings make up the heart of every neighborhood. It’s senseless.”
Over the past ten years, the city has demolished between 15,000 and 20,000 buildings. Marty Tangora, a founding LPCI board member and a preservationist for the past 30 years, has spent the last year and a half scanning the papers for the addresses of fast-tracked properties; of more than 1,000 scheduled to fall, 25 were on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. “Six were in the North Pullman Landmark District,” Tangora says, “and four were code orange.”
Just last month an orange-rated Queen Anne house at 2729 W. Washington–an area “thick with good historical fabric,” says Tangora–was placed on the fast track list. The building, constructed in 1890, is one of 14 similar homes on the block, all of which are rated orange or yellow on the city’s survey. A detail from the building next door, at 2727, appears in the survey as an example of area architecture, in the company of work by Frank Lloyd Wright and George W. Maher.
Though the program is statewide, Suster places much of the responsibility for FTD on Daley, who is, he says, “my idol–although I hate him, I love him too. He’s the most important figure in my life because he represents and controls everything important to me with an iron fist. I think he wants to be a preservationist and really believes he’s doing a good job, but he goes to Italy and praises the history there, then comes home and endorses fast track demolition. He gives a lot of good lip service, but he’s too reactionary to be a true preservationist. Still, I like certain things he’s done. I love all those flowerpots everyone mocks! I love that he cares about cleaning the river and making bike trails and about the Medinah Temple–I just wish he could get over his aesthetic distaste for bricking up buildings.” He’s met the mayor twice, once at the Democratic Convention in 1996. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “I pulled him aside–I was so excited to actually have a chance to talk to him, and I worried he’d just ignore me. But I said to him, ‘Can you please do something to save the Uptown?'” Daley paused as if in thought, then pointed at Suster and said with conviction, “We can do that. I’m going to work on that.” Suster, ever hopeful, has his fingers crossed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.