By Ben Joravsky

Armory Held Hostage

To their surprise and consternation Edgewater residents have been dragged into a political fight between Governor Edgar and Mayor Daley that might cost them the only indoor recreational facility in their neighborhood.

The Broadway Armory, owned by the National Guard and leased to the Park District, offers locals programs in everything from basketball to wood shop. But now the National Guard’s proposing to sell the armory to the highest bidder unless Daley and Edgar can strike a deal to turn it over to the Park District. So far it looks like the armory, relatively insignificant to anyone other than north-siders, will be held hostage in a political fight having little to do with Edgewater or its residents.

“This would be a devastating loss–you’d be talking about 67,000 residents without any indoor gym or activity center,” says Ken Brucks, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council. “Maybe the governor’s not familiar with the issue, so our job is to get him to understand how important this is.”

The armory, at 5917 N. Broadway, is located on a once-thriving commercial strip that was hard hit by the recessions of the early 70s and early 80s. Mayor Harold Washington helped stimulate a remarkable economic recovery in the area with tax breaks and subsidies; there are now so many strip malls along Broadway that the ECC supports a down-zoning campaign to halt their spread.

Throughout the years and the changes the armory was an unmovable presence–an enormous brick structure taking up almost a full block just south of Thorndale.

As the National Guard began scaling back its operations in the late 70s, the community asked the Park District to take it over and convert it into a recreational center. Although there were no parks or playgrounds west of Lincoln Park between Foster and Devon, the Park District balked, saying it couldn’t afford to rehab the armory. So ECC called on U.S. representative Sidney Yates to win federal funding, and in the early 80s the armory was rehabbed and turned over to the Park District with the stipulation that about a third of its space be reserved for the national guard. Today the guard stores trucks and equipment there and occupies a few offices.

The armory is used for recreation almost every hour of the day, with preschool programs in the morning and volleyball games at night. It’s been a magnet for some of the best summer-league basketball games in the city, drawing such top-notch NBA and college players as Tim Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Chris Collins, and Randy Brown. In addition there are art studios, darkrooms, and science labs.

“We’ve got classes in aerobics, arts and crafts, ballet, ballroom dancing, chorus, drawing, fencing, writing, weight lifting–you name it,” says Sonya Krey, a Park District physical education instructor at the armory. “You see everyone walking through these doors: moms, tots, teenagers, young men and women. There are literally thousands of people who pass through here every night; for volleyball alone we’ll have games going on all six courts.”

In the last few years most of the talk has been about expanding the Park District programs at the armory, not cutting back. Last year the city tore down a vacant building to the north and converted it into a parking lot.

Then in January ECC got word that the National Guard planned to sell the building and move its operations and equipment to other armories. “It costs us $189,000 [per year] to operate that building, but as a result of force reductions we have fewer than 120 people in it one weekend a month,” says Major General Richard Austin. “That doesn’t make sense, particularly when we have so much space available at other armories. It seemed to make good sense to dispose of it.”

ECC pleaded with the guard to turn the armory over to the Park District. But Austin said that would set a costly precedent. “We can’t sell that many armories. The money we get from leasing them gets plowed back in to our budget,” Austin says. “Besides, that’s a valuable piece of property. I have an appraisal that says it’s worth $11 million. Now, while I might want to help the good people of Edgewater, when I go to Quincy they say, ‘Hey, we want our armory, give it to us too.’ At some point you have to say hey, wait a minute, there’s a larger fiscal interest at stake.”

Austin told ECC that he would have to sell the armory to the highest bidder, perhaps over the summer, unless he was directed to do otherwise by Edgar.

So ECC swung into action, calling on their political allies (particularly Yates and state senator Arthur Berman) to lobby Edgar. At first they were confident of Edgar’s support. After all, they’re the sort of community activists Republicans say they like. They’re not known for rabble-rousing tactics, and over the years they’ve built strong relationships with Mayor Daley, Alderman Mary Ann Smith (who used to be a key member of ECC), and other mainstream politicians.

But so far Edgar has seemed largely indifferent to their pleas. He hasn’t responded to their letters, and his local press spokesperson says, “I don’t know anything about this issue. I’ll look into it.”

While the National Guard gets ready to solicit bids, the city is gearing up to fight for the armory. Yates contends that federal law might block the state from selling the building for private use, since it was rehabbed with federal funds. And the Park District says it has a “lock solid” eight-year lease with the state. But unless Edgar gives the guard the go-ahead to extend the lease the building will be lost in 2004. And there are all sorts of rumors about developers turning the building into another shopping mall or an upscale private tennis club. Or the property could fall into the hands of real estate speculators, who scavenge at state clearance sales.

In a similar situation a few years back the city was able to convince the state to donate the land on which the Chicago Avenue Armory sat to the Museum of Contemporary Art in exchange for other land south of the Loop. But so far neither Daley nor the Park District is offering an exchange of land. And some observers contend that Edgar will only release the armory if Daley backs off his plan to convert Meigs Field into a park or suddenly supports a third airport. “The armory is useful to Edgar only so long as he can use it to get something out of Daley,” says one insider. “This is a relatively small matter but it’s in the hands of big people. There’s no saying when or how it will be resolved.”

ECC hopes to gather 10,000 signatures calling for Edgar to give the Park District the armory. “We want to be positive about this and show the governor that this can be a win-win-win situation for the state, the city, and the community,” says Brucks. “I don’t think the governor or anyone in his staff would want to see a whole community go without any recreation.”

Colom Won’t Play Ball

The ongoing battle over basketball courts in Logan Square took a strange twist earlier this month when residents began pleading with their alderman to “be like Mike”–perhaps the first time His Airness’s name has been invoked in local protests.

You might remember this dispute: residents and Park District officials had worked closely on a plan to build a basketball court at the Unity Playlot at Kimball and Drummond. The courts were supported by the local police district, Boys Club, and YMCA, which promised to organize leagues for boys and girls of all ages. But then last spring a new alderman, Vilma Colom, took office vowing to block the basketball courts on the grounds that a “silent majority” of residents opposed them (Neighborhood News, August 4, 1995).

The Park District then postponed the project (not wanting to go against the wishes of the alderman) and residents privately begged Colom to change her mind.

Well, last month, as the Park District announced plans to place planters and benches on the lot, it became apparent that the begging didn’t work. “When we heard park benches were coming we had to move fast,” says Marja Stoll, one leader of the probasketball faction. “It’s harder to install courts once you have to get rid of benches and planters. And benches provide a lounge for gangbangers. It will be more dangerous than if we had organized basketball activities.”

On May 3, 50 or so basketball backers marched to Colom’s office chanting “Be like Mike” and demanding she change her mind. It didn’t work. “I told the group, as the Park District told the group, let’s wait a year to a year and a half to see how things calm down in this area, then we will revisit this and see if it’s conducive for us to do this or not,” Colom told a reporter from the Tribune after the rally.

Residents hope Park District superintendent Forrest Claypool will support them. “I don’t see how the Park District can keep saying, ‘We have to do what the alderman wants’ if the neighborhood’s against them,” says Stoll. “This makes them look ridiculous. How can the Park District be against basketball?”

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