By Ben Joravsky

They’ve been squabbling for almost two years over low-income housing in Albany Park, settling one dispute just in time to start another.

The main issue is whether to raze the Ainslie, an 88-unit low-income mid-rise on the 4900 block of North Kedzie. “If you’re confused, don’t feel bad–it’s very confusing,” says Joe Arnold, a resident of the Ainslie. “One day we think we have it saved, the next we’re not so sure. It’s a fight that never ends.”

According to one side, the Ainslie is a low-rent hovel of no use to anyone, least of all its tenants. Police say 116 persons arrested for various crimes from 1993 to 1996 gave the Ainslie as their address. Neighbors say it’s frustrating and debilitating to have a big, bad, uncooperative neighbor undo the efforts of local block clubs to maintain a clean, safe community.

“It’s just not doing anyone any good,” says Evelyn Zaar, president of the West River Park Improvement Association. “I think the people of the Ainslie deserve a better place to live. Why should we continue to oppress them?”

For years Zaar and local block club leaders have pressed the city to convert the Ainslie into senior citizen housing or to demolish it altogether. In the spring of 1996, they thought they’d get their wish–the Daley administration gave Albany Park a $3 million SNAP (Strategic Neighborhood Action Program) grant. With that money the Albany Park Community Center, the grant overseer, would be able to renovate facades, attract businesses, and redevelop the area. To many, that meant getting rid of the Ainslie.

“Public money will only go so far in developing a neighborhood, and part of our job is to act as salesmen, seeking private developers and investment,” says Jonathan Silverstein, SNAP director for the community center. “I’m not talking about turning Albany Park into the next Lakeview. I don’t think that can happen and I don’t think it should happen. But it can be more stable than it is now. And it’s very difficult to sell this community with the Ainslie right there. Basically, you have a situation where for decades the building has been neglected and been a neighborhood blight.”

By last February the city had approved a plan to use about $800,000 of its Albany Park SNAP money to buy the Ainslie from its owner, Ruth Gaspers, relocate its residents, and tear it down. The city went to eviction court to seize control of the property.

That’s when a host of low-income-housing activists, including such citywide groups as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, rallied to save the Ainslie. They argued that it was in much better shape than it had been in the early 90s, before a new manager took over. And they said the city simply could not afford to lose any more low-income housing.

“It’s not like we have a lot of choices as to where we can live,” says Arnold, who has epilepsy. “In my own case I’ve been up and down. I started out as a fry cook at the Big Pit on Clark Street and worked my way to the top of my profession. I was kitchen manager at the Ravinia music festival, I worked at Shaw’s Crab House, I fed the press and players at Wrigley Field. I’ve been a chef at restaurants all over town.”

With the money he saved he was able to buy a three-flat in Roscoe Village. “I was living good, and then my epilepsy took over,” he says. “After each fit I’d go back to work, but eventually I got too sick. I’d start having seizures. They’d take me out and put me in an ambulance and take me to the hospital. The stress level on the job had a lot to do with it.”

Without a job, he had to sell his three-flat and move into a run-down apartment on Richmond. “It was a total dump. There were rats crawling all over the place, no hot water, sewage in the basement. My stereo and TV were stolen. I really bottomed out. Eventually, all the money I made selling my three-flat was wiped out. It was a tough lesson for me to learn. When you’re on top and then you fall down to the bottom–well, it’s very humbling.”

Arnold and other local activists pressured the city into demolishing the Richmond building. He moved in with his mother, and in February took a one-bedroom in the Ainslie. “I make $570 a month in disability and my rent is $520 and I get $92 a month in food stamps,” says Arnold. “When I get sick I go to the VA hospital. That’s my life. You wonder how people end up here?–well, that’s how it happened with me.”

In the last few months, Arnold’s made a name for himself as a low-income-housing advocate. “I guess I’m not afraid to open my mouth, but why should I be? I’m a vet, I worked hard, I’m really passionate–and I have nothing else to do. I’m just a guy going around town on my disabilities bus pass. I go to meetings just to eat sometimes. I hear reporters do that too.

“The funny thing is I got started advocating the demolition of one low-income-housing building. Now I’m fighting to preserve another one. But you can’t compare the Ainslie to the building on Richmond. I keep telling the critics to come see for yourself. It’s clean here. We have heat. Each unit has a private bath. They treat us with respect. We have all sorts of decent people living here–families, disabled folks, Vietnam vets, a guy who fought in World War II and Korea. What are they gonna do–just kick us out on the street?”

For the better part of the winter and spring the two sides battled back and forth in the neighborhood press. For a while it seemed Arnold and his allies were fighting a hopeless cause, as 39th Ward alderman Marge Laurino called for demolition. But they protested, wrote letters to Mayor Daley, and won a sympathetic article or two in the dailies. In July the city announced that instead of demolishing the Ainslie it would buy it for $820,000 and hire a new group to manage it. The city’s scheduled to take possession August 14.

But the Ainslie residents’ jubilation was brief. Word soon spread of another crisis. The city’s Department of Planning had quietly hired Camiros Ltd., a planning consultant, to prepare a blueprint for future development on the Kedzie business strip between Lawrence and Foster. Working without fanfare, Camiros had organized a core group of advisers from various local business, civic, and block clubs that did not include any Ainslie residents. At a meeting in the spring Camiros unveiled a proposal that would, among other things, replace the Ainslie (and all the other buildings on the block) with a park. “You had one arm of the city saying save the Ainslie and another saying to destroy it,” says Mike O’Hara, a home owner in the area who supports the Ainslie. “It didn’t make much sense.”

Once again the Ainslie’s advocates rallied, distributing a flyer urging people to voice their opposition at an August 5 meeting. Over 50 people attended that meeting, filling a conference room at North Park University. They sat in silence as Jacques Gourguechon of Camiros explained that this was only a “proposal, not a plan,” and that nothing was “set in stone.”

Almost as soon as he was done came the questions. “Where’s that map you had that showed the Ainslie cleared for a park?” Arnold asked.

“I didn’t bring it,” Gourguechon said.

“Oh, big surprise.”

Within a few minutes a civil disagreement was being waged over whether the Camiros “vision” was a “done deal” or “merely a proposal,” whether the planners wanted to “gentrify” Albany Park or just “clean things up, for goodness sakes,” and whether the core group’s process was “open” or “closed.”

“If this wasn’t an open process you wouldn’t be here today,” said John Baldwin, a city planner.

“We’re not here because you invited us,” one housing advocate countered. “We’re here because we showed up on our own.”

By the meeting’s end nothing substantial had changed. Silverstein, Zaar, Laurino, and other core group members remained committed to getting rid of the Ainslie, and the low-income-housing advocates remained determined to preserve it.

As for the Daley administration, it remains cautiously noncommittal. As one city official put it, “The Ainslie will remain as it is until a decision on its future gets made sometime in the future.”

Or, in Arnold’s words, “This fight’s going on for at least a few more months.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Arnold photo by Bruce Powell.