Careful What You Ask For

With swelling ranks and a unifying cause to rally around, why did the leaders of an Uptown block club cut and run?

By Sergio Barreto

The bimonthly meetings of Uptown’s Truman Square Neighborhood Association had been drawing an average of 12 residents until the meeting in mid-March, when more than 50 nonmembers turned up to voice concerns about a proposed condo development on the 4700 block of North Kenmore. Then TSNA board members held an unannounced meeting on March 30 and voted to disband the group.

Unaware of the vote, about 30 people showed up for the meeting that had been scheduled for April 5. “When we arrived where the meeting was scheduled to take place, we found an empty room,” says Chris Dunn, a resident at the Catholic Worker, 4652 N. Kenmore. “The chairs were all folded. We set them up and waited. Four TSNA members appeared and told us the group had ended, then held a brief question-and-answer session and left. We were pretty stunned.”

Dunn and the other residents promptly decided to form a new organization, the Leland Square Neighborhood Association, that would represent the same area TSNA had: between Lawrence and Wilson and Sheridan and Broadway. Says Dunn, “We saw that this was an opportunity to form a group that would be recognized in the community and continue to do the work Truman Square had set out to do.”

But members of the new organization were still puzzled about the disappearance of TSNA, which had been founded in the early 90s. “They said they decided to retire because the current leadership wanted to step down and nobody had stepped up to fill their shoes,” says J.P. Paulus, who’d been a member of TSNA for five years. “They said membership was declining–just as people started to turn out to their meetings in large numbers and express interest in joining the group. And then they disbanded. It doesn’t make sense.”

Paulus had once been a TSNA board member. “Until they voted me out,” he says. “My dad became very ill with cancer last July, and I stopped going to their meetings. When I showed up for the January meeting they told me I was no longer a board member. They didn’t tell me they were voting me out, and they knew what was going on with my family. [TSNA president] Jay Schwetz told me he had my dad’s name in his church’s prayer list.”

Schwetz didn’t return calls for comment, and his wife, Carrie, declined to comment. Nancy Arnold, who was president before Schwetz, didn’t return calls either.

Paulus–who’s also affiliated with the Christian Community Development Association, a national organization that encourages people to help build the communities they live in–says he’d begun to feel estranged from the group after he voted for Helen Shiller in last year’s aldermanic election. Other Uptown block clubs have had openly adversarial relationships with the 46th Ward alderman: Buena Park Neighbors, for example, actively campaigned to unseat her last year. TSNA had never squabbled publicly with Shiller, but its members weren’t enamored of her. “I think TSNA was comprised of residents who had a sincere desire to improve the neighborhood,” says Paulus, “but they became bogged down and became almost obsessed with Helen Shiller. Whenever her name came up they would denigrate it, make jokes about it. . . . I didn’t campaign for her or put her shirt on or anything, but when I said I was planning on voting for her they were not pleased.”

One of the founders of TSNA was Sandra Reed, the 46th Ward Democratic committeeman who, with Mayor Daley’s support, ran against Shiller for the aldermanic nomination and lost. Reed had met with Shiller to organize a cleanup of Aster Playlot. “There were broken bottles all over the place and vagrants and older kids who didn’t need to be there,” Reed says. “The alderman was very involved with the Aster cleanup, but I didn’t feel that she was very receptive to some of our other proposals, like vote-dry initiatives.” Reed stopped being active in TSNA in 1996. “I was, and still am, a full-time teacher. When I decided to run for committeeman I just didn’t have time left to dedicate to the organization.” She says she was as surprised as anyone to hear about the group’s demise. “The Truman Square association meant a lot to me, and it makes me sad that it ended this way. But I can understand their frustration–it’s hard to get people involved in community organizations. Those 50 people that showed up at the March meeting–where were they when I passed out flyers to raise awareness of things like a ‘clean and green’ program? You could never get all people to work on the same issue. People keep pressing different agendas when they all should be working together to better the neighborhood.”

Paulus was particularly surprised that TSNA folded, because its members had passed out hundreds of flyers around the neighborhood in late February, urging residents to attend the March meeting to discuss developer John Labiak’s proposal for a seven-story high-end condominium complex at 4700-4704 N. Kenmore. “They seemed very eager to use the group as a vehicle to address that issue,” Paulus says. “I don’t know what changed.”

Labiak’s proposal had raised concerns in part because the large number of units seemed guaranteed to make the area’s parking crunch even worse. As the March meeting got under way, some of the new attendees complained about Labiak’s proposal, and others, including members of the Organization of the NorthEast, said they wanted to see affordable housing built on the site. Still others decried the growing gentrification of the area. “Some voices were raised–I can see how some people could have been offended,” says Paulus. “But this was as orderly as a meeting with 60-some people can get. Some of us had prayed for peace before the meeting, and we felt that wish was granted.”

The meeting was productive. Labiak, who attended, agreed to scale the project down from 28 to 20 units. He also offered to look into reserving the development’s first level for parking, and to offer one and a half parking spaces per unit–more than the city code requires for new buildings. “It seemed TSNA wasn’t terribly thrilled with the proposal, but was at least pleased that Labiak was willing to come out and talk to them,” says Paulus. “It seemed that they were eager to work with him.”

Instead the board members voted to dissolve the organization. “Some of their members complained about not being included in the vote,” says Tom Walsh, chairman of ONE’s land use and housing committee. “They said it didn’t matter, because according to their bylaws, if you were a dues-paying member but not a board member your vote didn’t count. How’s that for democracy?”

“I think they were taken aback by the turnout at the [March] meeting,” says Paulus. “I think they looked around and saw some of the faces and decided that they didn’t want to deal with them.”

Chris Dunn agrees. “I think they didn’t want to work with the potential new members. They said they always passed out flyers and did all they could to attract new members, but some of the people who came to the March meeting have lived in the area for years and said they’d never heard of TSNA.”

ONE quickly offered to help out the newly formed Leland Square Neighborhood Association. “We felt there really was an issue of representation,” says Walsh. “There is a discrepancy between people who live in the area and the block clubs’ membership. We thought supporting this new group would be a good way to address that.”

Paulus acknowledges that LSNA will have a different focus. “There seems to be a growing gap between condo owners and lower-income people in Uptown,” he says. “We want to bridge that gap. TSNA was thought of as a property-owners’ association. We want to be inclusive of people who have no representation in Uptown’s block clubs–Section 8 recipients, immigrants. We want to be a unifying force.”

Reed insists that TSNA was inclusive. “I was elected president, and the secretary was a resident at Habitat for Humanity. We had people from all economic backgrounds involved.”

LSNA is now working on a proposal for Labiak, asking that he include affordable units in his development plan. “When we say affordable housing we just mean housing that is affordable to working-class people, mostly rental units,” says Dunn. “Uptown’s housing options are becoming more limited to buying. There are many people who do community work full-time in the neighborhood, like people at the Chicago Health Outreach, who can’t afford to live here.”

LSNA members have already approached the Illinois Department of Housing Assistance, the Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation, and the Chicago Department of Housing about the possibility of subsidizing affordable units in the development. If none of those agencies comes through, the group will look into the possibility of buying some units and reselling or renting them to lower-income residents at a lower price.

Labiak’s proposed development doesn’t require a zoning variance, so community support for his project is more a formality than a necessity. Dunn says, “We hope he’ll at least agree to look at our plan.”

LSNA will meet formally for the first time and possibly draft a slate of officials on May 3. Labiak, who was invited to the meeting and plans to attend, says he’s confused about the shift of tone between the TSNA and the LSNA. “The old neighborhood association said they wanted condos, they didn’t want rental units,” he says. “Now the new group tells me they want rental, affordable-housing units. I’m willing to listen to them, but I’m not quite sure what it is that they want me to do.”

Labiak says he hasn’t determined the prices of the Kenmore condos, though he’s aiming for the upper-bracket buyer. “One lady told me there’s a city program under which I can have lower-priced units and make as much as I would from high-end units. I told her I have never heard of such a thing, and even if it’s true the paperwork for it is probably so horrendous that I’m not sure I would go through with it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo Nathan Mandell.