By Ben Joravsky and Melody Rodgers

For three years Mayor Daley has insisted that a new county courthouse was coming to the west side. “It’s a done deal,” Cook County Board commissioner Bobbie Steele told local residents who opposed the plan because they would lose their homes. “The best defense now is to plan while you still have time.”

Then two weeks ago Daley changed his mind. The done deal was now a dead one. Cook County Board president John Stroger, Daley’s front man on the $212 million project, was left to explain the hasty about-face, and he said that maybe the county didn’t really need a new courthouse after all, because the temporary site at the Daley Center was working so well. Few observers believed his explanation, any more than they’d believed that it was his decision to make.

“The lesson here is that you can’t be afraid to rattle the cage,” says Luster Jackson, president of the Concerned Citizens for East Garfield Park, the neighborhood group that’s been leading the local opposition to the courthouse. “If you keep quiet they’ll walk all over you. But if you make an outcry they’ll bend. Daley doesn’t want to wake the sleeping giant.”

In some ways it’s amazing the project got as far as it did. For one thing, the county, facing a budget crisis brought on by too many public-works projects, can’t afford it. For another, it didn’t really need it. True, the county’s domestic-violence court, now in dilapidated and cramped quarters at 13th and Michigan, was supposed to move to the new building, but there are other solutions to its problems.

The county’s judges had also made it clear that they didn’t want to have to schlepp to the out-of-the-way site, at Van Buren and Spaulding. Cook County Board commissioner Mike Quigley had also pointed out that courthouse costs could probably be cut by encouraging people to pay their tickets by mail. Most important, the mayor had no local support. Ed Smith, alderman of the 28th Ward, was against it, as were most of his constituents who were about to be forced out–the project would have required about eight acres of land, which would have meant destroying 67 homes and displacing 200 residents.

Yet Daley and Stroger had plowed ahead. The mayor, saying he was convinced that the courthouse would rejuvenate a run-down neighborhood, announced the plan in the summer of 1998. He and Stroger got Steele, whose district includes the site, to endorse the plan and provide them with the fig leaf of local support. They shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to get consultants to tell them what they wanted to hear–that the county desperately needed the courthouse and that the west side was the best place to build it.

Last June, Stroger had the County Board hammer home the deal at a raucous meeting attended by dozens of East Garfield protesters. In January the county moved traffic court to a “temporary” location in the basement of the Daley Center, while city planners confidently predicted that residents would walk away quietly once they were paid for their property.

But the protests never stopped. The East Garfield group met every Tuesday to plan strategy, and over the last few months they reached out to affordable-housing activists across the city. “We found a lot of support, because people are offended that Daley and Stroger would be talking about uprooting people when they’re having a hard time paying their gas bills and light bills,” says Jackson. “The issues are related, because people don’t understand how you can spend all this money on something you don’t really need when there are so many other pressing needs.”

Late last fall the county sent out bids to property owners that many found insultingly low. The owner of one eight-bedroom house, for instance, was offered $150,000.

Then on March 13 the residents upped the ante by taking their protest directly to Daley. “Until then the mayor was insulated from the deal,” says Jackson. “Stroger and Steele were taking all the heat.” About 125 residents confronted the mayor at a meeting of the Public Building Commission–a city-county body that oversees municipal public-works projects–and for the first time Daley came face-to-face with the people he was planning to displace.

“The meeting was on the second floor of the Daley Center,” says Jackson. “We packed the place–took up almost every seat.” Daley said he would allow one member of the group to speak, so the residents chose Reverend Marshall Hatch of the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. “Reverend Hatch faithfully repeated our position–you can’t wipe out a whole community for a public building, we think there’s something evil about that,” says Jackson. “Daley didn’t say much. He asked a few questions about the offers the residents had received. Reverend Hatch told him that the people had received ridiculous offers that were insulting. Daley acted surprised that they had received offers at all.”

It was classic Daley strategy, pleading ignorance to buy himself time to figure out what to do. By the next day he’d apparently decided. “I read an article in the Sun-Times that said Daley planned to call Stroger to ask whether we needed to build on the west side,” says Jackson. “When Daley said that, I knew that was really a code to say, ‘I’m telling Stroger to back off.’ I knew that was it. Because let’s face it, Daley’s not calling Stroger to ask him anything. Daley tells Stroger what to do–not the other way around.”

On March 20, Stroger sent a letter to his fellow board members saying that the Daley Center traffic-court site was “running efficiently and in fact far more smoothly than had been expected. After discussing this matter with various parties, including the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, I now believe that there is a need to revisit plans to construct a new Traffic Court.” The west-side courthouse was dead.

“There will be new facilities for domestic-violence court, but the project will be scaled back, and a new look will be taken at where it will go,” says Jack Beary, Stroger’s spokesman. “Traffic court will stay at the Daley Center. The judges said that the temporary facilities prepared for traffic court in the Daley Center were working out better than expected.”

In the aftermath, many observers are wondering why Daley changed his mind. “I’d like to say that people of modest means forced the county to reconsider, but I think it’s more complicated than that,” says Quigley. “This project would have put the county over its spending cap and forced a tax increase. No one wanted that.”

Stroger told reporters at the March 20 meeting that traffic-court judges had helped kill the plan to move the court out of the Loop. “The judges,” he said, “were going around mumbling, ‘We don’t want to go to the west side.'”

But few people believed that explanation either. “The judges have been against the project since Daley suggested it, and the project went on anyway,” says Jackson. “Now we’re supposed to believe that they just stopped the project–after acquisition letters had gone out–because they suddenly decided to listen to the judges? I don’t think so.”

Instead, Jackson and others believe that Daley decided to cut his losses rather than see the project turn into a bitter battle. “He’s very cautious,” says a former alderman who still pays close attention to local politics, “much more cautious than his father. If he gets a whiff of strong opposition to something, particularly black opposition, he pulls back. He doesn’t want to do anything to energize the black community. He probably looked out and saw those protesters and thought to himself, ‘I don’t need this becoming a big political problem.'”

At the moment the biggest victim of the change in plans is Bobbie Steele, who managed to alienate her community without having anything to show for it. Jackson and other residents predict she’ll receive strong opposition if she runs for reelection next year. “I don’t feel sorry for Steele,” says Denise Dean, a member of the Concerned Citizens for East Garfield Park. “She made a decision to stay with Daley rather than her constituents. She said the train was leaving the station and we had to get aboard. Well, Daley’s jumped off the train–and she’s stuck on the platform.”

Steele says she has no regrets about the position she took. “To be a leader, you must be visionary, and I envisioned a new municipal building to come to a depressed area to stimulate economic growth,” she says. “I know there are some people who will try to use this against me. But I’ve got a lot of calls from people who said they agree with me that the courthouse should have been built. Even people in beauty parlors and on street corners stop me to say, ‘Why did they do that? Why is it stopped?’ So whether it impacts on my electability, I don’t know. When you’re a leader you take risks. If that vision was a risk, so be it.”

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