By Elana Seifert

The East Village, the rapidly gentrifying blue-collar near-west-side community, is undergoing another battle, and this time the subject is an 83-year-old Goldblatt’s building. To some residents it’s a precious piece of architecture. But to Delray Farms, which recently purchased the property, the building is wasted space. The grocery store chain has announced plans to demolish the five-story structure on Chicago Avenue just west of Ashland. Delray wants to erect a strip-mall-style meat and produce market in its place. Diana Mason of the East Village Association has vowed that her group will do “whatever it takes” to stop them.

Gladys Alcazar, another EVA member, describes the fight as one against the “suburbanization of the city.”

“What they’re talking about is a model of shopping and living that’s successful for suburbia,” she says. “They’re building this on a model that’s culturally bereft. I don’t think their model of what a community needs and wants has anything to do with urban life.”

The same week Mason learned that the Goldblatt’s building had been sold, Alcazar and fellow EVA member Rich Anselmo confronted Mayor Daley and his executive assistant Terry Teele when they came to East Village to celebrate the completion of a major sidewalk renovation along Division Street.

“He seemed genuinely concerned,” Anselmo said of the mayor. “And when we mentioned Delray Farms, Terry said, ‘I know them. Let’s try to steer them toward some vacant land. We have plenty of it over here.'” When EVA followed up with a letter and a phone call, Teele said there wasn’t anything the mayor could do to stop the building from being destroyed.

After that the group wrote letters to the building and planning departments, historic preservation organizations, other community organizations, and even developers who EVA thought might take an interest in the property. According to Anselmo, “Everyone told us the same thing: ‘Talk to your alderman. Only the alderman can do something.'”

Alderman Jesse Granato has taken the vague position that he desires “something the entire community is comfortable with,” and insisting that only “overwhelming community support” could persuade him that Goldblatt’s should be saved at the cost of discouraging Delray from investing in the neighborhood. He did, however, send a letter to Department of Buildings commissioner Cherryl Thomas requesting that she notify him if any demolition permit was issued for 1615 W. Chicago, the site of the building. Thomas has placed a hold on demolition permits at the site indefinitely.

Granato doesn’t have to look far to find strong community sentiment. At a public meeting August 14, organized by EVA at the alderman’s request and attended by representatives from Delray, the Department of Planning and Development, and Granato’s office, the project’s opponents were adamant that the building should remain standing to preserve the architectural look and feel of the neighborhood.

As of last week 26 letters in favor of saving the Goldblatt’s building had been sent to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The pleas came from East Village residents of 40 and 50 years as well as from a newcomer who said architecture was what attracted her to the neighborhood. Some railed against “money grubbers” who would destroy the neighborhood’s beauty. The mayor’s office has received 40 letters opposing the demolition, an “enormous outpouring,” according to Greg Longhini, communications director for the Department of Planning and Development. The response spurred meetings between Delray and city officials.

Longhini says that the planning department cannot interfere with “what is essentially a private real estate deal” and that the department has worked closely with Delray to bring development to the area. The goal, he says, is not to keep Delray out of East Village but rather to see if another property could be “made available” to Delray.

Granato says he does not share EVA’s love for the building’s exterior, and he fears saving the building at the cost of economic development. “I don’t want to see an empty Goldblatt’s,” he says, citing the additional concern that an empty building could become a center for drug abuse and gang activity.

The Chicago Avenue business district between Ogden and Western has had some intractable problems, including high turnover and what Mary Ritchie, executive director of the Chicago Avenue Business Association, calls a “less than ideal” retail mix. Delray would add the kind of economic boost that Chicago Avenue between Ashland and Damen, known for its dollar stores, could use.

“Delray might be just what we need to revitalize the area and be an impetus for other businesses to improve,” Ritchie says. “I respect EVA’s love for an old building, but the time comes when you have to draw the line between the concrete and glass and the people in the neighborhood. I side with progress.”

City officials, of course, may side with political expediency. And if they do not EVA has one more trick up its sleeve. After the letters and meetings, EVA members submitted a letter to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, requesting landmark designation for the building, which could provide it the kind of protection the group seeks.

But obtaining landmark status takes time. Right now the commission is deciding whether to even consider Goldblatt’s for landmark designation next year. And even if Goldblatt’s is chosen for consideration, there’s no telling whether it will survive the complex process by which a candidate becomes a landmark, which can take an additional year.

Another problem with landmark status is that it is potentially reversible. “Lexington Hotel was a landmark–until a couple of months ago. And all of Block 37 was a landmark,” says Pat Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Associates, the architecture firm Delray hired to assess the building’s potential for various projects.

“I guess you can see this as a desperation tactic,” says Mason, “but we’ve lost three buildings already and we’re not going to lose another.”

Mason is referring to the Alemeda Theater on Damen Avenue, which was torn down in 1991 following efforts by then alderman Luis Gutierrez (it had become a haven for junkies and gang members–the kind of place Granato fears an empty Goldblatt’s could become); the Isham YMCA building at Division and Ashland, demolished in 1981 when the New City YMCA was built at Halsted and Clybourn; and the Hub Theater at 1734 W. Chicago, the facade of which has undergone major alterations over the last few years and is now a Women, Infants, and Children food center.

Former East Village resident Dave Zaura sees the neighborhood slowly being eaten away building by building. He remembers a “sad moment in the neighborhood’s history” when wrecking balls came for the YMCA. “It wasn’t a historical building, but it was striking, with a big stoop people would gather on. Now they have a Pizza Hut and a Wendy’s on that corner. They wanted to put up a Taco Bell–right across from Arandas. How insulting.”

EVA was less prepared to fight earlier demolitions. The YMCA, for instance, was demolished prior to the landmarks commission’s undertaking a historical resources survey to identify potential preservation projects. On that survey the Hub Theater was identified as a “green” building, one without landmark qualities. The Goldblatt’s building, in contrast, was identified as “orange,” one “possessing historical and architectural distinction in the context of the immediate community.”

Lisa DiChiera, director of Chicago programs for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, says, “There’s a message here. There are hundreds and hundreds of buildings long identified as having potential landmark status. It often takes aggressive neighborhood action to preserve these buildings. The survey is here, and communities need to know that the best time to start working on preservation is before there’s the possibility of demolition. Know where your orange buildings are and seek landmark status before the Delrays of the world buy them up.”

EVA would like to see the Goldblatt’s building turned into a loft project similar to the Wieboldt’s apartments at Lincoln and Belmont. Ironically Fitzgerald Associates is remodeling another former Gold-blatt’s building on Lincoln Avenue just south of Belmont into lofts, with commercial space on the street level.

But the firm says the story is different for 1615 W. Chicago. “Realistically speaking, it is not a viable project,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s simply too big a gap between what I know to be the cost and the market in that neighborhood. How many people–even those already there–would plunk down $130,000 for a loft space? I love buildings, but to survive as an architect you have to become a bit of a realist.”

Such predictions did not sway EVA members, who maintain that to lose the Goldblatt’s building would be to lose an architectural treasure and a vital part of urban culture. This fear is echoed by DiChiera, who says, “There aren’t many cities like Chicago, where neighborhoods have streetscapes all their own and architecture is a defining factor. And Delray has a reputation of not being sensitive to a neighborhood’s character.” Residents near the Delray market at Broadway and Foster have complained to DiChiera that the mall-type structure has had a negative impact on their neighborhood’s character.

Delray representatives have maintained that a market would have a positive effect, bringing in, according to founder and co-owner Stefan Kaluzny, “high-quality food, full-time and seasonal employment, and a farmer’s market feel.” As for the plans for an 86-car parking lot, Kaluzny says it is “necessary because folks happen to drive these days.” And the landscaping along the street will “provide some green space that’s needed along Chicago Avenue.”

If Kaluzny has any personal qualms about bringing down Goldblatt’s he doesn’t let on. “Folks have to remember that times have changed,” he says.

Perhaps, but EVA is hopeful that the Goldblatt’s building will not fall victim to that change. “If we make it difficult enough, we’ll succeed,” says Anselmo. “After all, they’re not going to spend $500,000 to take the building down just to prove a point.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Diana Mason photo by J.B. Spector.