Heroes and Villians

There’s a new guy in a white hat in the local papers. His name is Forrest Claypool, and he’s cleaning up Chicago’s parks.

There’s also a newly designated black hat, a whole gang of black hats, for that matter. They’re CID, the Park District’s Capital Improvements Division, which one recent Tribune article characterized as “an inept internal unit that grew from nearly $2.8 million in construction projects to nearly $20 million over a four-year period.

“This kind of it’s-stipulated-they’re-awful language was ratified in the celebrated new Park District study by J.E. Manzi & Associates. “I have never observed an organization more out of control in the planning and management of its capital projects,” Joseph Manzi reported. He said that “without any rational basis” for doing so, CID changed from a small operation created to resurface playlots into “one of the largest construction contractors in Chicago with none of the expertise or management and financial controls that a private firm of the same size possesses.”

Manzi didn’t hammer only CID. His report also took the Division of Engineering Services to task for mismanaging outside contractors, and it excoriated an arrangement that had the national engineering firm of CRSS overseeing 16 projects valued at more than $20 million, only two of which could possibly be finished by the end of this year, though all 16 were supposed to be.

But as Manzi told us, “For whatever reason, the media has focused on CID.” The reasons aren’t hard to surmise. CID is where the blood is. Claypool fired about 250 CID tradesmen. And when the Sun-Times’s Adrienne Drell pointed out that both of CID’s underqualified but politically connected top administrators had survived, Claypool immediately demoted them.

More important, the specter of a malignant bureaucracy is sure to strike horror into readers’ hearts. A page-wide Sun-Times headline read: “How Playlot Crew Ran Amok.”

Journalists pick and choose. When Claypool canceled CRSS’s contract last week, that $20 million development went unreported.

In the “Ran Amok” story, Drell quoted Manzi calling CID “professional anarchy” and “a horror story.” For what might be called balance she turned from Manzi to Claypool himself, and her article concluded: “A maverick division within the park system, answerable to no one, “will never happen again,’ [Claypool] said.

“Is anything wrong here? Possibly not. The big story, the story of the sweeping changes Claypool promises to make in the organization of the Park District, has been amply covered. The shadow story, about political interests advanced and thwarted, may be too subtle and arcane to tease out now. And what is truly the other side of the Manzi report is of little consequence.

You hear it only from CID staff members, speaking anonymously, who feel beaten up by Claypool, Manzi, and the press. Who complain that Manzi studied just 8 of some 500 CID projects, didn’t acknowledge the ones CID’s done right, and didn’t understand how blame should be distributed for the ones that went wrong. Adrienne Drell tried but failed to reach Terry Sullivan, the now-deposed superintendent of CID. Nobody–not reporters and not Manzi–talked to Roger Clark or Paul Martinek.

Clark and Martinek were, successively, project managers of a project to turn an abandoned YMCA on 71st Street into the Don Nash Community Center. The engineering department originally said the job could be done for $750,000. More than two years after taking over the Y, the estimated cost is up to $2 million, and the work is nowhere near done. Claypool called the Nash project “exhibit A” of CID mismanagement and Manzi called it “totally out of control” and “the most serious example of CID’s failure to perform.” Why didn’t Manzi interview CID’s men at the scene? “I did not think I needed to,” Manzi told us. He interviewed CID director Bruce Washington twice, “and he indicated he was really the overall manager of that project and was looking at it personally.

“A CID staffer who agrees the Nash job has been “total chaos” nevertheless thinks Manzi made a mistake. This staffer argues that the only way to understand what CID had to put up with to get its capital projects done is to talk to the supervisors in the field. “At any one time the Park District has at least 50 different jobs going on,” he said by way of example. “Since most of these jobs are politically sensitive, you have to be moving workers from one job to another as aldermen pull strings. So you cannot judge contracts as you would judge them with outside contractors.”

Another CID staffer said the root of the Nash fiasco was a lack of adequate construction documents, which the engineering department should have provided. “It was a fast-track project,” he said, “and Manzi made a comment about Capital Improvement going in there and starting without drawings. Which was true, but we were instructed to do that by the front office.

“By Claypool’s predecessor, former general superintendent Robert Penn?

“That’s the front office. Right. To have a fast-track project, you have to have coordination between all the disciplines involved. Engineering, construction, purchasing, the controller.”

And Claypool and Manzi say coordination among Park District departments is abysmal.

“I’ll agree with that.”

The fast track the Nash project was launched on led to major contracts being let on an emergency basis–that is, bids were solicited from specific contractors. But once these contracts were negotiated, the front office changed its mind, canceled them all, and demanded open competitive bidding. A third CID staffer says this alone “put us behind four to six months.

“We talked to one of the contractors who lost out. Klotz Environmental Products in Schiller Park was going to sell the Park District three heating-and-cooling units for the Nash Community Center. But Mike Klotz says he was tied up two to four months by a purchasing department compliance officer who insisted on minority participation and finally set Klotz up with a south-side mover who’d deliver the units. Then the contract was revoked.

“It was a fiasco,” said Klotz. “[The parks] are one of the most poorly run outfits I’ve ever run into in my life. I’d just as soon do without them as a customer.””The division did grow too fast,” said the same CID staffer. “But it grew with the blessing of the commissioners, the engineering department–everybody involved. I don’t feel it should take the rap by itself. And we did have some wonderful tradesmen. We had some artists.”

No documents we’ve seen–and over a few gallons of coffee we’ve been shown plenty–and no arguments we’ve heard persuade us that CID doesn’t deserve most of the criticism it’s been getting. But CID was a symptom of mismanagement, not its source. What you had in the field was “a diffusion of responsibility,” says Claypool. “A lot of hands touched projects, but you’re not in a position to say one person absolutely was responsible.” And a lot of those hands belonged to overseers with no background in construction management. “People were operating beyond their skills,” said Claypool, who might have added that politics put them where they didn’t belong.

And so CID disappears. Do those anonymous voices on the plunging deck deserve a word on their own behalf before the closing waters silence them? They were working stiffs like the rest of us, and sure they do.

I love my baby, but my baby won’t behave.

I love my baby, whoooo, but my baby won’t behave.

I’m going to buy me a white shooting pistol and put her in her grave.

Thus ends Blues Before Sunrise at five o’clock Sunday and Monday mornings on WBEZ.

“I’d have no problem if he played that song once every year,” says constant listener Frieda Dean. “Twice a week is irresponsible. I like the blues. That’s why I turn it on. But it’s gotten to the point where I make a lunge to my radio whenever the song comes on. I’m not even pursuing this as a feminist issue. It’s a humanitarian issue.”

Dean’s pursuit brought her to Hot Type after WBEZ failed to provide satisfaction. She says she called Blues Before Sunrise host Steve Cushing a few weeks ago, but he didn’t join her in debate. “I knew he was on the phone, because I could hear him breathing,” says Dean. “But his response was, ‘Are you finished?’ I said, ‘I think I’ve expressed myself.’ He said thank you and hung up.”

Cushing doesn’t remember the call.

More recently, says Dean, she tried to take advantage of the station’s invitation to its audience to call in and vent praise or complaint. But a screener said, “You’re the only person who’s ever complained about this,” and wouldn’t put her on the air. Next she tried calling during Mara Tapp’s show. “I talked to someone named Elizabeth. [She’s an intern.] She said I should write a letter.”

We called Cushing. “If you ever have listened to my program,” he said, “85 percent of the things on there are the same thing–cutting, shooting, poisoning, razors, the whole shot. It’s like the PC gestapo is knocking on my door again. Do I open the door for them, or ask them to take a hike?”

Any chance you’ll make a change? we asked.

“Not unless you make it some big campaign,” he said.

We’re not taking sides. This argument’s a litmus test. Does Leroy Carr’s 1934 rendering of “Blues Before Sunrise” make you feel the blues, or does it make you see red? Is 5 AM the safest time imaginable for a deejay to spin a homicidal lament, or is the sleepless audience then a tinderbox of tormented rage?

“The blues culture is evolving,” Dean tells us. She wants Cushing’s 13-year-old show to look beyond the blues’ “violent roots.”

But to Cushing, those roots are the point. He plays little music that’s more recent than 1965, which is when the blues was contaminated by its own offspring, rock ‘n’ roll.

Cushing struck a conciliatory note. “This was written by a schoolteacher in Indianapolis,” he told us, speaking of Leroy Carr’s grim vow. “Flossie Franklin was her name.”

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