By Ben Joravsky

For the last few months Deborah Stewart’s been waging a battle against the work crew building a three-unit condo complex next to her house on Belmont.

But as bad as it got, and it got pretty bad, she never imagined things would come to this. There she was on Belmont near Western, sweltering in last Friday’s heat and toe-to-toe with a man she didn’t know who was howling about how she was making his life miserable. “I can’t help you,” she fired back.

The story began over a year ago, when a construction crew came to demolish the auto-repair shop next to Stewart’s two-flat in the 2300 block of West Belmont. One might think she’d be happy to see a garage make way for condos. But no, the repair shop had been a good neighbor since she moved in 13 years ago. Even if the condos increased her property’s value, so what? She didn’t plan to sell.

Besides, the work crew was a pain in the neck. Yes, she knows how hard it is for anyone to feel sorry about anyone else’s construction woes. Hasn’t everyone on the north side had to suffer the noise and dirt of construction?

But this crew was worse than most, she insists. They left trash on the sidewalk; they tore up the gangway that ran between the condos’ property line and the house to the east; they dripped mortar on her house to the west; they operated loud machines early in the morning; they left the water on and flooded the area. “I know it’s the city and it’s noisy, but this was too much,” she says.

She complained to 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio. His aides called the Building Department. An inspector was sent. “They discovered that the work crew was using an unlicensed mason,” says Michael Reyes, an aide to Ocasio. “So they put a work stop on the project.”

That was in May. The resulting standoff has left the building in limbo–an open two-story shell with no front wall or gate to keep out intruders. “It’s an open sore,” she says. “It’s inviting trouble.”

Moreover, the front of the building remains cluttered with discarded wood, nails, bottles, and other debris. “I’m still waiting for them to replace the gangway,” says Antonio Lopez, who owns the building east of the work site. “As you can see, they also took away the lower foundation of my house. “About half a foot of stone was gouged out of Lopez’s west basement wall.” I talked to the contractor and he said it’s not their fault. He gave me a number and said, ‘Call this guy, he’s in charge.’ I called him and he said it’s the contractor’s fault.”

Lopez says that without the gangway his rear apartment is all but unrentable. Now there’s a steep drop from the sidewalk and a narrow, muddy walkway going back. “My tenants left because it was too hard to get in,” he says. “I can’t sell if I wanted. I can’t rent. I’m stuck.”

On May 25 a couple of glaziers showed up to work on the site. Stewart called the police and the glaziers were arrested. A few weeks later they were called before a judge. “The city wanted them to pay a $25 fine,” she says. “I said I won’t wheel and deal. I want them to repair the gangway and fix Lopez’s foundation.”

That’s her side of the story–and Lopez’s. The project’s overseer, Barry Kreisler, president of the Matanky Realty Group, has a different take. Kreisler says his company has bent over backwards to be reasonable to Stewart, but she seems to be on “a mission, a crusade of sorts.”

“We sent over some workers to put up a fence so the building wouldn’t be open, and she called the police on our workers,” Kreisler says. “Then we sent in the glaziers to close up the building, which I thought would be the good-neighbor thing to do, because you wouldn’t want an open building. And she called the police on the glaziers and had them arrested.”

To make things even more complicated, Stewart’s gutters hang across the property line, preventing Kreisler’s workers from building the condo complex any higher. Kreisler says Stewart rejected his offer to remove and rebuild her gutters. That left him with no choice but to hire a lawyer and take her to court to get an injunction ordering her to remove them. As for the unlicensed mason, it’s a misunderstanding that’s been resolved, he says. “We hired the foreman of another mason, but apparently he was still operating under [his boss’s] license. The Building Department didn’t like that and issued a stop-work order. Since then he’s got his license–it’s all taken care of.”

Then why not finish the project?

“Well, we still have the issue of the overhanging gutters,” he says. “We tried to be reasonable. We offered to cut the eaves and redo her gutters, but she turned us down. So we had to go to court to try and get an injunction against her. It’s frustrating. We’re doing everything we can to be good neighbors. I don’t know anything about [the gangway] but if we damaged anything we’ll fix it.”

Meanwhile, the work stoppage has aggravated more people than Kreisler. Last Friday, as Stewart stood on the sidewalk outside her house, a man walked up and said, “Are you the lady holding up construction of my condo?”

He said he’d invested earnest money on a unit, and he’d lose it if the project wasn’t completed. As they talked, cars whizzed by and their voices rose. “Because they dripped some mortar on your roof, you stopped this?” he asked.

“It’s not the mortar,” she said. “Look what they did to his foundation!”

“They said they’d repair that.”

“They’re using unlicensed, nonunion labor–”

He raised his arms in disbelief. “What do you care about that?”

“I live here.”

“I’ve seen their work–it’s good.”

“Did they tell you about the flooding?”

He waved his arms. He stamped his foot. “Listen, lady, it’s construction–construction’s messy.”

He launched into a diatribe that enumerated his trials and tribulations. He was about to get married, he had a wedding to plan, he needed a loan to buy the unit. But interest rates were rising, each passing day would cost him more. And the earnest money–what about his earnest money? “I got a wedding to plan, I got a loan to get, but you don’t give a shit! You’re mad cause they dripped some mortar on your roof–”

“It’s more than the mortar–”

“What about your gutter? It’s blocking my building!”

“I have airspace rights!”

“I know about people like you. You don’t want change. Until you get your capital gain when you sell your building–”

“I’m not selling my building–”

“Then you want change–”

“I’ve been here for 13 years–”

“When you make a killing selling your building, you won’t complain.”

Back and forth they went for another minute or so before he abruptly walked away.

“If he thinks I’ll give up, he’s nuts,” she said. “I’ll get a lawyer. I’ll see them in court. They can’t treat people like this. I’m fighting to the end.”

Hot Seats

Until last week most Good-man playgoers didn’t know they were accessories to a union fight in Pilsen. Then they got the word in the form of flyers distributed outside the theater by activists from the United Steelworkers of America.

“Scoundrel Sneaks Onto Goodman Theatre Board,” read the flyer, which described a long labor dispute at the Tool and Engineering factory in Pilsen.

According to the flyer, workers went on strike last year after the company proposed that salaries and benefits be cut. The company–owned by Fruit of the Loom chairman William Farley, who happens to be a Goodman trustee–has since hired replacement workers.

The dispute was waged in obscurity until the activists brought it home to audiences at the Goodman production of Jitney, August Wilson’s play about working-class African-Americans. The union wants the Goodman to pressure Farley into making concessions.

What are Goodman subscribers supposed to do? Even if they don’t want to feel hypocritical by engrossing themselves in the struggles of Wilson’s working-class heroes while spurning the real thing–what influence could they have over one trustee’s corporate life? Should they call or write the Goodman? Should they try to hear Farley’s side? (Company officials say the union’s confrontational tactics have made an accord difficult to reach.) Should they walk by?

Citizens confront such moral dilemmas all the time, says Paul Rogat Loeb, a writer based in Seattle. Loeb recently wrote Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, a self-help book for activists battling feelings of helplessness and disillusionment.

Loeb, who was recently in town on a promotional tour, says he’s impressed with the Steelworkers’ tactics, though he knows next to nothing about the local dispute. “It’s cheeky,” he says. “They’re saying if you’re doing destructive action in your business life you have to be held accountable in your civic one. Now again, I don’t know the specifics of this struggle, but the flyer definitely puts the Goodman in an awkward situation. A not-for-profit theater–no matter how many great shows they stage–can’t afford to live in isolation. If I were on the Goodman board I would say to Farley, ‘Look, what’s going on here?'”

So far though, the protest seems to be having little effect. At last Wednesday’s show, for instance, most playgoers threw away the flyers. The Goodman’s press spokeswoman didn’t return calls for comment.

Don’t despair, Loeb advises union activists. “I have a friend named Lisa Peattie–and I wrote about her in my book–who took two of her children to a vigil protesting nuclear testing. It was outside the White House and the vigil was small and it was raining and they got soaked. They joked about how President Kennedy was inside enjoying hot chocolate, not paying attention to them at all.

“Well, years later she heard Benjamin Spock give a speech at an antiwar rally. He said that he had been moved to join the movement because of a protest he had seen involving a small group of women and their children in the pouring rain outside the White House. Lisa knew he was referring to her group. She was proud because Dr. Spock’s stature as a famous pediatrician had a tremendous influence for the antiwar movement. And he was there because of her. The point is you have an influence even if you don’t realize it.

“So yes, I’m sure a lot of people at the Goodman threw their flyers away. But if 10 percent didn’t, or even just 10 percent of 10 percent–if one person makes a call, you have the start of change. Remember, it doesn’t take everybody, at least not at the start.”

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