By Neal Pollack
On August 15, a Friday night, Shana Walsh was wandering the halls of the Van Dorn Apartments looking for her cat Marley, who had escaped. She was toting her two-year-old son Kai. He was in his pajamas and carrying on as usual.
“Ma! Where’s Mah-lee? Ma? I wanna see Mah-lee!”
“Be good, Kai!”
“Mah-lee Mah-lee Mah-lee Mah-lee!”
Marley was nowhere to be found. Not on the fourth floor. Not on the third, where Walsh lived, and not on the second or first floors either.
Walsh dragged Kai down to the lobby. Mario, the building’s janitor, was there. Describing their encounter later, Walsh said Mario looked strange and appeared to be lurking. This wasn’t his usual way.
“I need to talk to you,” Mario said.
“Mario, I’m looking for my cat,” Walsh said. “Have you seen my cat?”
“No. You don’t understand. I have something to talk to you about. You owe money and you need to pay up or get out.”
Walsh knew she was behind in her rent, but just that morning she had met with Christina Gibbs, the building’s manager, and they had worked out a plan for Walsh to pay the $440. Van Dorn tenants understood that their building had been sold two weeks earlier to a man named Val. Walsh told Mario about her earlier meeting with Gibbs, or Chris, as the tenants called her.
“Chris is no longer here,” Mario said. “She is no longer the manager. Val has told me to take over her duties and collect rent.”
“But I just worked out this payment plan…”
“Chris is no longer here.”
“Look, I have to go find my cat.”
“Oh,” said Mario. “If you think that your cat is more important than a roof over your baby’s head…”
Walsh began to get worried.
“I don’t think that,” she said, “but I don’t understand why you’d be approaching me with this now.”
“Chris is no longer here,” Mario said. “She’s gone. I need to go up to your apartment and see what you own.”
“I need to come up to your apartment and see what you own.”
Walsh lived in a tiny studio with her boyfriend Mike. Kai slept in a walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Two stray, bony, goofy dogs that she’d adopted from a shelter stayed in the kitchen. Two cats hung out wherever they could find space. Their possessions, in total, were a futon, a kitchen table, some books and CDs, a small stereo, a television, and lots of baby stuff.
“Why?” she said. “Do you think I have anything up there of value? I have nothing up there!”
“I need to come up to your apartment and see if you have any money.”
“You think I have money up there? If I had money up there I wouldn’t be behind in rent.”
She started to cry, and as she talked she grew nearly hysterical and sobbed even harder. “Why are you doing this to me?” she said to Mario. “I’ve never treated you with anything other than the utmost respect. I thought that we were friends. I don’t understand why you’d be approaching me with this in the middle of the night. You know that I’ve just lost my job, I’ve got a two-year-old baby, and my man is running out on me in the middle of the night. We’re separating. I don’t know what to do!”
Mario motioned for her to calm down. Two men who lived in the building came into the lobby and asked Walsh if she was all right. She said that she was.
“I understand,” Mario said. “I’m trying to help. I’m just doing what I was told. I’ll talk to Val. You can go in and talk to him and you can work it out.”
Walsh said, “I want to pay my rent. I thought this payment plan would be acceptable. I fully intend to catch up as soon as possible.”
“OK,” said Mario, and he wandered off to knock on some doors.
Marley came wandering through the lobby, and Walsh scooped the kitty up into her arms. As she walked away, she was still crying.
She said later, “That was a low point in my life. That was just horrible.”
But she had no idea how bad it was going to get.
The next morning, Walsh got all her paperwork in order and went down to the building’s office, just off the lobby, to meet Val Sklarov, who had introduced himself two weeks earlier as the representative of the Van Dorn’s new ownership company, M.S.V. Management.
“I presented myself in a kind of together manner,” Walsh says. “I didn’t tell him I had a baby. I didn’t tell him I was broke.”
Sklarov was sitting at his desk, a man of medium height with blond curly hair. He was wearing glasses and appeared to be in his mid to late 30s. They introduced themselves. Sklarov thanked her for coming down. Walsh says he was “very polite.” He asked Walsh what her source of income was. She replied that she was unemployed but was working on her college senior project. This seemed to satisfy him. Then he began to talk.
He said he owned other buildings in Rogers Park and he liked the way the neighborhood was going, especially the area known as North of Howard, which is bounded by Jarvis Avenue on the south, Clark Street on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, and Evanston on the north. The new Gateway Plaza development, on Howard Street, a 31-acre project that will renovate the el station, bring in a grocery store and an 18-screen movie theater, and in the process tear down several locally owned businesses, had helped create a good climate. Other retail developments on Howard were being discussed, and apartment buildings were changing hands across the neighborhood as well. The Van Dorn, at the corner of Rogers and Sheridan, was going to be at the heart of the new neighborhood, Sklarov said.
“You’re going to see a lot of changes in this building. You notice all the other buildings on the block? Do you know how much rent these people are paying? This building is going to change too. All the bad people are going to be kicked out of here.”
They had a long meeting. Walsh says Sklarov was “very eager” to sign a lease with her. She told him she was behind in her rent.
He looked at her, raised his hands, and laughed.
“You know, I have no idea how much money you owe,” he said. “I have no idea how much anyone owes.”
Walsh went upstairs. She was still confused about the situation and hesitant about what to do. Sklarov’s “bad people” comment had rankled her. She spent the day with Kai, thinking, “OK. This guy totally sucks, but I’m in the clear.” It seemed to her as though the immediate threat was gone.
Later that day she walked out her door with Kai. Three women were standing there looking concerned, neighbors from down the hall. They had received notices telling them that the building was going to begin the eviction process within five days if they didn’t pay the back rent they owed.
They asked Walsh, “Does this mean that we have to leave in five days? That we have to be out in five days? What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? What’s going to happen to us?”
Walsh had never heard of a five-day notice and didn’t know the answers to any of their questions. But suddenly she didn’t feel so safe. She never got around to signing her lease.
Walsh is 30 years old. She was born in Rogers Park at a time when it was beginning to change and grew up around the corner from the Van Dorn. In 1967 Rogers Park was overwhelmingly white. It also was at the beginning of a fair-housing battle, which the fair-housing people more or less won. Then the whites began to leave for the suburbs–a trickle at first, eventually a deluge.
The hippies, lefties, schizos, and various eccentrics stuck around, and some home owners just refused to quit, Walsh’s parents among them. Her dad ran a film-distribution business out of their apartment, and her mother taught piano. By the late 1970s, partly by accident, partly by design, and partly because of the proliferation of nursing homes along Sheridan Road, Rogers Park had transformed itself into one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the country. It also became increasingly a neighborhood of last resort, a decent, cheap place to live far from downtown and close to Lake Michigan. It was for people who didn’t fit in anywhere else or who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Walsh felt privileged. Among the people with whom she’d attended the Gale grade school, she was the only one to go to college. In 1991 she enrolled at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, one of the most left-wing and politically active colleges in the country. Walsh was there during a time when Antioch became famous for instituting a draconian sexual-harassment and sexual-assault policy, when guerrilla feminists were posting photographs of men “known” to be campus date rapists, and when those same men were suing them right back. Walsh wasn’t involved in any of that, but she felt that Antioch was the right place to be. She took the school’s unofficial nickname seriously. They called it “boot camp for the revolution.”
Growing up in Rogers Park had made Walsh want to become politically active. The hardship and poverty faced by her mostly black school friends made her angry, and at Antioch, she says, she “found a voice” for her rage.
With only her senior project to finish, Walsh left Antioch. She had vague ideas about doing a big research paper on Santeria. Then she got pregnant, which stalled everything. She moved back in with her parents, who had relocated to Evanston, and went to work at Lost Eras, an antique dealer and costume store on Howard Street.
She saw that the poverty in Rogers Park had grown much worse in the four years she’d been gone. She couldn’t believe how many homeless people there were, how many guys were hanging out on street corners, how dangerous the neighborhood felt. The old days of Rogers Park as a real-life Sesame Street were long past. But, she says, “my loyalties are still here. I grew up as a kid here. People were more community-oriented. There was a very nice kind of community spirit that went on in this block and even in some of the other blocks. That was way back in the early 70s. Since then I have seen that things have gotten progressively harder for people. It hurts. I don’t like to see that at all. It drives me crazy.”
She and Mike needed to get their own place after Kai was born. Walsh wanted to live in Rogers Park but was completely broke and couldn’t find anything to fit her budget. Then she thought of the Van Dorn.
The Van Dorn was built in 1923 and, like most Rogers Park buildings from that era, had its glamour years. It features a spacious lobby, solid brickwork, elaborate cornices, and other decorative flourishes. But by the time Walsh was born the Van Dorn was well into its decline. “It’s always had a seedy kind of feel to it,” she says. “My mom always said to me, ‘Don’t go over to that Van Dorn apartment building.’ I know other kids’ mothers did that too. A lot of people know about this building. It’s right across from Biddy Mulligan’s. This building is definitely part of Rogers Park. It’s not the kind of building that would melt into the woodwork. It’s been around so long.”
In 1979 the Van Dorn was purchased by John You, and any amenities it once possessed vanished forever. By the time Walsh moved in a year and a half ago, the fire doors on every floor were nearly rusted off their hinges and hanging open. The halls were covered in a putrid dark-brown, industrial-grade carpet. The barrier between the main lobby and the office was a six-foot-long, foot-wide band of dirt full of weeds and cigarette butts, known to Van Dorn residents as “the ashtray.” Residents tossed their garbage bags into hallway-closet trash cans that often weren’t emptied for weeks. Trash spilled into the corridors. The stairwells were dank, unlit, and often cluttered with dirty condoms. Wooden guardrails crumbled at the touch.
But Eastlake Terrace, the square block surrounding the Van Dorn, had more or less kept itself up. The Van Dorn found itself sandwiched between the highest-income swath of the neighborhood and the Howard Street/Juneway Terrace corridor, one of the most intractable ghettos on the north side. It had been that way for a while. In 1991 members of the Greater Eastlake Terrace Together Block Club wrote John You a letter. They said they had “concerns” about “criminal activity” in the Van Dorn and provided sketchy evidence. They said a man had been exposing himself to neighbors behind the Van Dorn. “Especially disturbing,” they wrote, “was the time this tenant exposed himself during a yard sale in back of the condominium.” They said they “strongly suspect” that one of You’s tenants was a prostitute. And, they wrote, “There has been a recent surge of drug sales in the neighborhood. Your building is one of several that we believe may be involved in this activity.”
The letter went on to say that You’s tenants “engage in many activities that are annoying to the owners and tenants of buildings immediately surrounding your building….Members of our block club have been working together to keep this a safe and pleasant place to live. We have found that most of our buildings are well managed and attract quality tenants who are willing to pay decent rents to live in the better buildings in our area. There is no excuse for not screening tenants adequately. Buildings like yours detract from the neighborhood and make it a less desirable place to live.”
Walsh rented a studio for $365 a month, all utilities included. The bathtub worked but the shower didn’t. Lead paint from the windowsills flaked down on the carpet. Electrical wiring was exposed. There wasn’t an oven in the kitchen. But it was all she and Mike could afford; it was one of the few private buildings in the neighborhood that would take them.
One day Walsh was pushing Kai in his stroller down Sheridan Road. She ran into a woman, an Eastlake Terrace property owner whom she’d known in the neighborhood years ago.
“You’re not living in that Van Dorn, are you?” the woman asked.
Walsh replied that she was.
“How could you?”
She thought about it for a while. She’d never thought her luck would bottom out the way it had, that she would be broke, with an infant, and living in squalor. But that’s what had happened. She lived in the Van Dorn because she didn’t really have a choice.
“This is the building of last resort,” she says. “It’s the last little sanctuary for people. Temporary sanctuary, but it’s sanctuary, because there’s nowhere else to go. Just like the neighborhood. There’s no other place in the city that’s like Rogers Park.”
Rebia Mixon remembers the day she and Terry Clay moved into the Van Dorn. It was more than two years ago. “We were staying up in Evanston with other people,” she says. “And when we got here we had no bed, no furniture, no nothing. And when that lady gave us the keys, I came in here and fell down on this floor. Kissed the ground.”
“Well, baby,” Clay said to her, “let’s go and spend the night someplace else until we can get a bed at least.”
“I’m staying right here,” Mixon said.
This was the first time since Mixon’s husband had died that she’d had her own place. It was the first chance she and Clay had to live alone together. There was no water pressure in the kitchen. The bathroom ceiling was falling in. A big rotten hole had opened up in the wood under the sink. It was home. “I can go in my bedroom and peek around, and I can see the lakefront,” she says. “I’ve gotta peek around the side of the building, but it’s my view. It’s my view. My home, my place, and these are my neighbors.”
Mixon and Clay are rare among Van Dorn tenants. They have a signed lease; they renewed for a second year on June 30, right before the building was sold. Since they’d moved in there’d been an unwritten understanding between Christina Gibbs, the manager, and Van Dorn residents: If you don’t complain about the wretched living conditions, you can stay here month to month and even run up a rent tab.
Gibbs took in people that other building managers wouldn’t–welfare recipients, people with criminal records, illegal immigrants. Her accounting methods were informal and haphazard. She rarely handed out rent receipts, and often lost her copies when she did. She let people pay in cash and gave people breaks on rent and let them do work around the building in return. Mixon collected rent for her sometimes. Walsh, who owned a vacuum, took care of the hallways. Odd jobs were the norm.
But as soon as the building’s sale went through, Mixon says, Gibbs started acting strangely. Construction crews were coming in and tearing up the lobby, putting in new tile on the floors and on the walls, and in front of the elevator on each floor. They were planting new flowers out front. And suddenly Gibbs was knocking on tenant doors, saying, “We’ve got this new owner, you’ve got to pay up, we gotta be on time here, let’s get it together.”
Rashaan Armand was Mixon’s neighbor on the third floor. He was taking summer classes at Northwestern University, and sometimes he stayed on campus with friends. When he was gone, his wife often took their newborn baby to her parents’. Mixon says she was surprised one Saturday in August to see strangers going into Armand’s apartment and taking out his furniture. She asked them what they were doing. They said they were moving his stuff up to an apartment on the fourth floor. She asked them if they had permission, and they said they didn’t need any. She yelled at them until they went away.
The next day she complained to Mario, the building’s janitor. On Monday, she saw Mario moving Armand’s stuff again. He said he thought the apartment had been vacated. Mixon called the police.
“Who told you that you all could just go into this man’s apartment and just take his stuff?” she heard an officer ask Mario.
On Tuesday, August 19, Van Dorn residents received a two-page letter in their mailboxes. It was headed “M.S.V. MANAGEMENT, INC. Offices in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles.” It read: “Dear Tenant: The building that you live in has changed management. We are a professional property management corporation with 45 years of combined experience. We would like to take this opportunity to let you know exactly what you can expect in the future. Mario is staying to help you while you live with us. Chris is no longer the manager. The temporary manager is Val. Please see him until a permanent manager is placed.”
The letter told tenants that from now on they could pay their rent only with a personal check or money order. Rent absolutely was due by the fourth of each month. If residents didn’t give management a good reason for late payment, “we will assume that you can’t afford payment, and we will immediately serve you with a notice that will begin eviction proceedings.” The new management would be taking care of maintenance problems in the apartments, the letter said, and would be “making many improvements to the building.” These included: “new roof, all windows on the exterior to be painted and washed, missing storms replaced, new electric service to the building, new carpet in hallways, paint stairwells and hallways, redecorate-decorate lobby,” as well as a new video surveillance system, new washers and dryers, “and much much more.” Then it stated: “GARBAGE AND LITTER. Anyone who is seen throwing garbage in hallways, back stairs, or anywhere around the building will be evicted immediately without notice….ILLEGAL AND IMMORAL ACTIVITY. We have several reports of illegal activity taking place in this building by certain tenants and their guests. Move out on your own NOW, or you will be immediately evicted, regardless of whether or not you pay your rent. LET’S ALL TRY TO MAKE THIS A BETTER PLACE WE CALL HOME. THANK YOU, MANAGEMENT.”
Mixon and Walsh say they came downstairs that day to find Armand, his wife, and their infant sitting on the steps in front of the building. The management had thrown most of their possessions into Dumpsters in the alley, and the stuff had already been carted away. A few pieces of their furniture were being stored in an empty apartment upstairs. Armand told Walsh that the management even had thrown away his schoolbooks for next semester. He was so angry he could barely talk. That was the last time anyone in the building saw Rashaan and his family.
In the summer of 1993 Fran Tobin was hanging around a lot at Ennui, a locally owned sidewalk cafe at the corner of Lunt and Sheridan. He was playing chess, drinking coffee, and truly relaxing for the first time in years. He was also spending time with a bunch of slackers who proudly called themselves the JOE, or Jobless of Ennui.
Tobin had moved to Rogers Park in 1985 but didn’t get involved in neighborhood politics, partly because he felt that the neighborhood didn’t really need his help. Working at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, he’d helped push through the state’s penny-a-pack cigarette tax to fund homeless shelters and fought for a statewide low-income housing trust fund. He knew as much about affordable housing as anyone in the city. But under the guidance first of alderman David Orr and then of Joe Moore, Orr’s hand-picked successor, Rogers Park had long had a reputation of being far more “tenant friendly” than the rest of the city. Affordable housing was one of Rogers Park’s defining features, and the Rogers Park Community Action Network (RPCAN), an organization that Orr had helped found, helped keep it that way.
RPCAN was caught up in a difficult struggle that summer. The notoriously deteriorated Jewel on Morse Avenue had finally closed, leaving the neighborhood without a full-service grocery store. The Jewel parent corporation planned to install an Osco drugstore in its place, but Morse already had two full-service drugstores within a block of the site, including one that had been open since 1933. RPCAN began pressuring Alderman Moore to help them persuade Jewel to sell the property to another grocery company, but Moore wouldn’t. As RPCAN’s grocery-store campaign accelerated, Tobin found himself getting more and more involved. Finally, he was a member of JOE no longer. He started working for RPCAN part-time.
Tobin helped plan an event every week, passing out flyers, picketing, and protesting either on the proposed site of the new Osco or at outlying Jewel stores in Edgewater and Evanston. One weekend he was down at a neighborhood festival on Loyola Beach, passing out flyers to announce an upcoming fund-raiser for the Jewel campaign. He approached Keith Lord, a local real estate developer who was sponsoring the festival, to ask if he could make an announcement. Along with other developers in the neighborhood, Lord had publicly come out in support of the Osco and had encouraged the alderman to do the same. Still, Tobin didn’t anticipate any trouble from him.
Instead of permission to speak, Lord gave Tobin a half-hour lecture. He said he’d moved to Rogers Park to develop Morse Avenue, that Morse was a developer’s dream. He’d lined up deals, signed agreements with various corporations, including Starbucks, and they were ready to come into the neighborhood. But because of RPCAN’s agitation against Osco Drug, Lord said, all the investors had pulled out. He told Tobin that he’d personally prevented $16 million worth of retail development in Rogers Park.
Tobin had two thoughts. The first was that this was one of the silliest things he had ever heard in his life. The second was that if preventing “$16 million worth of development” meant keeping Starbucks out of his neighborhood and protecting the local coffee shops that he loved, then that was great.
The Morse Avenue Osco opened on schedule in 1994 and is still there today. The two local drugstores on the block are still doing fine. Starbucks hasn’t appeared yet in Rogers Park. But a former 1930s bank building on the northeast corner of Lunt and Clark was torn down this summer, with no advance notice given to the neighborhood. It will be replaced by a Blockbuster Video.
RPCAN collapsed after losing the grocery-store campaign. Eight hundred dollars vanished after a fund-raiser, and the lead organizer quit soon after. Tobin attended the University of Illinois at Chicago for a while to go after a master’s degree in urban planning, and this year he started putting RPCAN back together. He found himself in an unfamiliar position. For years, RPCAN and the nonprofit low-income-housing group People’s Housing had been the dominant political organizations in the neighborhood. That was no longer the case. With the folding of People’s Housing last year, two new institutions had moved in to set development policy. One was a coalition of developers called the Rogers Park Builders Group. The other was the Rogers Park Community Council, whose membership was almost entirely composed of white, middle-class home owners left over from Rogers Park’s high-income past.
“Rogers Park is still contested turf, but there’s been an interesting transformation,” Tobin said. “Ten years ago, even seven or eight years ago, RPCAN was clearly very much allied with the alderman’s office and the mayor’s office. That’s changed on both of those levels. For years people talked around it, there’s been skirmishes, battles around fair housing, race issues, but none of the sides has really taken over. What we’re seeing is that in the last few years the informal and official political structures have shifted toward development. There’s been a change in the balance of power.”
RPCAN now found itself the opposition party in Rogers Park. Tobin said he had to take it back to its grass roots. He wanted to see small businesses run by neighborhood residents, co-op groceries and clothing stores, tenant-managed apartment buildings. If big companies did move in, he wanted to ensure high-wage, career-track jobs. He floated the idea of a community currency that could only be spent within the borders of Rogers Park. He envisioned RPCAN as an organization with two or three full-time employees backed by a vast network of community volunteers who knew about tenants’ rights, small-business development, and other topics important to building the kind of neighborhood he wanted. Tobin had all kinds of ideas, but it was obvious to him that the alderman’s office wasn’t about to help him implement them. He knew he needed to build an organization.
The evictions had begun and Shana Walsh was in a panic; it looked like everyone in the Van Dorn was going to be thrown out and she knew she had to do something. She didn’t have her own phone, so she went over to her parents’ house to make some calls. Flipping through the phone book, she came upon something called the Rogers Park Community Action Network on Morse Avenue. That sounded like a good place to begin.
Fran Tobin answered the phone at the RPCAN offices. Walsh was talking so fast, in such a panicked voice, that he could barely understand what she was saying. More than half of the building had received five-day notices, she said, and she was sure that they were all going to be on the street by the end of the week. Nobody in the building understood what was going on.
Tobin told her to calm down. Tenants have rights, he said, even tenants who don’t have leases, even ones who haven’t paid their rent in a while. He told Walsh he could help her, but that first the Van Dorn had to get some tenants together for a meeting. RPCAN would send a couple of representatives.
Walsh had never organized tenants or anyone else. But she remembered a saying from Antioch that went something like–she couldn’t remember exactly–“It would be a shame to die before you’ve won a victory for humankind.” She thought she’d give it a try.
She and Teresa Diaz, the 15-year-old daughter of Anita Diaz, one of the women who was being evicted, started knocking on doors. The first meeting was going to be on Saturday morning, August 23, at the RPCAN offices. If they couldn’t make that meeting, Walsh said, there was going to be another one at the Van Dorn the following Thursday.
Please come out if you can. Things are changing in this building very quickly.
Walsh and Teresa Diaz canvassed the third floor, and then Diaz had to leave. Walsh went up to the fourth floor alone and started knocking on doors. One of the first was apartment 416. It was David Washington’s place.
Washington was 39, and he’d lived in the Van Dorn for ten years. He’d been staying with his parents in Markham before that, but they sold their house and moved to an apartment. “There really wasn’t much room for me there,” he says. At the time he was working at Zenith Electronics in Glenview as a lab technician–“it was a hell of a commute”–and needed to move further north. Rent in the north suburbs was too high, even in Evanston, so he located in Rogers Park. Since then Washington has worked several jobs–for a wholesale foods importer, for a plastics manufacturer, and for the Manpower temp agency. All of his jobs have been in the suburbs, either Glenview or Skokie. He had one job in the city, as a bike messenger, but he quit after a month and a half. He didn’t like the people he was working with and the commute downtown was a pain. He took a job at the Oak Street Market in Evanston, and when Oak Street was bought out by the Whole Foods conglomerate he moved to the bigger Whole Foods store on Ridge Avenue. All the while he stayed in the Van Dorn and rode his bike to work. And he was only three blocks from the Howard Street train and bus terminal.
“A lot of people live here because the jobs are out in the suburbs,” Washington says. “Pretty much entry-level positions. All the jobs are out of the city. They’re not in the city anymore. They’ve moved Sears, Roebuck out of here. Everything’s out of here. People really need this kind of location to commute to the suburbs. During rush hour, you go up to the el station on Howard Street. Those people are going to the north suburbs. They’re coming from the south side or the west side. They’re taking two or three bus trips or train trips. I used to go with this woman in my building, she’s from Jamaica. She had two jobs working in the North Shore, as a nanny and a housekeeper. It’s just a lot easier to get to those jobs if you live in Rogers Park.”
Washington and Walsh had met a couple of times since she’d moved into the Van Dorn. They were friendly, and when Walsh shopped at Whole Foods she always made a point of saying hello to him. But they’d never really hung out and talked.
He invited her in. A tenants’ council sounded like a good idea to him. He thought things had been getting pretty weird in the building. Walsh got around to talking about her experiences at Antioch. Washington told her about his own politics.
In recent years he’d been hanging out at the Autonomous Zone, a Ukrainian Village storefront home to an anarchist group. Though he didn’t consider himself a “core member” he did consider himself an anarchist. He told told Walsh he’d rather put up posters than talk to people directly. “I’m not that good at meetings,” he said. “I’ve been to meetings before, but I’ve really just observed.”
When it came to politics, Washington had mostly educated himself. He’d read about the Black Panthers, about Malcolm X and Dr. King, about Paul Robeson and Lucy Parsons, about Eugene V. Debs and union organizing at the turn of the century. He’d marched against police brutality during the Democratic National Convention. He’s been involved in the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison. But he was having a hard time getting anyone else interested in his causes. He felt frustrated. He told Walsh he wanted to do something radical, something effective, but it seemed as though he’d been born into the wrong era.
“I see a lot of apathy,” he says, “or people are too busy working two jobs, or working and going to school. People really don’t vote, I can understand that. A lot of people, especially in this day and age, they’re just trying to make ends meet. Just work. And when they come home they just want to take it easy. They’re not so much into organizing or having something extracurricular going on in their lives. Anything political. These are not political times. Time is precious to a lot of people these days. They’ve got kids. It’s just rough. But at the same time, let’s get some involvement. Raise some consciousness.”
Walsh felt the same way. She was looking for some practical application to make her politics really matter. By the way, she said, she needed some help knocking on doors for this upcoming tenants’ meeting. Washington said he’d come along.
The first meetings went smoothly. Walsh, Washington, Rebia Mixon, and several other Van Dorn residents went to RPCAN on August 23. Also in attendance were RPCAN volunteer Jackie Gandy and Lawry Taylor, RPCAN’s recently hired full-time community organizer. They sat quietly while Walsh and the others explained their problems. Everyone agreed that the apartments had been in terrible shape for a long time but the new management had made things worse. Now people were living in squalor and getting evicted. At least under the old management they’d been left alone.
Maintenance crews had been removing windows to repair the sills but hadn’t been putting them back. They’d been knocking on doors at all hours, entering apartments unannounced, even when tenants weren’t home. They’d been spraying apartments with insecticide but without the residents’ permission. They also were spraying the hallways across the entire floor instead of just along the baseboards. The insecticide smell clung to the carpet for days.
The tenants needed specific information. Could their rent be increased, and by how much? What if a tenant had a lease? Was it legal for the landlord to charge separately for utilities if a lease stated he couldn’t? What was a landlord’s responsibility to tenants when it came to repairs? Could tenants withhold rent until those repairs were made?
Nothing was decided at the meeting except for the council’s name. The residents voted to call themselves the Bad People’s Tenant Organization.
On August 28, in Anita Diaz’s apartment on the third floor, about 25 Van Dorn residents met with Tobin, Gandy, Taylor, and a tenant-advocate lawyer. The minutes from that meeting and from a subsequent one on September 3, typed up by Walsh, show what the tenants learned.
“If it is necessary for a landlord to remove a tenant or their property, then that landlord must follow the proper legal procedures. One of these procedures is for you and the landlord to appear in court together. Your property cannot be removed from your apartment without the permission and presence of the Sheriff of Cook County….
“Everyone must make an effort to become current in rent or make a payment arrangement with the landlord/manager….It was brought up that everyone was overpaying rent for their apartment. It is ridiculous for you to make full monthly rent payments when you cannot exit from the downstairs emergency exit doors at night, the fire escape doors are broke, your bathrooms are rotting, your window frames are falling off, you have lousy heat, you have low water pressure, etc. etc. etc….We will not allow our rents to be increased until our apartments become livable….
“Many of us are concerned about retaliation from the landlord for being involved in a tenant’s organization. As long as we stick together, we will continue to have a great deal of legal protection behind us.”
The day after the first meeting, Sklarov called Anita Diaz into his office. She says he reminded her that she hadn’t paid her rent in more than four months and told her she’d better stop having these meetings in her apartment because her eviction was coming soon. Diaz never showed up at another tenants meeting.
Walsh says Sklarov pulled her aside one day and told her the building wasn’t handing out leases anymore.
“I want a lease,” she said. “You promised me a lease.”
“My partners have advised me that we’re holding off handing out leases to people for at least a month,” he said.
Walsh continued to demand a lease. Sklarov said he reserved the right to raise anyone’s rent as much as he wanted and to evict people as soon as he wanted, under any terms.
She declared war. From then on, tenants meetings were held in her apartment, number 312. Every Wednesday, Walsh and Washington would start knocking on doors at around 6 PM, trying desperately to round up people for a 7:30 meeting. But the 25 people quickly became 15, then went down to 10. It stayed at that level–10, 12, 15 people crammed into Walsh’s tiny studio with four animals running around and Kai screaming in the background.
It wasn’t easy to keep the building involved. “People were moving like crazy at the time,” Walsh says. One day she and Washington walked out the back entrance. The Dumpsters were overflowing with garbage, clothes, furniture, baby toys. Cars had to swerve around the garbage to get through the alley. That got cleaned up, but every day there was new furniture, mattresses, other stuff people were throwing away because they had to move in a hurry.
On September 11, Walsh and Tobin went to Sklarov’s office. They delivered a letter. “As you know,” it read, “we residents of the Van Dorn Apartments have organized a Tenant Council in our building. We want to live in decent homes (free of material defects) at a fair rent. We want to be treated with respect and professional courtesy (free of threats, intimidation and unauthorized entry to our homes). We want to have some sense of security….Since you’ve taken over running this building, things have gotten worse.”
They invited Sklarov to attend a future tenant council meeting, and attached checklists of apartment defects. Under Chicago’s landlord-tenant ordinance, landlords have 14 days to try in good faith to make repairs when served with such lists. If they don’t, tenants have the right to withhold rent or to make the repairs themselves and deduct rent accordingly.
Tenants of just 12 of the Van Dorn’s 80-plus apartments went so far as to submit written, signed complaints. These included:
“Inadequate hot water in kitchen and bath.”
“Presence of mice in my apartment and common area.”
“Windows won’t keep cold out and rodents in living room.”
“Crumbling plaster in bathroom and living room.”
“Huge gaping, rusting hole under kitchen sink.”
“Intercom system broken and doorbell does not work reliably.”
“Kitchen tile floor coming apart.”
“Very sensitive breaker switch constantly blowing a fuse.”
“Sewage odors…roaches…no shower.
…Sometimes they cut the water off without notice….Radiator doesn’t work in my living room and kitchen….I have a broken window in the kitchen. You all broke it when you broke into my apartment….The freight elevator needs cleaning….I need new carpeting….I need new radiators….My whole apartment needs fixing.”
Meanwhile, Rebia Mixon and Terry Clay had received a notice from management saying that their rent would go up to $550 a month from $460, effective November 1. Their lease ran through July, and they knew from the tenant council that they didn’t have to pay any increase in rent until their lease was up. Besides, their unemployment checks came at the first of the month, and totaled $462. After they paid their rent, they had two dollars left until their next checks came two weeks later. In the past year and a half, Mixon had received her high school diploma, spent eight months in an internship in a dental hygienist’s office, received her certification as a security guard, and enrolled in computer classes at a career academy. But at that moment she and Clay couldn’t afford a rent increase.
“I’m trying to improve myself and trying to do better for myself, and, you know what? I don’t really need the hassle of thinking about this crazy stuff! If they would just stop bugging me I could probably make more money and pay them a few extra dollars rent! This is my home. My grandkids come here. My map of the United States is up on the wall. This is my home. I get on my knees every night and I say my prayers and I wake up every morning and I say my prayers. I thank God because I’ve got this place. If it were up to these people I won’t have this place, and a lot more people won’t have this place. Then what’s it gonna be? A lot more people out on the street. Ain’t there enough of us out there on the street?”
They say Mario came by their apartment asking for their rent receipts, explaining that the management needed to redo its books. But they’d kept those receipts every month for a reason, and it wasn’t to turn them over to the janitor. From past experience with other landlords, they knew they’d need some defense in eviction court if it came down to that. They knew that when it came to eviction cases, management almost always won. Mixon and Clay had been careful, but some of their neighbors hadn’t been. They were the only occupied apartment left on their hall.
“It’s gloomy now,” Mixon said. “It’s a ghost town. Friday night when I would get off work, we would open our doors just to hear the kids running up and down the hall. The adults would have their beers out here sometimes. But they would throw their beer cans away and they would laugh and they would play their music. We had our beers in here. And we’d laugh and the kids would come over. It was just a nice building. A very nice building. We had a good time. We would have a good time. From the first day we moved in, the girl across the door knocked on the door and brought cake over here. You miss that. Fish and tacos was this floor. Fish for the adults and tacos for the kids. Blacks and Mexicans, so that’s what we ate on Fridays. Fish and tacos! And it was terrific! In the summer everybody got itty-bitty grills and we put them out. Everybody barbecued. This summer nobody barbecued. We barbecued, but hardly nobody else. Because it started this summer. It killed people. It’s like Death Valley here. All the children are gone. Those that aren’t gone are quiet. Locked in their apartments. It’s like people have died.”
There was a new building manager at the Van Dorn. His name was Rudy. One day, Rudy pulled Walsh aside. He showed her a list Sklarov had given him of 20 people who were behind in their rent and who were going to be served with five-day notices. Walsh was on the list, as were several others on the now-renamed Van Dorn Tenant Council.
He also showed her a letter he said Sklarov had asked him to stuff in tenants’ mailboxes.
“It has come to the attention of management,” the letter read, “that a certain individual that is in the process of being evicted for non-payment of rent, is holding meetings and spreading rumors that are not true. Should you have any concerns, please talk to management directly. Please do not listen to that tenant. Management will advise you directly of future changes to the building. Sincerely, Management.”
Rudy told Walsh that he wasn’t going to distribute the letter. To him the letter didn’t seem fair. He quit after five days.
Washington says he was coming out of his apartment that same week and Mario the janitor was waiting for him. “David, I know you’ve been hanging out with that three-twelve,” he said, meaning Walsh. “We know that you’re one of those troublemakers. And I’m just warning you, don’t be involved anymore. Because we know.”
On September 12, the day after the tenants had submitted their letters, Walsh and Washington left the Van Dorn to take Kai to the petting zoo at Indian Boundary Park. Halfway down Howard Street, Walsh realized that she had forgotten her keys. She went back to the building because she knew that there was a key in the office. She really didn’t want to deal with management that day, but she had no choice.
Sklarov and Mario were in the office. They said they didn’t have a key. Walsh argued with them for a while, then she and Washington started to walk away.
Sklarov gestured toward them. “Come here, you two,” he said. “I want to talk to you two.”
Walsh and Washington recall the conversation going something like this: Sklarov said, “I want you to know that someone told Mario that there was another maintenance job opening up down the street. I can’t have you trying to turn my workers against me. I’m not going to stand for this. This committee activity has to stop.”
Walsh and Washington said they had no idea what he was talking about. Sklarov grew angrier and angrier.
“I’ve been advised by my superiors that any troublemakers, they’re out. And you guys are making trouble for me, so you’re out. Just like that. Just like that.”
“We’re not trying to make trouble, Val,” said Washington. “I’ve been here for ten years. We’re just trying to live here in a nice way with our neighbors and have the building up to code.”
Sklarov was still upset. His face grew redder and redder. So did Walsh’s.
“You can’t do this,” she said. “This is retaliation. You can’t threaten the tenant committees, and anyway, why would you want to?”
Washington knew this was going badly. He was trying to get Walsh out of the office.
Sklarov turned to Washington. “Can you explain this to her, please? She’s really emotional, and every time I talk to her it seems like she’s going to cry. I just can’t reason with her. I just can’t talk to her. We’re trying to look out for the people here. We’re trying to make this building a better place!”
“What do you want me to explain?” Washington asked.
“You guys can’t go around giving people flyers and knocking on people’s doors.”
“Well, actually we can.”
“No, you can’t do that!”
“Sweetheart,” Walsh says Sklarov told her, clutching her hand and glaring right into her eyes, “if we don’t want you here, you’re out. If you’re a troublemaker, you’re out. I’ll raise your rent so high that you don’t stand a chance of paying it. I’ll take you to eviction court and you won’t stand a chance against us. These little organizations, they don’t do anything. In the long run, I own the property. If I don’t like you, you’re out. Two or three months, you’re out. Just like that. Just like that.”
Walsh and Washington didn’t take Kai to the zoo that day. They went straight over to RPCAN.
On September 17, an outside consulting firm hired by Alderman Joe Moore’s office released a study for developing the North of Howard area, the troublesome northernmost swath of Rogers Park, which for years has been synonymous with poverty and urban blight. The Van Dorn lies on its eastern edge. A task force put together by the alderman’s office had commissioned the report. These were the preliminary findings.
The consultant’s study proposed some mostly unspecific solutions for changing the neighborhood. Inevitably, a tax increment financing (TIF) district designation was among them. The study pointed out that there were 29 buildings in North of Howard currently in housing court, as well as a number of former People’s Housing buildings in disrepair. Something had to be done with these buildings.
The study also proposed the demolition of the Good News United Church of Christ and the Howard Area Community Center on Paulina Street, two institutions that have served the poor in Rogers Park for 30 years through soup kitchens, job referrals, tutoring, and many other programs. They could be replaced, the consultants suggested, with town houses.
Everyone was shocked. The community center, the church, and RPCAN acted quickly. They held meetings, made phone calls, met with the neighborhood clergy. They barraged Alderman Moore’s office with questions. Who was on this task force that the alderman had put together? How had decisions been made? Why weren’t the church and community center consulted about the proposal? Fran Tobin was posing many of these questions. At one meeting he proposed an alternative–a “community task force” to respond to the alderman’s task force. The new task force would come up with its own proposals for improving the neighborhood. Suddenly everyone was forming task forces.
On October 7, Alderman Moore’s task force was scheduled to meet at his office on Greenview Avenue. RPCAN, Good News church, and the Howard Area Community Center rounded up more than 200 people to bring to the meeting. They were black, white, and Mexican, elderly and young, single men and women with four children in tow. It was a good random sampling of the neighborhood.
Moore looked around, saw the television cameras that had gathered, and quickly decided to move the meeting to Good News church. For three hours Moore presided with a hand-held microphone, answering questions from some extremely worried and angry people. He assured the crowd that it was just a consultant’s report, that nothing had been decided, including and especially tearing down their church.
People stood up and said that they were being evicted from their apartments or that their friends were being evicted. Everyone knew someone who was getting evicted; it seemed that all over the neighborhood, people were being thrown onto the street without warning. What was going on? Moore had no good answers. He said he wasn’t familiar with every building, but that North of Howard had more than its share of low-income apartments and always would.
As the meeting dragged on, Moore grew frustrated. He once again found himself in a difficult position. Landlords in Rogers Park despise him and call him a socialist behind his back, and the neighborhood’s left wing is convinced he wants to turn the neighborhood into a high-income haven. He doesn’t want to be known as the person who drove the poor people out of Rogers Park, but he also doesn’t want to be seen as the guy who sent the neighborhood down the rat hole for good. He said that the neighborhood simply had to change. There was no more room for the status quo, he said, because things had declined too badly.
The next day, Moore sent out letters to the heads of the church and the community center. He said he would oppose the proposal to raze their buildings. It had, he wrote, “very little community support.” But Fran Tobin was still skeptical. He vowed to keep his alternative task force going. To him, there was no trusting this alderman any longer. “It’s very much stand aside while those with power push ahead,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what the alderman’s office should be doing. I think the alderman’s office should be taking a very strong role in guiding development, reining it in, pushing it wherever it’s needed.”
Moore has been saying for months, since ground was broken on the Gateway Plaza project, that he doesn’t want to turn his neighborhood into “another Lincoln Park.” He swears that’s not what’s going on but that something really does need to happen to North of Howard. “Providing a roof over people’s heads isn’t enough to turn people’s lives around,” he says. “It’s a much more complicated issue. In order to make a sustainable community you need to have a mix of incomes. Most people recognize the need for ownership. That way, more people have a stake in the neighborhood. That’s very important to help maintain a successful neighborhood.”
John Fitzgerald, the associate director of the Howard Area Community Center, grew up in Rogers Park and helped win affordable housing for the neighborhood in the 1960s. He says he’s seen this debate before. “People who are in favor of developing the community usually have a wonderful euphemistic way of putting their goals,” he says, “and they’re generally sort of sincere sounding. They’re not just here to make a quick buck, they’re not just here to rape and pillage. They’re not robber barons and they’re not going to strip-mine the place and move on. That’s never the way they’re portrayed. And many of them are not. Like the Rogers Park Builders Group. Many of them are Rogers Parkers, home owners, landowners, who want to see the neighborhood reflect its 1920s glory of upper-middle-class and upper-class people thriving in a wonderful community.”
The debate over the North of Howard area continues to boil. After Moore backed away from the Paulina Street proposal, an Eastlake Terrace resident wrote a letter to the Lerner News-Star, a community newspaper, that was addressed to Good News church and the Howard Area Community Center. “Shame on you,” he wrote, “for thinking so little of your constituents to lead them in thinking that attracting home owners to the neighborhood is an evil thing. Shame on you for thinking so little of your constituents that you believe none of them could potentially purchase housing in the neighborhood if the opportunity presented itself. Shame on you for appearing to have a vested interest in keeping the low-income segregated from those of more means.”
Roberta Buchanan, the executive director of Howard Area Community Center, wrote back angrily. Her center’s job, she said, wasn’t to keep people poor but to help poor people better their conditions. She said that the community center had fought to close taverns that were centers of violence and drug dealing, had developed a prize-winning community garden, and even supported the Gateway Plaza development and the rehabilitation of the old Howard Theater building. She and her constituents also wanted a better neighborhood, she wrote, but one that had a place for the poor.
“We would welcome new housing opportunities for middle-income people in our community, but not at the expense of current residents,” she wrote. “With affordable housing disappearing and with the bottom twenty percent of Americans having a smaller portion of the economic pie than thirty years ago, the threat of displacement and relocation looms large on low-income households. In this context the fears of many low-income community residents are not unreasonable. For them gentrification is the enemy. To be displaced directly by the demolition of their apartments or indirectly by market forces raising rents to levels beyond their ability to pay makes little difference. No one wants to be involuntarily displaced. Moving and relocating is difficult enough for people with means, even when doing so willingly. To be pushed out, with scarce resources and nowhere to go, is a nightmare.”
Shana Walsh’s days and nights in the Van Dorn were filled with creeping shadows and hidden meanings. The lobby no longer felt safe to her; she came and went through the back door because she didn’t want to be confronted. She thought she saw people peering in her keyhole. Every conversation with everyone in the building became filled with menace. People who’d stopped coming to tenant meetings were “treacherous” or “traitors” to her, including Anita Diaz, who’d helped start the committee. At the same time, her personal life was getting more and more difficult to manage. She got no help at all with Kai anymore, and he was a full-time job by himself. As the situation in the building worsened, she could see her stress manifested in Kai. He was agitated and needy, more so than usual. He wasn’t sleeping as much as he should. She was surrounded by stink–from the carpet outside, from her kitchen, from the four animals she kept. It seemed to her that there would be no redemption.
Only David Washington held her steady. At times it seemed as though he was her only friend. She needed his calmness and reason, he needed her energy, and the other people in the building, he said, needed their help. So they went to work. They moved through the halls of the Van Dorn nearly every night, she with her round, freckled, nearly adolescent face, he in his dreadlocks bound up in a white knit-cloth cap. She’d make the first contact with people, something Washington was too shy to do himself, and whenever she got too excited he would tell her it was time to back away. Every night after canvassing they’d meet in her apartment and go over what they needed to do next.
The tenant council had solidified into a solid bunch that included Walsh, Washington, Mixon, and Clay. There was a tall, angular man named Robert Scott whom everyone in the building called Dog Man because he was often seen walking his 175-pound rottweiler through the lobby.
“You know I’m with you,” he’d say, pulling on the dog’s chain. “They’re not going to mess with me. They know who I am. They know. I know they know. They know.”
Bruce Reynolds and Tanya O’Neill also came every week. Reynolds had multiple sclerosis and walked on crutches. O’Neill suffered from several other physical disorders. They were worried that they’d get priced out.
The tenant council met in Walsh’s apartment on September 24 and everyone talked about what they’d learned. They agreed that on October 1 they’d meet in the lobby of the Van Dorn and invite Sklarov to hear their concerns. The time had come to confront him as a group. They could no longer be afraid, Walsh said. Everyone agreed.
“Whenever you’ve got more than one person in one place at a time, that’s a good thing.”
“Lucky that we all together. It’s better than individually.”
“It’s more important that we stand in union together than anything else.”
“Even if my apartment was good, I’m still gonna stand with you.”
“You stick by youself, you dead. If he’s got the gun and you give him the bullets, you’re shot.”
“Everybody in this room matters to me.”
The meeting prepared to break up. “Remember,” Washington said, “you stick with your people, your neighbors. Whatever happens here, we’re all neighbors.”
Walsh and Washington started knocking on doors early for the October 1 meeting. It was important they have a big turnout. They’d delivered a letter of invitation to Sklarov through Pam Taylor, the new building manager, and she said Sklarov told her that he’d be coming for sure. They were joined in their door knocking by Lawry Taylor, RPCAN’s community organizer.
“Lawry,” he enjoyed saying. “Like the seasoned salt.”
Taylor was brought up in Cabrini-Green. His father was an assistant precinct captain in the 42nd Ward under George Dunne, the all-powerful ward committeeman, and all his brothers were assistant precinct captains as well. Soon he also joined the ward organization and started his career. All through the 1980s, through his teens and during much of his 20s, he waited for a promotion, but high-ranking black officials were rare in the 42nd Ward. So he went where they weren’t so rare, to Danny Davis’s 29th Ward on the west side. Taylor coordinated 17 precincts for Davis and eventually moved into independent community organizing. He worked in Englewood and Lawndale for ACORN, and then for the Illinois New Party. Tobin hired him in July. RPCAN was Taylor’s best job yet, and the Van Dorn was his first real campaign for the organization. Taylor was ready to prove himself; he knew he had the stuff. Besides, he said, people really seemed to understand politics in this neighborhood, so he wasn’t starting from absolutely nowhere.
“When it comes to an organizer’s efforts,” he said, “Rogers Park is a dream come true.”
Walsh and Washington had met with Tobin on the morning of October 1, and they’d decided to come at Sklarov hard. The 14-day compliance period for the letters of complaint was up, with no repairs of any consequence having been made on their apartments. This meeting, Tobin told them, would be the definitive statement that the building was unified, and they had to force Sklarov to do something, either hand out long-term leases or make the repairs. As for legal action, Tobin had decided he wanted to try something new. He wanted to file a preemptive lawsuit against Sklarov, to sue him for the grief caused by his intimidation of tenants. That kind of suit had never been tried before in Illinois.
Tobin talked to someone at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, who said she wasn’t interested. Such a case would be almost too complicated to argue, the lawyer said, and even tougher to win. Tobin had it in mind anyway.
Washington was skeptical, but Walsh was getting excited at the prospect of any action at all. She said she felt like she was at Antioch again.
Tobin and Taylor came to the tenants’ meeting on October 1 with several other RPCAN people. They said they’d heard about the Van Dorn Tenant Council and how well it was doing in its organizing process. They had to see for themselves; successes were so rare in this business.
More than 20 tenants showed up for the meeting, and other people wandering through the lobby on errands stayed as well. Taylor had proved especially aggressive at knocking on doors. This was the best turnout yet.
Seven o’clock. Sklarov didn’t appear. The meeting began anyway. Walsh started things off by reading a letter that Rebia Mixon had written. It went over all the usual complaints and added that tenants were increasingly concerned about security. The building had hired a security guard in September but he’d lasted about three weeks, and now he told residents that he’d been “terminated” almost before his job even started. “This is our home,” Mixon wrote, “and we deserve better treatment. We deserve to be safe.”
Walsh tried to keep the meeting under control, but it was hard. Kai was screaming, “Ma! I wanna see my ma! Where’s my ma?”
She was going to have to excuse herself.
“Where’s my ma!”
Seven-fifteen. Seven-thirty. No Sklarov. It became clear to everyone that he wasn’t coming. Walsh introduced Tobin, who, she said, would “address problems in the building and in the neighborhood.”
Walsh and Kai went off to a corner and Tobin began to talk. He told the tenants that since they were on a committee, just about any rent increase that Sklarov tried on them at this point could be considered retaliation.
“The law assumes that if you came to a meeting, if you signed a petition, if you sent a letter, if you did any of those things, and then he said, ‘I’m not renewing your lease,’ then that’s retaliation. Same thing with increasing your rent. Unfortunately, rent increases are legal. We wish we had rent control, and that’s something we should fight for, but rent increases happen. But if he comes to you and says, ‘You’re messing around, I don’t like you anymore, I’m raising your rent,’ that’s retaliation. That’s illegal. He has to prove that any rent increase is legitimate, in line with a legitimate business reason, improvements in your apartment, or increased costs in the building. Being part of this tenant council makes you safer than not. Everybody that’s here today is in a better position than if you didn’t come to the meeting.”
Rebia Mixon spoke up. She said she was willing to fight for rent control in Illinois, “even if it took two or three years.”
David Washington said, “I’m sure that most of you agree that these apartments aren’t worth the rent you’re paying for them now. Just about every apartment has a problem in it. The fire escape doors are falling off their hinges. It’s very dangerous, and when they do make so-called repairs they leave them half-done. A lot of people have rotting bathrooms. When they do do repairs, pardon me saying this, but they do a half-assed job on them.”
A woman who’d never been to a meeting before had a question. Sklarov had told her he’d be raising her rent by $150 a month. He’d been making improvements on the lobby and on the outside of the building, he said, and he’d put on a new roof. These things cost money.
“They’re running us around in circles,” said the woman. “First I hear they’re not raising the rent. Then I hear they’re remodeling all the apartments. And then I hear they’re not remodeling any apartments, they’re just remodeling the whole building, but rent is still going up. I mean, they can remodel as much as they want, but if they’re not going to remodel the apartments why should we have to increase our rents? We’re not living out here in the lobby!”
The discussion went on for a while, and Tobin and Taylor, who by this time were in charge of the meeting, asked residents what they wanted to do next. They could withhold rent as a group. They could all demand leases. Or there was something else.
What did tenants think about driving out to Lake Forest, to an address that RPCAN had obtained for M.S.V. Management? They would go with picket signs to the address, which they assumed was Sklarov’s house, and inform his neighbors about what he’d been doing at the Van Dorn. Taylor asked for a quick show of hands to see if the residents approved. There. Then it was decided. Next Wednesday, October 8, they would meet in front of the Van Dorn and head up to Lake Forest in a van provided by RPCAN.
With that, the meeting ended.
Walsh and Washington were stunned. They had heard nothing about this idea beforehand; Tobin had never discussed it with them, and neither had Taylor. They thought it was an extremely sketchy proposal. After the meeting, Walsh went up to Tobin and asked him why they were going to picket the house.
Tobin didn’t pause.
“To shame Val,” he said.
The next morning, Walsh and Washington were pushing Kai down Sheridan Road in his stroller. They’d decided together that they’d have nothing to do with the van trip to Lake Forest.
“Some anarchists we turned out to be,” said Walsh.
“Yeah,” Washington said. “Fran, he out-anarchisted us both.”
Out-anarchisted. That was the only funny thing Walsh had heard since this whole mess started. She and Washington laughed all the way down the street.
Later that day, Walsh called RPCAN. She told Taylor that she and Washington needed to talk to him. Taylor told them to come in the next day at 10:30 AM.
“Are you sure you guys are going to be there?” Walsh asked. Taylor replied that everyone would because they had to clean the office.
The next morning Walsh and Washington were running a little late. At 11 AM, Walsh’s buzzer rang. Minutes later, Taylor was at her door.
“We’re concerned about this,” she said to him. “I don’t particularly agree with what’s going on here.”
Taylor tried to reassure them that the protest would be fine. “Let me go out and do my job and I’ll show you,” he said.
Walsh said she didn’t need to be reassured. The protest was a bad idea.
“Look,” Taylor said, “my whole life has changed because of this building.”
He showed her his date book. Every day for the next week, the only thing written was, “Canvass Van Dorn.”
“I didn’t have any of these written down before,” he said. “All these were free times before. Now look at this.”
Taylor came to the building every day that week, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon. Sometimes he would meet with Walsh and Washington, sometimes not.
“He got right on it,” Washington says. “He would knock on the door across the hall and talk to someone there, and then he’d bring them over here and say, ‘See, Dave. I found a new member.’ Then once when I was leaving Shana’s apartment, he was talking to Frank over in 311, and he said, ‘See Dave, meet Frank. You don’t have him.'”
“He was almost bringing them in by their ears,” says Walsh. “Like trophies.”
They asked Taylor what he was doing, why he was getting so aggressive with the tenants. He said they didn’t understand. Something big was going down in the neighborhood. He drew a diagram shaped like an octopus. There was a big circle in the middle and lots of tentacles, and little circles on the ends of those. Rogers Park, Taylor said, was the octopus and the Van Dorn was one of the suction cups on the ends of the tentacles.
Fine, Walsh said, but that didn’t explain why they were going out to Lake Forest.
“No offense, but I’m a professional activist,” Taylor said, “and I know better.”
“Wait a minute, I really disagree with you,” said Washington. “We’ve been going out and doing our thing, too, talking to people, and we had good results.”
Walsh was even more upset. “I understand the power of protest, I understand all that,” she said later. “But a lot of these people here are illegal, a lot of these people don’t speak English, a lot of these people are engaged in criminal activity. Let’s face it. And Lawry’s going around this week saying, ‘We’re prepared to get arrested. It’s our job.’ Sure, it’s your job to get arrested, maybe. It’s one thing for Fran, a white educated man who has a history of political activity, to be arrested. He’d be out in a minute. These other people, they’d check their records and see if they’re illegal. People don’t want to do that. They’re scaring potential members away.”
Walsh went down to RPCAN to talk to Tobin. He told her not to worry, that things had gone all right so far in the building. This was just part of the process, he said. She asked Tobin if he would talk to Taylor for them. He said he’d try but that he was pretty busy with other projects at the moment. He was trying to set up a citywide interest-bearing trust fund for security deposits. He had meetings on the south side. He was spread pretty thin.
Walsh and Washington felt deposed. Taylor was passing out RPCAN flyers urging tenants to come to the meeting. At the bottom they announced: “The Rogers Park Community Action Network (RPCAN) is made up of hundreds of dues-paying members in Rogers Park who work for decent, affordable housing, a sustainable economy and development without displacement. By joining RPCAN, members can decide which issues to work on and set priorities for action.”
Walsh had no idea what that meant, but it seemed that Taylor was setting the priorities for the Van Dorn, not the tenants. “What was all this focus before about how we’re helping you help yourselves?” she said. “Suddenly, it’s like, we’re helping you whether you want it or not. What’s going on here?”
Washington: “One of the things I hope we get out of this whole tenants’ thing is that we can treat each other more like neighbors. That’s how me and Shana approach people when we door-knock. We’re your neighbors. Let’s come together on this. It seems like RPCAN just looks at numbers. Soldiers to be mowed down on the battlefield. If that happens, then, well, that’s the way it goes. We can’t look at it like that.”
Walsh: “David and I have encountered so many people in the building that we didn’t even know existed. We’ve encountered so many people that are in need of just talking or some other human contact. They’re very isolated. They’re very poor. They’re living in very bad conditions and all these things.”
Washington: “And no telling who else is in the building with a fixed income or whatever.”
Walsh: “Right. We’ve encountered quite a few people who are a story unto themselves. As a matter of fact, we think this would be a great movie, this whole thing. Sure, it would be more efficient, I suppose, of us as leaders to say that we’re gonna cover half of the fourth floor by eight o’clock tonight. But humanity doesn’t allow for that. If you talk to somebody like an old lady who wants to sing you country songs that she remembers from when she was a girl, you don’t say, ‘Sorry, lady, don’t have time for that, gotta get next door.’ We’ve spent a lot of time and painstaking effort befriending people and trying to relate to them and trying to hear them and trying to help them. David and I, outside of the committee activity, have done a lot of things in this building just to help people lately. Helping them use a can opener. Bringing them clothes. Helping them move. All of us have met a lot of people in this endeavor and have tried to reach out with our hearts. Trying to make human contact with people.”
Meanwhile, Lawry Taylor was busy. He was tracking Sklarov down, trying to find out exactly where he lived.
RPCAN had obtained a list of properties that Sklarov owned. One was in Lake Forest, one in Des Plaines, another in Northbrook. On Monday, October 6, Taylor drove to Lake Forest to scout out the site. The address they had turned out to be a rental box. He decided to go to the Lake Forest city hall to talk to the police.
He entered the hall wearing a black beret, a tool belt, blue jeans, and a work shirt. He looked around, saw some wooden double doors, and pushed on through. He had walked into the middle of a Lake Forest City Council meeting.
Everyone else was wearing business clothes.
“That’s not to say I wasn’t looking good,” Taylor says. “I was looking good.”
The council members asked him who he was.
“My name is Lawry. I’m an organizer. I’m looking for a landlord named Val.” They had no idea what he was talking about and sent him to talk to the chief of police.
The chief told Taylor that even if he located Sklarov’s house he couldn’t picket, but he could pass out flyers to his neighbors. Taylor said that would be fine. He still wanted to find the house.
Early the next morning, he says, he called John You, the former owner of the Van Dorn.
“My name’s Lawry,” he said, “and I live out in Englewood on the south side of Chicago. I got some mail here that came to my mama’s house with three money orders in it that look like rent payments. One’s for $385. It looks like it’s addressed to a Val at the Van Dorn.”
“Throw it away!” You said. “I don’t know anything. Throw it away!”
He hung up.
Taylor didn’t actually have any checks. “It’s just a ploy that organizers use,” he said later. “You gotta beat them at their game.”
Five minutes later, he says, his phone rang. It was Sklarov, telling Lawry to stay off his property.
“I’m gonna be your worst nightmare,” Lawry replied.
Sklarov hung up.
When Taylor got to the RPCAN offices later that morning, he called You again. He says he gave You a choice. “You know where Val is. You had Val call my house this morning. Now either we’re going to come at your residence with an action or come at you legally unless you give me Val’s address.”
“I can’t cross Val!” You said. “I’ve got friends in that building. He shouldn’t be doing this to those people. I owned the building for 15 years. But I can’t do anything!”
That afternoon Taylor and Tobin were preparing materials for Alderman Moore’s community meeting about the North of Howard area.
The phone rang. Taylor answered. It was Sklarov.
“You’re the person who said you’re gonna be my worst nightmare, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Taylor said proudly.
“Listen, you’ve gotta stop calling around for me. It’s driving me crazy. What’s going on?”
Taylor says he went down the list. “Well, we’ve organized a tenants council in your Van Dorn Apartments. They’re disgruntled because you’ve been disrespecting them. You enter their apartments without proper notification. You wrongfully evict tenants. You intimidate them, you harass them, and you retaliate against them. And these people care about where they live. They obviously cannot afford to move into a nice place. They want their apartments fixed up. They invited you to a meeting. You blew them off. So we’re about ready to take our next step, which is an action out there where you live.”
“No, we didn’t blow them off. They didn’t give me proper notice.”
Sklarov said he couldn’t fix every apartment in 14 days. He said he’d been painting all the windows and he’d put on a new roof.
“I’ve only got four or five guys,” Sklarov said.
“Hey, man, you don’t tell this to these people. You need to talk to them. They’re the ones that live there and they care about their place. Talk to them.”
“You know,” Sklarov said, “some guy came up to me and told me to come to a meeting at six o’clock or seven o’clock in the evening. I got a wife and kids. I got responsibilities. I got work to do.”
“So you’re saying you blew these tenants off?”
“I didn’t even know when the meeting was!”
Taylor told Sklarov that RPCAN was sending out press releases and that he had reserved three buses for the protest in Lake Forest. Neither of those things was true, but Sklarov finally broke.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll meet with you.”
The meeting would take place at noon on Saturday, October 11, in the lobby of the Van Dorn. Taylor told Sklarov that he’d cancel the protest.
He proudly announced all this to the tenant council at a meeting on October 8. He bragged quite a bit. He said he’d facilitate the October 11 meeting with Sklarov, in case tenants were afraid of confronting him directly. He had decided on a plan. Tenants would put written questions in a bowler hat and Taylor would read those questions. Everyone else could remain anonymous if they wished.
Walsh still didn’t want to meet with Sklarov. She also didn’t want Taylor in charge and she couldn’t understand why he wanted them to hang in the background. She told Taylor later she’d go to the meeting but wouldn’t help plan it and wouldn’t participate.
“What do you think you’re doing, Lawry?” she asked.
“Shana,” Taylor said, “let me tell you a story. There was a man with some rats in his house. The city was supposed to be doing some exterminating in his neighborhood. The city said, ‘We’ve taken care of that. We’ve done it. The people in your neighborhood are just complaining about nothing.’ But the rats were still there. So somebody in the neighborhood told people to leave traps out at night. They caught all the rats and gathered them up all together.”
“OK,” Walsh said, “and they laid them on the steps of City Hall.”
“No, no, no, Shana. You’ve got it all wrong. They froze them. And then they laid them on the steps of City Hall!”
It was a beautiful, warm, cloudless day. The Van Dorn’s lobby was dark, smoke-filled, and foul, the last place anyone wanted to be. At about a quarter after noon, tenants began to trickle down into the lobby–Walsh and Washington, Mixon and Clay, Reynolds and O’Neill. Dog Man leaned menacingly on the back stairs. He said repairs had begun on his apartment. No one messed around with Dog Man and his dog.
“They know who I am,” he said. “They know I’m with you. They know.”
Taylor came in wearing a checkered beret. Tobin couldn’t make it to the meeting. He had to hold a workshop on the North of Howard proposal in the morning. Then he had something to go to on the south side.
Sklarov sat in his office with the door closed, surrounded by four other men. No one had any idea who they were.
More tenants gathered. The number reached about 20. Taylor started giving something that passed for a pep talk.
“Nobody can retaliate against you,” he said. “It’s against the law. The evidence is there. So this is what we wanted. We’ve got development coming into North of Howard Street. Everybody’s in a rush to put Italian marble in their lobby. Everybody wants to spruce up the building so the next three or four people that come through here will say, ‘Whoa.’ Now the rent’s gonna be seven hundred. For what? You pay for what you get. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it.
“We’ve come this far,” he said, “and it’s just about time for me to step out. Just about that time. A week from now I will be stepping out. Hopefully, I’ll just be coming in and helping the tenant council when it’s that time. Any questions? I’m not going to ask any questions myself. I’m not going to send any hat around with no sheet for people to write questions down.”
But wasn’t that the plan? Washington asked. Who’d made these decisions?
“That’s been discussed and decided on by us,” Taylor said. “You know that. We’re just going to let the people ask their own questions. I think questions definitely need to be asked about the repairs in our apartments.”
He turned to Washington. “So, Dave, you want to take over the meeting?”
Washington was furious; it was not the time to discuss this, in front of everybody. He’d just planned to stand off to the side. Besides, he had to leave early to go to work.
“No,” Washington said. “From what I understood at the last meeting we had, you were going to speak off the papers. Now you called this change.”
“I just changed it. I just changed it.”
“Yeah, but Lawry–”
“OK. So you want me to handle it?”
“Well, no one else is ready.”
“If you all want me to handle it–I mean, I think the questions have to come from the people. But I will handle it.”
“I have a question,” said Jackie Gandy, an RPCAN volunteer who’d come to the meeting. “Since Val is right there in the office, maybe he should be brought out–”
“We’re gonna bring him out in a minute,” said Taylor.
“Everybody with a question or a concern should state their concerns and let him respond to that.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s you or somebody else.”
“I’m gonna need people’s help on this, OK?” said Taylor. “‘Cause I can’t speak for nobody that needs their place patched.” A pause. No one responded to him. He craned his head toward the office.
“Val?” he said. “Val? Come out, come out. We’re ready!”
Sklarov emerged. He was backed by an older man with a handlebar mustache. This, tenants later learned, was Sklarov’s father. There was another man, ruddy-faced, veiny-nosed. He wore rose-tinted sunglasses, a black cowboy hat, and an open-neck Polo-style T-shirt. He was introduced as “one of the owners,” as was a younger man also wearing rose-tinted glasses. Also in the party was a short man in a striped business shirt who was introduced as Roger, the “new manager.” Pam Taylor, the previous new manager, had quit after three weeks. Roger scribbled notes onto a yellow pad throughout the meeting. Sklarov’s party stood behind the strip of weedy dirt that tenants called the ashtray. The tenants occupied the rest of the lobby.
Sklarov, who over a period of several weeks failed to respond to numerous attempts to reach him for this article, finally stood before the tenants.
They asked him directly about when he was going to replace the plumbing, when he was going to install a new intercom system, when he was going to fix their falling-in ceiling, why he’d been throwing people out of the building. Sklarov spoke at length, but didn’t answer any question specifically. He seemed defensive and possibly a little afraid.
“Most of you know that this building is under new ownership. This building has been under new ownership for two months. The previous owners owned this building for 18 years. And a few people have started getting on my case the third week after we took this building over. We don’t know the problems that existed in this building. Some of them we’re still finding out. This is an old building. We cannot make an old building be brand-new in two months. That is just not possible. It’s not reasonable.
“We are not responsible for the neglect of this building under the old ownership. We are not responsible for what has happened in the past. We are trying to do the best that we can to address these issues. These issues take time. It cannot happen overnight. We agree the apartments are in disrepair. Nobody is saying that they’re not in disrepair. Nobody is saying that nothing needs to get fixed. But we cannot fix everything in one week’s time. Some things in some apartments are beyond repair. The plumbing situation for example. We would have to level the building to put in whole new plumbing. It’s impossible to fix certain things. It’s absolutely impossible.”
Tenants hissed and booed.
“I am sorry,” one man said, “but I would not invest my money in anything that was in the condition that this building is in. And I would have to check things out.”
“Let me ask you a question,” said a tenant named Debbie Price, “Do you have enough money in your budget for plumbing?”
“Because the water in my kitchen doesn’t run.”
“Let me answer these things first. Then I will address your problems.”
Rebia Mixon asked why Sklarov had been “harassing” tenants.
“You guys have got to understand. You view it as harassment. We view it as look, we have a job to do. I have responsibilities to you people. And I have to collect the rent. We have to knock on your door. I have 80 people to deal with in this building. It’s not that easy to get everybody to come down at the beginning of the month when rents are due and to pay their rent. If rents weren’t abused, we wouldn’t be knocking on their doors. When people say, Oh, I’ll come down, and they don’t, I’ve gotta come knocking the next day.”
It was one o’clock. Washington had left the meeting to go to work. Walsh was standing off to the side, growing more and more frustrated. She was tired of hearing Sklarov dance around tenants’ questions, and she felt Taylor was giving him too much leeway.
“Shana’s raising her hand,” Taylor said. “I’m sure she wants to know about her stove.”
“No, no, no. I don’t want to know about the stove,” she said.
“You got your stove,” Sklarov said. “You got it this week.”
“I did, and I appreciate it very much. First of all, I want to talk about the issue of people being evicted. You said today it was five people. But you showed me a list of at least 20 or more people. I couldn’t get an exact count, Val, but those people were all on five-day notices. People are moving out left and right in this building, and you know that. And now you inform us that you want some time to examine the building for code violations? You already know this! You have code violations and lead citations! Those guys you have out there, that’s a superficial makeover! You have got to hire, to contract, an official lead-removal team, a professional lead-removal team. I had my window open for five days while they were painting the sills over!”
“Calm down. I cannot address all your points, OK? We have hired a private contractor in accordance with the law. We are inspecting the lead in the best possible way that we can within the windows. That’s the bottom line. They’re old windows, there’s lead paint in them. The contractor is supposed to scrape them and clean them, and that’s what they’re required to do.”
Walsh had tears in her eyes. She moved in toward Sklarov, her hands waving. She stood on the edge of the ashtray.
She said, “I find it very odd that you would take it upon yourself to complain that we’re jumping all over you. You’ve jumped all over us. You come in here guns raised, guns blazing, dropping five-day notices on people! John You, he was notorious, OK? He took money out of the building and didn’t put any money back in. However, people had ongoing, long-lasting verbal agreements with the former manager. Even before Chris, before that it was, ‘Hey, it’s OK that the water pressure is so bad that it takes me three hours to wash five dishes in the kitchen sink. It’s OK because, know what? You let me be a little late on the rent.’ This has always been a building for poor people, Val. This is a home for elderly people, this is a home for physically challenged people, this is a home for people with families, this is a home for people with fixed incomes. This has always–I’ve lived here 30 years on this very block–this has always been a shelter for people that are low-income. That is what this building is. And when you come in here and say we’re getting on your back, well, you’re getting on our back! Where are these people going to go, Val? Where are they going to go? Where are they going to go? You think you can throw people out for organizing? Harass them? One of the reasons we brought you here is to make you aware of the definition of retaliation. You think you can take my hand and say, ‘Sweetheart, you’re out! Two or three months, you’re out!’ Not because I’m behind in rent! Not because I’m a disruptful tenant! But because I’m on a tenants committee? What kind of a landlord are you?
“You messed up the system, Val. I’m not saying the system was perfect in this building. Somebody should clean this place up. But you come in here and start intimidating people and start harassing them? No! Of course we’re gonna start fighting back! You’d better believe it! We don’t like getting thrown out! We don’t like seeing Rashaan with a two-week-old baby sitting on the steps and all his stuff in the garbage Dumpsters. Do you know you threw away his schoolbooks, Val? Do you know that? Do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any idea? Do you know what you’re dealing with here? Do you know what you have here in this building? You’re messing with people’s lives! And you’re telling us that we have to be patient? Thank you very much. We won’t.”
The tenants exploded in applause. Sklarov and the other men stood silently, arms crossed. Bruce Reynolds stood up on his crutches and hobbled to the middle of the lobby. His face was a spasm of pain. He looked terrified.
“My name is Bruce E. Reynolds, and I’ve only lived here nine months. But I want to say three things. Number one is, you can’t disallow physically challenged people from this building on the basis of their income or anything else. I’ve heard in the past that you plan to kick people out who are disabled, that you plan to kick people out because they’re on SSI, that you plan to kick people out because they’re on welfare.”
“Not true,” said Sklarov. “That’s not true.”
“Everybody that lives in this building does not do bad things with their money!”
“That’s not true. Look, there are people that are starting malicious rumors intentionally. Everything you just said is absolutely not true.”
Reynolds was trembling. He raised his crutch and shook it at Sklarov.
“OK. Just as long as you know that Mr. Bruce E. Reynolds pays only for what works. I will not accept higher rent for the apartment I have now. And if you think you’re going to be able to bring a bunch of suits in here, you’re wrong! If you think Michael Jordan is going to come and live here, you are sadly mistaken! If you think any lawyers and architects with their fancy dogs have any interest in your building, you’re wrong! Nobody is going to pay $140,000 a year to live here. Nobody! This building is for folks like me and like us. If you want to improve the condition of the building, fine. But I plan to stay here for a long time!”
“There has never been any discrimination against any handicapped people,” Sklarov said. “There has never been one handicapped person that has come here in the last two months and applied to rent.”
Later, Tanya O’Neill asked Sklarov if he was doing anything to make the building wheelchair accessible. She said she had friends in wheelchairs who wanted to visit her but couldn’t because they couldn’t get down the front steps. Sklarov said they could enter through the alley.
Walsh stood in front of Sklarov again.
“Why are you asking people for their income source?” she asked.
“I have never done that,” he said.
“How many people here were asked what their income sources were? I was!”
“You asked me that!”
“Let me tell you something. If you’re behind in your rent, that is my business. You have to pay it.”
“That’s illegal, Val. You asked me. You asked me. We want leases, Val. Is that too much to ask? I want a lease. I’m a good tenant here. This is a way of you keeping people vulnerable. I want a lease. I want a lease.”
“By law we don’t have to do it,” Sklarov said. “We don’t have to do anything.”
The man in the black cowboy hat pushed Sklarov out of the way. He extended his hands to the tenants pleadingly.
“Look,” he said, “there’s only two races of people–the decent and the indecent. Remember that we are human beings, too. Why all the fighting? We have to get along. We can’t treat each other like this. Business is business, but we’re a family. I understand that you have your interests and Wall Street has its interests–”
The tenants went berserk at the mention of Wall Street. Taylor rolled his eyes.
“I meant money,” said Cowboy Hat. “I meant everybody with the money.”
“This is a business,” Sklarov said. “This isn’t public housing.”
It had been two hours, and the meeting was collapsing into chaos. Roger, the new manager, stood silently behind the ashtray, taking notes all the while. Taylor tried to calm everyone down, saying they had to come to “some sort of agreement.” Tenants yelled at Sklarov. They wanted the repairs and they wanted them now.
“We cannot bring a crew of 50 people here and try to blitzkrieg everyone’s apartment,” Sklarov said. “This takes time. We need time. We are human beings. We are not robots.”
The meeting disintegrated. Walsh went up to Sklarov and yelled in his face.
“I want a lease, Val! I want a lease! I want a lease!”
“We have a right to do anything to this building,” Sklarov said. “We can condo it if we want. We can turn it into a yuppie condo!”
Cowboy Hat walked among the tenants. He congratulated Reynolds and Walsh on their eloquence. “I shoulda listened to my college professor,” he said. “He told me, ‘Don’t be a businessman. Be a social worker. You’re too soft.’ This is terrible what’s going on here. We should be more like a family.”
He said he understood how tenants felt about the maintenance crew entering their apartments unannounced. After all, someone had recently broken into his locker at the health club. That had felt terrible.
“Then why are you treating us this way?” someone asked.
“Hey,” said Cowboy Hat, “we’re not hiring brain surgeons.”
With that, Sklarov and his team left the building. Taylor was wandering around, talking to the tenants that remained. This was his last stand in the Van Dorn, he promised. This was just about the last they’d see of him.
He went up to Walsh, who was still shaking, on the verge of crying. She didn’t want to talk to him. She thought he’d let the meeting slip completely out of control. This was their one shot at Sklarov, and they’d gotten nothing from him, no commitments, no apologies. Nothing.
“Now, I know that you’re not happy,” Taylor said.
“I’m really, really mad at you,” said Walsh.
“I know you’re mad at me, but don’t make me leave here thinking that you hate my guts,” he said. “Come here, I want you to do something for me.”
Taylor handed her an RPCAN membership form. He said he’d be coming around soon to collect her dues.
The Monday after the meeting, Sklarov called Alderman Moore’s office.
“I’m getting harassed by this tenants group,” Moore says Sklarov told him.
Moore was familiar with the situation at the Van Dorn. He told Sklarov that he should come to his office.
“They’re driving me crazy,” Sklarov said.
“Let’s make an appointment,” said Moore.
At Moore’s office, Sklarov said he was afraid the tenants were going to come out to the suburbs and firebomb his house. Moore assured him that was highly unlikely, but that they had the right to picket him if they wanted.
Moore told Sklarov that he had to make sure his building was up to code. Sklarov said he was doing the best he could. He also assured Moore that he wasn’t being discriminatory. The first four tenants he rented to were black, he said.
The alderman says he’s dealt with a lot of bad landlords and Sklarov doesn’t come close to being the worst. But he did urge Sklarov to fix the Van Dorn’s plumbing. Otherwise, he said, the tenants really would have a case. He said Sklarov seemed like a legitimate businessman just trying to bring his building up a little bit and charge “market rates” for rent.
In the last two years, the Van Dorn has been cited for 44 building code violations ranging from missing smoke detectors, rat infestation, bad lighting, and peeling paint to exposed electrical wiring and an improperly installed boiler-room door. The Van Dorn’s old ownership was scheduled to attend a Department of Buildings hearing about the violations on July 18. No one showed up. John You says he sold the building to Sklarov on July 26. The hearing is currently being rescheduled. Despite Sklarov’s protestations to the contrary, if a building with existing code violations is sold in Chicago, the new ownership inherits the violations with the building and is obligated by law to correct them.
Things were improving at the Van Dorn. Roger, the new building manager, was friendly to everyone. Washington, Mixon, and Walsh all started getting necessary repairs done on their apartments. Roger was posting signs all over the building. One read: “Sat., Oct. 18–Maintenance will be at each apartment to inventory storm windows. Please try and accommodate Mario between the hours of 12 PM-3 PM. Should you require an earlier visit please let the office know. Thank you, Roger.”
Mixon was satisfied. She was even hoping that RPCAN would give her work as an organizer. In mid-November RPCAN sent her to Springfield to attend a weekend conference sponsored by the Statewide Housing Action Coalition. Topics included housing advocacy, organizing to save public housing, and TIF reform.
“I would have never even heard of RPCAN if it hadn’t been for the problems going on in the building and us getting together,” Mixon said.
Anita Diaz, who had started the tenant council with Walsh, was finally evicted from her apartment. She and her four daughters moved in downstairs with a cousin, who was then threatened with eviction. Eight people, Sklarov said, was far too many to be living in a one-bedroom apartment.
Walsh and Washington were still restless. They were getting their repairs, but knew that other tenants weren’t. They wanted people to keep filing 14-day notices, to withhold rent, and to demand leases. Washington knocked on doors occasionally, quietly trying to press his points. But people in the building weren’t interested. The October 11 meeting with Sklarov had worn them out.
“People don’t know where to go now,” Walsh said. “They’re not sure if they scored a victory. They’re not sure what to do and who’s going to take them there.”
One day in late October Lawry Taylor walked over to the Van Dorn from the RPCAN offices. He wanted to give Walsh and Washington his copy of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. This book, he said, had taught him everything he needed to know about being an organizer.
Walsh wasn’t home. Taylor took the elevator up to Washington’s apartment. Washington was getting ready to go to work. The walls were covered with pictures of black musicians–Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Bessie Smith, McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk–and political figures like Lucy Parsons, Malcolm X, Geronimo. Taylor handed Washington Rules for Radicals.
In the book, Alinsky wrote, “The organizer will err far less by being himself than by engaging in ‘professional techniques’ when the people really know better. It shows respect for people to be honest….They are being treated as people and not guinea pigs being techniqued.”
“The book is about empowering the people,” Taylor said to Washington. “‘Cause empowering the people is where the organization is at. You tell me to jump and I say, ‘How high?'”
Washington squinted at him.
“Mm-hmm,” he said.
Taylor laughed, far too loudly.
“Just like that, huh?” said Washington.
“Well,” Taylor said, “give or take a few inches.”
Walsh repaired her rift with RPCAN. One Saturday night she and Tobin talked for hours at a joint on Jarvis Avenue called Don’s Coffee Club. For once Walsh didn’t bring Kai along, and Tobin was relieved. The kid had been driving him crazy.
Tobin apologized to her for not attending the meeting with Sklarov. He just had a lot going on, he said. He was concerned about the future of Rogers Park, he said, and she found she shared his worries. She told him what Taylor had been doing in the building, how they’d fought at the October 11 meeting. Tobin slumped down into his chair. He’d had no idea.
“We may have jumped on it a little too quickly,” he said later, “but it’s important for people to understand that their building’s not an island. Especially when what happens there is a function of what happens in the community. One of the difficult aspects of working with tenants is trying to link the very immediate stuff like ‘My ceiling’s falling in’ with the broader community issues and systemic campaigns. There’s a lot of groups that haven’t figured out how to do that. They just don’t do tenant organizing anymore, because it is hard. In a lot of groups, they found that they go in, they work on a building, they either win or lose, or they win partway, and then that’s the end. They haven’t built their organization in any way. They haven’t done anything.”
Walsh started spending nights at her parents’ house in Evanston. She was increasingly tempted to take Kai and move somewhere else, to start over. She was tired, very tired. She’d even been considering going back to Ohio.
The morning of November 4, Walsh went to Roger’s office to pay her rent. She says Roger wanted to talk.
“There are people who have been complaining about harassment by the committee,” he said. “Three people have complained to me, actually, and another person is on the verge of moving. We can’t have this kind of thing in the building.”
Roger said that people had been knocking on tenants’ doors at all hours, shoving flyers in their faces, yelling at them, and trying to get them to come to meetings. Walsh didn’t know what he was talking about. Since October 11 she and Washington had barely done any work on the tenant council. She told him that they’d mostly been meeting with the core members.
“Look,” Roger said, “if you want to meet with the people you’ve become friends with, that’s your business. But we don’t want you going and knocking on any new doors.”
Walsh was still confused. Then she thought: “Lawry.”
The evening before, Taylor had burst through the doors of the Van Dorn. He was walking a German shepherd on a leash. He was back, he said, because he had to inform tenants about an upcoming meeting of the North of Howard alternative task force.
Walsh told all this to Roger. She said it wasn’t the committee that had been knocking on doors. RPCAN was in the building now.
“This is about the Rogers Park area in general,” she said.
Roger rubbed his chin.
“Do you how many people in this building care about the Rogers Park area?” he said. “None. Fifty percent of the people in this building are Mexicans. All these people want to do is bus their tables, come home, and drink their beer. These people in the building, they don’t care. They don’t care about any of the committee stuff anymore. It’s over.”
Walsh didn’t feel like arguing anymore. For once, she walked away. Besides, she thought, Roger was right. Not about the Mexicans, but about the committee. Most of the people who’d been at that first meeting in August were gone from the building. They had been evicted or driven out, and those that remained were simply tired, herself included. Most of the people in the building had no idea about what had gone on even two months ago.
Mixon and Dog Man said they’d plan a building-wide coffee social on November 15. The day came, and only Walsh and Washington showed up. Dog Man told Walsh he’d forgotten. Mixon said that she was done with the committee; the repairs had been made in her apartment and she was satisfied.
The original committee had disappeared, so Walsh and Washington went about recruiting new members. They got six people to file 14-day letters. Then she and Washington received five-day notices, because, management said, they hadn’t been paying “full rent.” Two months before, Walsh had deducted $15 from a rent check in lieu of repairs. She went downstairs to complain to Roger.
“Val wants his $15,” Roger said.
“It’s a trivial amount meant to make a statement,” said Walsh.
Roger said he was just following Sklarov’s orders. Washington hung back and told Walsh to ignore the notice. It would serve as more proof against management if tenants took the building to court.
On Saturday, November 22, Walsh came home to find a notice posted on her door. It had been handwritten by Sklarov. He said she’d been refusing maintenance crews entry to her apartment. They were coming in a couple of days whether she was there to open the door or not.
She went to Roger’s office to complain. He refused to schedule a specific time with her because, he said, she wouldn’t be home anyway.
“You and your RPCAN friends will just wave it in my face if I don’t show up,” he said. “Just go home and leave me alone!”
“I am home, Roger,” Walsh said. “You go home. You heard me. According to you, we’re all just crack whores, prostitutes, and uninformed morons in this building who don’t deserve to be treated with basic respect.”
“No,” Roger said. “That’s just the second floor.”
Roger began circulating a petition in the Van Dorn to bar any member of RPCAN from entering the building again. The petition also stated that the tenants wanted to disband the tenant council. Walsh says Roger was “aggressively pursuing” tenants to sign.
The day after Thanksgiving, notes were slipped under Walsh’s and Washington’s doors. “Please take notice that you are hereby required within 30 days to remove from and deliver up possession of the above described premises which you currently hold and occupy,” the notes said. “This notice is intended to notify you that your month-to-month tenancy will be expiring on December 31, 1997, and should you fail to comply, legal proceedings will be instituted against you.”
It was early in the morning. Mike was asleep and Walsh was taking care of Kai. She says she ran down to the office in her pajamas, tears streaming down her face. Roger and Mario were there.
“What the hell is going on?” she screamed. “This is because of my committee activity. This is illegal!”
“No, this has nothing to do with your committee activities,” Roger said.
“Then what does it have to do with, Roger?”
“Your neighbors have been complaining about you guys knocking on their doors and disturbing them.”
He showed her a clause in the landlord-tenant ordinance. It said that the landlord reserves the right to evict a disruptive tenant.
“I dare you, Roger, to get one person that lives in this building to stand up before a judge and say, under oath, that I have disturbed them. Because it’s bullshit. You can’t do it.” Walsh says she lost her temper and began crying.
“Where are you from?” she screamed. “Why don’t you go back to where you’re from? You don’t know what you’re doing! You’re the one who has to go to sleep at night with your own conscience, even if you’re able to let it roll off you right now. How can you do it?”
Walsh says Roger sat dumbfounded as she berated him for nearly an hour. After a while he stopped responding. Later, Walsh realized she’d made a mistake. She should have taken the news calmly, as Washington had. But that wasn’t her way.
The next day she called Tobin and told him what had happened. He told her that everything was going to be OK. They would file a countersuit alleging retaliation.
“This was the response we were expecting,” Tobin says, though he’s still looking for a lawyer to take the case. “It’s going to take a bunch of suits and countersuits. They’ll allege that Shana wouldn’t let them into her apartment, which to some extent is true, but we’ll have plenty to fight back with. We need to figure out what our capacity is. This is going to be big.”
Walsh and Washington typed up a new flyer to distribute to potential members of the tenant committee. They were not going to quit.
“We have much more to do if we want to live in a safe, secure and pleasant environment,” they wrote. “There is strength in numbers, so the more we all work together, the more we can accomplish. We don’t have to put up with being bullied by the people we rent from.”
The next tenant council meeting, they said, was coming soon.
Walsh says, “They can’t just dismiss an entire group of people’s needs as rumblings in the shanties or something. People like Val can’t treat us like peasants, like dirt. And for the first time in my privileged little educated white-girl existence, I’m in a disempowered position myself. I’m an unemployed single mother, which makes me fight all the harder. I just want for people like the people in the Van Dorn to know that they have minds and voices and hearts too. It’s not just that they can handle the situation if they have to relocate. They deserve to stay in this building if they want. It may not always happen, but once in a while people like this are going to put up a fight.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Randy Tunnell.