By David Harrell

Park number 504 in the south-side neighborhood of Oakland has been years in the making. The western half of the park, which straddles Cottage Grove between Pershing Road and Oakwood Boulevard, is still a desolate trash-strewn lot with a few rusty, hoopless basketball backboards. The eastern half is starting to look like a park–saplings have been planted, and part of a bike path has been laid. When completed, the park will have tennis and basketball courts, baseball diamonds, a playground, and perhaps an area for outdoor concerts.

The park exists largely because of a handful of activists, most of whom belong to the North Kenwood-Oakland Conservation Community Council. The CCC was appointed by Mayor Daley in 1991 to represent the community and oversee land use in the newly created North Kenwood-Oakland conservation district. The group pushed for more park space in the area, especially after the city announced plans to redesign Pershing and Oakwood, creating enough space for a park between the two streets. The activists also helped design the park, a process that’s taken six years.

“It’s not like I was personally out there with my shovel or out there with my T square and my triangles actually drawing it,” says Eric Stackhouse, an architect who’s a member of the CCC. “It was reviewing the plans, it was seeing how the roads were laying out, it was going to meetings with the Department of Transportation, planning how we wanted traffic patterns to operate. They’re bringing us revision after revision, and we’re looking at it and saying, ‘Yes, but this could be like this–and could we do that?'”

The CCC members and the other activists were so consumed with designing the park that they hadn’t given much thought to naming it–until last year, when they met Marguerite Brown. The 88-year-old Brown had been trying to get something named in honor of her son Henry “Mandrake” Brown, who died in 1996. She’d tried to get a city ordinance named after him, only to be told that wasn’t allowed. Then someone told her a new park was being built in the neighborhood and suggested she try to have it named Mandrake Park.

Mandrake Brown had grown up in Oakland, though he later moved to the north side. He didn’t drink or smoke, and he disliked all advertising of “booze and butts,” says his longtime friend Ron Harris. He especially disliked the liquor and cigarette billboards that riddled black neighborhoods, particularly those placed near schools and parks, where children saw them daily. “His conviction came from knowing these were death-dealing substances,” Harris says. “He saw it as a war upon his culture.”

In the late 80s Brown, then a court reporter in his 50s, began going out at night armed with a bucket of white paint and a long-handled roller and painting over the offending billboards. He called it “blackwashing.”

Harris and other friends sometimes accompanied Brown on his missions. “One night we went all the way down Madison and did about 25 billboards,” Harris recalls. “We were Robin Hoods. People would see us doing this sometimes and say, ‘Right on, man!'”

Using the pseudonym Mandrake–the name of a 1940s comic-book magician who specialized in making things disappear–Brown began calling and writing the companies that put up the billboards, demanding that they remove them. He also called local talk-radio programs to publicize his cause. As he garnered support, he founded the Citywide Coalition Against Tobacco and Alcohol Billboards as well as the National Association of African-Americans for Positive Imagery.

CCATAB used zoning laws to remove some 700 billboards. It also helped stop the marketing of a high-octane malt liquor, as well as Uptown and X cigarettes, which had been introduced to coincide with the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. The blackwashing tactic soon began to be used in other cities, including New York, Detroit, and Dallas.

Brown’s body was found in the Chicago River on September 23, 1996. Police said they found no sign of foul play. His campaign continued, and his ideas helped shape the City Council’s ordinance prohibiting the advertising of alcohol and cigarettes within 500 feet of churches and schools.

Marguerite Brown took the idea of naming the park after her son to the alderman of the Fourth Ward, Toni Preckwinkle, who remembers telling Brown to “come to our meetings and work with the people in the neighborhood.” She meant the CCC, the block clubs, and the other groups who’d been involved in developing the park.

Brown attended a few of the meetings last summer and concluded that no one was in any hurry to name the park. So, she says, “I went on and did what I had to do.”

She and the Coalition in Remembrance of Mandrake–an ad hoc group that includes radio commentator Lu Palmer–collected 601 signatures from citizens all over Chicago who supported naming the park after Mandrake, including Dempsey Travis, South Shore Bank chairman Milton Davis, Judge Eugene Pincham, Chicago Housing Authority CEO Phillip Jackson, and Alderman Ed Burke. Last August the coalition gave the petitions to the Park District.

When the members of the CCC and other neighborhood groups found out that the Park District was considering naming the park after Mandrake they felt betrayed. They assumed that after putting in so much work they’d at least have a say in its naming. “I feel like it’s the child I created,” says Stackhouse, “and these people from outside swooped in at the last minute and named it.” Preckwinkle agrees. “They short-circuited the process.”

But Brown says she had no idea that the other groups had intended to submit a name. “They did not tell me they were working on anything.”

Shirley Newsome, chairman of the CCC, says they hadn’t addressed the matter, but they had intended to eventually. She points out that last summer they were preoccupied with other matters–the park was still on the drawing board, and the Park District was asking the community for suggestions about what should be included. And she says the neighborhood groups had first wanted to form a citizens’ advisory council, which would then consider names.

Preckwinkle, who serves on the City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, is upset that a public facility in her own ward might have been named without anyone bothering to tell her. She first learned about the Mandrake proposal when she overheard a conversation at a grocery store. “It’s nuts,” she says. “They don’t notify elected officials, who are the people most likely to have a handle on who are the bona fide community groups. If they had informed me, I’d have informed the community immediately.”

Park District superintendent David Doig says his agency has a policy of sending an alderman a list of proposed names for a project. “I don’t know specifically if she got it, but it is our practice.”

According to its own regulations, the Park District must also inform the public by notifying the advisory councils of neighboring parks and by posting public notices at the nearest park’s field house. Then it must allow 45 days for comment. Early last fall it posted notices about the park.

But Preckwinkle and members of the community groups say they only later discovered a poster that had been placed in the field house at Kennicott Park, the regular meeting place for the CCC and other community groups. And they say it was located near a second-floor office, even though most public activities occur on the first floor. Park District southeast region manager Arnold Randall admits that there were “oversights” and that “more could have been done” to inform the public.

Preckwinkle and the community groups asked Park District Board of Commissioners president Michael Scott for time to weigh in, and Scott agreed to hold off on making a decision. The groups knew they had to draft their own proposal and circulate a petition, but they were still helping to finalize the park’s layout and the holidays were approaching. Assuming the process had been put on hold indefinitely, they waited until early January to ask members of local block clubs, public-housing groups, development groups, churches, and other area residents for ideas. In less than a week they’d built a consensus around the name Oakland Park.

“Everyone knows where Hyde Park is, everyone knows where Kenwood is, but nobody knows there’s a community called Oakland,” says Kristin Eckberg, a member of the CCC and vice chairman of Oakland Planning and Development, the group that came up with the Oakland Park name. “We thought this was going to be a great opportunity to represent our community.”

Oakland was once called Cleaverville, a company town that had been founded by industrialist Charles Cleaver in 1851. Its first settlers were employees of his lard-rendering and soap factories. In the 1860s Cleaverville was swallowed up by the newly incorporated town of Hyde Park and the city of Chicago, but it stayed a distinct neighborhood, thanks to real estate promoters, who renamed it Oakland.

As 39th Street was the border dividing dry Hyde Park from Chicago, it wasn’t long before the area around 39th and Cottage Grove–the future location of the park–had numerous liquor stores and drinking establishments. One building straddled the border, with the Hyde Park half serving as a pool hall, the Chicago half as a saloon. Over the years the neighborhood changed from white working class to black and white but segregated to poor and black. Thirty-ninth and Cottage Grove became notorious for its drug dealers and users, but in the last two decades, renewal efforts took root. A neighborhood development corporation was founded, and in the early 90s parts of Oakland and neighboring Kenwood were declared a conservation area.

Newsome says the community groups chose the name Oakland Park for a specific reason. “Our focus is on the historical significance,” she says. “We felt the park should have a historical name.”

The community groups submitted their proposal and 832 hastily gathered signatures to the Park District on January 27. Preckwinkle told officials that the name Oakland Park would give “an important boost to community morale, and it is an attractive name with important connotations.” Diann Bishop, president of the real estate development company RE.N.U., wrote the Park District that the name Oakland Park would suit a soon-to-be “world-class neighborhood.”

Members of the community groups showed up at the February 9 board meeting prepared to argue their case–only to see the board approve the name Mandrake Park. When they asked why, they were told that they’d missed the 45-day deadline. “Had we known there was some sort of deadline,” says Eckberg, “we would have acted more quickly.”

“So we missed a deadline by two weeks or whatever,” Stackhouse says. “Big deal–it took us seven years to build the darn thing.”

But Conrad Worrill, a Mandrake backer who teaches at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies, which is next door to the park, isn’t impressed with what the community activists did. “All they did was go to meetings. We all do that.” He also says that a park belongs to all citizens, not just those who live nearby or those who helped develop it.

“I can’t get excited about something named Oakland,” says Lu Palmer. “Oakland means nothing to me. Mandrake was fighting tobacco and liquor. The man was a warrior against drugs. And this neighborhood, at one time, was a drug haven. It all fits.” He says that the first billboard Brown attacked was near Pershing and Cottage Grove–the very intersection where the new park will be. And he charges that the Oakland Park supporters “don’t want the name that has meaning to black folks.”

Newsome says she and the other community activists have nothing against Mandrake or what he stood for. “That’s a nonissue,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I’ve talked to in this community didn’t even know who Mandrake was.” Stackhouse says that he and the others only want to integrate the community racially and socioeconomically “so there’s a place for everyone.”

Worrill counters that the Mandrake campaign is about black self-determination, not integration. “Look at all the institutions named after white people in this town, after things nobody knows anything about,” he says. “Isn’t there any parity in the naming process? Do they want to have it all?” Then he expands his complaint, charging that the current redevelopment of the area is part of a deliberate plan by white real estate interests–which he claims are represented by Preckwinkle and the “Mayor Daley-ites” in the CCC–to take back the neighborhood from poor blacks. He says the developers are winning, and he cites the demolition of public-housing units, the relocation of former residents to scattered-site housing, and the rapid construction of new houses and town homes–though he does acknowledge that many of the area’s black residents have abandoned the area voluntarily.

The community activists readily admit that they’re excited about the redevelopment of their neighborhood. “This is going to be a huge hot spot,” says Eckberg. “It’s one of the last nondeveloped lakefront properties in the city.”

Marguerite Brown is unhappy about the feud she started. “Had I known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gotten into it.”

Despite the board’s February 9 decision, the community groups haven’t given up. At the request of the Park District’s Michael Scott and commissioner Margaret Burroughs, the recently formed advisory council has been trying to craft a name acceptable to both sides. Among the suggestions are Mandrake-Oakland Park and Mandrake Park: Gateway to the Oakland Community.

Lu Palmer says that no one from the Park District has spoken to the Mandrake group about resolving the issue. “There’s no compromise,” he says. “So far as we’re concerned, the park has been named.”

Stackhouse doesn’t seem any happier with the idea of compromising, but he accepts that it’s the only way to end the conflict. “At least we’ve got the cake–we may not have the icing we want on it, but we do have a cake,” he says. “I think the same people who were involved in creating the park will be the people helping to maintain the park. I just hope [the controversy] doesn’t deter people from getting involved. We’ve got a lot more work to do in this community.”

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