In a saner, less hostile political world there wouldn’t even be a discussion about the ragged, junk-filled road in Uptown that runs from Montrose to Irving Park behind Graceland Cemetery and beneath the Howard Street el. City officials would have blocked that road off years ago and turned it into a park filled with trees and grass.

Alas, this is Chicago. So the movement for a park has been consumed with a petty political struggle. So the road, which runs through the 46th Ward, most likely will wind up as a parking lot for the Chicago Cubs. Each side says it’s the other side’s fault.

“I think there are people trying to make this a political issue when it’s not,” says 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller.

“Helen’s reacting in a political way,” counters Mike Quigley, a former aide to 44th Ward Alderman Bernie Hansen and a leader of the movement against lights in Wrigley Field. He only moved to the 46th Ward a year ago, but he’s already Shiller’s all-but-announced challenger for the 1991 aldermanic election.

The debate goes back to 1984, when members of the East Graceland Organization–a block club consisting mostly of residents along Kenmore Avenue, the street just east of the el tracks–first proposed converting the road into a park. It seemed like a good idea. The unpaved, 85-foot-wide roadway had become a favorite site for fly dumpers; stolen cars were stripped, burned, and left there. Clumps of tangled weeds grew under the el tracks.

“We weren’t asking for anything fancy,” says Judy Glazebrook, a member of the East Graceland Organization. “We wanted the road blocked off so cars couldn’t be junked there. And we wanted a little landscaping.”

In those days Jerome Orbach was the ward’s alderman. He promised residents he would use his clout with City Council majority leader Eddie Vrdolyak to have the city block the road off. But days turned into months, and the abandoned cars and litter remained. In 1987 Shiller defeated Orbach, and then, East Graceland members say, the real logjam began.

“We met with Shiller, and told her what we wanted done,” says Joe Cain, the group’s president. “She said, ‘Get some petitions signed.’ We got 500 signatures. Then she said, ‘Hold a town-hall meeting.’ We scheduled two meetings. Each time she canceled. We got frustrated with her after that.”

Shiller tells a different story. From the start, she says, she has cooperated with the group and even ordered city crews to trim the grass and remove the trash–including some unsightly railroad ties–that cluttered the road. “That road was never cleaned until I became alderman. I got the Department of Streets and Sanitation to do it–it cost about $200,000. As for making it a park, I told the East Graceland people that I had no problem with that as long as most of the residents in the area agreed. My problem is that I’m too into process. The broader picture is to make democracy work, and I want all the people involved.”

To meet this goal, Shiller divided her ward into nine zones, which were represented by zoning advisory boards of 11 constituents. The proposed park falls into zone three. Shiller says any delay in building the park resulted from the failure of East Graceland’s members to cooperate with the zone-three board.

“Helen sends all zoning proposals to us, and we send out a questionnaire to residents in the immediate area, asking them what they think about the proposal,” says Romelle Moore-Robinson, convener of the zone-three board. “We do what the community wants, and Helen follows our recommendation. It’s all about getting people involved in your community. I don’t see how anyone can be against that.”

Indeed, it is a little baffling that Shiller has so upset members of the Graceland group. True, she’s a longtime friend and ally of Slim Coleman–a political operator who comes off as an arrogant snob. But it’s unfair to blame Shiller for the faults of the company she keeps. By most accounts, she is affable and hardworking, available to any constituent who seeks her assistance. Most likely the rancor has to do with struggles larger than the park. Uptown–once among the city’s poorest communities–is slowly becoming more affluent as middle-class home owners and renters move in and the poor are forced out. Shiller has vowed to prevent displacement and provide affordable housing. To some residents such goals are akin to trying to keep the neighborhood a slum. So many East Graceland members seem to believe Shiller has been blocking their park because she feels it would gentrify the area.

“Helen says that she’s been circulating questionnaires to residents on Kenmore. But as far as I could tell, she only had them circulated to residents in the low-income multiunit buildings,” says Joe Scaglione, an East Graceland member. “I believe that Helen is against the park because she feels it will cause rents to go up. If that happens, she’ll lose her constituency.”

Shiller denies both accusations. “We did our best to circulate questionnaires to all residents near the proposed park. We’ve had more than 130 responses,” she says. “In addition, I have never ever linked the park to gentrification. That’s stupid. What, poor people aren’t supposed to have parks? I would love to see a park there–if the residents want it. This notion that I’m against yuppies is ridiculous. I’m not even sure I know what people mean when they use that term. I don’t like to use labels, because I’ve been the victim of labels so much myself.”

That’s where the matter stood earlier this summer when the Cubs came along with their proposal to pave the road and turn it into a lot for 450 cars. Donald Grenesko, the Tribune Company executive who runs the Cubs, would not comment. But the proposal he outlined in a meeting before the zone-three board also calls for part of the land to be set aside as open space.

“Our big question about the park proposal has always been who would pay for it,” says Moore-Robinson. “Sure, a park would be nice–but the city is strapped for funds, and the state hasn’t offered to pay for it. Meanwhile, the Cubs have offered to pay for all the expenses of their parking lot. And they would renovate nearby Buena Park, which is in bad shape. I know the Cubs have not always been good neighbors. But we have an obligation to at least consider their proposal.”

The fact that Moore-Robinson–and Shiller–did not immediately denounce the Cubs’ parking-lot proposal was news, since the team has long been at war with local politicians over the issue of lights in Wrigley Field. “Shiller appeared to hint this week that she’s leaning toward backing the plan, despite opposition from some residents who instead want a park there,” was how a Lerner newspaper reporter interpreted the matter in an August 5 article.

Outraged East Graceland members circulated copies of that article–along with a notice saying, “Alderman Shiller wants to turn over our park to the Cubs for parking”–and called for a meeting. To their shock, Shiller attended.

“I told them that the newspaper story was inaccurate, that I was not supporting the parking lot,” says Shiller. “I told them that the Cubs proposal–like the park proposal–was before the zoning committee. I told them that I would support the park, if the zoning committee would support it. And that the zoning committee might support it, if they could say how the park was going to be funded.”

“The meeting was tense,” says Scaglione. “As I recall, someone called her a liar. This issue has dragged on for too long.”

It promises to drag on longer, even though both sides say they’d prefer a park. Quigley says the state will put up half the $400,000 needed to build the park if the city puts up the other half. But it’s doubtful the city will provide the cash, unless Shiller publicly backs East Graceland’s proposal. And Shiller won’t do that without the approval of her zone committee, which is waiting for more information from the East Graceland Organization, whose members say they’ve had enough of Shiller and her zone committee.

“It’s a joke,” says Cain. “We told that committee that the funding is contingent on Shiller’s support, and yet they keep asking us to tell them how the park can be funded. They’re just delaying because they don’t want the park.”

The stalemate favors the Cubs, since it would be hard for the city to deny the Cubs’ proposal–which costs taxpayers nothing–in the face of such chaos. No doubt the parking lot, when and if it’s built, will be a leading issue in the Shiller-Quigley showdown in 1991. In fact, many East Graceland Organization members–including Cain, Glazebrook, and Scaglione–began their preparations for that race with a recent “Dump Shiller Party and Fundraiser.”

“Rock ‘N’ Roll to tunes like these from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s,” read the invitation, which went on to link various political figures to hit songs. “The Great Pretender (Helen Shiller) . . . Good Vibrations (Mike Quigley) . . . Sixteen Tons (Harold Washington) . . . Help! (The 46th Ward).”

“The party was not my idea, and I had nothing to do with it,” says Quigley. “I haven’t decided whether I will run, and that’s not the issue. The park is the issue. I live right behind where that parking lot would go, and I think it would be horrible if we allowed it to be built. There are already too many parking lots around here. As an environmentalist, I’m committed to preserving open space.”

The parking lot, of course, is only one of several developments earmarked for Uptown. If the trend continues, more town houses, high rises, strip malls, and parking lots–each tackier than the next–will sprout, until the area is as disfigured, congested, and overbuilt as Lincoln Park. Such a prospect cannot make Shiller or her opponents happy, but perhaps they’re too busy fighting to notice.

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