By Ben Joravsky

There still may be some gray beards somewhere who remember Lincoln Park in the old days, before the rush began. That would have been at least 30 years ago, when yuppies were hippies and the notion of spending lots of cash to live in a tiny box was laughable. Now it seems as though every inch of land, no matter how narrow, is being outfitted with skinny townhouses or condos–slivers they call them–dropped between buildings and selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

The latest absurdity is rising at 938 W. Willow: a two-unit apartment building wedged between another building and the el on a cramped 15-foot lot. The rooms will be no wider than 10 or 12 feet, the views will be of an alley, a fence, a brick building, and the tracks of the el, which rumbles by day and night.

Most observers figure each one-bedroom unit will fetch at least $1,000 monthly in rent–such is the lure of Lincoln Park.

“I think we’ve gone beyond the point of lunacy here–it’s less than a sliver, it’s a shaving,” says Ronald Litke, a friend of mine who lives in the condo building that’s about 18 inches from the new building. “Next thing they’ll be converting potholes here into condos. If this keeps up I’m going to sell the air rights over my parking spot, which may be a little bigger than the building next door.”

The mystery man or woman behind this project–unknown even to local officials–could not be reached for comment. “I would rather not tell you the name of the owner,” says Eduardo Proenza, the architect who designed the building. “I’m not sure the owner would want that.”

The sliver’s being built on what was once a vacant lot piled high with debris. Four years ago Litke and his fellow condo owners cleared away the garbage, installed a fence on the Willow end, laid some sod, and planted a garden, turning the dump into a mini park–a site for barbecues, dog walkers, and even games of touch football.

“We didn’t own the land–we never knew who did–but since no one was using it, we didn’t think people would mind if we fixed it up,” says Judy Sickle, who lives above Litke. “It was a little piece of green in the city, not a big deal to anyone except the people who live around here.”

A few years ago a For Sale sign went up on the fence. “We called the real estate agent and they said they were asking $75,000,” says Litke. “I laughed and said, ‘We’ll give you $20,000.’ Then they laughed at me.”

Last spring the sign finally came down, suggesting the land had been sold. And in December a construction crew came to clear away the grass and garden and to dig the hole for the new building’s foundation.

“We jumped when we saw them. We had no idea they were coming,” says Sickle. “It’s not an auspicious way to develop a relationship with the people you’re building on top of. You’d think they’d call us or notify us before they showed up with the shovels.”

Unable to discover who owned the land, Sickle phoned the contractor, an excitable fellow named Jim. “He was the contractor from hell–a real screamer, like dealing with a bad lawyer. Every other word was ‘motherfucker.’ I wanted to know if he had insurance, was he bonded, who was the owner. And he would say, ‘I don’t have to tell you a motherfuckin’ thing.'”

But Sickle was persistent. “They were building this within inches of our house–they were driving over our parking lot to dig up the garden we had planted. I wanted to know what was going on. For a while I was calling Jim every day and he’d come to the phone and start screaming. So I started screaming just to keep up. And after a while I realized this wasn’t getting anywhere.”

Meanwhile, Litke and Jim were having face-to-face confrontations on the site. “I’d see him when I went out to walk my dog,” says Litke. “I told him that I used to work for the city and I knew the rules.” He told Jim to stay at least 1.7 feet from the property line. “And he said he had a zoning variance and could build right up to my line if he wanted. So I called the alderman’s office, and they directed me to Florenzio in the buildings department. And he looked everything up and he said, ‘They don’t have any variance.'”

On the day in early January when Jim’s crew came to pour the foundation, the city dispatched an inspector to make sure the plot line was not exceeded. “It was a matter of inches, and I was measuring,” says Litke. “The lot’s 25 feet, but the CTA has a ten-foot easement on either side of its tracks. That means they have about 14 feet to work with, and once you’re done with closets, studs, the outer brick, you’re talking maybe 12 feet of living space. Look, I know what it’s like to live in a start-up apartment. I used to live in a studio so small I called it a parking space. But at least it wasn’t under the el.”

Proenza says the building will be more beautiful than its critics expect. “It’s not as narrow as it looks. It has a nice flow.”

He has no doubt the units will be rented, and maybe one day converted into condos. The area’s overflowing with commercial and residential development (four nearby strip malls built within the last few years)–a trend that shows no signs of abating.

There may be a larger cautionary message buried within this tale about the perversity of private enterprise in which two or three select neighborhoods gorge on development while so many others starve. But why digress?

“It was such a nice little yard,” says Sickle, “and everyone will miss it, but I guess we’re resigned to our fate. You should hear me and Jim on the phone these days. We’re great pals–at least we don’t scream as much. The other day he called to say they had poured the foundation: ‘Did you see that [back fill], isn’t it great?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Jim, wonderful.’ He said, ‘You know, we ought to have a beer sometime.’ Oh God, please.

“Listen, there’s nothing I can do. If someone wants to live in a dark box filled with noise and without sunlight, it’s not my problem.”

Building Jobs For Women

The Chicago Women in Trades report on women in the workplace came out a few weeks ago, and the news was good, but not good enough.

The number of women carpenters, electricians, pipe fitters, sprinkler fitters, sheet-metal workers, elevator constructors, ironworkers, bricklayers, masons, plumbers, and operating engineers is growing on the few construction sites that actively seek women workers. But overall the rate of women in the trades remains low–about 2.1 percent.

“We’re trying to change attitudes and assumptions about who works where,” says Laurie Wessman LeBreton, a writer-researcher who helped prepare the report. “These are good jobs, and no one should be left out.”

Chicago Women in Trades examined hiring statistics at four publicly funded projects in Chicago and two in other cities. The best hiring rate was on a bridge-construction project in Portland, Maine, in which women made up 9 percent of the workforce. In contrast, the female labor force for such local projects as the new post office, a juvenile detention center, McCormick Place, and Cook County Jail was no higher than about 5.5 percent. “These are real good numbers for the Chicago area, but what we discovered is that if you set high goals and have resources to recruit women, then you’ll have more women on the job,” says LeBreton. “That was especially the case in Portland, where they had a goal of 15 percent as well as advantages that other sites don’t have. They started planning way before construction began. They had full-time affirmative-action staff on site. They had child care. OK, they didn’t make that 15 percent goal, but by setting higher standards they did better than anyone else.”

And why should anyone care whether women are employed in the trades? “Because women bring something to these jobs–there’s creativity and talent that would otherwise not develop,” says LeBreton. “Because so many households are headed by women and they need access to these jobs. About two-thirds of new entrants in the labor force by 2000 will be women and minorities. For the construction industry to prosper, women and minorities will have to be included. Besides, it’s just fair.”

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