If you were to ask people what’s the most interesting thing happening on the near west side, chances are most of them would say “Da Bulls.” The reigning champs are sitting pretty atop the NBA and scalpers are hawking tickets for two to three times their cost. In recent weeks, extra police details have been assigned to traffic duty around the Chicago Stadium, as legions of rowdy fans have turned the area around Ashland and Madison into a free-for-all.

But an even more interesting story is unfolding just blocks away. On the southwest corner of Jackson and Hoyne, less than a mile southwest of the stadium, an attractive row of redbrick two-flats has just gone up. Several identical units are around the corner at Jackson and Leavitt. The units are new housing for six home owners being displaced by the new Chicago Stadium, which started construction Monday.

“Brand-new homes and construction crews are everyday life in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park,” says Earnest Gates, a local businessman and community organizer. “But on this side of town, whenever something’s built, it’s usually big news. And this is a mega-news story.”

What makes this a “mega-news story” is the fact that the new housing was paid for by the developers of the new stadium, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Blackhawks owner and major near-west-side landholder William Wirtz. Three years ago Wirtz and Reinsdorf formed a partnership called the Metropolitan Chicago Stadium Joint Venture to secure financing for the new stadium and lobby the city and state for legislation to help them build it.

Most of the initial interest in the new stadium centered around the fact that it was to be privately financed, unlike most similar projects of recent years–the new White Sox park, for example, or the McCormick Place additions. The state is kicking in about $20 million for infrastructure improvements; the other $170 million or so is being underwritten by an international loan syndication. The Chicago Sun-Times ran a front-page story a month ago announcing that Wirtz and company had secured all the necessary financing. Reporter Fran Spielman also noted that the deal had been held up for several years by “haggling” with the several dozen residents who would be displaced by the stadium and the huge parking lots that would accompany it.

The “haggling” was a two-year struggle by a community that was determined to chart its own destiny–and by anyone’s account, they’ve done exactly that. As the result of an agreement between the Stadium Joint Venture and a near-west-side church-based community group called the Interfaith Organizing Project, construction of the stadium was delayed until adequate replacement housing could be built for the six home owners being displaced. They moved into their new homes March 20.

“We didn’t want to see on the west side what happened with the residents of South Armour Square,” says Gates, IOP’s vice president. He’s referring to the 1989 arrangement between the Metropolitan Fair & Exposition Authority and the near-south-side community being displaced by the new White Sox park, the agreement in which residents were forced to surrender their homes and move into “temporary” housing for a year and a half.

Wirtz and Reinsdorf, on the other hand, not only agreed to provide new homes for the displaced residents but made a series of other concessions to them as well: the costs of their move were underwritten by the Joint Venture, and they’re receiving $2,000 bonus checks on top of that (home owners choosing to “cash out,” on the other hand, will receive fair market value plus $30,000); also, a special fund was established to subsidize any increase in property taxes residents of the new two-flats might have to pay. “We didn’t want to leave our house, but at least we’re being treated with some respect,” remarks one of the resettled home owners, Rachel Moore, who has lived in her two-flat on the 1900 block of Monroe since 1946. “If it wasn’t for IOP, our community wouldn’t have gotten anything.”

Along with the allowances made to the resettled home owners, the stadium developers were forced (“I prefer the word ‘convinced,'” Reinsdorf says) to make far-reaching commitments to redeveloping the entire neighborhood. The developers convinced Walgreen’s to build a new drugstore on Madison–no small feat in a neighborhood where the only commercial activity is a few liquor stores and a currency exchange. And free parking is being given to the half dozen churches located near the new stadium.

The city is also party to the agreement. A new park adjacent to Cregier High School, located near Jackson and Western, is in the planning stages. “Our understanding is that the Park District has committed the funds, and is in the process of surveying the land,” says Pat Dowell Cerasoli, the city’s deputy commissioner of planning and development. Another proviso in the agreement–one Cerasoli says is still being “ironed out”–calls for a new public library branch, something the community group has been lobbying for since its incorporation in 1985. At present, the community’s closest library is the new Harold Washington Library Center at State and Van Buren. “That’s two or three miles away,” points out Gates.

But the most important feature of the agreement, all sides point out, is that the Joint Venture is pledged to grant a $600,000 zero-interest loan to IOP to build 75 new houses in the same area as the new two-flats. “It’s in our best interests to see that this neighborhood looks good and attracts people and money,” says Reinsdorf. “Right now, you don’t have that. The neighborhood looks as if it’s falling down, and the deal we reached with the community will hopefully prevent that.”

The area along Madison west of Halsted–where the near west side officially starts–resembles a scene from Mad Max or 1945 Berlin more than anything else: in the two and a half miles between Halsted and Western, there are very few stores and many abandoned buildings and vacant lots. A survey by the Department of Planning and Development shows that more than 55 percent of the housing between Ashland and Western, Lake and the Eisenhower was built before World War II, and that more units have been vacated or demolished than built in the past ten years. More than 80 percent of the residents are renters, and a disproportionate number live in several huge public-housing developments such as the Henry Horner complex, near Lake and Wood (just blocks from the site of the new stadium), or the Rockwell Homes, near Western and Van Buren.

More than 80 percent of the neighborhood’s home owners are elderly, and most renters are younger people, many of them single women with children. 1990 census estimates put 60 percent of the household incomes at less than $15,000 per year. Virtually everyone is black.

“We’re struggling to survive,” says Deather Simmons, who with her husband Joe has owned a pair of three-flats in the 1900 block of Washington since 1951. Theirs is the only structure left on the block, which is primarily an unpaved parking lot across the street from the Chicago Stadium. Part of the “second phase” of displaced home owners, Simmons’s family will move in September to make way for a new parking facility.

IOP is already getting input from architects and builders on the 75 new houses that will go up in the area between Damen and Western and between Lake and the Eisenhower; the group is calling this new model community the “Better Alternative Area.” The area has seen patches of redevelopment in the past several years; Gates has spent the last six years buying several abandoned and dilapidated buildings on his block at Leavitt and Van Buren, the same block where he was born 40 years ago. He’s not a speculator–he has rehabbed the buildings and rented units for reasonable rates to several families. “I wanted to bring the block back to how I remembered it as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s,” he says. Gates’s lead has prompted several neighbors to do likewise, and now a number of homes within a four- to six-block radius are sporting new coats of paint, better landscaping, or more extensive renovations. But the only housing that’s been built within the borders of IOP’s Better Alternative Area in the past 16 years–besides the brand-new two-flats–are several private housing developments that went up near Damen and Jackson between 1977 and 1980.

The Stadium Joint Venture’s pledge to invest in the community is not being taken for granted by either side. The developers and IOP have a firm contract, and everything has been meticulously footnoted by teams of lawyers. The Joint Venture’s promised loan for the Better Alternative Area development is backed up by a strong deterrent: construction of the stadium can be enjoined by IOP if the developers fail to deposit the housing-development funds in an escrow account, and the stadium developers waive any bond IOP would normally have to post to get such an injunction. “Moreover, the Stadium Joint Venture will have to compensate IOP for their legal costs,” says Edwin Dunn, a lawyer at Baker & McKenzie who helped draft the accords. “It’s really a very powerful agreement.”

Observers have called the IOP-Stadium Joint Venture pact unprecedented. “It’s really the first time in this city that a private developer has extended such a partnership to the neighboring community,” says Robert Mier, who’s on the urban-planning faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mier says the agreement “might be a model for future redevelopment in the inner cities. The history of urban renewal in this city–especially on the west side–has not been very positive for the local residents.” He points to the construction of the UIC campus, Malcom X College, and the mammoth medical center complex that includes Cook County, Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s, and the University of Illinois hospitals as “particularly onerous examples of massive dislocation of the poor and elderly.”

But IOP probably never would have been able to wrangle such a deal if it hadn’t proved itself a formidable opponent with another developer in yet another sports-related deal–one that would have put a new football stadium in IOP territory.

This story starts in May 1986, when state representative John Cullerton introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would have allowed the Illinois Medical Center Commission–a quasi-governmental body that oversees land use around the medical center complex–to expand its boundaries. The commission was seeking to regulate the area north of the Eisenhower and as far west as Western, a substantial increase from its statutory boundaries.

“It was a land grab, pure and simple,” says Reverend Arthur Griffin, who has been pastor of the First Baptist Congregational Church at Ashland and Washington since 1957. “There was no discussion, no hearings, nothing.” The only reason the community learned of it, Griffin says, is that the cousin of one of the members of his congregation worked in Springfield.

In 1985 Griffin had been elected president of IOP, then just starting up. The group “had a phone and desk in the church basement, and a mandate–take back the community,” says Ed Shurna, IOP’s executive director. Griffin and other local pastors whipped their congregations into a frenzy over the bill, and Shurna began organizing community residents against the medical center’s expansion.

Cullerton was invited to a community hearing at First Baptist in September 1986, and about 1,000 local residents turned out for it. Cullerton was clearly shaken and vowed to kill the bill, which he later did (he told a Tribune reporter that he had “had the best interests of the community in mind” and wondered why “everyone got upset”). “West-siders were just tired of people coming into their community with grand plans,” recalls Gates, who, though he hadn’t yet heard of IOP, knew of Griffin and had called friends and relatives to come to the hearing.

At around the same time that Cullerton proposed his bill, officials from UIC and Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s began thinking about building a new stadium for the Chicago Bears on the west side, in an area that would have been (surprise!) under the jurisdiction of the Medical Center Commission were Cullerton’s bill to pass. Architectural plans were developed that called for razing 12 city blocks and displacing about 2,000 people. The plans were underwritten by Bill Wirtz, who owned much of the land the Medical Center Commission was trying to gain control of. The plans remained secret through most of 1987.

Even the city was kept in the dark. According to one official who was high up in Harold Washington’s administration, “A banker that we had good ties with came to us and said that this stadium was something that [Bears owner Michael] McCaskey had been interested in, and that the near west side might be a good site. We didn’t sign on, and just said we’d think about it. Months later we learned that [Cullerton’s bill] had been introduced.”

McCaskey had been whining in public since early 1985 that his team needed a new stadium–Soldier Field’s infrastructure was poor, and 70 percent of its seats were in the end zone. Was McCaskey behind the Rush-UIC plan? “We certainly think so,” says Earnest Gates. In any case, after Cullerton’s bill was killed in the fall of 1986, the whining turned to ultimatum: McCaskey threatened to leave the city unless he got a new stadium. (McCaskey was phoned several times for this article, but he failed to return calls.)

By late 1986, the city was actively looking for somewhere to park McCaskey’s 75,000-seat stadium. According to Robert Mier, who was then the city’s economic development commissioner, their top choice was on the lakefront, just south of the Bears’ current home at Soldier Field. Mier says Washington “was very committed to putting a stadium on the lake,” but it never came to pass. Several open-space groups–Friends of the Park, for one–were vehemently opposed to the concept, and Governor Thompson, responding to the pressure, nixed the idea.

But the plot thickens. After the lakefront stadium plan was killed, Alderman Wallace Davis, who represented the near west side, arranged a meeting with the mayor’s office to ask that the stadium be placed in his community, saying it would bring jobs to the area. With him was Nancy Jefferson, whose west-side community organization, the Midwest Community Council, had been a presence there since 1946. According to two people at the meeting, Davis (who later went to jail for sticking his hand in the Operation Incubator cookie jar) and Jefferson said they had been approached by Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s. The mayor said he’d look into it.

In January and February of 1987, a number of newspaper reports suggested that the city was considering a near-west-side site, although McCaskey was still not publicly committed to it. “That neighborhood is too dangerous,” he told a reporter, saying his suburban fans might be “scared” to watch their sport near public housing projects. Later he said he was interested in the west-side site “only if the whole area is developed,” meaning he wanted to level more blocks than the Rush-UIC plan called for.

“That was what we feared the medical center expansion was all about,” Reverend Griffin says. “The community was livid.” IOP organized more than 1,000 residents to storm a hearing of the mayor’s stadium-review committee in April 1987, and from then on it was “a David versus Goliath battle,” Griffin says.

Gates hooked up with Griffin at a hearing at Malcom X College, where the city and the Bears were unveiling a new artist’s rendering for the stadium and the community. (“My block was a little green spot,” Gates says. “What the hell was the green spot supposed to be?”) Twenty blocks would be razed and 1,500 people moved–all with no input from the residents. At that meeting, Griffin and others affiliated with IOP tore down the drawings and model. “I thought they were a crazy group of people,” Gates recalls. “But they were on the right track.”

From 1987 to 1989, IOP was the primary reason the Bears never came to the west side. The group organized several marches in front of McCaskey’s home in Winnetka and traveled to Platteville, Wisconsin, to confront him at the Bears’ summer training camp. The group suffered its losses: Griffin was accosted by neighborhood thugs a few times, and Gates’s trucking business lost a number of clients (one of whom was Mike McCaskey’s neighbor). But “the lowest point was the McCarron articles,” says Gates, referring to the series of articles on “a new breed of community organizers” by John McCarron in the Tribune in September 1988. The articles viciously attacked Griffin and Gates and opined that the development would bring jobs to the community (“We never made that claim,” Rob Mier notes). The articles suggested that Gates and Griffin opposed the stadium for financial reasons–saying that the reverend’s brother owned some tax-delinquent land in the stadium zone (he did) and that Gates was a “speculator.” McCarron also made considerable issue of the fact that Gates has a Mercedes Benz, although he neglected to mention that it was 11 years old and didn’t run.

West-siders saw it as the height of arrogance that McCaskey never once came to their community to hear their input. “It was like we didn’t exist, like we were less than zero,” Gates says. Why was McCaskey so arrogant? “Don’t ask me,” says Bill Wirtz. Says Reinsdorf, “Maybe there was a day when you could waltz into a community with designs, but that’s not going to work. We didn’t want to do battle with the neighborhood–you never win those.”

The Bears stadium plan died quietly. By early 1989 Wirtz and Reinsdorf were thinking about their own new stadium, and McCaskey had not yet reached a deal with Wirtz on how parking revenues from Wirtz-owned land would be distributed. Instead McCaskey had gone to Springfield to try to cut a deal with Governor Thompson behind Wirtz’s back. Wirtz’s lobbyists stymied the deal.

It was then that Wirtz and Reinsdorf approached IOP. Handling the day-to-day negotiations of the Stadium Joint Venture is Howard Pizer, a corporate attorney who says he was surprised at how “businesslike” IOP was. IOP pushed a 16-point plan for neighborhood recovery–one aspect being the redevelopment of the Better Alternative Area. “We told them that they could play ball in our community, but under our terms,” Griffin says.

Negotiations went from May 1989 to May 1991, with more than a few ups and downs. The stadium developers and the city tried on several occasions to cut IOP out of the process. Home owners in the area, impressed that IOP had been successful in keeping the Bears at bay, refused to deal with anyone but IOP.

“It was a growing experience for all of us,” Reinsdorf says. “It took us a little time to learn that IOP spoke for the neighborhood. Basically because all of the residents refused to talk with us. Now we’re all partners in this together.”

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