Put to Rest by the River

When the city unveiled its new Vietnam veterans memorial on Veterans Day, Mayor Daley did something he rarely does–admitted he’d been wrong.

Daley didn’t come right out and say, “Boy, did I goof. What were we thinking?” The country’s most powerful mayor isn’t known to back down (two cases in point: tearing up Meigs Field and, more recently, the proposed CTA station at Block 37). But when it came to the veterans memorial he had to make a few concessions.

A triangular plaza on the Chicago River below Wacker Drive between Wabash and State, the new memorial is a little like Millennium Park: it took more trouble, time (two years), and money ($4.3 million) to build than expected. But now that it’s finished, I’m glad it’s here. I appreciate the greenery. And I found it moving to stand by the river, away from the hubbub of the streets above, and hear the fountain’s murmur while reading the names of the 3,000 or so Illinois residents who died in the war, etched in black granite.

The new memorial replaces another one, a white granite fountain that used to stand near Lorado Taft’s statue of George Washington and two other Revolutionary War heroes in Heald Square, a small plaza in the middle of Wacker Drive between State and Wabash. Unveiled on Veterans Day in 1982, it was one of the first memorials of its kind in the nation. According to a Tribune account from November 12, 1982, Mayor Byrne dedicated it while hundreds of vets and their families stood in a driving rain. The ceremony opened with an invocation by Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and concluded when Byrne “placed in the fountain a time capsule containing the names of the Chicago-area servicemen who died in the war and a letter from President Reagan commending the city for remembering the war veterans.”

Over the years the Vietnam Veterans Against the War held their annual Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies at the fountain. “It was sacred ground for us,” says Barry Romo, a VVAW founder who served as an army commander in Vietnam. But the city threw it away in 2001, when Heald Square was demolished during the Wacker Drive reconstruction project. When Wacker reopened in 2003 the Taft statue had been given a new home in a small plaza on the northwest corner of Wacker and Wabash. But the memorial fountain had been broken into pieces, and city officials were forced to admit that they didn’t know where the pieces were. The time capsule still hasn’t been found. Romo and Byrne suspected that the city had discarded the fountain for the pettiest of reasons: it was Byrne’s baby. Embarrassed by VVAW protests and the surrounding publicity (much of it in the Reader) the city promised to include remnants of the old fountain in the new memorial.

To its credit, City Hall kept its word. A chunk of the old fountain rests on a plot of grass in the new memorial near a plaque that reads, “This memorial is dedicated to all veterans of the Armed Forces who served in Vietnam. It replaces the former memorial and reflection pool located on Wacker Drive that had been dedicated by Mayor Jane M. Byrne on November 11, 1982.”

Many veterans have praised the new memorial, but Romo has mixed feelings. He’s glad the city built it, and he’s proud his group’s protests embarrassed the city into acknowledging the old memorial’s significance. But he misses the old location. It was out in the open where it couldn’t be avoided–or, more precisely, where he and his shaggy-headed brothers couldn’t be avoided when they assembled to remember the old war and protest the new one. “I liked being in the middle of the street,” he says. “Drivers had to slow down when we had our ceremonies. For one moment they had to think about the vets.”

Since the city hauled away the old memorial, Romo and his comrades have held their Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies next to the Taft statue. This Veterans Day was no different, though they delayed their start until the city had finished its dedication. (They didn’t have much choice–a police officer had politely informed Romo that they’d be arrested if they disrupted the main event.) They waited while hundreds of vets, Vietnamese refugees bearing the flag of the old South Vietnamese republic, and political dignitaries gathered. Every speaker thanked Mayor Daley for the memorial and Daley, in turn, thanked the veterans who served. Then he raised his voice to make his next point clear. “It’s appropriate today that I thank Mayor Jane M. Byrne,” he said. “The first memorial was on Wacker Drive.”

When he mentioned Byrne, a few old-time political observers in the crowd exchanged looks of disbelief. Byrne was recovering from surgery and couldn’t attend. But her daughter, Kathy Byrne, thanked Daley for inviting her mother to the ceremony.

After the city’s program ended, Romo and about a dozen allies held their own ceremony in front of 100 or so people. Standing next to Taft’s statue beneath a banner that read honor the warrior, not the war, Romo spoke loudly to be heard above the rumble of traffic. “We used to hold our event in the center of the road,” he said. “But the city took our memorial apart and then lost it. Chicago was not only the first city to have a Vietnam memorial to vets. We’re also the first city to lose a memorial.” He went on to blast the Bush administration for cutting veteran benefits and introduced Dave Adams and Cody Camacho, two young veterans just back from Iraq, who spoke about the horrors of that war. When the speeches had ended, everyone vowed to return to the same spot on Memorial Day.

Lost in the Mail

As everyone knows, being alderman has its privileges. But apparently getting timely delivery of Cook County property tax bills isn’t one of them. Like dozens of residents from the northwest side zip code 60618, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell didn’t receive his second-installment property tax bill until November 1–the day it was due.

Mell managed to pay on time, but only because he paid online. He wasn’t alone. “I got my bill on November 1, just like Mell,” says Irwin Blumensaadt. “I asked my mailman about it, and he said there was a whole block of people he was delivering to. We were definitely not alone.”

Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas says her office estimates that about 770 property tax bills in zip code 60618 weren’t delivered on time. She says the bills were initially sent out out at the end of September. By early October her office was getting anxious calls from people wondering where they were.

Pappas blames the snafu on the post office. “It was a delivery problem,” she says. “I don’t know how many of those people from that area were late in paying. We’re looking into that.” Post office spokesman Tim Ratliff says his office is investigating to determine exactly what went wrong. Whatever the case, Pappas says her office sent out a second bill to residents. That’s the one that Mell and Blumensaadt received on November 1. “We had 1.7 million mailing–that’s how many property tax bills we send out,” says Pappas. “They only messed up on 772. That’s a pretty good record.”

The bad news for property taxpayers is that there’s no excuse for not paying on time. “You have to pay your property tax, no matter what,” says Andrea Raila, a property tax consultant. “That’s the law.”

Even if you never get your bill?

“Yes, if the mailman fails to deliver the bill that’s no reason for the taxpayer to fail to pay. Even if the tax bill never arrives at his door, a taxpayer has sole responsibility to be aware that he’s going to get billed twice a year. You have to know that they go out sometime in the spring and sometime in the fall. And you have to pay.”

The county slaps a 1.5 percent fine on your bill for every month that you’re late, according to the treasurer’s office. Ultimately, a delinquent payer can lose his property in a county auction. “I know there’s a tendency to think, ‘Oh, I didn’t get my bill, I’m home free,'” says Raila. “But it’s only wishful thinking.”

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