By Ted Kleine
Senator Jesse Helms–who stands as far to the right as Alderman Helen Shiller does to the left–once said, “The other side could nominate Mortimer Snerd and he’d get 45 percent of the vote.”
That’s true in Shiller’s 46th Ward too. In 1995, as an incumbent running for her third term, Shiller won 57 percent of the vote against committeeman Bob Kuzas, a machine tool with no grassroots support. It was considered a landslide, at least by Uptown standards. When she first took the seat in 1987, Shiller beat Alderman Jerome Orbach by only 498 votes, or a margin of 2 percent.
Since then, the 46th Ward City Council race has been a quadrennial class war. Half the voters think their alderman is Saint Helen of the Slums, a champion against greedy developers who want to bulldoze battered women’s shelters and replace them with luxury town homes. The other half think she’s the commissar of the People’s Republic of Uptown, a crabby hippie whose socialist ideals might be considered quaint if they didn’t result in homeless people peeing on the front lawns of Buena Park mansions.
Today the “independent movement” is Shiller voting “no” when Mayor Daley’s budget passes 49-1. Her detractors say she’s an anachronism, no matter how hard she tries to adjust to the upwardly-mobile character of her ward. “She hasn’t been the same since the Berlin Wall collapsed,” one joked.
“I think she’s still dedicated to her notions, which, I think, unfortunately don’t work,” says Joe Cain, a member of Buena Park Neighbors, a group composed mainly of home owners. “The ideas of the 60s don’t work, or else we would be in the workers’ paradise, or the Soviet Union would still be here.”
Douglas Henshaw, who’s rented on the north side for 33 years, thinks Shiller’s only crime has been preserving affordable housing, thereby forcing the well-to-do to live alongside “poor” folks like himself. If Shiller loses her upcoming runoff election, he foresees a “developers’ holiday,” a real estate pogrom that will drive the renters out to Logan Square or up to Rogers Park, or wherever it is poor people shuffle off to when their $500-a-month apartments turn condo.
Among renters like Henshaw, there’s great paranoia about a breed they call the Newcomers, a horde of young urban adventurers boiling up out of Lakeview in search of cheaper rents and condos on the Red Line.
“Young people with so much money, fancy cars, Bahama tans,” Henshaw says. “There’s a new influx of them every year. They come here to find a lover, find a husband, stay here until they get some experience, then move back to the suburbs. It’s ‘Well, Mary, Joe, Jane, Dick, and Harry, why don’t you go up to the lakefront and find out a little bit about life?'”
Longtime residents say the Newcomers can’t appreciate what “Helen” (nobody calls her Alderman Shiller) has done for Uptown, how she’s repaved the streets and repaired the backed-up sewers. The Newcomers weren’t living in Uptown when it was a drug-infested ghetto.
“If you’ve been around a long time, you’ve seen what crime we had,” says Tomas Bissonnette, owner of the Spanish Speaking Bookstore on Broadway and a resident of Uptown for more than 20 years. “We used to have shootings, break-ins. It certainly is better.”
Bissonnette is a home owner who considers his property “not a way of making money, but a place to live.” He thinks those Newcomers looking to double their money in the real estate market will be disappointed with Shiller.
“The people who are moving in looking to make a killing…they’re not going to like Helen,” he says. “The spokesman for one of the groups said that one of his goals in life is to get all the poor people out of the ward. Helen has said that everybody has a right to live here, and she has said that poor people have a right to decent housing.”
Just about anyplace else, a politician perceived as a menace to rising property values would have been exiled long ago. But Shiller is still popular in Uptown, if not universally loved. In the February 23 election, she won 49 percent of the vote, missing an outright victory by just 88 ballots out of the more than 11,000 cast. On April 13, she’ll face the runner-up, Democratic committeeman Sandra Reed, a black schoolteacher from a poor family, who provides the “Anybody but Helen” faction with an unanticipated trump card–they can now safely claim their opposition is not about race or class.
For years the press has been writing the same story about the 46th Ward: “Can Helen Shiller hang on against the rising tide of middle-class home owners invading her ward?” And every four years she squeezes past another challenger. The latest version of this story goes like this: “Will she ever lose?”
A few weeks ago, Shiller drove around Uptown on what was, for her, a nostalgic tour. She and her husband, the late Marc Zalkin, moved here in 1972, and hooked up with Walter “Slim” Coleman, a radical community organizer who was looking for young urban guerrillas to fight the war on poverty. Shiller was 24, a middle-class Jewish girl with an infant son. Uptown was a slum of cruddy apartment buildings chopped up into tiny units populated largely by Appalachian whites who’d fled their coal mining towns for the big city–the people Merle Haggard sang about in “Sidewalks of Chicago.” As a member of Coleman’s Heart of Uptown Coalition, Shiller would spend the next 15 years committing quiet acts of revolution: she started a health clinic, taught GED classes, organized tenant patrols to thwart the arson-for-profit rings that were burning up the neighborhood, and founded a printing company–Justice Graphics–that published the populist street journal All Chicago City News.
Shiller noses her 1990 Toyota out of the parking lot behind her office on Broadway and drives around the corner to Montrose. As she buzzes west on Montrose, under a stoplight she’d had installed a few years ago, she points at the sidewalks. Shiller’s obsessed with sidewalks. Sewers and pavement too. Most aldermen are, but for Shiller maintaining these fundamental trusts carries a moral obligation. A pothole can wreck a car and prevent a struggling single mother from getting to work. Her ward may be not be wealthy, but it deserves the same public works as Lincoln Park and the Loop. That’s justice, isn’t it?
“When I became alderman you couldn’t walk down the sidewalks on either side of the street,” she says. “They were torn up everywhere. I actually figured it out. I’ve had 35 miles’ worth of sidewalks replaced. It’s important to me. My husband had MS, and he was in a wheelchair, so whenever I went out with him it used to drive me nuts, because a crack was a big deal. So I have a thing about sidewalks.”
Shiller, who grew up on Long Island, speaks in a New York accent leavened only slightly by years in the midwest. Her job title still sometimes comes out as “awl-da-man.”
On the 4400 block of Malden, the Toyota comes to a halt. This is Shiller’s block. She’s rented the same three-bedroom apartment since 1975. During her starving activist days, she shared it with roommates, but now she lives here alone. She says she has no philosophical objection to owning property–her parents were home owners–but an alderman has a bruising schedule, so she likes having a landlord to fix any problems with the plumbing or the windows. And even though she’s rooted in Uptown, the “free spirit” in her still likes the thought that she could pick up and move any day.
A few doors down from Shiller’s building is a neat gray house, one of the low-income scattered-site units the Chicago Housing Authority has plunked down throughout the ward, with Shiller’s encouragement.
“This is where I went to jail,” she says.
In 1988 a group of protesters camped out on the lot to complain that the CHA had set aside the land for public housing but let it lie empty for eight years. When the police threatened to arrest the demonstrators, Shiller decided to get in on the act of civil disobedience, making her one of the few aldermen ever to be jailed for something besides graft.
“I went over there to let them arrest me to make the point that this was public land, designated for housing, that people were living on it, and only because they hadn’t done anything before,” she says. “It was successful, because we got the housing. I spent about two minutes in jail. They dropped the charges. I wanted to go to court. I thought it was great. I was all ready for it, because it was an opportunity to talk about housing issues.”
Shiller was so proud of the bust that she framed a copy of the Tribune’s write-up and hung it on the wall of her aldermanic office. It was the first and only time she’d been arrested, but nonetheless “there were all sorts of people waiting with bated breath, thinking, ‘Now we get her fingerprints and get her real history.'”
Many of Shiller’s constituents are weary of what they’ve come to see as her endless effort to pack the ward with low-income housing. They point to Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes as examples of what happens when too many poor people live in one place. Shiller accepts developments other aldermen don’t want, they say, and she does it to ensure that the 46th Ward will always have plenty of poor people who will vote for her every four years. It’s earned her an ugly nickname. During a candidates’ forum at Graeme Stewart School, businessman Larry Ligas–a former Shiller supporter who described himself as a “campaign strategist” for Sandra Reed–marched in front of the building with a sign that read “Dethrone the Queen of the Poverty Pimps.”
“We think that Uptown in general has enough [low-income] housing that it should be placed elsewhere,” says Michael Pavilon, president of the Uptown Chicago Commission, a consortium of block clubs that’s been at odds with Shiller ever since she tried to cut off its city funding in the 1980s. “If you walk to Avondale, if you walk to the northwest side, you won’t see anything like it. If you walk to Barrington or Wilmette, you won’t see anything like it.”
But Shiller wants more subsidized housing, especially for seniors. She says she’d like to increase the number of units set aside for lower-income people at the Ruth Shriman House, a new eight-story senior apartment building on Sheridan just north of Irving Park. The thousands of people who’ve been displaced by condo conversions, they’ve got to live somewhere, don’t they? The same with the homeless. How, she wonders, can people complain about the homeless people in the ward, then complain when the city builds housing to get them off the street?
Shiller believes that the construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing will stop if she’s not reelected. “I don’t have any question about it,” she says. Over the last 12 years, she claims responsibility for building or preserving 4,000 units of affordable housing. “The need is greater than any of the resources we’re providing. We’re losing more housing than we’re creating.”
As the Toyota trolls north on Malden, Shiller nods her head at each three-story building as she passes. “All these have gone condo since I’ve become alderman,” she says. “This is condo. This is condo. That’s scattered site. That’s probably owner-rental. That’s condo. That’s condo.”
To Shiller’s enemies, she’s the woman standing in the way of gentrification, just as George Wallace stood in the way of integration–stubbornly, in defiance of social trends. But all the condo conversions on her watch would prove otherwise, she says. Even Shiller had to move out of her old ward office–a one-story cinder-block building across the street from Graceland Cemetery–to make room for a condominium tower, the Views of Sheridan Park.
“I’ve never done anything that has resulted in property values being lowered,” she says. “There’s nothing I have done, including every single thing that’s been built, that has lowered any assessment or value of property when it came time to sell it.” The latest numbers appear to back her up: in the last two years the average price of an Uptown condo has risen 22 percent, to $178,000.
A few minutes later, Shiller is idling on a dead-end street behind Joan F. Arai Middle School. There are few places she’s more fond of than Arai. She persuaded AON Corporation to give 20 computers to the school, and she opened the pool there so neighbors could swim at night. She’s currently working to get school district funds to improve the playground. If she’s reelected, she plans to donate her entire $10,000 City Council raise to a scholarship fund for former students. For several years, Shiller taught the Constitution to eighth-graders here. (One of her old students, Lily Rodriguez, is now an aide in the ward office.) She was struck that few Arai students would have ever grown up to be voters when the Constitution was written.
“There are African-Americans and there’s people from other countries. And there’s people whose families don’t own any property, and women and girls. And there’s very few white boys whose parents are citizens and own property. They were the only ones who’d have a future to vote if this were 1789.”
Several blocks away Shiller stops her car at a corner to let two children run across the street. The kids freeze in the middle of the intersection when they recognize the woman behind the windshield.
“Helen Shiller!” they shout excitedly.
Our tour of the 46th Ward begins to deteriorate soon after that, when I interrupt Shiller’s travelogue to ask what’s wrong with allowing the marketplace to determine housing values. She starts talking about how public housing is necessary to ensure that everyone has adequate shelter. I press her on the point for the next two blocks until she suddenly snaps, “Do you want to talk or do you want to tour? You’re not paying attention. If you want to talk, we can go back to the office.”
Shiller can be gentle, even wistful, but she admits she can also be “intense” and “confrontational.” The Shiller who’s just bitten my head off is the Shiller who likes to say, “Part of my feeling is that we don’t have that much time, so let’s get to it. I’m intense, but I think it makes things more dynamic.”
One of our final stops is Wilson Yard, an old CTA repair facility. A consultant’s report recommends building a commercial strip with second-story apartments. To learn what residents wanted on the five-acre parcel, she sent out questionnaires to neighboring blocks. Sandra Reed and the Uptown Chicago Commission both advocate the creation of a ward-wide committee to review all building proposals; Shiller uses surveys and neighborhood meetings, which, she says, draw input from a range of residents.
Back at Shiller’s office, the walls are adorned with photographs of her political hero, Harold Washington, a man she calls “a second father.” Justice Graphics printed the campaign literature for his first mayoral campaign. Shiller says one of the reasons she ran for alderman in 1987 was to give the mayor an outright majority on the City Council. There’s also a framed poster for The Partisans of Vilna, a film about Jewish resistance in World War II. Another photo shows the four young women on Shiller’s office staff. An aerial shot of Uptown taken in the late 1970s looks like inner-city Detroit–it reminds her of how far the neighborhood has come.
Shiller sits down at her conference table, lights a cigarette with a paper match, and props her red-framed spectacles atop her raven hair, their usual resting spot.
Most people run as fast as they can up the economic ladder, but Shiller deliberately busted herself down a few classes. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Shiller drove a cab and waited tables to make ends meet. When money was tight, she and her husband sometimes subsisted on fried dough. Why’d she do it?
“She’s Jewish,” suggests her friend Mimi Harris, director of the homeless program at Ezra Multi-Service Center. Harris has celebrated Passover seders with Shiller. “There’s a part of Jewish culture that says ‘Justice, justice.’ She came from that progressive Jewish background, and then it developed. She’s a progressive person. There are more important things to her than the material.”
Shiller’s explanation is more specific. Her father, Morris, was a self-employed chemist (she says he “perfected fake suede”) who emigrated to the United States from Latvia. He lost every member of his family in the Holocaust, with the exception of a brother who didn’t turn up until 20 years after the war had ended. The experience embittered him, but it also made him determined to warn his children about oppression. When Shiller was in nursery school, her father made her stay home one day to watch the McCarthy hearings on television. She didn’t understand what the TV show was about, but she recalls her father sitting with his black coffee at his desk, crumbled matzoh and scientific formulas spread out in front of him.
“He said, ‘I know that you don’t have a clue why you’re here. This is probably really boring to you, but I wanted you to watch this. What I want you to remember is that this is about fascism. It is about people abusing their power, and it is about people doing harm to other people, and it is about what it is that is important in life to change, or to protect against.'”
Later Shiller’s father sent her to the Woodstock Country School in Vermont, the same progressive boarding school that Pete Seeger’s children attended. When she went off to college, her father, in an inversion of the usual 60s parent-student relationship, insisted she become involved in antiwar protests. Shiller was more interested in weaving and sewing her own clothes, so to satisfy her father she made the costumes for a play being put on to benefit the Committee to Stop the War in Vietnam. The play was The Hostage, by Irish writer Brendan Behan; it so affected Shiller that she named her son after the author. Brendan Shiller has carried on his family’s leftist tradition. He attended Howard University, a 99 percent black college in Washington, D.C., and after returning to Chicago he edited the newspaper Streetwise. Most recently he was a field organizer for Bobby Rush’s mayoral campaign. Last year Brendan and his wife, Brenda, had a daughter–they named her Justice.
In late 1997 Helen Shiller turned 50. A few months later, her husband died. They had long been separated, but they remained close, so it was a hard blow. Some people whispered that the fire was going out of the radical alderman, but Shiller says she was merely taking a “year of reflection.”
“It was a tough year,” she says. “First of all, I turned 50. It gave me the permission, I guess, to reflect, but also it was a hard year. Marc died, Brendan got married, Brendan had a baby. A lot of changes–grandchildren, so they weren’t all bad changes. Some of them were really wonderful changes, but there were very real life changes.”
Perhaps it’s stubbornness, but Shiller refuses to concede that she’s “changed,” in the sense that she’s now better able to work with the middle-class home owners who’ve been slowly infiltrating her ward. That would mean admitting she’d been unable to work with them when she first took office. But her friends and enemies all say she’s more flexible than she was after the revolution of 1987.
“She has tempered a lot of her progressive ideas,” Harris says. “She sees the gray areas. When you’re a political person, you see everything in black and white. I think she’s grown enormously to be more inclusive.”
The members of Buena Park Neighbors subscribe to an economic philosophy about 12,000 miles to the right of Shiller’s. The alderman’s allies–the so-called Shilleristas–called them “greedy” when they stood up to oppose the Ruth Shriman House on the grounds that the building would be inconsistent with the neighborhood’s architectural character. And some home owners in the group recall that when Shiller was first elected she told them “I don’t represent you.” But recently she supported Buena Park Neighbors when they objected to a planned storage facility at Broadway and Montrose. Maybe she was just making nice in an election year, says Christopher Pries, the group’s president. But it’s progress.
“I can represent everybody and do a very good job of it,” Shiller insists. “My opponent makes up what my opponent makes up, and that hasn’t changed. They’re the ones who paint it that way. They’re the ones who say I’m divisive and I have a class thing, but they’re the ones who do that. In my lifetime, I’ve changed a lot. You grow and develop. If you don’t you’re in trouble. But I think the essence of who I am, the essence of my beliefs–that hasn’t changed.”
Sandra Reed is a sunny woman, possessing a smile so brilliant it makes Carol Moseley-Braun’s famous grin look like the smirk of a dour puritan. There’s a montage of photos stapled to the wall of her campaign office, pictures of Reed with friends and politicians. Some are well-known–Cook County Board president John Stroger, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.–but in every snapshot the first thing you notice is Reed’s smile. It’s not a camera smile either. Wherever she’s standing, Reed looks happy to be there.
A few Saturdays ago I went bell ringing with Reed as she tried to make friends on the 3700 block of Fremont in north Lakeview. The block is a strip of distinguished brick three-flats with timeworn stone staircases. It’s populated by young college grads crowding in four to a unit and by couples with toddlers hanging on in the city until their kids turn five and they “have” to move to the suburbs. A man in a khaki baseball cap, oval sunglasses, and an L.L. Bean field coat sauntered down the sidewalk walking an expensive-looking dog.
Reed stopped the first person she passed, hoping to deal a pamphlet from the stack she was clutching.
“Excuse me,” she asked in a lilting voice. “Are you registered to vote in the 46th Ward?”
“No,” said a young woman. “I live in Ravenswood. I’m looking for an apartment here.”
“Oh.” It wasn’t a voter, but Reed decided to be helpful anyway. “Have you tried the Apartment People, or the Reader? This gentleman with me is from the Reader.”
“Thanks,” the woman replied.
“Everyone’s looking for apartments in this ward,” Reed marveled as she walked on. “Isn’t it amazing?”
Not many voters were home that afternoon, and the few Reed found were grumpy, hungover from the 55-hour week it takes to pay a mortgage in this neighborhood.
At one apartment house, the closest Reed could get to a personal chat was a 30-second exchange through an intercom.
“I’m Sandra Reed,” she announced, shouting at the metal grate, “and I’m running for alderman of the 46th Ward. Can I count on your vote?”
“I’ll be voting.”
Unsure of whether this counted as a plus, a minus, or an undecided on her tally sheet, Reed rang again.
“Are you going to vote for me?” she asked sweetly.
“I don’t like being bothered on a Saturday afternoon.”
Undiscouraged, Reed finally found a supporter at the end of the block.
“Can I count on your vote?” she asked a woman who actually came outside to talk.
“I think so–so we can get Helen out of office.”
Reed spent ten minutes listening to the woman complain about parking, then plugged her own plan to free up space by banning scrap-metal trucks and taxicabs from parking on the streets. She ended the conversation the way she ends many of her encounters.
“Gimme a hug,” she insisted.
Reed embraced the woman and left the block one vote closer to Helen Shiller.
In the February 23 election, Reed won only 21 percent of the vote in a field of four. She didn’t carry a single precinct, losing her own Kenmore corridor polling place to Shiller, 56 percent to 35 percent. Reed spent less money than any other candidate: Shiller had a $54,000 war chest, while Katharine Nathan and Cindi Anderson, both successful, married professionals, were able to loan their campaigns thousands of dollars. Reed, who’s single and 46, still sends money home to her mother in Louisiana. She could spare only about $1,000 of her own cash for the election.
For most of election night, Reed trailed Nathan, then vaulted into second place on the last flash of the ticker. Now Reed has the support of Anderson, who finished with less than 10 percent of the vote, but Nathan is staying neutral.
Reed is probably the strongest opponent Shiller could have drawn. Anderson, an accountant who works in the suburbs, and Nathan, who lives in a big house near Clarendon Park–Governor Jim Thompson’s old neighborhood–could easily have been tagged as outriders of the bourgeois white invasion. But Reed, who’s trying to become the first black alderman from the north side, is appealing to poor blacks who would otherwise vote for Shiller.
“A lot of black people are voting for Reed just because she’s black,” groused one Shillerista at the alderman’s election night party, which was held at the Equator Club, a reggae bar on Broadway. “I don’t know why. They’re poor just like everyone else around here.”
Of course, she’ll also get the votes of white home owners, who would even vote for the proverbial Mr. Snerd if he ran against Shiller. Shiller’s last two opponents were sent up by the machine, but Reed is the product of an insurgency of block clubs that feel Shiller has ignored them.
So this is Reed’s coalition: rich whites, some blacks, and Mayor Daley, who appeared with Reed at a February 18 rally and is allowing her to store signs and literature at his north-side headquarters on Broadway. To Daley, Shiller is as irritating as a poison ivy rash in a place he can’t scratch. With John Buchanan and Robert Shaw retiring, Daley has to get rid of the 46th Ward alderman so he can have a City Council composed entirely of suck-ups and yes men, a body as unanimous in its flattery as the senate of Caesar Augustus. Shiller, who boasts that she’s “the most independent alderman,” has voted against every Daley budget, even after sitting–often alone–through all the interminable hearings. She even endorsed Bobby Rush for mayor, the only white alderman to do so.
“Helen says she’s independent,” complains Reed. “She has an independent voice in the City Council, but she only hears her voice. When she voted against the budget, she voted against us. Our ward is just overlooked. If you look at Mary Ann Smith’s ward, at Joe Moore’s ward, the things they have…”
Shiller claims her rebelliousness is good for residents, because it allows the mayor to try such “experiments” in the ward as permanent street-sweeping signs. “If it works he can take the credit,” she says. “If it doesn’t work, he can blame me.”
When I drive around the ward with Reed, she shows me neglect. On the 4800 block of Winthrop, she points out a trash-marred lot, barren even of grass.
“This is unsafe,” she says. “You have a school, McCutcheon School is there. There’s a lot of drug dealing going on. They hide the drugs here. This lot should have a mixed use, with the school getting some and some going to residential. The school has no playground. But Helen Shiller is waiting for low-income housing here.”
Reed would start an “Adopt-a-Lot” program, enlisting neighbors to keep the land clean until it’s developed. She wouldn’t wait for low-income housing here either. Like the Uptown Chicago Commission, Reed believes the 46th Ward has enough. If there is new subsidized housing, she says, it should be in a project like Presidential Towers west of the Loop, which set aside 7 percent of its units for low- income tenants, with the rest rented at market rates.
“This community needs to be stabilized,” she says. “We have a lot of affordable housing, a lot of scattered site. I think we have our share.”
Shiller says she never targeted the lot for low-income housing. It was supposed to be developed as owner-occupied two- and three-flats, but the plan fell through, and she’s now looking for “other options.”
Next Reed stops in front of the home of Margaret Wojcicki, a supporter who lives on Magnolia Street just north of Wilson. Last fall Wojcicki circulated a petition to vote her precinct dry, which would have stripped the liquor licenses from the Wooden Nickel, a down-and-outer bar, and the Riviera nightclub. Shiller didn’t support a referendum, saying she’d prefer to see problem taverns dealt with by the city’s liquor commissioner.
“We wanted to get rid of the Wooden Nickel, because it had really been a problem for a long time,” Wojcicki said. “The patrons of the bar congregate on the street in front of the bar, and it’s like running the gauntlet to get to the Wilson el.”
Standing out on the sidewalk, Wojcicki and Reed start talking about the attitudes against home owners that are prevalent in the ward, attitudes Reed thinks started with the alderman, who has polarized Uptown between the landed and the landless. Both women agree that condo buyers are blamed for taking housing that “rightly” belongs to poor people. The last census, in 1990, showed that only 13.5 percent of residents in the ward owned their homes, a figure that both candidates agree is now much larger. Reed would like to encourage home ownership by involving ward residents in the city’s New Homes for Chicago program, which allows low-income families to purchase houses and condos built with public funds.
“If I bought a place, something’s wrong with me,” says Reed, who purchased her two-bedroom condo in 1990 because she could no longer afford rents in Wrigleyville. “That’s part of the American dream. I feel like a criminal moving here. Someone was waiting outside my house, saying ‘Where’s Sandra Reed, the condo owner?'”
Growing up in New Roads, Louisiana, Sandra Reed was always a striver. The first thing she strove for was equality for the black people in her hometown. When she was a child in the late 50s and early 60s, blacks and whites had to drink from different water fountains and sit on different benches in the doctor’s waiting room. When Reed tried to break the color barrier by drinking from a white fountain, she says, a white girl ran at her with a knife, screaming, “Nigger, get out!”
Reed says she was nine years old when she participated in her first civil rights demonstration. With a few other members of the local NAACP, she crashed a football game at an all-white high school and stood on the 50-yard line. A snitch in the black community had alerted the authorities, so the National Guard was at the game. They fired tear gas, and Reed ran home choking.
“I’ll never forget that night,” she says. “We ran across the tracks, and we ran home, really scared, huffing and puffing, and my mother told me, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to do that?’ She was a schoolteacher, and she was afraid for her job. I think that’s where my political ideals were formed….It made me a fighter, and it also made me feel proud of who I am.”
Reed’s family was considered middle-class; her father was a Baptist preacher. But that didn’t mean they had money. Her mother often fed the eight children with rice mixed with red beans grown in the garden. After high school, Reed scraped together enough financial aid to attend Dillard University, a predominantly black college in New Orleans. As soon as she graduated, she hitched a ride to Chicago with her stepfather’s sister, and quickly landed a job as an English teacher at Cregier Vocational, a west-side high school. Reed’s mother had started her early in school, because the family couldn’t afford a baby-sitter, so she was only 19 when she took the job.
“The principal said, ‘Are you sure you graduated?'” she recalls. “At first I was scared, not knowing about the west side, but the boys treated me with respect.”
A pair of charcoal portraits drawn by two of her first students hang in the study of Reed’s condo, and she keeps her bracelets in a jewelry box carved by another boy from Cregier. In 1985 Reed moved to Jones Vocational (now Jones Academic Magnet), where she continues to organize the prom and the school play. A member of Actors’ Equity, Reed has performed in summer stock in Wisconsin and danced at the Chicago Theatre in “Heartstrings,” a benefit to raise money for AIDS research. She’s also written a screenplay.
Reed didn’t have much to do with politics until she bought her condo on Kenmore near Wilson. A tiny park named Aster Playlot made her an activist again. Reed says the park was full of drug dealers and drunks who scared away children, so she helped to form a block club, the Truman Square Neighborhood Association. The club asked Shiller for assistance in cleaning up the park, but she seemed indifferent, Reed says. Members went to the Park District, which put up a fence and a gate with a lock. Everyone on the block has a key, and the gate is supposed to be opened in the morning and shut again at night.
“I never was involved in politics in Chicago,” Reed says. “I was really low-key. I came here and there was reason again to fight for something. I thought I’d left those days behind.”
Shiller contends that Reed and her block club are taking too much credit. She even put out a mailing entitled “What’s the Truth About Astor [sic] Playlot?” The pamphlet claimed Reed and her neighbors originally asked to have the playlot razed. Then after the fence was put up, they refused to unlock it. Christopher House, a nearby day care center, now locks and unlocks the gates, the mailing said.
In 1996, 46th Ward committeeman Bob Kuzas announced, three days before the filing date, that he wouldn’t stand for reelection, and the machine couldn’t find a party hack to take the job on short notice. Members of Reed’s block club and a neighboring one asked her to run and collected enough signatures in 72 hours. Reed wasn’t even sure what a committeeman did, but she beat Charles Edwards and Sam Toia, a Shiller ally whose family owns the Leona’s chain of Italian restaurants.
Reed asked Thomas Lyons, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, for money to run her office. Lyons told her committeemen didn’t get any money, so Reed and some friends roamed the alleys of Uptown, scavenging tables and chairs. Supporters say Reed has improved the election process by recruiting neighborhood people to work as election judges. She’s used her office, she says, to perform duties usually expected of aldermen, such as helping residents to find jobs, getting abandoned cars towed, and obtaining parking stickers. “They come here because the alderman can’t help them,” she says.
“She has this gift of bringing people together from different backgrounds,” says Orte Foyo-Carbonell, a neighbor who encouraged Reed’s candidacy. “I thought she would be the best person to bring together a fractious ward.”
Foyo-Carbonell has seen Reed talk with the homeless people who gather in the parking lot of a bank near her building. He says she refers them to shelters and offers to write them resumes. Other supporters praise Reed for leading an antidrug march through Clarendon Park, and involving herself in a vote-dry effort in the ward’s 22nd Precinct.
“Even though she’s nice and can seem soft-spoken, she led the vote-dry effort, which is very difficult,” says David Rowe, a member of Magnolia-Malden Neighbors. “It’s scary, and anytime a woman can do that–don’t mistake kindness for weakness.”
Foyo-Carbonell and Rowe are both members of the 46th Ward Gay and Lesbian Committee, a pro-Reed group formed to counter Chicago’s gay establishment, which loves Shiller for her longtime support of gay rights. They say the city’s gay leadership doesn’t have to live with the litter and crime in her ward. Shiller has the support of gay state legislator Larry McKeon. And the Windy City Times, which endorsed Shiller, has carried negative coverage of Reed’s campaign. The gay paper ran an article claiming that a man in a van “covered with Daley-Reed signs” drove through the ward on February 23, hollering “Fags love Shiller.” But Reed has courted gay votes by proposing an ordinance for a domestic partnership registry and holding a fund-raiser at the gay nightclub Spin. Gays, often in the front ranks of gentrification, are a growing constituency in the ward, especially in the Buena Park and Clarendon Park neighborhoods.
“Gays who have to live in the 46th Ward have quality-of-life issues, they’re more anti-Helen,” Foyo-Carbonell says. “I was at a party this weekend that was 90 percent gay, and all people were doing was complaining about Helen.”
But some of Shiller’s most prominent gay supporters are or have been constituents, including attorney Jim Snyder, Windy City Times publisher Jeff McCourt, and Rick Garcia, political director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. Shiller spoke out in favor of gay marriage during her first unsuccessful run for alderman in 1979 and was a sponsor of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance.
Anyone who runs against Shiller is going to have a hard time presenting herself as the poor man’s candidate, no matter how humble her beginnings. Reed grew up amid “struggle,” she says, and that makes her better qualified than Shiller to help poor people in the 46th Ward. She claims Shiller’s background has been privileged, giving her a maternalistic attitude toward the downtrodden.
“The thing with the present alderman is just stay at this level, depend on me,” Reed says. “I want people to be independent. I think she keeps a certain base, but that base of people, they’re ready for a change. They want it better. They want jobs, they want education. She hasn’t offered them anything better. She’s giving them temporary shelters, but what’s next? Being a former teacher, I always have the instincts to push people to do better.”
Both sides are waging class warfare: the rhetoric from Reed’s supporters is antipoor, while the rhetoric from Shiller is antirich. During the primary there was a phony rumor that Shiller planned to bus in homeless people to vote on election day. And at a March block club meeting that Reed attended, someone left a flyer on the table headlined “Dignification Process: Socially incorrect assignation of worth to the worthless.” The handout mocked the term “homeless,” calling it a euphemism for “bums who are ‘victims of society'”; it ended with a clarion for the upper class to close ranks against the rabble. “BUMS: Those who have no use for the intangible things you have; responsibility, honesty, reliability, honor, respectability, and integrity. They want ONLY the material things that you have; they want that which is yours; AND THEY CAN VOTE IN LOCAL ELECTIONS! CITIZEN, WAKE UP! Your days are numbered. In their misguided, altruistic, overzealous attempt to CREATE equality, our elected officials have lowered you to the level of the bums; and in the eyes of the bums, you are now their LAWFUL prey. It’s time for a change.”
Shiller’s campaign put a negative spin on one of Reed’s mailings. Reed wanted to put more “diversity” into a flyer that already had several pictures of black children, so she asked the graphic design company to find a picture of some white people. The designers pasted in a stock photo of four white folks who looked like they were waiting for a limo to drive them to opening night at the Chicago Symphony. The caption read: “Quality of Life.” Shiller’s people copied it, and added this message: “The Real Sandra Reed Has Finally Appeared. Sandra Reed is nothing but a puppet for Richard Daley and real estate speculators. Her final piece of literature clearly shows who she will serve. Look closely and see if you ‘fit’ Sandra’s picture for ‘quality people in the ward.’ Don’t Give Richard Daley Control of Your Community–Stand Up to City Hall and Greedy Real Estate Speculators.” Shiller’s flyer was not distributed in Lakeview.
“We made mistakes, but it was twisted all out of proportion,” Reed says. She compares Shiller’s fear mongering to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish propaganda in prewar Germany.
“The Germans, they created this fear against the Jewish race: these people are coming in and taking your homes,” Reed says. “That’s how that war started. It’s amazing how that’s happening all over again.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Marc PoKempner: Helen Shiller on cover; Shiller in office; Sandra Reed.