About four years ago work crews came to Lincoln Park, fenced off the lakefront, and started ripping out the limestone at the edge of the lake. It was the first phase of the much vaunted $300-million project that’s supposed to protect about eight miles of the shoreline from erosion by replacing the old rocks at the water’s edge with long stretches of concrete. “I suppose they thought they were doing us all a favor,” says Bob Clarke, president of the South East Lake View Neighbors. But activists from Lakeview to Hyde Park have been wondering ever since how the city allowed itself to spend so much money on such a hideous scheme.

The opposition has been loudest in Hyde Park, where residents have forced the city to temporarily halt plans to replace the rocks at the edge of Promontory Point, the long promenade of grass and trees that juts into the lake at 55th Street. But over the last few months resistance has been growing in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, where residents also want the city to preserve the rocks.

City officials are in a bit of a jam. Having finished the section that runs from Irving Park to Belmont, they now want to move on to the section between Belmont and Diversey, but they can’t without looking like they have double standards. “If they can come up with an attractive design for Hyde Park, they ought to use it for Belmont and Diversey,” says Derek West, another member of the Lakeview group. “There should be consistency.”

Officials insist they’ve had no second thoughts about the project, no regrets about its design. “This project was very important–the existing shoreline was eroding,” says Jessica Rio, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Environment. “We think we’ve been very thorough. We’ve held meetings with residents. We take a lot of things into consideration.”

Still, many north-side residents say the project’s been one horror story after another. For starters, the Irving to Belmont section took much longer than expected. “We understand that some construction projects are necessary, and they take time,” says Charlotte Newfeld, a north-side activist. “But they had the lakefront there fenced off from the public for three years–that’s way too long. They had this big mound of limestone rock–I called it Mount Waveland–sitting in a field for the longest time. It was a disgrace.”

When the Irving to Belmont portion was finally finished in 2001 the community was not appeased. The blocks of limestone had been replaced by a concrete runway that was inaccessible to the handicapped. “My first reaction was, ‘This is what we waited for?'” says Newfeld. “I was incensed. I called Friends of the Parks. I called Congressman Jan Schakowsky.” She also called friends and allies in Hyde Park. “I told my friends in Hyde Park, ‘You’d better take a look at what you’re about to get. You aren’t going to like it if they do it to the Point.'”

As word spread of what the city planned to do to Promontory Point, Hyde Parkers reacted with anguished protests that caught officials off guard. There were countless meetings, protests, and rallies. A spunky ad hoc group, the Community Task Force for Promontory Point, was formed. Soon Congressman Bobby Rush and Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston had joined the cause, calling on Mayor Daley to intervene.

“I think they underestimated the reaction they would get to replacing the limestone with concrete,” says Jack Spicer, a Hyde Park resident. “The Point’s a landmark in this community. People have been swimming off those rocks for ages. They’re not going to let it go without a fight.”

Given the outcry, the city backed off. Last fall officials agreed to hold off on work at the Point until alternative designs could be studied. The task force, along with the Hyde Park Historical Society, raised more than $40,000 to hire an engineer and a landscape architect to determine whether the limestone could be saved. Their report is due sometime this fall.

The delay creates a dilemma for city officials. Should they go ahead with replacing the rocks between Belmont and Diversey with concrete walls and runways, or should they hold off until they see the report on the Point? According to Rio, they’re going ahead with the original plan, and construction is set to start as early as next spring. “Contracts for the first phase of the Belmont to Diversey project should be awarded in September or October,” she says. “The project’s on schedule.”

Rio won’t say how city officials selected the design or why they cling to it in the face of so much opposition: “I’d prefer to have the commissioner [Marcia Jimenez] answer those questions.” Jimenez didn’t return calls for comment.

The city’s willingness to appease south-siders but not north-siders is an ironic twist. Tribune writer Blair Kamin won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago for documenting the inequities between how the city and Park District treat the south and north sides. (Of course heavily white Hyde Park is often an exception to this rule.) “Generally the city’s much more responsive to the north side,” says Spicer. “But it’s a little different with Hyde Park. The north side is more transient. People come and go, or they come from all over the city to use the lake up there. It’s more diffuse. But down here, well, people are born and they die in Hyde Park. Plus we have a great tradition of grousing.”

Another reason opposition is weaker on the north side is that the city spent the better part of last year working with Newfeld and other activists making changes in the completed section that runs from Waveland to Belmont. “It’s better than it was,” says Newfeld. “We got a retrofitting of universal access ramps, and they lowered the outer wall so the lake view is not blocked.” On any given day now there may be hundreds of people gathered along the runway quietly sunning, reading, or staring into the lake. “It’s sterile and unimaginative, but it’s functional,” says Nicole Rodgers, a north-side resident. “I’m just glad the construction’s over.”

Yet more than 100 north-side residents have attended recent meetings on the issue, pleading with officials to hold off on starting the Belmont to Diversey phase. “We’re facing a horrible loss of an architectural treasure once we lose those rocks,” says Clarke. “It’s like the Brittany coast out there. It’s an amazingly peaceful retreat. But the concrete is so stark and smooth and inhuman. It’s depressing to look at. Why should we be depressed when we look at our lakefront? Yes, it has to be protected. But does it have to look like Alcatraz?”

At the very least, Clarke and West want the city to wait until the Hyde Park study is released. “I don’t understand the rush,” says West. “I don’t understand why they can’t wait until they have the Hyde Park report. If the report comes back and says the only way you can shore up the shoreline is with concrete, well, then the city should be able to do what it wants. But if the report says it’s less expensive and more attractive and just as protective to use the limestone rocks, we ought to do it. If you’re going to make such a big effort you might as well do it right.”

Osterman Won’t Eat Greens

As the regulars tell the story, they had rookie challenger Jason Farbman all but kicked off the ballot when they decided to let him stay. Farbman is the 24-year-old punk-rock singer-waiter I wrote about last week who decided to run as a Green Party candidate against Harry Osterman, the Democratic state representative in Rogers Park. In July, Kara Allen, an Osterman ally, sued to have Farbman removed from the ballot on the grounds that his nominating petition didn’t have enough valid signatures.

This was no frivolous challenge–Allen was represented by Michael Kasper, a Democratic Party official, election-law expert, and former counsel to house speaker Michael Madigan. But instead of scurrying for cover, Farbman launched a counteroffensive, filing a motion to dismiss Allen’s suit because her address was incorrect on the complaint.

Last Tuesday, July 23, the matter came before a Board of Elections hearing officer. At first the case looked bleak for Farbman. The judge noted that Election Board officials had questioned the validity of more than 1,700 of Farbman’s signatures–enough to knock him off the ballot. “Just after the hearing officer said that, Kasper stood up and said, ‘The objector withdraws her petition,'” says Farbman. “I’m like, ‘Huh?’ And just like that the case was over–and I am on the ballot, dude.”

Allen couldn’t be reached for comment, but Kasper says it was her decision to drop the case. Asked why Allen changed her mind, Kasper at first quotes Tennyson (“Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”), then gets serious. “I presume, though I don’t know for certain, that she had some conversations with Representative Osterman on this matter,” he says. “I can’t say any more than that. I can’t divulge my conversations with my client. I do think it was very magnanimous of Representative Osterman. I’m very confident we were going to win. Representative Osterman had his foot on the kid’s throat, and he let him up.”

Farbman denies that he was about to lose, and he suspects that party leaders forced Osterman to get Allen to drop the case. “Oh, yeah, right–Harry was being magnanimous,” he says. “Give me a break. Let’s just think about the politics going on here. You’ve got Michael Madigan’s old lawyer, Kasper, fighting to kick a Green off the ballot, while Madigan’s daughter, Lisa Madigan, is asking Greens to vote for her for attorney general. It doesn’t take a political genius to figure that this case was hurting Madigan and [gubernatorial candidate Rod] Blagojevich on the lakefront.”

Osterman insists he was under no pressure to drop the case. “No one in the party talked to me about this,” he says. “My supporter [Allen] dropped the case at my request.”

Why did you ask her to drop it?

“I say, let the voters decide,” he responds. “I’ve done a great job in my community, so let them have a choice. Besides, I think the Democrats and the Green Party have similar platforms on a lot of things. When it comes to the environment and open and clean campaigns, I’ll put up my voting record against anybody’s in the state.”

Despite Osterman’s conciliatory words, Farbman says he’ll keep up his attack. “Harry says he’s like the Greens? Ha-ha-ha!” he says. “I’m gonna run hard. We’ll hit them on all the issues. I’ll show them the difference between the Greens and the Democrats.”

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