By Ben Joravsky

The fight over Kingsbury Street was a neighborhood affair, until the signs came out a few weeks ago and it broke into the open for everyone to see.

“Don’t close Kingsbury,” read the placards strapped to the sides of several buildings on the bumpy industrial road that runs parallel to Clybourn on the western edge of Lincoln Park.

Specifically, the signs refer to a plan, endorsed by Mayor Daley, to block off a 630-foot stretch of Kingsbury between Cortland and Clifton so it can be used exclusively by a scrap yard. But the larger issue has to do with land, as Lincoln Park industrialists cling to their last patches in the face of rampant gentrification.

“I love many of our new residential neighbors, but they have to recognize that we have a right to be here too,” says Marilyn Labkon, who owns General Iron, the scrap-metal recycler at Clifton and Kingsbury. “We don’t want to leave.”

At the heart of the dispute stands Labkon’s company, which was started over 80 years ago by her grandmother, Rose Rosenmutter, a west-side junk dealer. Labkon’s father, Nate Rosenmutter, built it into a thriving operation that employs 70 and handles some 1,000 tons of scrap a day. The yard resembles a scene from the pages of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. On most days there’s a long line of battered old trucks waiting to unload their scrap, which will be weighed, dumped, crushed, and hauled off to be converted into steel. It’s a fascinating process to behold, particularly for little boys, one involving huge crunchers, cranes, and snappers operated by a colorful crew of wisecracking workingmen.

“Our customers are mostly alley entrepreneurs or peddlers with factory accounts and wreckers who buy reinforcing bars and beams,” says Labkon, who runs the business with her two sons, Adam and Howard. “Everything that goes through our shredder comes out in fist-size pieces. We recover everything–we get the squeal out of the pig.”

For most of the 60s and 70s, General Iron operated in relative anonymity, one of many enterprises in the corridor of industry between Clybourn and the Chicago River just north of North Avenue. But in the late 70s a housing boom came to west Lincoln Park, and by the end of the 80s residential complaints of noise and dirt pollution were on the rise. Clybourn was unbearably congested, and Kingsbury became a favorite road for locals looking for a fast route to the Loop.

In the 1980s the city attempted to preserve the area’s industrial base by making a section along the river a planned manufacturing district (PMD), which means it’s zoned for factories and the like. But residential and commercial development nipped at the edges of the PMD. In 1994 the city took General Iron to court, saying the firm had violated noise pollution standards. Labkon fought the charge for over two years, arguing that her company was no worse than any other junkyard. But in September General Iron signed a consent decree with the city. While “denying all material allegations of [the city’s] complaints,” it agreed to make changes.

“They wanted us to do things, put up barriers and the like, that would have put many of our competitors out of business,” says Labkon. “We agreed to make all the changes they asked us to because we wanted to stay.” (For their part, city officials praise the company and say they want it to remain in the area.)

In an attempt to adapt to changing times, local industry changed its behavior. Instead of belittling or battling their new neighbors by arguing “we were here first,” companies attempted to mollify them. Firms like General Iron and Finkl Steel sent representatives to community meetings, made donations to local civic organizations, and even “beautified” their operations by putting up wrought iron fences and planting flowers.

“We know the neighborhood’s changed, and we want to be a part of it,” says Labkon. “Yes, my dad was here before there was gentrification, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The proposal to close off Kingsbury, she says, was publicly endorsed by the city after the consent decree was signed this fall. Under the proposal, access to Kingsbury would be limited to trucks carting scrap to and from General Iron. “It will enable us to operate with less fear of accidents involving passing motorists,” she says. “By closing it off we’ll make our operation safer and more efficient.”

In addition, the city would widen and repave Marcey Street, which runs between Kingsbury and Clybourn.

“You’ll still be able to get from one point to another relatively quickly– our traffic studies showed that closing Kingsbury for 600 feet would not be a major inconvenience,” says Greg Longhini, a spokesman for the city’s Planning Department. “It’s important to the city that businesses like General remain. We need a balance between industry and commercial.”

But local residents oppose the plan because they want to keep Kingsbury as an alternative to Clybourn. “In our view, Kingsbury relieves the overflow of traffic on Clybourn,” says Frank Citera, president of the RANCH Triangle Association, the area’s largest community group. “So we’re opposed to closing it because that would create further traffic problems.”

There are also economic issues at stake. Closing Kingsbury, even for only 600 feet, indicates Daley has no intention of relaxing the PMD. And as long as the area is rigidly zoned for industry, factory owners are limited in their ability to sell their property for top dollar to commercial or residential developers.

One of the most vociferous opponents to closing Kingsbury is Mort Skolnick, a prominent commercial developer in the area. Skolnick did not return phone calls, but his son and business associate, Kenneth Skolnick, says his father’s concerns mirror the neighbors’. “The issue is access,” says Kenneth Skolnick. “We want to keep Kingsbury as a public thoroughfare to maintain access through a public street.”

Skolnick says the signs were placed on the buildings by the Kingsbury-Marcey Betterment Association, a group he and his father are associated with. “Our opposition is not personally directed at General Iron–no one questions their operation,” he says. “The opposition is only in regards to the street.”

Yet Morton Skolnick has passionately denounced General Iron at various meetings. And the Kingsbury-Marcey Betterment Association has gone to court, asking a judge to overturn General Iron’s settlement with the city.

“It’s gotten very uncomfortable in the last few years,” says Marilyn Labkon. “It’s not just the signs, I can live with the signs, but Mort has said things at meetings–that he’s going to fight us all the way. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees and we’re still in court. I don’t want to fight him. I don’t want to fight anybody. [My son] Adam met Mort on the street and said, ‘You’re waging war on a very nice family.’ There should be enough room in this section of town for all of us to be happy.”

Since Daley and the local alderman, Charles Bernardini, support closing Kingsbury, it will probably be approved by the City Council (a public hearing will be convened in the coming weeks). But the larger land-use debate shows no signs of waning.

Some residents link the matter to the future of the Artmark building, a factory at 1840 N. Clybourn. “There’s a proposal to convert Artmark to residential, which we support because we think there’s too much commercial development on Clybourn,” says Citera. “But residential’s not allowed at that site under the PMD. We want them to relax the PMD for Artmark, but Finkl and General Iron oppose relaxing the PMD because they don’t want to have to operate with any more residential. So we have agreed to disagree with our industrial neighbors.”

Citera contends that the PMD must be relaxed, if only to stem the growth of commercial development. “The PMD was put into place to protect existing industries and allow other industries to come in and create a job base,” he says. “The reality is that it’s unlikely that any new industries are coming here. The result is a proliferation of big-box strip malls on Clybourn. I think we’d like to see that trend slowed.

“It’s still a go-go economy, but it’s not going to last forever. What happens when there is a downturn? Will those large-box developments close their doors? Will we be stuck with vacant buildings? It’s better, I think, to build a residential base.”

Ironically, Labkon says industries provide a hedge against the very market fluctuations Citera fears.

“We’ve been here for all these years through thick and thin–we don’t want to move,” she says. “Our customers are here. I have 600 trucks a day that come here. So I could sell the building and take the money and have my sons manage a shopping center. But I don’t want to do that. We’ve sunk millions of dollars into this place. We want to stay here. This is only three and a half acres. Why can’t they just leave us alone?” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marilyn Labkon photo by Randy Tunnel.