By Ben Joravsky

For years the state was begged to move its north-side job-training office closer to the disabled residents of Rogers Park, Uptown, and Edgewater who use it.

So what did the state just do? They moved it about three miles farther away. It’s gone from Addison and Kedzie to Grand near Homan, where it’s virtually inaccessible to the blind, deaf, and other physically impaired people who must take public transportation to get there.

“I could never understand why they’d put an office for Rogers Park residents in Albany Park in the first place, but this makes even less sense than that,” says Steve Edwards, a state caseworker who’s president of Local 2858 of AFSCME, the government workers’ union. “This is either cruel irony or insanity. It makes life worse for everyone.”

Counselors at the branch site in the state’s Office of Rehabilitation Services provide job training and other assistance for nearly 1,000 disabled residents of the far north side, Skokie, Evanston, Park Ridge, and neighboring suburbs. For the last ten years or so, the counselors operated out of a run-down two-story office building where the roof leaked, the toilets overflowed, and the heating system spewed carbon monoxide, occasionally forcing everyone to evacuate.

On top of all that, it took too long to get there. “We were always asking, Why don’t you move to somewhere in Uptown or Edgewater or Rogers Park, anywhere on the far north side?” says Edwards. “It only makes sense. You know, put a north-side office on the north side.”

But the state always refused. And by early summer word had spread that the office was going to move out of Albany Park to a parking garage at 3490 W. Grand, though the garage was even farther away from clients and converting it would cost close to $1 million. Clients who don’t drive or can’t afford a cab (which is almost every client) can catch a bus or train to Grand and then ride the Grand bus to Homan, 3400 west. Or they can catch a bus to Kimball and then ride the Kimball bus to Homan and Grand.

“The Grand Avenue bus is a long ride, but at least it has a stop in front of the building,” says Edwards. “The Kimball bus drops you off a long block away. You have to walk beneath a viaduct and along a winding sidewalk that’s filled with potholes. It’s not accessible to people in wheelchairs and it’s a minefield for the blind.”

In July counselors raised their concerns at an AFSCME labor-management meeting with Howard Peters, secretary of the state’s Department of Human Services, the agency in which Rehabilitation is a division.

“Peters asked his chief of staff to look into it,” says Edwards. “But about three weeks later I happened to ride my bike past the building at Grand and I saw a middle-aged guy in workman’s clothes with a Weedwacker whacking away at the weeds in the parking lot, which was horribly overgrown. This was odd because it was about 9:30 at night. It seemed to me the kind of thing you do if the city inspectors are coming early the next morning.”

Edwards went to City Hall to see if a building permit had been issued for the site. “I discovered that they didn’t have a permit,” says Edwards. “I called the state and told them that they can’t make those repairs without a permit. I was hoping that would enable them to get out of their lease [at Grand] and find a more accessible and closer location.”

But his call apparently had the opposite effect. “The next time I went by, about two weeks later, I saw they had a building permit in the window,” says Edwards.

Sure enough, in mid-September Peters issued the word: the new office on Grand would open for business on October 1. The staff had no more than two weeks to move–no ifs, ands, or buts.

Many employees are reluctant to publicly address the issue, insisting that their department punishes the outspoken. But privately they call the move a “disaster” and a “disgrace.”

“The thing that really bugs me is that it was such a waste of money,” says a counselor. “It’s not just the money they spent rehabbing the garage. It’s all the extra money we have to spend going on home visits. It will cost more money whenever we take a cab–because we’re that much farther away.

“The real galling thing is that we have another branch office at Milwaukee and Division that services the west side. That means clients taking the bus from the north side pass another office to get to this one. And clients coming from the west side pass this office to get to theirs. It’s madness.”

The department’s clients also dislike the Grand location. “It adds two hours to my round-trip commute,” says Eva Strobeck, who lives in Rogers Park. “I have diabetes and I’m nearsighted and I don’t look forward to the bus ride because of where the bus leaves you off. It’s a very busy spot, with a lot of traffic. What were they thinking?”

Some observers figure the move stems from last year’s massive reorganization of the state bureaucracy. “They took Public Aid, Rehab Services, Mental Health, and Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and brought them together,” Edwards explains. “In this case, what used to be the Department of Rehabilitation Services is now the Office of Rehabilitation Services. You could say it went from DORS to ORS, if that helps you.”

The idea was to save money by streamlining services. “Maybe they moved us to the garage to go along with their idea of one-stop shopping,” says the Grand Avenue counselor. “They have us in here with an unemployment office and a probation office for the Corrections Department.”

But Edwards thinks there may be other motives. “The unemployment office services a completely different area from the rehabilitation office. So if you are an unemployed blind man and you needed to use the services of both agencies, you couldn’t do it from the same building because the geographical areas they serve don’t overlap. So after you left either one of those offices you’d have to get on a bus and go to a completely different office.

“So there are three other possibilities, none of which are good. You could believe their story about not being able to find a site in Rogers Park or Uptown, which I don’t. Or you can see this as a conscious effort to make services inaccessible, with a view to future privatization. Or maybe it’s one of those classic sweetheart deals in which they’re throwing a plum to the landlord or the contractors who redeveloped the building. As one union official told me, ‘If it isn’t corrupt, they sure as hell know how to make it look that way.'”

Or maybe it was just a boneheaded decision by misguided bureaucrats who are too stubborn and proud to admit they screwed up. “It might make sense to someone in Springfield, but they don’t have to live with it,” says Jo Holzer, executive director of the Council for Disability Rights, a not-for-profit watchdog group. “Forget the one-stop shopping and try to make it more convenient and accessible for their clients. Just find an office in Rogers Park or Uptown–you don’t need much more than that.”

At the moment it’s hard to find anyone who wants credit for the move. An employee in the office of Audrey McCrimon, the official in charge of making sure that DHS offices are accessible to the disabled, says McCrimon “had nothing to do with this.” The employee referred questions to Carl Sutter, who runs the Office of Rehabilitation Services. But Sutter was out of town and not available for comment.

So the job of making an official explanation for why the office moved was dumped on a department publicist who lives in Springfield and knows almost nothing about Chicago geography.

“The people who use the office live in Rogers Park, which is near Howard Street,” I explained as the publicist looked at a map.

“I can’t find Howard Street.”

“OK, go north to Evanston. It’s easy to see because it’s a different color on your map than Chicago.”

“Oh, yes. I found Howard Street.”

“Now go south–way south, past North, Division, Chicago–and you’ll find Grand.”

“Oh, yes. Grand. You’re right–that is a long way.”

According to the publicist, the state had no choice but to move to Grand. “My understanding is that they looked for potential space but they couldn’t find any reasonable space.”

The clients and employees hope the state will look again, or at the very least provide cab vouchers to people making the long ride. “They must think we’re really dumb to believe that they can’t find an office in Rogers Park or Uptown,” says Edwards. “They must think we’re really dumb to think they even looked.”

WGCI Gets Religion

For one night last week it was the good old days again on WGCI, 1390 AM. A voice with a familiar down-home twang came over the air to say, “I’m Richard Pegue with a bunch of dusties tonight.”

With that Pegue, a local legend with over 30 years on black radio (and the subject of my August 7 Reader cover story), launched into a 15-minute jam featuring songs by the Emotions, the Stylistics, Sharon Ridley, and Marvin Gaye. It was much-needed relief for R & B fans (“like water in a desert,” one listener put it), but only temporary. The only station with a format of 60s and 70s soul, 1390 AM went gospel on October 5, except for Pegue’s 9 PM Saturday to 5 AM Sunday show.

“We’re keeping Richard on Saturday night because he has the biggest ratings on the station, but we’re not ‘Dusty Radio’ anymore,” says operations manager Elroy Smith. “We’re now ‘Gospel Radio 1390–Music of Love and Inspiration.'”

Smith says the new format was selected after a research study, “which we paid a lot of money to get done,” revealed a “large pocket that’s starving for gospel.” Though early ratings aren’t in, Smith gushes, “The change is remarkable. You should hear the listeners’ response; they love it. I’m still in awe, really. We’ll definitely do better.”

The old DJs, almost all of whom will stay on the air, are doing their best to sound upbeat. “I have no problem with the new format,” says morning drive time’s Richard Steele. “Elroy’s a super programmer.”

But many listeners grumble that if the dusty format failed it’s because 1390 (more specifically the Gannett Company, the media conglomerate that sold WGCI last year, and Chancellor Media, the conglomerate that bought it) never gave it the promotional budget and support it needed to build its black base and expand into the untapped white market that loves soul music. As they see it, the decline of 1390 is another example of mediocrity in the 1990s, when radio was deregulated, allowing companies to buy as many stations as they wanted. Now a handful of media giants owns almost all the local stations, programming them with slight variations on the same predictable formats.

“If you’re going to keep a station fresh, you’ve got to expand your pool beyond the 50 most-loved songs of all time,” Pegue told me this summer. “Everyone loves dusties, but most stations don’t let you hear the real thing. They play Aretha’s ‘Respect’–OK, cool. But we’re the only station who will turn the record over and play ‘Dr. Feelgood’ on the other side.”

The hope is that even in the age of radio conglomeration some station will have the guts to flip the record over every day, not just on Saturday nights.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Edwards photo by Bruce Powell.