The City That Sometimes Actually Works

A week before Christmas I got a call from Eric Hudson about Union Park, at Lake and Ashland. “The weight room’s back,” he said. “This is a Christmas present for the whole community–the community’s been restored.”

It was a happy ending to a story I wrote on July 30 about the city once again insisting on something that didn’t make sense. In this case the Park District had, without warning, closed the old weight room in Union Park–a small, dimly lit room with three weight-lifting benches in the field house closest to the Lake Street el stop, where you could hear the trains rumble by as you lifted. It was the sort of community success story the Park District usually likes to trumpet, and it didn’t cost much to operate. Columbus Jones, a locally revered, long-serving Park District employee, had put the room together himself seven years earlier and had run it ever since.

The room had become a favorite spot for a diverse crew of lifters, most of them black men–everyone from cops to parolees just out of prison and living in one of several nearby halfway houses. “It was a community place,” says Hudson, a policy analyst for the state. “It was just a positive place for African-American men from divergent paths to come together.”

Then on July 16 officials in the Park District’s central office ordered the room closed, saying the equipment was “hazardous,” dangerous to the health of the people who used it. They also said the district was too broke to buy new equipment, even though the cost of three new benches and 300 pounds of weights was no more than $800. The old weights were removed and the door locked.

A week or so after my article ran, the Park District reversed itself, having somehow found the money it said it didn’t have. Actually it found more money. Instead of simply replacing the old weights, Park District superintendent Timothy Mitchell said, he would build a $60,000 fitness room with treadmills, a stationary bike, and weight-lifting machines.

The weight-room users weren’t sure what to make of the sudden reversal. Like many residents who get into a squabble with the city, they didn’t trust a statement made by a public official. They certainly didn’t believe the Park District had closed the room because the weights were hazardous. As one lifter put it, the weights “wouldn’t hurt you unless you dropped one on your toe.”

Most of the lifters figured the weight room had closed because white people were moving into the neighborhood and poorer black people were moving out, and the Park District wanted the black men, particularly the parolees, out of Union Park. “Come on, you know–you can’t have too many black folk, particularly black men, around here,” says one weight lifter. “I hate to sound cynical, but I think they were always going to put the new weight room in once we were gone.”

Whatever their past feelings, most of the weight lifters are in a forgiving mood these days. “You have to give the Park District credit–they responded to grassroots democracy,” says Hudson. “You should see what they put there.”

When I stopped by a few days ago the old weight room was still locked, but a bigger room in the same building had been turned into a fitness center, just as Mitchell had promised. There were new weight-lifting machines, a stationary bike, a treadmill, a stair climber, and several racks of dumbbells. There were also mirrors on the wall, ceiling fans, and a new coat of paint. Compared to Jones’s old weight room, it was the East Bank Club.

According to the guys lifting that day, Union Park is on the cusp of even greater changes as wealthy white people continue to move into the neighborhood. “The new weight room is a symbol of what’s happening around here,” says Stefan Morgan, who lives nearby. “You watch–change is coming to the neighborhood and to this park.” But he’s going to try to make sure there aren’t any more top-down ultimatums from the Park District. “We’ve learned,” he says. “We’re more involved now, and we’re going to stay involved.”

He and Hudson have joined Union Park’s advisory council, which meets once a month. “We want the Park District to bring back programs for the kids–basketball, tennis, volleyball, chess, drama, what have you,” says Morgan. “We have big long-range goals.”

Park District officials say they welcome the community’s involvement, and in the spirit of the New Year, Hudson and Morgan say they believe them.


R.M. Schultz, whose letter is on page 3, is right, and I owe an apology to David Prindable too.

In the days after the November 2 presidential election I went through the precinct-by-precinct results to see, among other things, where President Bush had gotten the most votes in the city. To my surprise, he ran strongest not on the northwest and southwest sides but on the Gold Coast. In the 49th precinct of the 42nd Ward he captured 77.9 percent of the vote, beating John Kerry 294 to 81.

In search of an explanation I turned to a logical source, 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus. He told me the big Bush vote came from a subsidized-housing complex with a large contingent of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who’d voted for Bush because they thought he was a bigger backer of Israel. That’s what I wrote in my November 12 story.

A few days later Prindable wrote in to say a more likely source of Bush votes was the Moody Bible Institute’s dormitory on the northwest corner of Chicago and Wells. At the time Natarus was in Israel, and I couldn’t reach him. So I looked at a precinct map of the 42nd Ward and discovered that the northwest corner isn’t in the 49th precinct, which I noted in my response.

But I’ve since learned from several readers that Prindable was dead-on in his political analysis, though a little off on his geography. The dorm is on the northeast corner, which is indeed in the 49th precinct.

Even Natarus called to point out the error. “Ben, I’m sorry,” he told me. “I’m really, really sorry. What can I say? I made a mistake. I apologize. It was a mistake. I’m human.” So in the spirit of setting the record straight, we’re both apologizing.

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