The Mice That Roared
Pilsen’s TIF gets another once-over because the city didn’t play fair.
By Neal Pollack
A political miracle took place on Tuesday, November 24, when a group of eight ordinary citizens–with no money and no ties to any organization–pushed back the mayor’s plans to create a tax-increment financing district in Pilsen.
Ruling in their favor, Cook County Circuit Court judge Lester Foreman ordered three new public hearings on the TIF because, he said, the city had violated state law during its mandatory public hearing on April 28. Foreman also required that a Spanish-language translator be provided for all the hearings and that anyone who wished to speak would have three minutes to do so, as stipulated by law.
The victory of the Pilsen plaintiffs could serve as an example for other groups that wish to challenge the administration’s development plans. Led by a crusading pro bono attorney from Logan Square named Marlene Kamish, they are an odd mix of small-business people, students, and artists, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s and in education level from high school diploma to PhD graduate from the University of Chicago. They aren’t typical of the working-class Mexican immigrant constituency that left-wing advocates in the neighborhood like to say they represent.
The TIF had frightened many residents. Under the much-debated plan, any higher tax revenues generated by new development would be set aside to help pay for future development. The new TIF district lay just south of UIC’s planned $400 million campus expansion, and it appeared that nothing could stop Daley and the university from getting what they wanted.
Everyone assumed the case was closed when the TIF was approved by the City Council last June. The community groups that had noisily opposed the plan for months suddenly faded from view. Twenty-fifth Ward alderman Daniel Solis, who had headed the pro-TIF forces, basked in the afterglow, saying that at last Pilsen was going to modernize and bring in new jobs.
But the eight plaintiffs wouldn’t give up. They complained that the city hadn’t given the neighborhood a fair hearing, and they’d gone to court consistently since June. On November 24, they were there because the city had moved to dismiss their complaint. Kamish intended to argue against the dismissal. Instead, Judge Foreman told them they’d won.
Solis later appeared on television saying the new hearings wouldn’t occur until after the holidays. But the plaintiffs discovered the city had scheduled the hearings for this upcoming Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at City Hall (6 to 10 PM on December 14, 15, and 16). The city had made things so difficult for them thus far that they weren’t really surprised; besides, nothing could have shocked them as much as their victory in court.
“If this hadn’t gone our way, I think I’d become a very cynical person,” says one of the plaintiffs, Tracy Kurowski, a 27-year-old GED teacher. “But it’s still amazing. I mean, my God! Nobody takes on the city of Chicago and wins!”
Marlene Kamish opened a law office in Pilsen in 1991. She’d left her job as a public defender to take on the case of Manuel Salazar, a Mexican-American convicted for the 1984 killing of a Joliet police officer. In that controversial trial, Salazar claimed he had acted in self-defense. Kamish’s days and nights became consumed by Salazar’s case, and she worked for him endlessly until he was released from prison on November 8, 1996.
Even though she lived in Logan Square, Kamish had grown to consider Pilsen her home. She says, “I literally can’t walk down the street for one minute, even if I’m absorbed in something and have my head down, without running smack into somebody I know and love.”
A couple of years ago, Kamish says, she began reading newspaper articles that indicated the Pilsen she knew was being threatened. A real-estate developer had designs on a small community garden at the neighborhood’s northern edge; a white chamber-of-commerce type was quoted in Streetwise complaining that Mexicans urinated in storefront doorways and didn’t know how to keep their shops clean; and UIC chancellor David Broski talked openly about plans to make Pilsen more amenable to students and professors. Then the inevitable happened: the city proposed a TIF.
Kamish had been educated in the good fight. Her bookcases contained an argosy of books on social justice: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; Eugene V. Debs Speaks; Black Robes, White Justice; Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order. There were novels and nonfiction books by Joseph Conrad, Nelson Algren, Frantz Fanon, Bell Hooks, Ambrose Bierce, Hannah Arendt, Ralph Ellison, and Clarence Darrow. The TIF, she thought, held the potential for great injustice. The people had to fight it.
“I’ve been trying to tell people, wake up, wake up, it’s coming,” she explains. “They say, what do you mean? Because the idea that they wouldn’t have this place, this thing that people refer to as Pilsen, is just impossible. That is their total reality. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying I’ll wake up and I’ll look in the mirror and there’ll be an opaque surface and I won’t see the reflection. I won’t see anything. We don’t have a clue what we would do. What do you do without the world that you know?”
Seven neighborhood groups, led by the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, had already formed a coalition to oppose the TIF. At an informational meeting in February, Kamish met a young woman named Leticia Moreno, who, along with her husband, Juan, owns a hardware store on 18th Street between Blue Island and Racine. Moreno was a member of Pilsen Neighbors, but she didn’t know much about TIFs. She did know that her property taxes had increased fivefold since she’d opened her store in 1993. If her taxes continued to climb, she worried, she might not be able to stay in business.
Kamish decided Moreno should be her ally. Moreno was consistently frank; she was, Kamish says, the most “sensible” person she heard speak at any TIF-related meeting. Always showing up with an infant resting on her hip, Moreno wasn’t there to make political appearances or to promote her career. She had grown up in Wicker Park and had seen it gentrified. Now she was terrified that the same thing would happen in Pilsen. “That’s why I don’t care what politicians tell me,” Moreno says. “I’ve lived it. I remember when I was a little kid, realtors would come and say, buy, buy, buy now, because five years from now it’s not gonna look like this, and ten years from now, my god, you’re really gonna be shocked by what it looks like. Apparently, they knew something we didn’t. It’s pretty obvious that’s what’s happening here. People I guess just want to close their eyes. I sometimes do that too. I just want to close my eyes and hope that it’s a bad dream. But I don’t think so. I think time is going to prove me right.”
Moreno and Kamish attacked the TIF issue with a fury. They would regularly go downtown to harass bureaucrats, pull documents, and ask questions. They’d organize meetings to help educate their neighbors about the city’s plans. That’s when their troubles started.
Pilsen has a long history of grassroots activism, and consequently it’s always been plagued by rancorous political disputes. Kamish and Moreno’s efforts, however goodhearted, confused some people who simply didn’t trust them. As a result, their meetings began to disintegrate into a game of “which side are you on?”
At a March 24 meeting in the Dvorak Park fieldhouse, an old man stood up and started shouting in Spanish at Kamish, who was speaking in English with Moreno translating.
“You have to give the presentation in Spanish!” he said, turning his attention to Moreno. “Why do you bring a white woman from the city to tell us what the city is going to do to us? You’re only here to take our money!”
“We’re only here to inform you so we can fight,” Moreno replied. “She is a lawyer. She is a person who can get information.”
“Steal our money, that’s what she’s gonna do!”
“No, sir. No, no, no. She is our friend. Listen to me. You have to respect Marlene. She can get us information.”
“Tomorrow, it will be different! She’s gonna turn on us!”
“If you don’t understand it, you won’t be able to fight it,” Kamish said. “I am sorry that you doubt my motives when I’m trying to explain this to you.”
The man continued to shout.
“Excuse me,” Kamish said. “Excuse me.”
“She’s a white person from the city! She’s going to take away our homes!”
“I’m sorry. We’d like to continue with the meeting. OK? OK? What I’m trying to explain to you…”
“What is she trying to tell us? She’s just another politician!”
Kamish was visibly hurt. She hadn’t fully learned Spanish yet, but she was trying. She only wanted to do right by Pilsen.
At subsequent meetings, the infighting grew more severe and the situation more confused. At times, the TIF opposition groups were too busy fighting each other to fight the city.
But after April 28 none of that mattered anymore.
The City Council chambers were full for the April 28 public hearing on the Pilsen TIF. A few seats were occupied by people interested in a proposed commercial TIF at 79th and Stony Island, but almost everyone else was there for Pilsen. Kamish and Moreno were wearing black T-shirts that read “Pilsen Unido.” They were trying to sign up as many people to speak as possible. A smaller, though still substantial, group of people were at the meeting to support Danny Solis. They wore buttons that read TIF = JOBS.
After the Stony Island TIF had passed, with ample time for polite debate on either side, the Pilsen hearing began at 3 PM. Mike Jasso from the Department of Planning and Development spoke first, and at length. He said the Pilsen TIF was “essential” to developing the neighborhood’s industrial corridor, and it would create more than 2,000 new jobs. Jasso said that only 150 or so residential buildings were included in the TIF, which accounted for only 2 percent of the designated area. “No residential properties have been identified for acquisition,” he said, “nor does the city have any intention of acquiring residential properties.” He also pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Pilsen residents did not live within the TIF district.
Jasso was followed by Jack Pettigrew, a consultant whose study of Pilsen led the city to conclude that it was a “blighted” area. Then speeches were made by Solis, 11th Ward alderman James Balcer, and Cook County commissioner Mario Moreno, a Solis ally. In all, the pro-TIF forces got 45 minutes to make their case before public testimony began.
The meeting was presided over by a commissioner named Ruth Louie. The regular head of the commission, a man with the rather Dickensian name of Edwin Charity, was ill. Louie said she had a list of 14 pages of people who wanted to speak. She warned them to be “brief.” She wanted to know their name, address, and whether they were for or against the TIF, and nothing more. “We will cut you off if you get wordy or rambling,” she said.
Leticia Moreno took the microphone, handed to her by a police officer, and began reading a long written testimony, in both Spanish and English. “I will not finance development that will not benefit our specific community,” she said.
After a few minutes, Louie interrupted: “I’m gonna have to cut you short.”
“My property taxes are going…”
The crowd booed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please!”
“It will raise the property taxes to such a point that it will bankrupt my business and force me to relocate,” Moreno said. “I want to be able to choose where I do business and where I live. I also will not be guaranteed that my new business will have the success that my present business has today.”
She began to repeat herself, in Spanish.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” said Louie. “I’m gonna have to cut you short. Right there, and you have less than 30 seconds to finish. We have too many people to allow you to go on.”
“No one has a right to take away our right to decide what is best for our families and our community. I oppose the designation of Pilsen as a TIF district.”
“OK,” Louie said. “Thank you.”
The next speaker was Felix Cruz, who eventually became a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“All right, I hate to cut you off,” Louie said. “But we have several people….Thank you so much. We’re gonna move this along quickly, if we can. I mean, with 14 pages of names, I’m sorry. We cannot allow you to go on and on.”
From that point on, the meeting deteriorated, as Louie allowed people less and less time to speak.
A painter named Magdalena Rodriguez, who also later joined the lawsuit, got up to testify about the University of Illinois’ support for the Pilsen TIF.
“UIC wants to turn Pilsen into Lincoln Park and we don’t want that,” she said. “The community doesn’t want that.”
“We are not here to discuss any aspect of the TIF for them,” Louie said. “So go ahead and stick to Pilsen TIF.”
Louie then decided that three minutes, the minimum time granted to each speaker as required by state law, was too much. The crowd screamed in frustration as Louie informed them they would now get one minute or less. “I changed the rules,” she said bluntly.
Two witnesses later, she reduced the time again. Now people could speak for 30 seconds to one minute. “There,” she said. “I changed it again.”
Over the next hour, Louie repeatedly cut people off, whether they were for or against the TIF. The testimonies began to be more about procedure and less about content. One man testified that the commission wasn’t giving anyone an opportunity to speak in accordance with the law. “Sir, we are well aware of that,” Louie replied. “That is why we want to give everyone an opportunity to speak.” She later asserted, “As chairperson, I set the rules on time.”
In her complaint to the court, Kamish wrote, “Twenty witnesses were actually cut off by the Commission, and the record is replete with examples of witnesses obviously abbreviating their testimony to thirty seconds clearly attempting to avoid being cut off.”
Many people spoke only Spanish, but the city provided no translator. One woman pointed this out to Louie.
“I would like to know how you can possibly understand the concerns of the community when they are Spanish-speaking.”
“Because we have people who speak Spanish sitting in front of me translating and indicating to me what they said.”
“I have not seen anyone come over to you and tell you exactly what is occurring when they are speaking…”
“We do have staff people who speak Spanish and help us out here. So don’t feel that we don’t know what they’re saying. And nobody asked me if I speak Spanish.”
Twelve witnesses testified in Spanish, and their testimonies are missing from the official transcript of the hearing. Moreno taped the hearing and later translated the speeches of the Spanish speakers. One woman, Dolores Valles, stood up and said in Spanish, “I’ve lived in Pilsen for 11 years. I think that instead of us coming here and fighting, it is time that we strive, that our people stop selling corn and popsicles in the street. I think that it is time to give our people a better opportunity and I am in favor of the TIF. I am in favor of improving our community.”
“I assume that you are opposed,” Louie said.
A man concerned about the TIF clearly posed a question to Louie in Spanish. “I would like to know if all the changes that are made can be done without an increase in taxes,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” Louie said, without acknowledging that he’d posed a question. Moreno offered to translate, but police officers told her to sit down.
When the meeting adjourned, the commission unanimously approved the TIF without deliberation.
After the meeting, Kamish, who had not testified, stood outside the council chambers. She was steamed. The TIF was no longer an abstract enemy. Now she had a case.
“This is subject to legal action,” she told me. “This is insanity. That’s not a hearing. They’re so arrogant. They think no court will ever stop them. Well, I’m perfectly happy to file an injunction against the city. This is a travesty that has nothing to do with the law. Nothing. The CTA hearings last year were an absolute paradise of democratic action by comparison, because they propagated the mythology of fair hearings. They continued to perpetrate the lie. But we didn’t have any perpetration of the lie today. We had it straight in our face. There’s no such thing as a public hearing. Not when the mayor wants something done. They were afraid that some momentum would build if people actually spoke, if people actually expressed themselves. It would build on one another’s courage.”
“Who gives a damn about our lives?” asked Moreno.
“That’s not due process,” Kamish said. “There was no hearing on this issue. Welcome to Chicago. The city that works. They never remember to finish the sentence. Hah! The city that works against you.”
Meanwhile, behind the council chambers in a long smoke-free drawing room, the commissioners helped themselves to stuffed pizza from Giordano’s.
“Nice job, Jack,” said one commissioner to Jack Pettigrew.
Another patted Mike Jasso on the back.
“We did it,” he said.
Danny Solis made the rounds, shaking hands with the various commissioners. “Thanks a lot,” he said. “Thanks so much.”
“Who were those people?” one commissioner asked.
“It’s funny,” Solis said. “They say they represent the liberals, or the left, but they always go against their elected officials.”
“Well,” the commissioner said, “there sure were a lot of them.”
Alderman Solis laughed as he helped himself to a steaming slice of pizza.
Kamish filed a request to block the TIF on June 4. The next day Judge Foreman denied her petition. But he also demanded that the city immediately turn over to her the audio tapes of the hearing. Kamish discovered that getting information from the city was a nightmare. One set of tapes was defective, and she was repeatedly denied access to transcripts and tapes. She didn’t quit. She had nothing but time. Eventually she filed the suit.
“I do get frantic,” she said in July. “I work all night. I don’t stop. I’m really a complete maniac. I actually think it’s unhealthy. I stay at the library until it closes. There are hundreds of cases on the table. Then I take them all home. I worry. I can’t help it. A few years ago, I was in Mexico talking to the foreign minister about Manuel’s case. The guy from the ministry said to me, ‘You know what it comes down to? It all comes down to who gets tired first.’ Well, I thought, if that’s the case, then I’m gonna win. I thought it came down to something more significant than that. Because I never get tired.”
The plaintiffs went to court on November 24 expecting more delays. When they emerged victorious, Kamish was surprised only by the timing. “Their conduct was so outrageous that really and truly it’s hard to ignore,” she said. “When those facts are put down on paper and someone can coolly look at them, it’s obvious what has to be done. The judge said succinctly: This wasn’t a public hearing.”
Foreman also said that the TIF itself wasn’t invalid, only the hearing was. “The city has the impression that they’re fulfilling their requirement now that the judge has ordered them to do this,” Kamish says. “But it doesn’t put anything significant in their path. The ruling also doesn’t require that they pay any attention to the objections.”
Even so, it had been a remarkable few months. Kamish and Moreno had gained some valuable supporters when seven others joined their lawsuit against the city. “They have been wonderful,” Kamish said. “I think they’ve shown a tremendous amount of courage and character to take this on. A typical person can get upset, but for them to have a sense of the legal implications was astonishing. They fully understood the power of the injustice and the implications of that injustice. This takes a singular character on the part of each of them. I’m very proud to represent them. It makes me very happy.”
With the case completed, Kamish took a long-deserved vacation to visit her daughter overseas. When the city announced that the hearings would be held next week, the plaintiffs were suddenly left to organize the neighborhood without their leader. But they were ready.
Last Saturday, they cruised the neighborhood with a PA system and passed out flyers. Moreno ordered buses for all three nights to take people to City Hall. Of all the plaintiffs, she was especially gratified.
“The organizations within the community didn’t want to cooperate with our suit because they thought we had no chance,” she says. “But it was terrible what the city did, and we were able to prove it. What we did does matter, despite what some people are saying. It was able to restore some hope in people….I just saw that movie A Bug’s Life, and I realized that we are the ants. There are more people like us, just individuals who really have no connection to one organization. There are more individuals who are trying to come together for the same cause. In many respects, I think that we’re making history. Hopefully people will learn from this that we don’t need to be tied down to any one organization. If everybody could just unite on their own terms and work a little bit, we could make a big difference.”
On the phone from Wales, Kamish agreed: “How do you beat City Hall? Well, you have something that’s really incredibly clear and you don’t get discouraged because everybody tells you it’s impossible. You just continue to work until you win.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leticia Moreno; Magdalena Rodriguez, Leticia Moreno, Leticia Cortez, Alexy Lanza, Tracy Kurowski photos by Nathan Mandell.