By Ben Joravsky

For six months Mayor Daley’s led the fight against the Asian long-horned beetle. He’s vowed to spend whatever it takes to stem the infestation that threatens hundreds of north-side trees.

So imagine the surprise of north-side residents when they learned that Daley’s Park District appointees and an aldermanic ally were planning to kill at least 23 healthy trees in a corner of Albany Park within the long-horned beetle quarantine zone–and not to check the blight but to make way for a fence-enclosed, artificial-surfaced soccer field.

The soccer field–which would obliterate a softball diamond, tennis courts, and a play lot as well as the trees–has generated strong opposition. But instead of backing off, city officials, particularly 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, are hammering back, using, as one resident puts it, “intimidating tactics to make us give in.”

With the trees scheduled to be uprooted in the spring, the mayor’s the only remaining hope. “Mayor Daley says he loves trees–well, we need him now,” says Joe Arnold, an Albany Park resident. “Here we are in the middle of the quarantined area and they want to tear down these beautiful three-story trees for Astroturf. They want to take away the community’s park. I can’t believe the mayor will let this happen.”

The park, informally known as West River Park, runs from Ainslie to Carmen between the Chicago River and Albany. It’s the main piece of greenery for a congested community of apartment buildings, two-flats, and single-family homes. But a few months ago officials from the Park District, the Board of Education, and North Park University got together and decided it would be best for everyone if the park were replaced with a soccer field. As they saw it, North Park needed and deserved a new soccer field, since the old one at Bryn Mawr and Kedzie had been taken over by the Board of Education to be the site of a new magnet high school. There’s plenty of nearby park space to play soccer in, but North Park wanted a state-of-the-art field with easy-to-maintain turf, bleachers for fans, and a broadcasting booth.

“This case is one of those rare instances where the needs of three organizations converged,” says Carl Balsam, North Park’s vice president of administration and finance. “The parks wanted to improve their parks, the schools want a soccer field [for the new magnet school and nearby Von Steuben], and we wanted a soccer field. It’s a win-win situation.”

That’s true only if the feelings of residents don’t count–which they may not. The plan was shrouded in secrecy, the actual drawing revealed only at a hastily scheduled and poorly attended October 7 community meeting. After that officials inexplicably refused to display the plan publicly, and residents found themselves begging for details as conflicting rumors about the field’s size, shape, and scope swept the community. “I don’t think they thought they would have to answer to anyone,” says Adria Passey, a resident. “They had Alderman Mell’s backing. I guess they figured that’s all they needed to come on in and tear down our park.”

Eventually specifics leaked out. The soccer field and an eight-lane track surrounding it would fill almost all of the park, replacing the basketball and tennis courts, playground, spray pool, and trees–23 of them, by the Park District’s count, at least 60 by the count of residents and a reporter. The $1.75 million cost would be evenly split by the Park District, the Board of Education, and North Park, though the field would be off limits to high school students during the fall soccer season (when it would be reserved for North Park), and it was uncertain what if any programs the Park District (which would own the field) would get around to operating there.

By the end of October several residents, led by Passey and Jennifer Plotkin, were organizing. “I’m new to the area, so I was surprised at the way things are done,” says Plotkin. “I thought if you have questions, call the city and they will respond. Boy, was I wrong. It took forever for Mr. Mell or anyone at the Park District to even call me back. I finally got ahold of Mell on October 19 and told him we wanted to have a neighborhood meeting. He said, ‘Don’t worry. Whatever the neighborhood wants, I want.’ I said, ‘We want to make sure we at least get the facts right. We’d like to see a model.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s exactly what I want, Jennifer. I’ll be at your meeting and I’ll bring a model.'”

But Mell didn’t attend the October 21 neighborhood meeting. Instead several of his precinct captains showed up. “We let one of them in, and it was clear he knew nothing about anything,” says Plotkin. “He said, ‘I think the field’s a great idea.’ We said, ‘Do you have a model?’ He said no. We said, ‘Do you know the details?’ He said no. We said, ‘Do you even live around here?’ He said, ‘I used to.’ So let’s see–he doesn’t have a model, and he doesn’t live around here, and he’s giving us a hard time, and all of our energy’s going into arguing with him about a plan he knows nothing about. We asked him to leave. We said, ‘We don’t mean any offense, but you’re upsetting us.'”

The next day two other precinct captains showed up at Plotkin’s house, she says. “One was taking photographs of my house. I said, ‘Why are you taking pictures of my house?’ He said, ‘No, we’re taking pictures of the trees across the street.’ Then he started saying how the park’s overrun with gangs and garbage and how he once had to huddle over his children to make sure they weren’t hit by gang gunfire.

“And it’s not true. I’m here every day. This is one of the most beautiful spots in the city, particularly in the fall when the leaves change color. There are no gangs. It may have been that way years ago, but now you have mothers and their kids and children playing on the swings and people walking their dogs. And even if there were gangs, isn’t there a better way of dealing with them than destroying a park?”

Within a few weeks, Plotkin and her allies had found support from Friends of the Parks, Friends of the Chicago River, and other environmental and watchdog groups. But they still found no support from City Hall. “I have sent Mayor Daley at least ten letters and we have left phone messages with all of the relevant city departments and there has been zero response–not even a little note saying we got your letter,” says Plotkin. “When I called the mayor’s office to see if he got our letter they directed me to someone who handles his mail. I wound up talking to someone named Sandy in the mayor’s correspondence unit who has no authority in this matter at all.”

Worse, she says, it seemed as though Mell was starting to take her opposition the wrong way: “We met with Mell on October 26 at his office,” says Plotkin. “I talked for about 30 seconds and he broke in and said, ‘Your group threw my men out of your meeting.’ I said, ‘We had invited you, not them. And they didn’t know anything.’ I said our major goal was to find an alternative location and he said, ‘Sure, I will help you.'”

A few days later, says Plotkin, Mell showed up unannounced at her house. “He walked along the footbridge that crosses the river and looked at the park and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, maybe he’s coming around. Maybe he sees how beautiful the park is and he’ll want to save it.’ But it was weird. He kept calling me ‘kiddo.’ He said, ‘Jennifer, look at what I have in my hand.’ It’s a survey of my house. He said, ‘You know, it looks like the driveway belongs to the city and you have a fence around it. Hmm, did you buy it like this?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Hmm, it looks like your fence is on what’s actually an extension of Albany and it’s not your driveway at all, kiddo. I’m gonna have to check on this and get back to you.’ I said, ‘If it’s not ours I’d like to buy it.’ He said, ‘I’ll keep that in mind, kiddo.'” (Mell did not return phone calls for comment.)

On November 1, Plotkin and her allies held a rally attended by 100 or so park supporters. “Mell wasn’t there, but several precinct captains came,” says Plotkin. “One woman was taking pictures of our signs and our cars and license plates. There was this one precinct captain who’s a cop and he walks around with a tough guy everyone calls ‘the leg breaker.’ It’s kind of intimidating.”

The demonstration has not caused the Park District to waver in its support for the soccer field. They say they will move the play lot and tennis courts to another, not yet determined site. “It’s good for the neighborhood because this area is primarily used for soccer,” says Larra Clark, a Park District spokeswoman. “Every tree that will fall to construction will be replaced. I know you can’t plant huge trees. But eventually they will grow.”

Clark says the opposition has exaggerated its strength. “I heard they had 50 people show up for their rally. Another reporter told me it was 70.”

And how many residents support the soccer field? “I understand [Mell] came up with a letter of support,” says Clark. “I don’t understand if it’s from an individual or an organization. But I heard there was a letter of support.”

Foes of the soccer field say they will press on with pleas to Daley. “So they’re going to pave over more green space somewhere else to make way for the tennis courts and play lot they have here–please, it makes no sense,” says Arnold. “Only in Chicago do we have a park district that takes away space instead of trying to provide new parks.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Adria passey, Joe Arnold, Jennifer Plotkin photo by Jon Randolph.