By Ben Joravsky

A year ago last spring the city called a meeting in Albany Park to boast about the area’s bright new possibilities. City planners unveiled a map that showed the Ainslie hotel, a controversial SRO at the corner of Kedzie and Ainslie, replaced with a park.

Don’t worry, the planners assured outraged Ainslie residents, nothing’s official–it’s a proposal, not a plan. Consider it a sketch of a work in progress.

The residents remained unconvinced. “Just watch, the other shoe’s gonna fall,” predicted Joe Arnold, a tenant activist who lives in the Ainslie.

Well, the mighty crash coming out of Albany Park last week was that other shoe landing with a thud. The city produced its final plan for the spot, and the Ainslie and its 88 units are coming down all right–along with some 80 other units of affordable housing a block west in the 4900 block of North Sawyer. But they aren’t making way for a park; they’ll be replaced by a much-needed school.

An invaluable lesson is being taught about urban renewal under Mayor Daley, when City Hall’s long reach extends all the way to the schools. “Oh, they’re slick,” says Arnold. “They knew there would be an outcry if they kicked us out for anything other than a school.”

The Ainslie affair’s one of those spirited neighborhood battles that symbolizes a citywide debate–in this case, how to preserve low-income housing in the face of gentrification? The corner of Kedzie and Ainslie is by no means Lincoln Park. But nearby housing costs are rising as young professionals continue to migrate northwest to the end of the Ravenswood line.

The Ainslie was controversial long before yuppies ever heard of Albany Park. For years block club leaders have complained of its crime and grime. Alderman Margaret Laurino has called for its demolition.

The tenants managed to beat back the bulldozers, convincing the city last year to buy out the owners and install a new management team. “It’s much better run than it used to be,” says Arnold. But Laurino and block club leaders remained unconvinced. They continued to call for replacing the Ainslie with anything (a park, shopping strip, housing) that might clean up the area.

Mayor Daley sent mixed signals. At roughly the same time that his housing department was spending a million dollars to save the Ainslie, his planning department was suggesting that it and other “old” or “dilapidated” properties be torn down. The contradictions became apparent during an August 1998 meeting at North Park University. Ainslie tenants hooted and heckled as planning consultants hired by the city presented a “vision for the future” that the SRO was by no means certain to be part of.

In the meantime the community was facing an unrelated crisis. Its school-age population had rapidly expanded, in part because of an influx of working-class and poor families displaced by gentrification in other north-side neighborhoods. Hibbard School at Ainslie and Sawyer was filled to capacity, despite a large new annex that swallowed up the playground. The local high school, Von Steuben, was jammed, much of its space having been given over to the Albany Park Middle School, which had nowhere else to go. About 1,000 children were being bused to less crowded schools across town, and residents were pleading for a new school. “We have 29 buses coming into this community every day because we have no more room,” says Anthony Jelinek, Hibbard’s principal. “One of the hardest jobs I have is having to tell a parent, ‘No, your child can’t come to Hibbard even though you live just down the street.'”

Last month the two issues converged. The school board revealed plans to build a new middle school on the east side of Sawyer, across the street from Hibbard and around the corner from the Ainslie. The hotel, as well as some 20 buildings on Sawyer–most of them low-rent apartments inhabited by immigrants–would be demolished, and the 4900 block of Sawyer would be closed to create a campus. “We want to bring the Albany Park Middle School into its own facility,” says Tim Martin, the board’s chief of operations. “We need to ease the overcrowding and stop busing kids out of their neighborhood.”

On September 30 the conference room at North Park University filled with some of the same activists and planners who’d met there 13 months earlier. But this time no distinctions were made between “proposals” and “plans.” The new school was coming and private property would be seized, maybe as soon as the spring, Martin announced.

“To build a school we need to buy land, and buying land is not easy,” Martin said. “There isn’t open space. We need to take houses.” He talked about similar school board projects. “We have relocated some 400 homes and provided relocation assistance to those who rent, own buildings, or live in single-family homes. Our pledge here is to do much the same. Is it easy to do? Absolutely not. Is it without controversy? No. But we don’t want to bus. We want as many students walking to school as possible.”

The new middle school and adjacent Hibbard would be surrounded by an “urban park” of open land and playgrounds.

One resident suggested that the new school be built on a relatively underdeveloped stretch of Foster west of Kedzie, thus saving the Ainslie and the properties on Sawyer. But Martin said Foster was too congested. “We wouldn’t want children to have to cross a busy street to get to school,” added Giacomo Mancuso, the board’s director of planning and development.

The plan was immediately endorsed by Laurino, who said the new school would become part of an educational corridor along Kedzie that would include the new North Side Prep High School and North Park University, which has its own expansion plans. “Schools are an important element of our community,” said Laurino. “We have something to be proud of.”

Not surprisingly, few residents facing displacement were convinced. What followed was one of those strange rituals in which lower-level aides in dark business suits stand before a snarling crowd in the guise of public servants carrying on an open and honest exchange of information. Invariably, however, the aides have no answers to the thorniest questions–which in this case were, “Where will we be relocated?” and “How much relocation assistance will we receive?” Policy makers who might know the answers are generally far removed from such frays.

For about 20 minutes the residents bombarded the aides with caustic comments and wisecracks. Few if any believed the official explanation of why the Foster site wouldn’t do. Most children in Chicago cross busy streets to reach school; even under the board’s plan many kids would be crossing Kedzie to get to Hibbard and the new middle school. And how could the aides expect anyone to believe their pleas for green space? Only a few months ago many of the same officials had agreed to replace a grassy park a few blocks away with a fenced-in, off-limits, artificially surfaced soccer field reserved mainly for North Park University.

To critics, the plan was less about educating children than about pushing out the poor. “My kids go to Hibbard, so I know how much they need a new school,” says Israel Pinto, who lives on the 4900 block of Sawyer. “But everyone knows what’s going on. We knew why they’re putting it there as opposed to Foster. They want to get rid of the Ainslie and all the other buildings on Sawyer.”

Some residents favored the plan. “There’s always trade-offs, but why should the children be the ones who have to make the trade-off?” said Julie Godinez, who lives in the neighborhood and brought her two young children to the meeting. “We need more parks–I see kids playing between parked cars. We need schools. Families are moving here–why should they be bused out? I’m sure many parents whose children are bused out would endorse this plan.”

“Change is hurtful at first, but all communities go through changes,” added another resident. “We have to pay a price now, but eventually the gains outweigh the negatives.”

The meeting closed with an announcement by city planners of yet another meeting to discuss a “proposal,” not a plan, to designate much of the business property surrounded by Bryn Mawr, Wilson, Harding, and Kedzie a tax increment financing district. If the idea’s adopted, the city would gain the right to seize private property and replace old businesses with new ones, all in the name of community development and economic progress.

“The people calling it progress are never the people getting moved out,” said Pinto, as he walked along Sawyer after the meeting. “They talk about trade-offs, but what are they going to tell my kids who have to move? I’ve lived around here all my life. I went to Hibbard and Von Steuben. I live with my parents in the two-flat they bought ten years ago. It was their dream house. Now that the area’s getting better they want to just move us all away.”

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