By Ben Joravsky

The zoning war in the 35th Ward began with a simple request to convert a two-flat into a three-flat. But the details of that proposal have since been obscured by the reaction of the ward’s alderman, Vilma Colom.

Many of the people living near the two-flat in Logan Square opposed the conversion, but Colom pointedly defied them and voted in favor of it. “I thought I understood Chicago politics, but I can’t figure out why she’s doing this,” says Lorraine Granieri, a longtime resident. “It’s not helping her win over voters, that’s for sure.”

The zoning dispute began last summer with a letter to people living on and near the 2500 block of North Bernard Street from lawyer James Banks notifying them that his client Clemencia Garcia was proposing to up-zone her lot at 2559 N. Bernard from R-3 to R-4. The letter, dated July 21, said that “the property will be used for a residential 3-flat building.”

The proposal raised concerns, and in September about 50 residents met with Garcia, her husband, and Banks, who happens to be the nephew of 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chairman of the City Council’s zoning committee. It was a relatively benign affair. Banks explained that his clients wanted to convert the basement into an apartment for their grown children. They had no intention of renting it to strangers or selling the building, even though the higher zoning would increase its value.

But Granieri, who lives on Bernard, and her neighbors remained skeptical of the proposal. It was, they thought, a case of “spot zoning,” breaking up the generally uniform zoning of a neighborhood. It also struck them as a sign of undesirable things to come. For better or worse, prosperity has been creeping into Logan Square. Rents have been rising, and property, particularly vacant lots, is now at a premium. The area is ripe for the sort of landgrab that’s transformed Lakeview, Wicker Park, and Bucktown, with developers enticing home owners to sell fast so they can knock down their single-family homes and replace them with tall, thin three-flats.

“I know that this particular request is not life and death–it’s a simple case of someone wanting to develop a basement apartment,” says Bruce Embrey, a Bernard Street resident. “But people felt this could be the edge of the wedge, the start of the transformation of Logan Square into Bucktown. You could wind up with a situation where ten people are living on a lot where there once were four–which means a lot more congestion,”

Colom, who also sits on the City Council’s zoning committee, wasn’t at that meeting, though she had been invited. Instead one of her aides attended. “The aide told us that the alderman wants you to know she will do what the community wants,” says Granieri. So several residents–including Embrey, Margaret Dee, and Gene Kaminski–went door-to-door along Bernard Street, collecting signatures on petitions opposing the proposal. More than 90 residents signed the petitions, which were then sent to Colom and Alderman Banks.

On September 27 the matter was placed before the council’s zoning committee, which deferred it until a later meeting. The residents waited for the issue to be raised again. “My husband called the zoning-committee office regularly for the next four months to find out if the application was going to be brought up,” says Granieri. “It was a good thing he stayed on top of them, because on February 7 he called up and they said, oh yes, we’ll be discussing it tomorrow.”

About nine residents showed up at the committee’s meeting, worried that the aldermen were trying to quietly gavel through the change. The residents testified against the proposal–no resident testified in favor–presented their petitions, and sat back and watched as the committee unanimously approved it anyway. Banks recused himself, since his nephew was representing the applicants. Colom wasn’t there, but she voted yes in absentia.

“I was really incensed,” says Granieri. “I thought I had seen everything, but that day I got a real taste of how Chicago politics works. It didn’t matter that we were there. It didn’t matter what we said, or how many petitions we presented. They just shoved it down our throats.”

Even some of the other aldermen, who presumably have seen everything, seemed sheepish. “Aldermen [Burton] Natarus and [Bernard] Stone told us that they were only doing this because Vilma asked them to,” says Dee. “They urged us to see Colom.”

So a few residents walked over to Colom’s City Hall office, where they were told that she was too busy to meet with them. That night they showed up unannounced at her ward office. This time they got their meeting.

“She said she didn’t need to give us an explanation for voting for the proposal,” says Dee. “She said we didn’t really have over 90 signatures and that she had a list of people who said we had threatened and intimidated them into signing our petitions. We asked to see her list, but she said she didn’t need to show it. We suggested we do another canvass. Vilma agreed–provided one of us went with one of her precinct workers.” The residents say they called Colom to set up the canvass, but she never called back.

Meanwhile, the zoning change was unanimously approved by the City Council on February 15. The residents felt duped and deceived. “It wasn’t just that the zoning passed–that was certainly the least of it,” says Dee. “It was everything else. Vilma avoided meeting with us. She voted in absentia. She said she was going to do a canvass and she didn’t do it. She said she was going to do what the community wanted, but she didn’t do what the community wanted. And then there’s that story about intimidation. That’s absurd. That’s insulting. We didn’t intimidate anyone. Everyone wanted to sign.”

Outraged, they persuaded Deborah McCoy, a longtime activist, to run a write-in campaign against Colom for Democratic committeeman. “The whole point of that campaign was to send a message to Colom about respecting the voters,” says McCoy. “I didn’t expect quite the reaction we got. Anyone who says there’s not a machine in Chicago anymore should have come to the ninth precinct of the 35th Ward on election day. I was there all day, and there were 18 guys there for Colom”–a reference to the hulks sent in to bring out the vote for Colom. McCoy wound up with only 126 votes.

Residents aren’t sure why Colom battled them so vigorously on such a minor matter, and she didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Many observers were reminded of her effort to keep residents from installing basketball hoops at a Kimball Avenue play lot. In that case, she’d argued that hoop supporters had intimidated a silent majority of residents, who were privately pleading with her to block the courts. “I actually was with her on the courts–I didn’t want them,” says Dee. “But I never felt intimidated by anyone.”

Some Bernard Street residents think Colom was punishing them voting for her opponent in last year’s aldermanic election. “It goes along with the general trend in local politics these days,” says Granieri. “There’s a fear of authority, a fear of retaliation. People don’t feel empowered by their citizenship. They feel they have to be on good behavior. And aldermen are only too happy to take advantage of this attitude. There are so many similarities to feudalism.”

Colom might have to pay a price for making so many enemies. “Let’s see, 96 voters on Bernard Street are unhappy with her and 2 are happy–you do the math,” says Dee. “Every time she acts like this she upsets someone. I used to be one of her big supporters. I ran her office during her first aldermanic campaign. I was a volunteer and then a paid worker. Now I know what it’s like to have her turn against you. She has a siege mentality. If you don’t do what she wants, you’re the enemy. If her perceived enemies are for it, she’s against it–no matter what it is. I know she’s not happy with me. I saw her on election day outside a polling place. She was standing in the middle of the street screeching at me, ‘I see your true colors.'”

Another zoning battle has since broken out over a proposal to up-zone a three-lot parcel on the 2600 block of North Kimball, one block east of the Bernard building, so that a developer–who also happens to be represented by James Banks–can put up 16 town houses. Bernard Street residents have joined Kimball Avenue residents in demanding that Colom reject the zoning change.

Colom missed the one public meeting held on the proposal. When 70 or so residents marched to her offices last week demanding that she reveal her position, she agreed to meet with a delegation of five. After a 45-minute meeting, the five delegates emerged from Colom’s office to say that she’d agreed only to attend the next public hearing on the matter.

“I wasn’t pleased with her offer for a meeting,” says Bruce Embrey. “It was her way of saying that the previous meeting, with its three hours of debate and discussion, was irrelevant. I think we’re about to have a larger-scale repeat of Bernard Street.” He pauses. “It certainly is a strange way to run a ward.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph/copyright Chicago Sun-Times..