To hear some tell it, when Chicago was selected as the U.S. candidate for the 2016 Summer Olympic games a few weeks ago, the citizenry rejoiced. “Chicago sports fans cheer a victory unlike any other,” read a headline in the April 15 Chicago Tribune; the article went on to describe the joyous celebration at ESPN Zone in River North.
The idea of a Chicago Olympics might be very popular over by Rush Street, but it’s hardly going over well in the south side’s Washington Park, where many of the actual events would be staged. I spent the better part of a day there last week and I couldn’t find a single person who wants the Olympics to come. Baseball players, softball players, picnickers, dog walkers, kids playing catch, old-timers walking around the track, tennis players, even the security guards and police–all had the same reaction: bring the Olympics to Washington Park and they’ll have nowhere to go.
Sprawling from 51st to 61st Street and from Cottage Grove on the east to King Drive on the west, Washington Park is one of the city’s largest green spaces. In addition to hosting softball, baseball, soccer, and cricket leagues from spring through the fall, it’s home to the Washington Park Forum, a group that for more than 75 years has been meeting to debate topical issues. Putting up parking lots and an Olympic stadium–even a temporary one–would effectively shut down all of this activity for at least four years. More importantly, many park users see the plans to bring the Olympics to Washington Park as a proxy for a larger strategy: pack ’em up and move ’em out.
“This all about moving people out, brother,” said Louis Carter, a softball player. “You know it and I know it–ain’t no sense beating around the bush.”
About midday I hooked up with a retired city worker who goes by the single name Bodhi. He was busy gathering signatures on a petition calling for Daley to stage the games somewhere else. “I know the odds are against me,” he says. “Our government is essentially a plutocracy –government for the rich. That’s what this is all about, a bunch of rich folks making more money.”
He paused and added with a laugh. “It’s what [political activist] Jim Hightower calls a ‘kleptocracy,’ government for the thieves. ‘Cause that’s all this is–a land grab.”
People lined up to sign the petitions like Bohdi was giving away ice cream cones. “Sign up–hell yeah, I’ll sign up,” said Alphonso Akins, a tennis player. “Everyone’s going to want to sign this. They didn’t ask no one down here if we wanted this Olympics coming here. They just said it was coming.”
As Akins points out, the park’s a little ragged around the edges. Last Sunday there was standing water in the grass on the southern edge, near 55th Street; several baseball games were canceled because the outfield still hadn’t drained. But then most parks in the city are in a state of disrepair, victims of Park District budget cuts. The softball players and tennis players at Washington Park are still laughing about the scores of city workers who descended on it in the days leading up to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s visit in March.
“They put shiny gravel in the walking path and cleared out the mud and the leaves so it was glistening when the committee came,” says Bodhi. But “once the committee went home, they didn’t care how it looked. Funny how that goes.”
On weekends the parking lot off Cottage Grove is packed with cars. Over at the tennis courts just south of 51st Street there’s been a regular weekend game going on for at least 25 years. Many of the dozen or so regulars learned to play the game on their own. “I didn’t play in high school,” says Akins, a retired data processor. “I just picked it up by watching on TV and playing.”
Most of the tennis players contend that Daley got away with proposing the Washington Park site because he didn’t hold any public hearings and sprung it on residents through a press conference. They say that these days south-side politicians are political wimps who won’t stand up to the mayor. “We need Leon Despres,” said Akins (Despres, nearing 100 now, retired as Fifth Ward alderman back in 1975). “That’s how long you got to go back to find anyone with guts.”
Sentiments are just as strong among the softball crowd. There are two dozen or so largely African-American teams arrayed in bright uniforms of orange, black, yellow, red, or gold. They play a boisterous game of 16-inch softball (with mitts) watched by umpires and fans who bring plenty of food and drink. They even have their own cheers–a team known as the Poison, for instance, whoops, “Party like a rock star, party like a rock star–hoo, hoo, hoo!”
“I drove by Grant Park the other day–the softball diamonds were filled,” Bodhi said. “I thought, ‘Put the Olympic stadium there.’ It’s close to where they want to put up the Olympic housing. You already got a lot of parking. If folks get upset, tell them what Daley told us–don’t worry, it’s just a temporary stadium. We’ll give you your park back in four years.”
Quigley the Brave
For the last few months Cook County Board commissioner Mike Quigley has been laying low and playing along with the establishment. He endorsed Mayor Daley in February’s municipal election, and he irked many north-side independents first by helping Todd Stroger get elected board president and then voting for his controversial county budget.
“I don’t want to be seen as a naysayer who doesn’t work well with others,” says Quigley. “I want the mayor to know that I’m with him when he’s right and against him when he’s wrong.”
On the matter of tax increment financing Quigley has come out against the mayor in a big way. On April 19 he released “A Tale of Two Cities: Reinventing Tax Increment Financing,” an analysis that skewers the city’s practice of skimming off close to $400 million a year (and rising) in property taxes. The report, available at commissionerquigley.com, lays out all the warts, familiar to regular readers of this column: how TIFs function as off-the-budget slush funds, raising taxes and diverting money from schools and parks and squandering hundreds of millions in property taxes.
Quigley’s the only elected official who’s dared to criticize TIFs publicly. The silence has enabled the city to perpetuate the myth that TIFs don’t raise taxes or deprive schools of money and to go on creating new TIF districts at the rate of one or two a month.
The last time Quigley moved to reform the program was last summer, when he proposed that the county at least reveal on your property tax bill how much money goes into the local TIF. The mayor dispatched several aldermen and aides to testify against it at a Cook County Board hearing, and it was embarrassing to watch as one after another of Quigley’s so-called reform allies scurried from the issue rather than upset the mayor. Commissioner Forrest Claypool wasn’t even on the floor when the proposal came up for a vote, and Larry Suffredin voted against it, arguing that too much information would only confuse taxpayers.
At around the same time Daley took to needling Quigley when his name came up in public. At a neighborhood budget hearing last fall a resident mentioned the support Quigley had given locals in their efforts to restore a park. “Did he give you money?” the mayor interrupted the speaker, sneering. “Anyone can write a letter.” It was the mayor’s way of sending the message that he had little tolerance for anyone who dared to criticize one of his pet programs.
The report was researched by two of Quigley’s aides, Jason Liechty and Jeremy Thompson, and largely written by Thompson, who was laid off a month ago as a result of county budget cuts. So far it’s generated only a few articles and editorials, but Quigley hopes to get more coverage when he revives his proposal to put TIFs on tax bills in the next few months.
“I’m not surprised the report didn’t get more attention,” Quigley says. “TIFs don’t have a great sound bite–and sound bites rule. I think it would be a front-page story if we found that TIFs money was being spent on sex clubs. But I have faith the public will understand it–it’s just going to take some time.”
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.