By Ben Joravsky

Mary Sykes’s hearing is fading and her body’s slowing down, but at 81 she still has enough spunk to take on some of the most powerful politicians and business leaders in Norwood Park. Her protest, now entering its third month, is particularly surprising because she’s been a loyal member of the Norwood Park establishment for more than 50 years.

Sykes and her late husband, Charles, moved to that far-northwest-side community in 1947. Back then Charles was a cop and Mary a housewife. They raised two daughters who went to the local grammar schools and on to Taft High School. “My mother was always involved in the local schools when my sister and I were children,” says Gloria Sykes, who also lives in Norwood Park. “She’s the type of woman who gets involved. She was in the Norwood Park Garden Club, the Norwood Park Historical Society, the Norwood Park Women’s Club, and the Citizens Association, which is a leading community group out here. She’s even in the chamber of commerce, which is ironic given what happened.”

Mary Sykes’s passion is gardening. There’s no community garden in Norwood Park that she hasn’t planted, weeded, watered, or fertilized. One of her proudest creations is Crescent Park, a crescent-shaped patch of city-owned land a little bigger than a city lot that’s at Avondale and Raven, just across the tracks from the Norwood Park train stop on the Metra line. It isn’t officially a park–it isn’t recognized by the Park District. But a few years back, Sykes and her garden-club friends helped turn it into a memorial to the three local servicemen–G. Kasper, D. Fries, and D. Luster–who died in Vietnam. “On Memorial Day we hold a service there,” she says. “It’s important to have a tribute to people who gave their lives for their country.”

So she was surprised to open the local Press in June and learn that 41st Ward alderman Brian Doherty and his allies on the Norwood Park Chamber of Commerce were backing plans to chop about six feet off the eastern end of the park. The city, the article read, “will undertake a beautification/ streetscape improvement project to provide nine to 15 new parallel-parking spaces for commercial and commuter use along Avondale.”

Sykes thought the $500,000 project–to be paid for using state funds secured by state senator Walter Dudycz–was a “silly idea,” one of those half-baked schemes city officials concoct when they have too much money to spend and too few people watching what they’re doing. “First of all, the language is misleading,” she says. “It’s not ‘beautification.’ How can you call adding parking spaces to a park beautification? Obviously, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Maybe ‘desecration’ is a better word. This is space reserved to memorialize men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. They should leave it alone. We don’t even need more parking around here. It would only be used for commuters who take the train downtown.”

Just as irksome was the city’s plan to add what engineers call “bump-outs” to the northern and southern ends of Crescent Park. These bump-outs–sometimes called “bulb-outs” because the city likes to decorate them with flowers–are extensions into streets (in this case Avondale) that reduce their width and force motorists to drive slower. “Those bump-outs, or whatever they call them, are dangerous, because they could get in the way of fire trucks,” says Sykes. “There’s a firehouse just down the street from the park. If those trucks are delayed 30 seconds that could be someone’s life.”

The only businesses near the park are a flower store and a small antique shop, which is owned by a leading member of the chamber of commerce. “They don’t do enough business to justify putting in more parking,” says Sykes. “I decided this is not only ugly and dangerous but it’s unnecessary. I decided to do something about it.”

So in mid-June she went door-to-door along Avondale and the surrounding residential streets, gathering signatures. “We, the undersigned Norwood Park residents, wish to publicly state our opinion that we are not in favor of the proposed elimination of the historical parcel of land at Avondale and Raven in order to provide parking spaces,” her petition reads. “Parking on Avondale does not benefit the neighborhood, but in fact, will cause traffic jams and ultimately automobile and pedestrian accidents. Thus, we the undersigned respectfully request that the landmark park be left alone.”

“It was very hot back then,” says Sykes, “but I felt it was important to go out. A lot of people didn’t even know what was going on until I told them about the project. I collected over a hundred signatures. Everyone was very supportive, including many of the firefighters at the firehouse. A lot of them signed.”

She found other allies in the garden club and the Citizens Association. “We were never informed until they put the plan together,” says Joe Giambrone, president of the association. “I still can’t figure out why they need it. If they want more parking, put it on Northwest Highway,” Norwood Park’s busiest commercial thoroughfare, on the other side of the train tracks.

On July 24 Sykes delivered the petitions to Doherty at a community forum. “I thought that maybe they’d back off a bit when they saw how many residents opposed it,” she says. But Doherty and chamber officials responded with letters defending the project and attacking the petition. “Recently, the [chamber] has become aware of petitions being circulated throughout the neighborhood concerning planned improvement projects,” the chamber of commerce letter begins. “The petitions are filled with erroneous information that have little or no foundation of the facts.” Doherty’s letter begins: “I would like to offer a little background that I hope will clarify any misconceptions or misinformation.”

I called chamber officials for comment; they didn’t call back. But Chuck Hagopian Jr., executive director of the chamber of commerce, recently told a reporter for the Lerner Times that the letter was sent “to make sure everybody knows what’s happening and knows what the ingredients of the project are.” Another chamber of commerce official, Jim Del Medico, told the Times, “We have to let the community know exactly what the truths are without going on hearsay. I know people that signed the petition who weren’t clear as to what they were signing.”

Neither Doherty’s letter nor the chamber of commerce’s letter nor the Times article specified what the erroneous or misleading information in Sykes’s petition was. Instead they presented facts about the project–such as where the bump-outs will go and how many parking spaces will be added–as if those facts were a rebuttal.

Doherty says he has nothing against Sykes, though he thinks her complaints are exaggerated. He says the parking spaces won’t desecrate the memorial and will take only about three or four feet from the eastern end of the park. “There are two reasons for this project–to slow traffic and to provide parking, which our merchants need,” he says. “That’s it. There is no hidden agenda. In no way will it desecrate the memorial. In fact, we’re looking to put a fountain there to make it even more attractive.”

Nevertheless, Sykes and her daughter feel Sykes’s reputation has been smeared. “They’re saying she passed erroneous and misleading information, and that’s not true,” says Gloria Sykes. “She made no claims about the project other than to say she opposed it. She doesn’t even describe it. They just made that stuff up to make her look bad, and that really bothers me. What a terrible way to treat a woman who’s given so many years of service to her community. She went out in that heat to circulate these petitions because she loves Norwood Park. How dare they respond in this way. I was also upset with the Times. They talk about an ‘anonymous petition.’ It wasn’t anonymous. My mother presented those signatures to Doherty at a public meeting, and everybody knows it.”

In any event, it’s not immediately obvious why parking spaces are needed. There was hardly any traffic on Avondale last Thursday morning and afternoon, for example, and parking spaces were readily available, even on Northwest Highway. “The real tragedy here is that the chamber isn’t doing more to bring back businesses along Northwest Highway,” says Gloria Sykes. “I remember when it was bustling down here. Now we have vacant storefronts. Residential property is going up in value, but the downtown is ailing. And yet they’re wasting time and money on nine parking spaces.”

Mary Sykes says she’s going to continue her opposition to the project, even though Doherty says he expects the project to get under way soon. “I just saw an article on bump-outs,” she says, referring to a small story in the September 4 Chicago Tribune. “It’s headlined ‘Bump-outs a bust.’ It says that the city’s taking out the bump-outs from Andersonville in the 48th Ward because ‘the public feedback we received was mostly negative, running three to one against.’ The man who said that is Craig Wolf, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.”

She sets the paper down. “I think I ought to call Mr. Wolf. I’d like to know how can bump-outs be good for Norwood Park if they’re not good for Andersonville.”

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