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Against Their Grain

Loyola Park woodworkers stake out their turf.



By Ben Joravsky

For years they had it good, retreating when they wanted to the sanctuary at Loyola Park, where they could do their woodworking in peace. Then one day in January they got the news from some in-the-know Park District employee that the outside world was intruding. The central office planned to convert the wood shop into an exercise room.

The woodworkers' protests have induced the central office to back off, proving that once in a while even the little guys can make the system bend. Call it the great woodworkers' uprising.

"We don't want to dictate policy to anyone, but I think we convinced people how valuable the wood shop is," says Paul Anderson, a regular woodworker. "That was our intention."

Anderson and his wife, Elisabeth, have been using the shop at Loyola Park for six years. He's a graduate student in literature at Northwestern University; she's a librarian at the University of Chicago. Both have a deep, almost reverent passion for woodworking.

"For me woodworking is both active and intellectual--you're making something through your mind," says Elisabeth, who's now at work constructing a guitar. "I love to work out the logistics of putting a piece together. I love the feel of chiseling into wood--I find that very satisfying."

Paul says, "Every piece of lumber, like every great book, is unique. It combines an almost infinite variety of possibilities, and yet certain governing principles run through it. Woodworking is a rational system that at the same time involves something new. I think all of us get something different from woodworking."

Their guru in the wood shop is a Park District instructor named Miro Taylor, a soft-spoken artisan who, according to his disciples in the shop, is more than a master craftsman. He is, above all else, a brilliant teacher.

"I find that part of the virtue of the shop is that Miro has a way of communicating that goes beyond spoken language," says Paul. "I have concluded from my own teaching experience with literary text that in some sense all you can do is point. That is, all you can do is point to those aspects of the text that are important.

"Well, Miro's a very good pointer. He shows you how to do something. He doesn't just tell you, he doesn't dictate--he enables the student to find his own voice. For instance, Miro has showed me countless ways of sharpening a chisel--all of which are correct, because there is no one method."

Over the years other regulars have joined the Andersons in the shop. A high school teacher and a musician share the Andersons' passion for woodworking, and another dozen familiar faces pass through from time to time to make a shelf or bookcase. The shop is a large, airy room on the first floor of the field house at Greenleaf and Sheridan; it's a remnant of the days when the parks recognized woodworking as an important craft, to many students the key to self-sufficiency. There used to be a wood shop in each of the city's 200 or so major parks, says Ed Kelly, former Park District superintendent. But over the years many were closed for lack of funds or use. Now a Park District spokeswoman says 32 shops are left, including Loyola's.

"It's a very peaceful place to pass the time," says Paul. "There are times when people are working very hard and minutes will pass without anyone saying a word. Other times we're discussing our projects. The environment's very collaborative. I'll give you an example. I was trying a way to design a cabinet that hid the books in such a way where you could see them but they weren't obstructive. Well, Jim [the high school teacher] took me to his house and showed me the cabinets he had built, and they were ideal. I found myself looking at the bookcases, not the books. I'll come up with something similar."

The regulars might have worked in quiet collaboration forever, but in early winter word leaked from a gabby Park District employee that the shop would be converted into an exercise room.

It was nothing official--these things rarely are. For such low-priority issues the central office rarely holds public hearings.

In February the woodworkers decided to plead their case at a meeting of the local park advisory council. "Allen Ackermann, Loyola Park's new supervisor, was there," says Paul. "He mentioned that yes, our particular space was being considered for the exercise room, which he said would be a nice thing to have. He seemed less like our supporter than a benevolent observer. He certainly gave us no long-term commitment for the future."

After the meeting, the Andersons and their allies had good reason to be more nervous than ever. If it came down to a decision between the wood shop and an exercise room, the odds against them were overwhelming. They weren't like the basketball or baseball leagues, which can count on strong political support (city clerk David Orr, for instance, coaches two Loyola Park basketball teams). They had few allies. The wood shop's profile was so low even 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore (who claims to know everything about Rogers Park) knew nothing about it.

As for the Park District, there didn't seem to be anyone in a position of power who appreciated the shop. All the district knew was that it had money to spend on weights and other workout gear and the wood shop seemed like a perfectly good place to put the equipment.

So the regulars wrote several letters to the advisory council and to downtown officials. To their amazement, they found they had an ally in advisory council chairman Katie Hogan, a well-connected independent activist with an approach to politics vastly different from the woodworkers'. She and her allies on the council had swept into office last spring as part of an insurgency against a Park District plan to build a large, ugly new bathhouse in the park. "They started constructing the commode and we went nuts," says Hogan. "We called Alderman Moore and said if he didn't want a Tiananmen Square uprising he had to call off the bulldozers."

Hogan told the woodworkers they shouldn't be squeamish about getting active, and that they could count on advisory council support if they broadened their program's base. "The wood shop sounds great, but they have to get more people involved," says Hogan. "When they showed up at the meetings and wrote their letters it helped build support. Ackermann told us he would not move them out of the building. And my impression is that he'll stick by what he says."

Ackermann would not comment, but Park District officials say the woodworkers have more support than they realize. "I know they do a great job," says Mary Ellen Messner, the district's north lakefront area manager. "Miro's wonderful. He made me a beautiful curtain rod."

Does this mean the wood shop isn't moving? "Well, we do want to bring in the fitness center. And we think the wood shop room might make a wonderful fit for the exercise room. So we may move the woodworking shop upstairs. But no, we're not moving it from Loyola Park."

"I'm glad they're saying they won't close the shop, but I'm a little nervous about this talk of moving us," says Paul Anderson. "One thing I've learned over the years is that once things start moving there's a good possibility that they will soon disappear. We still don't have the long-term commitment we want. So we're going to have to keep our eyes open and not let down. You'd hate to lose one of the best things in the parks." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Elisabeth and Paul Anderson.

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