By Neal Pollack
In late 1994, Brian Mier returned home to find his father dying of cancer. And on his deathbed, Robert Mier had Maxwell Street on his mind. Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois at Chicago had just relocated the historic market to Canal Street, and he considered their move a great mistake.
Robert Mier was the city's commissioner of economic development from 1982 to 1987. He was also an economist, university professor, and civil engineer. He founded UIC's Community Workshop on Economic Development and was one of the world's leading experts on "equity planning," a grassroots method of urban planning that places a community's needs before simply growth. As a member of UIC's planning board, he had voted against moving the market from Maxwell Street.
In 1993 Mier published a book called Social Justice and Local Development Policy, which he considered the culmination of his philosophy. He dedicated it to the memory of Harold Washington, his former boss, writing that the mayor had "used local development policy to reach for social justice." That summer he wrote a personal inscription in Brian's copy: "You were with me through all this. I hope we can move some of these ideas into a more global world. Love, Rob."
At that time Brian was 25 years old, a self-described "slacker" who'd been living in Brazil for a couple years. He had married a Brazilian woman, Magnelia de Oliveira, and they had a young son. By his own admission, he didn't have much interest in his dad's work, even though he respected what he'd done. When Robert died in 1995, Brian moved his family to Chicago. He hadn't spent any significant time here for at least four years, and he was appalled by what he saw. Gentrification was moving full tilt. The South Loop was rapidly transforming. Worst of all, the Maxwell Street Market was gone.
"Mayor Daley needs to call a time-out on Maxwell Street," Robert Mier had written in a February 1994 column in Crain's Chicago Business. "In treating it like a social nuisance, the city is on the verge of obliterating a $10-million minority business."
The column was one of the last things Robert Mier ever wrote. His son hasn't forgotten it.
Earlier this year, Brian Mier hooked up with the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, a truly eclectic crew of academics, musicians, architects, and students locked in a struggle with UIC over saving dozens of old buildings and businesses that still line Maxwell, Halsted, and Roosevelt. Mier, who was working on a thesis about the market for his master's degree in sociology at Loyola University, found that he fit right in.
He had been an intern at In These Times and had written some articles for the magazine on the politics of shareware and computer hacking. He'd also helped start a magazine called Easy Listener, a combination parody and homage to 60s "bachelor" culture, featuring, among other things, interviews with Brazilian musicians, architecture reviews, and nude pictures of the employees of Bite, a restaurant next to the Empty Bottle. But by joining the coalition, Mier plunged into Chicago politics for the first time, he says, "other than getting into arguments with people in bars."
"When my father was commissioner we used to talk all the time about urban development. He wanted me to go into planning. While he was alive, I was revolting against him. But now that he's dead, I feel like I should do something."
Mier didn't do much for the coalition, apart from holding up signs at demonstrations. Then in August he found his cause.
After Robert Mier's death, UIC established an award in his honor. The award is given out every December by the Great Cities Institute to an organization working in "partnership" with other groups on important urban development issues. A separate award goes to a university school or department.
Last summer, Brian Mier came across an article in the UIC News about the 1997 Robert Mier Great Cities Partnership Award. The story quoted Wim Weiwel, director of the Great Cities Institute, saying the award had been presented to the city's Department of Planning and Development in part for its role in UIC's South Campus Development Plan, which included the bulldozing of the Maxwell Street Market.
Mier knew for a fact that his father had been vehemently opposed to the university's plans for Maxwell Street, and he felt an award shouldn't be given out in his name for something he stood so strongly against. He wrote a letter to UIC chancellor David Broski demanding that his father's name be taken off the award. Broski forwarded the letter to Weiwel, who replied to Mier.
"I am very sorry that you are unhappy about our use of Rob's name," Weiwel wrote. "In honoring Rob, the last thing we want to do is cause distress to his family. As you know, I have always had a great deal of respect and affection for your father, and that has extended to his family as well."
Weiwel and Mier set a date for lunch. Mier remembered Weiwel as his father's friend and collaborator. He even recalled Weiwel, who's Dutch, trying to talk him out of spending his junior year in Amsterdam to study the language there. Weiwel told him most of the people he'd meet would speak English as well as Dutch, and he encouraged Mier to learn Spanish instead. Based on his advice, Brian decided to go to Barcelona.
"I don't have a thing against Wim," Mier said before their meeting. "He's a nice guy and a family friend. He offered to help me out with my career a long time before this Maxwell Street thing began. I just don't agree with his position. I'm trying to stop UIC from ripping down buildings, and the only thing I can do is use my name to point out that this is something that my father would have been against, and was against when he was alive. Wim just happens to be giving out the award. It's nothing personal."
But it certainly was political, and Weiwel disagreed with Brian Mier, much as he'd disagreed with Robert Mier when he was still alive. "I feel badly that Brian feels this way," he told me in September. But "Maxwell Street Market has been gone now for four years," and it was time for UIC to develop the area, and certain "interventions" were necessary to make that possible. "That's history, my friend. Now the issue is about what kind of a neighborhood will we build. You know how long that area has been looking pretty bad? I've only been in Chicago about 20 years, but it looked bad when I came. And I haven't seen private developers rushing in to do things there. I think on its face that just to let the market develop on its own clearly isn't doing the trick."
Brian Mier said Weiwel was making apologies for the university's actions. "There have been millions and millions of dollars generated on Halsted Street," he said. "The neighborhood has looked run-down because the city hasn't delivered services on the level that they have to, say, Old Town. But it's still a vibrant shopping area. If you see any vacant buildings in the area, it's because UIC has bought the buildings and evicted the tenants."
When pressed, Weiwel waffled about whether the award had actually been given to the city's planning department for the South Campus project. He said that he "couldn't remember" if he'd mentioned South Campus when he presented the award to planning commissioner Christopher Hill last year. Mier asked Weiwel to apologize for that award at this year's presentation. Weiwel said he couldn't do that. They came to no agreement about the future of the Robert Mier award.
UIC's timing for this year's Great Cities Forum couldn't have been worse: the Friday, December 4, event came three days after the city's Community Development Commission had approved a proposal to create a tax-increment financing district on Maxwell Street. At that City Hall hearing, the university gave a two-hour presentation in which it repeatedly stated that the Maxwell Street project couldn't move forward without TIF money. When the TIF passed unanimously--and without debate--members of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition were indignant.
On the day of the Great Cities Forum, the coalition set up a booth outside the ballroom where the awards luncheon was to be held. Roosevelt University professor Steve Balkin passed out laminated articles calling for the preservation of Maxwell Street. Various other coalition members, including Brian Mier, took seats at tables scattered around the room.
Mier says he'd spoken with Weiwel that week and was under the impression that the university would be apologizing for giving the award to the city's planning department last year. Weiwel says Mier must have known that wasn't going to happen. Instead, Weiwel planned to announce that the award had been given to the planning department for two other initiatives. He wouldn't even mention the South Campus project.
"The three people who are in the know will realize there is a message," Weiwel told me the day before the ceremony. "The 400 people who aren't won't realize what's going on. I think Brian realized that I couldn't stand up there and say, 'Look folks, I can't give an award for South Campus.' That would just be absurd."
UIC vice provost Elizabeth Hoffman, not Weiwel, presented the Robert Mier award, without mentioning the South Campus project but also without apologizing. This made Brian Mier mad enough, but he took special exception when he learned the award was going to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
"I respect the MacArthur Foundation, but they don't need to receive awards. They're in the business of giving out awards. My father received a MacArthur Foundation award. Is there any reason for the MacArthur Foundation to now receive a Robert Mier award? That's pretty ridiculous."
Still, Mier would have kept quiet if Bill Lavicka hadn't been tossed out of the forum. Lavicka, an area housing rehabber, is the most outspoken member of the Maxwell Street coalition. He was also a good friend of Robert Mier, who had helped Lavicka build a Vietnam war memorial on the near west side.
After several speeches, UIC president James Stukel talked at length about UIC's commitment to Chicago neighborhoods. When he was done, Lavicka stood up.
"I have a question. President Stukel says he wants to maintain social and cultural ties with the city. How can you say that while you're going after Maxwell Street right now as you talk? Rob Mier would be rolling over in his grave if he could see what you guys are doing!"
Then, according to a UIC spokesman, two campus police officers "escorted" Lavicka from the room. According to a coalition press release, they "forcibly evicted" him. Lavicka wasn't arrested or charged with anything. But the hubbub provoked Brian Mier to stand up and shout: "As Robert Mier's son, I want his name disassociated from this award!" He then walked over to Stukel and said, "I'm taking my dad's name off this award. And you're a scumbag!"
Weiwel was sitting at Stukel's table. "You don't own this award," he told Mier.
"That may be true," Mier said, "but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to make a big public and ugly battle over this starting tomorrow when my lawyer calls you."
Later, Mier admitted, "The whole thing was a complete farce, because 'tomorrow' was Saturday and I don't have a lawyer." Nevertheless, the incident left him shaken.
A few days after the forum, Weiwel sent Mier an E-mail saying he didn't understand why Mier hadn't accepted UIC's statement. Mier quickly sent a response.
"Context is everything," he replied. "You said nothing at all. I expected there to be some emphasis placed on the statement and there wasn't, it was just slipped into a woman's speech."
Besides, Mier added, he could no longer remain silent after Lavicka was ejected from the luncheon. "Bill Lavicka was a long-time friend of Rob's who gave a speech about him at his funeral. You saw Lavicka give the speech, and should know better than to forcibly evict one of my father's close friends from the Robert Mier award ceremony for merely attempting to exercise his First Amendment rights. I did not plan to jump up and say what I did, but I wasn't going to sit there complacently as they hauled Lavicka away."
Mier has received no response from the university. For his part, Weiwel doesn't understand the fuss. He says Robert Mier enacted plenty of his own big development projects, including the one that ended up demolishing a neighborhood to make way for the new Comiskey Park.
"Rob was perfectly comfortable in ambiguous situations," Weiwel says. "He was not an ideologue. He was a pragmatist who knew how to operate in an environment where you're not going to have it all your way."
Brian Mier says he understands that development often means compromise and sacrifice. His father agreed to the plan for a new Comiskey Park only when it looked like the city would lose the team. But the one position Robert Mier never abandoned, he says, advocated the preservation of the Maxwell Street Market.
"I know which side he'd be on in this debate," Mier says. "Just because my father is dead doesn't mean that UIC can use his name to justify anything they want." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.