News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Learning the Hard Way

A failed attempt at playing plitics leaves UIC stuck betwen two warring factions.



A hue and cry came out of Pilsen when the University of Illinois at Chicago first decided to develop 30 acres south of its present campus. UIC trustee Aida Lopez joined state senator Jesus Garcia in voicing the fears of the Mexican-American community there: would the university encroach on the Pilsen neighborhood, forcing businesses and residents to move?

Seeking to allay these and other fears, UIC chancellor David Broski assured Lopez at a meeting last winter: "The development ends north of the railroad trestle" at 15th Street, just north of Pilsen. Still, anxieties persisted. At a meeting last summer, Lopez warned both the school and developers, "Pilsen has a diversity of leadership, and it is very important for us to be inclusive."

Then, in a misguided attempt to improve relations with the community, the university, whether by accident or design, stepped into the middle of a bitter political fight. In late November UIC pledged to increase its purchases from Latino-owned businesses and to double its number of Latino employees over the next five years. At the time UIC spokesman Ed Tate told reporters that the university was "trying to overcome our history." Many residents still recall that the construction of UIC in the early 60s meant the destruction of much of the neighborhood around Taylor Street.

When the hiring agreement was shot down in December by the UIC board of trustees, the university found itself trapped between two warring factions--on one side, the city and supporters of 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, who helped to craft the pact; on the other, independent state senator Jesus Garcia and various community activists who fear the university's southward expansion will encourage gentrification in Pilsen.

Now--even as all the parties work to revive an agreement--each side is accusing the other of ignoring community interests for political gain. Opponents of the original deal claim the agreement was a cynical ploy to win support for the south-campus expansion. Agreement advocates say their detractors were just green with envy.

On its face, the deal seemed hard to oppose. UIC has nearly 9,000 employees; it promised to increase the number of Latino workers from 706 to 1,411 by the year 2002. The university also agreed to boost to 16 percent the share of goods and services it purchases from Latino-owned companies. The agreement was signed by Solis, state representative Edward Acevedo, and the directors of several local nonprofits.

The deal was a godsend, according to one of the signatories, Miguel d'Escoto, director of the Hispanic American Construction and Industry Association. He says that with benefits the average UIC job pays about $42,000 a year. Doubling Latino jobs and increasing university purchases, d'Escoto claims, would have pumped more than $73 million per year into the Latino community.

But some residents regarded the accord as a payoff. They believed it was disingenuous for UIC to imply that its expansion wouldn't affect Pilsen. The university had already taken a stand in support of designating an industrial area in Pilsen as a Tax-Increment Financing district, and the proposed TIF would be just south of the new campus. The university hopes to spend $400 million building student housing, an art center, and other buildings on a parcel south of Roosevelt and west of Halsted. Some of that land would also be sold to private residential developers.

The jobs covenant would have been a boon for Solis, who was appointed by Mayor Daley as 25th Ward alderman in 1996, after Ambrosio Medrano resigned and pleaded guilty to taking some $31,000 in bribes from an FBI mole. Solis didn't live in the ward, and he had never run for office. He was the executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, a Latino advocacy group that had conducted citizenship and voter-registration drives. Since becoming an alderman, Solis, who failed to return phone calls for this story, has worked hard to cultivate a hands-on, man-of-the-people image; he even included photos from his childhood in Mexico in his 1997 campaign literature. Yet Solis's strongest ties may be to Daley, who many residents think is actively encouraging new development in the area. Recently, Solis has come under fire for his support of the TIF and UIC's expansion. He threatened to withdraw his support of the expansion unless the agreement to increase Latino purchasing and employees was approved. When that didn't happen, he was spared embarrassment by the university's promise to nevertheless honor "the spirit" of the deal.

It's no wonder UIC chancellor Broski and president James Stukel are continuing to push for the pact. This year brought clashes between UIC and the Pilsen community not only over the south-campus expansion but over the elimination of priority registration for minorities as well. Aida Lopez, a psychiatric nurse at the university's medical center, is the sole Latino on the UIC board of trustees. She led the opposition to the hiring agreement, charging that the proposal had failed to go through proper channels. Lopez's misgivings, though, were similar to Garcia's--they both suspected the "good faith" covenant would be legally unenforceable and wouldn't involve the community at large.

Several similar good faith deals had failed in the past, most notably a 1986 bargain that called for increasing the number of Latino employees to 20 percent of the UIC workforce (currently, Latinos account for 8 percent of university employees). Opponents of the latest hiring agreement were also skeptical about the kinds of jobs that would be offered. The university had already stated that the new hires would be primarily in clerical and civil service jobs rather than professional positions, so most would earn far less than $42,000. And critics wondered if those jobs would be open to all who applied. So far, there have been several job forums, where nearly 800 applications were submitted. But some claim Solis and other supporters of the original agreement will still have undue influence over the process. "It will become a way of political patronage," says Hector Reyes, a professor of chemical engineering at UIC.

Pilsen has a long history of grassroots activism, and Solis is hated by activists who characterize him as an opportunistic shill for the city. They mostly support Garcia, who has been Solis's primary political rival. Judging from last year's election results, however, most people in Pilsen don't distrust Solis. Some residents claim the heated opposition to Solis's every move actually hurts the neighborhood.

The division in the community left the university in a no-win situation. UIC spokeman Ed Tate now says, "In our minds the expansion and the hiring agreement weren't tied at all. It was never intended to be a political agreement. It was supposed to be an agreement with representatives of the community. And I don't think the few vocal people in the community really represent widespread opposition."

James Isaacs, executive director of the 18th Street Development Corporation, a major force in the city's revitalization plans for Pilsen, agrees that the hiring pact was inappropriately politicized. While his group has had its battles with UIC over the expansion, Isaacs says the neighborhood has little to gain by attacking the university. "The whole jobs agreement got caught up in a frenzy," he says. "By only looking at Solis versus Garcia, people may have missed the opportunity to really look deeply into what prevented the university from doing a better job of hiring Latinos on its own and how to resolve that."

The university still hasn't secured financing for its expansion, and Tate says the project may not proceed unless Pilsen gets the TIF district; that's why, some claim, opponents of the expansion and the TIF needed to be silenced, fast. The hiring agreement was one way to do that. "It was a perfect sweetheart deal for the university and Solis," says Marc Zimmerman, a Latin American studies professor at UIC and the head of the university-affiliated Latino cultural organization LA CASA. "People were raising too many questions about the expansion, so Broski fished around for groups that would support him. It was a power play for Solis. Now he's got jobs to give away--he'll be popular. That will give him all the votes he needs for the next election."

Aside from Solis and Acevedo, the original covenant's chief supporters--the Hispanic American Construction and Industry Association, the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, and the United Neighborhood Organization--all appeared to be in a position to benefit from the agreement. Later, a number of other parties came out in support of the proposal. These included the Pilsen Together Chamber of Commerce, which has a board mostly made up of non-Latinos, and First Ward alderman Jesse Granato. The primary proponents of the hiring agreement also supported the campus expansion.

Critics of the university's expansion have asserted that the jobs plan was hatched with input from only a few select members of the community. Two respected neighborhood organizations--the 18th Street Develop-ment Corporation and a coalition of churches called the Resurrection Project--weren't included in negotiations, even though they both sat on an advisory committee for the south-campus expansion. The two groups resigned from the advisory committee after the university doubled the planned number of residential housing units from 350 to 700 without notifying them. In a December 1 letter, the groups wrote, "Recent developments indicate that our good faith efforts to engage in an honest and constructive dialogue have been disrespected by the Chancellor's Office. Rather than an open and inclusive community planning process, the UIC South Campus Development Team and the Chancellor's Office have resorted to back room deals with select organizations."

Since the defeat of the hiring agreement, UIC has tried to placate the various factions. Ed Tate says the university is drafting a new hiring agreement, but "I think it's going to move a little more slowly than we originally thought. There are so many people to talk to about it. We're aiming for widespread support. That's why it's taking so long. We were shooting for May 1, but now it looks more like June." The Chancellor's Committee on the Status of Latinos, which was formed in 1987 and includes a subcommittee created specifically to oversee the hiring of Latinos at UIC, was not consulted during the formulation of the original agreement, but it is now involved in drafting the new proposal. "We know more than anyone else about the Latino employment at UIC," wrote CCSL cochair Claudio Gaete soon after the original hiring agreement was announced. "In contrast, the community organizations listed in the agreement have not worked with us nor with the University in the past. They are not familiar with employment issues at UIC and thus we question their involvement, especially Ald. Solis who publicly acknowledged that he did not know that CCSL existed. That he was not aware of our existence only shows his lack of involvement with the Latino community of UIC."

According to the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, there was never any doubt that the hiring agreement was linked to the expansion. They held a press conference with other community groups in early December at Saint Francis of Assisi Church, where speakers asserted that the jobs issue was meant to distract people. The church at Roosevelt and Halsted was a fitting site for the event: it was barely saved from the wrecking ball during the university's construction. "We'd love to sit down with Stukel to talk about jobs," said Pilsen resident Raquel Guerrero. "But this agreement is just a smoke screen, a facade, to obscure the real issue, which is displacement."

Pilsen Neighbors reiterated this claim in a January 14 letter to Broski and Stukel. The letter stated that the hiring agreement "was crafted by UIC in an effort to shift community attention from UIC's planned expansion so as to trade the promise of jobs in Pilsen for future land grab rights; and to secure what jobs [were] available from UIC as a source of political patronage for 25th Ward Ald. Solis and State Rep. Acevedo under the guise of a Latino jobs agreement." The letter called for a new dialogue between the community and UIC. It also contained a threat: "We the people of Pilsen will not be ignored, we will fight and will be heard, by the University and all others who seek to control our future." Pilsen Neighbors president Teresa Fraga, a 33-year resident of the area who ran against Solis in 1997, says the group delivered the letter by hand because so far the university has ignored its request for a meeting with Stukel and because it was not invited to participate in a meeting of the board of trustees concerning the hiring agreement.

Juan Ochoa, head of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, says activist groups like Pilsen Neighbors "are trying to dilute and exploit the jobs issue by bringing up other issues that are being looked at elsewhere, like the expansion. These are people who are pretty much opposed to anything. These are the same groups who've said time and time again that you can't trust the university. If you have that attitude, you basically exclude yourself from any negotiations."

Ochoa blames Jesus Garcia and Aida Lopez for the agreement's problems, claiming they wanted the deal to fail because they couldn't take credit for it. "Garcia and Lopez are embarrassed by the agreement because in the last six years they've been in the position where they could've done something like this but they didn't," he says. "They've just focused on housing and gentrification--jobs were never their issue. They complain about backroom dealing, but they're the ones who've taken themselves out of the process by failing to look at job issues."

He adds that Garcia was involved in the 1986 agreement but "was not strong enough to follow through on it." However, Garcia aide Marcelo Gaete says Ochoa is mistaken--Garcia was not involved in the 1986 deal and only found out about it recently. Gaete also says Garcia was opposed to the current agreement largely because he thought it was unenforceable. "This is nothing more than a press release," says Gaete, the brother of the CCSL's Claudio Gaete. "It's a farce. We want to increase Latino jobs, but we want an agreement that can withstand the light of scrutiny."

Ochoa thought it was unfair to vilify the agreement solely because negotiations were closed. He says everyone on the expansion advisory council was told that participants were free to meet in private with the university.

"This was not a situation where you need to call in every elected official," Miguel d'Escoto says. "It's a business deal, no different than lots of similar business deals that are made by the university all the time. The difference here is that some elected officials saw it as a personal affront and refused to sign on to it."

Marc Zimmerman says the businesslike approach merely confirmed residents' suspicions that the university didn't care about their concerns. And that wasn't helped by the expansion plans and the end of priority registration. Hector Reyes agrees: "All of these things are coming to a head. The chancellor's seen as an intolerant bastard stepping all over people and taking a corporate attitude toward everything." Zimmerman adds that the recent raising of entrance requirements without any new affirmative action policies will make the university's position in the community even more tenuous. In 1975, UIC had only 50 Latino students; as of the fall of 1993, there were 2,015. "With higher entrance requirements and attacks on affirmative action, UIC will have fewer Latinos getting in," Zimmerman says. "At the same time they're going to make destructive inroads into the community that they've already displaced from Taylor Street. It's the capitalist land-development thing. They'll get us to build their buildings so they can push us out."

Ed Tate says the situation has been blown out of proportion. "It's almost amusing how this has been portrayed as such a big conflict," he says. Perhaps the university didn't know what it was getting into. "I don't think that many people on campus are even aware of it, but these are part of larger issues in the community."

The university had to deal with its neighbors, says James Isaacs--the size of the controversy merely reflects the growing importance of the Latino community. "We're at a critical juncture in the city because Latinos are quickly becoming the largest minority," Isaacs says. "The media's recognizing this reality, and there's extra importance put on everything that happens in our community because people want to know what we're thinking about. We're the flavor of the future." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Danny Solis photo/ Robert A Davis-Chicago Sun-Times; Jesus Garcia photo/ Pablo Martinez-Chicago Sun-Times;.

Add a comment