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New lines in an old battle: the gentrification of Wicker Park



They're tearing down some of the dilapidated old buildings in the working-class area out west of the Kennedy Expressway, on the near-northwest side, and putting up a bunch of spanking new town houses.

A lot of old-timers have been offered five times the money they paid for their homes. The realtors and brokers are all but foaming at the mouth; it's a gold mine, they tell you, an opportunity for everybody (rich and poor) to make big bucks.

But some residents are bitter, and rebelling. Don't get us wrong, they say, we want our neighborhood to flourish. It's just that when real estate changes hands, someone has to move, and we're tired of moving.

Welcome to Wicker Park, one of the few racially, ethnically, and economically integrated communities in Chicago. In Wicker Park, bounded roughly by North Avenue and Divison between Ashland and Western, the fundamentals of get-it-while-you-can free-market capitalism are clashing head on with appeals for fairness and restraint. The issue is familiar: as the well-to-do, attracted by the area's lovely Victorian mansions and its proximity to downtown, move in, property costs rise, forcing working-class residents to move out. With a shortage of decent and affordable housing in the city (and virtually none in the suburbs), they have few places to go.

For the moment, the conflict is personified in two well-acquainted adversaries: Louis Prus, owner of Easy Life Real Estate and Management Company, and the Northwest Community Organization. Prus has sold and bought real estate in Wicker Park for years--almost as long as NCO's activists (disciples of the late Saul Alinsky) have worked the same turf, organizing poor and lower-middle-class residents.

This is not the first time NCO has vilified Prus. In 1981, NCO accused Prus of "promoting displacement by pushing up housing prices and rents," leading one local resident, a fellow named Luis Gutierrez, to proclaim: "Louis Prus is the worst violator of our rights, but he is not acting alone. We need protection from all the realtors who, like Prus, will stop at nothing to push current residents out to make way for 'urban pioneers.' Pioneers used to kill Indians and now Latinos, Blacks, and senior citizens are their victims." Gutierrez has gone on to what some may consider bigger and better things (he's now the area's alderman), but the issue has not dissipated. Over the last few weeks, NCO and a couple of other groups in the area have organized the Westtown Campaign for Affordable Housing (West Town is the larger community area encompassing Wicker Park), once again accusing Prus of pressuring low-income property owners to sell low so the same property can be rehabbed and resold to gentrifiers at much higher prices.

"The brokers show no mercy," says Millie Ankrum, an elected official of NCO. "They call you day and night; they knock on your doors. We have reports that they'll even send over building inspectors to harass you into selling. It's got to stop."

NCO demands that Prus meet with them (which he has), call off the solicitation (which he claims he doesn't do, anyway), and sign an agreement that states that Prus, among other things, would voluntarily limit the profit he makes on real estate transactions in the area.

"I'm not against business," says Genny Moreno, a board member of the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, the not-for-profit development group that spun off from NCO. "But when you take from a community, you also have to give something back. You can't just take and take and take. Were not going to let it happen; we're going to fight back."

Prus's response is a mixture of bemusement, sympathy, and, in the case of the profit-ceiling demand, incredulity. Questions of morality aside, it is one of capitalism's everlasting precepts that the seller be free to sell as high as the market will bear, and keep the profits. Or, as one broker put it, "This is America. If someone's dumb enough to pay my asking price, that's his right!"

"First of all, I don't understand why they're picking on me," says Prus, "OK, ten years ago, I was the only guy working this area. But today, you have a dozen real estate companies working the hell out of Wicker Park; I've only got one full-time salesperson working here, and she's not hassling anybody. [NCO] told me, 'You're the most convenient.' That makes sense. I live here. The other realtors live on Lake Shore Drive. So, they pick on me because they don't have to go too far to picket." (NCO claims they target Prus because Easy Life is the worst offender in trying to persuade property owners to sell.)

"I'm interested in their gripes, though. These are rough times. They've been rough times since Reagan got in. Reagan doesn't understand older cities--frankly, I don't know if he understands anything. The poor are caught between a rock and a hard place; they've got no place to go.

"But cap my profits? Who would agree to that? If I do that, who guarantees against my losses? When I buy a building, I take a risk. If there are cost overruns, or if the market goes bust and the building doesn't sell, I'm stuck with a $200,000 investment just sitting there. It costs me $3,000 a month in insurance just to maintain it. Is NCO going to cover my losses? Sure, they want a cap, but you have to have a quid pro quo."

The conflict stems from the tide of gentrification that washed west from Lincoln Park at least a decade ago. The asking price of most real estate in Wicker Park has soared into the hundreds of thousands of dollars--a mind-boggling fact considering the neighborhood's overall condition.

A quick drive through Wicker Park shows a community scarred by abandoned buildings and debris. Clumps of young men loiter on busy street corners during business hours. The local newspapers tell stories of gang fights and dope deals.

And yet, the gentrifiers seem impervious to the threat of danger. "The good news for Wicker Park property owners is that you have chosen wisely," writes Jerry Harlan Jr., a local developer, in an article for Circa, a magazine published by a community group called the Old Wicker Park Committee. "Wicker Park has all the potential to surpass the per capita affluence of Lincoln Park by combining its unique appeal of architecturally significant housing with a much lower population density. These two factors will result in the establishment of a suburb type feeling of community and space within the city."

In a sense, Harlan, Prus, and other developers peddle a piece of the Lincoln Park dream. Yes, the sales pitch goes, the area is still largely working-class, but that's only temporary. The location is too strong (within minutes of the Loop), the vintage Victorians and Queen Annes too much in demand for Wicker Park not to take off.

Will it take time? Of course. The Lincoln Park miracle was, itself, 30 years in the making. But remember this: time is your ally. You're rich; you're successful. Secure your home with the best electronic devices available. Settle in. Wait.

"The first thing I do with a buyer interested in Wicker Park is show them my house," says Prus. "I have 5,100 feet, at $2,000 a foot, it's worth about a million. I tell them not to believe all those stories about crime. Most of them aren't true anyway. I tell them I live here; I raised my kids here. OK, my kids didn't go to the local schools. But who sends their kids to the local schools? I show them the mansions. You can't get houses like that anywhere else.

"It's a special market. I don't have to sell a whole complex of buildings. I only have to sell one or two. I figure there are people who grew up in the 'burbs, and now Mom and Dad give them a couple of hundred thousand to buy a home."

A case in point, Prus says, is a Victorian mansion on Hoyne Street that went for $80,000 in 1983, when it was practically falling apart, and sold last year for $330,000.

This is speculation, NCO's activists say, a partial cause of the area's affordable-housing shortage. Brokers and developers are taking a gamble. They'll price high in the hopes that in two or three months (a year, if necessary) an eccentric but wealthy buyer will emerge. In the meantime they're willing to hold on to the property, renting it or letting it sit vacant, thus denying housing opportunities to working- or even middle-class families.

Wicker Park's less fortunate have a different approach. Some came from more dangerous neighborhoods on the west side. To them, Wicker Park is a rung on the ladder toward middleclass stability. Others moved there because they had no choice.

"I never lived in one place for too long," says Moreno. "I couldn't. The building was torn down, or it was sold, or it was remodeled and the rent went up, and Genny and her three kids had to move. I'm a working woman too; I have a full-time job. But I still don't have the money that would allow me to make a choice about where I lived."

If the market remains unfettered, Moreno says, people in her predicament will have no choice but to move. It's a bitter irony, too, because the presence of gentry, which generally results in better city services, fewer gangs, and more commercial development, will probably make Wicker Park a nicer place to live. It also increases land costs and property taxes, forcing landlords to raise rents or forgo basic repairs. Either way, decent low-income housing is lost.

"This lot used to house a 21-unit apartment," says Steve Shore, property manager for Bickerdike, as he points to a construction site on the corner of Pierce and Hoyne (1500 north). "Now Jerry Harlan's building four town houses here that will go for about $300,000. Add it all up, and Wicker Park loses 21 units of affordable housing."

Of course, there's another side to the story. Without subsidies, most landlords cannot maintain buildings at low or moderate rents. The building on Hoyne, for instance, fell apart because its owner went bankrupt trying to make basic repairs. Before demolition, it had become a vacant shell, inhabited by gangs and transients.

"There was this three-flat on Leavitt that the Latin Kings practically controlled," says Prus. "They painted their emblem on the side. A woman contractor bought it, and ran them out. Now it's a lovely rehab that's on the market for $355,000. You can't tell me that Wicker Park is not better for that."

"I know all the horror stories," counters Shore. "But a lot of buildings can be maintained at affordable rents. My landlord charges only $200 for a two bedroom." Of course, Shore acknowledges, his landlord bought that building in Ukrainian Village many years ago, when interest rates were low, and he speculates that since his landlord's mortgage probably is paid, he's not interested in profit, only in meeting his basic bills.

If so, that's an unusual attitude. Many other investors (including, Prus says, the working-class residents of Wicker Park) want to make money from real estate.

"I know most of the people in this community; I sold them their houses 20 years back," Prus says. "They bought in 1970 for $16,000. They had a job; they were creditworthy. Now, a few years later, they're on disability, their house needs repairs, and you bring them an offer of $75,000. Let's say they only owe 15 on the mortgage. If they sell, they've got $60,000 in cash they would never otherwise have. If they were working, they could go use their house as equity to borrow money for repairs. But they can't borrow because they aren't working. They're rich in brick, but nothing else. That's why they sell."

It's a story echoed by a property owner I'll call "Doris Jones." Jones lives on the second floor and rents the third floor of her three-flat, purchased 15 years ago for $25,000. The ground floor is boarded up because she hasn't the money for repairs. Almost all of the other buildings on her block are rehabbed, and someone has offered her $90,000.

"I don't know what I'll do" Jones says. "I want to stay here; I raised my kids here. But a friend tells me I could sell for at least $110,000, if I hold out. If I sell, I want some savings left over so I can move to a nice place, maybe Dolton. I've got a good lawyer. If I have to sell, I want to leave with some money in my pocket."

The solution, of course, is to use federal money to preserve a mix of all income groups. With federal subsidies this owner could make basic repairs, and not-for-profit developers could maintain courtyard buildings (that otherwise fall apart).

Better yet, the federal government might carry NCO's fight to the suburbs, and demand that developers there build low-income units. That would bring the poor closer to suburban job markets and lessen hostilities in changing neighborhoods like Wicker Park. After all, if the rich can move to Wicker Park, why shouldn't Doris Jones settle in Oak Brook?

"I try to remain confident," says Ankrum. "But I have to admit, they have more resources. You got to figure, time's on their side."

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

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