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Park Polemics: Why Is This Man Ranting?



Some things we've noticed about Steve Neal's crusade against Park District reformers.

Its lively use of inanity. Especially the light touch with nicknames--Fakers of the Park, Shah of the Parks, Bon Vivant Bill, the China Clipper, Rapid Ronnie.

Its sentimentality. Neal remembers Ed Kelly's time as the good old days. Kelly, he wrote, "was far more committed to the city's parks than the current regime" of Jesse Madison, whose hide Neal has tried to nail to the wall.

The Sun-Times was less appreciative of that golden age back in 1979, when it ran a two-month-long series on Kelly's "arrogant, incompetent administration." In 1983, Kelly's Park District was sued by the U.S. Justice Department on grounds that it allocated resources in a racially discriminatory manner; the district eventually signed a consent decree pledging to do better. A year and a half ago, Kelly's former marine director and various subordinates pleaded guilty to federal charges of muscling boat owners who wanted decent moorings to pony up for two Ed Kelly political funds.

But in his way, Ed Kelly really cared.

Its carefree research. Neal accused Madison of playing the racial card to keep his job, while in 1986, when Kelly "lost his power struggle with former Mayor Harold Washington, Kelly didn't accuse Washington of being anti-white. . . . With quiet dignity, Kelly resigned without excuses."

Here's what Kelly did. In an interview with the Sun-Times's own Tom Fitzpatrick, he called Washington "the biggest racist I've ever seen." When the park board appointed Madison over him, Kelly went to court trying to stop it, while Kelly allies in Springfield threw in with Republicans to try to save his power base. These maneuvers failed and Kelly quit. "I don't get angry," he said in his farewell speech. "I get even."

Its eye for detail. Describing a reception at Soldier Field, Neal reported, "Flanked by a couple of bodyguards, the 5-foot, 3-inch Shah, otherwise known as Jesse Madison, worked his way through the crowd. . . . At the same reception, Mayor Daley walked around without a police escort."

Madison insists he had one bodyguard at that reception. The mayor's press office tells us Daley certainly had several. A force of 20 or so on-duty cops provides the mayor with protection. Madison says he's never guarded by more than a single off-duty policeman paid $9 an hour.

Jesse Madison, wrote Neal, "is piloted about the town in a luxury limousine with $39,000-a-year chauffeur at the wheel." Madison says the car is a 1986 Lincoln sedan he inherited from Kelly.

Its pinpoint sarcasm. Mocking deputy parks superintendent Ronald Dodd, the "China Clipper," for his monthlong visit to the Far East early this year, Neal noted: "On his trip, Dodd neglected to tell Chinese officials about how baseball got off to a late start in Chicago parks this year because nobody bothered to cut the grass."

Neal bashed Jesse Madison on May 31 for letting a "rain forest" grow in Lincoln Park. Madison--who calls the long grass the only bona fide issue Neal has raised against him--tells us the grass should have been cut around the first of May.

Dodd left town March 22 and returned April 26.

Its progressive notion of what the parks need. Neal launched his assault on May 17, reporting Madison in hot water and speculating on a successor. Neal's nominees included a state representative, an alderman, and a committeeman. "Kelly says that he's not interested," Neal reported solemnly. "But the new mayor could benefit from Kelly's expertise in cleaning up the mess at the Park District."

Well, no one should know it better.

Its contribution to class warfare. In 1986, Harold Washington's parks board put Madison in over Kelly in the newly created position of executive vice president of the parks. After Kelly quit, Madison began campaigning for Kelly's old post of general superintendent, with its guaranteed four-year contract. The Friends of the Parks opposed Madison on this. The Friends wanted accountability and they wanted a parks professional.

In January of '88, a page-one Tribune story, "Parks patronage booming," accused Madison of appointing cronies to executive jobs. Erma Tranter's was among the critical voices the Tribune quoted. As usual, Tranter, the executive director of Friends of the Parks, wanted an administration of parks professionals. She said, "We have gone nowhere on those things in 18 months."

Madison reacted by belittling Tranter as "an individual who has no hands-on parks experience."

But never mind. "Erma Tranter and the Fakers of the Parks have been Madison lap dogs for the last three years," reported Steve Neal this spring. "The Fakers of the Parks have a new cause"--saving Madison's job. That's "because of their influence in the current park administration."

What influence? Neal didn't tell us. But he explained, "The Fakers of the Parks aren't of Middle America. They are disdainful of people listening to radio stations other than WBEZ or WFMT, and don't think much of T-shirts costing less than $25. . . . Banning softball and pinochle is their idea of performing a civic service." Why Madison would react to such effetes with a cry of "I'm your boy!" went unsaid.

We called Neal, hoping he would fill us in. "I'm not going to talk to you," said Steve Neal. We asked him why. "I just don't feel like talking to you," he said.

He may have figured that no matter what he said, we'd come down on him. If so, he figured right. For all our curiosity about Neal's side of things, our call was basically a courtesy, one courtesy more than Neal's allowed Madison.

Madison tells us that Neal never tried to interview him, and has turned down every invitation to appear with him on radio or TV. It may be that Neal is simply shy. Or he may feel that a debate is beneath him as a provocateur. As his boss, Ken Towers, told us, "Chicago has a long tradition of rollicking, blistering columnists. This is in keeping with that."

A rollicking, blistering columnist should, of course, try to be a journalist too. Neal flirts with danger here, sounding like a shill either for Kelly loyalists in the Park District or for Daley operatives who want Madison set up for the kill.

But what Steve Neal sounds most like is Steve Neal. Neal has an attitude about Chicago's parks. It reared up almost three years ago in a column he wrote while he was still at the Tribune.

"Get out your butterfly nets," the piece begins. "Lakefront Wally is on the loose." That's Wally as in Walter Netsch, at the time the Park District president. "By his own admission," says Neal, "Netsch is an elitist, not a man of the people. So it's not surprising that the lakefront's representative on the Chicago Park District board is trying to skim money from softball, boxing, and other sports activities."

Sure enough, Neal trots out Erma Tranter, "one of Netsch's most devoted fans," to speak in his defense. And Neal isn't buying. Where newly deposed Ed Kelly had emphasized physical fitness, "Lakefront Wally has suggested that there should be fewer fieldhouses and playground facilities and more pretty gardens for his socialite friends to throw their wild and crazy parties."

Here, on early display, are all the axes Neal has been grinding for the past four months. Here also is his knack for driving the attack straight off a cliff.

"Netsch," he japes, "is also pushing for the replacement of hard playground surfaces with cedar chips so that the little ones will make a softer landing in stealing third base. Lakefront Wally hasn't explained how kids will be able to dribble basketballs on the cedar chips."

Any parent could have told Neal the idea behind those wood chips isn't to thwart basketball games. They're so little kids can fall off swings and slides without cracking their skulls.

We think Neal kept whaling away at Madison because he got ticked. What set Neal off as much as anything was a letter from Tranter and Cindy Mitchell, president of Friends of the Parks, damning Neal's first column, the one that hailed Kelly in the parks job and proposed various Dem pols to inherit it. Tranter and Mitchell said they'd read the column "with outrage." Jesse Madison was far from perfect, but he "has made strides to reverse the previous pattern of decline."

Neal would not stand for this. The same issue of the Sun-Times that ran their letter carried his riposte introducing Fakers of the Parks and reassuring his readers that "the grating sound that you are hearing from South Dearborn Street [where the Friends are located] are [sic] the arfs of his lapdogs posing as watchdogs."

Five days later, Neal had at them again. "In the elitist tradition, the Fakers of the Parks seem to love monuments and wildflowers and to hate people."

Tranter had had enough. She and Mitchell took Neal out to lunch. They told him he didn't know what he was talking about. They also said their files were open to anybody, and if he actually wanted to know something about the parks system, maybe he should come in and read up.

Neal's ears perked up, Tranter tells us. "So he said, "I'm coming back to your office and getting this stuff."'

Did he? we asked her.

"Of course," she says.

Not another harsh word about Friends of the Parks has appeared in a Steve Neal column. Not that he apologized to Tranter. Not that he changed his mind about the Friends. (Actually, he probably did, but for the record Neal stands by every word he wrote. "The columns were accurate then and they remain accurate," he told Rich Hefter a couple of weeks ago in New City.)

So what happened here? Simple. The enemy became a source. If Steve Neal were writing Hot Type, he'd put it this way: Shameless Slammin' Stevie let himself get co-opted.

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