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Tennis bawl: players protest privatization at Waveland



In the good old days before the world got complicated, you could take your tennis racket over to the public courts at Waveland and the lake and play for hours without charge.

That's when the Chicago Park District was running those courts. But since May a private concern, the Mid-Town Tennis Club, has been in charge, and a summer pass now costs up to $30.

Leo Frank, a retired accountant, thinks the new arrangement stinks. "I've been playing at Waveland for over 30 years and I can tell you it was much better the way it was," says Frank. "They had a good thing and they changed it. What's the point of that?"

Specifically, it bothers Frank that a private company should benefit from public courts, and that he should have to pay any fee for a service already covered by property tax dollars.

Many other tennis players at Waveland agree; their gripes are yet more fallout from general superintendent Forrest Claypool's plan to turn Park District operations such as parking, tennis, and golf over to professionals.

As district officials see it, such grumblers are tiny thorns in the flesh of great men--minor irritants who lack the wider perspective needed to appreciate the long-term benefits of Claypool's vision. The Park District plans to spend whatever money is generated at Waveland on tennis programs in the poor parts of town. What, they say, could be wrong with that? "Our motivation is to service as many people as possible," says Randy Mehrberg, the Park District's lakefront director. "Unfortunately, you can't make everybody happy."

Ironically, the 20 courts at Waveland had been making Frank happy since 1962 when he started playing there, having given up touch football for tennis. "When I started, it was mainly used by people who lived in the high rises on the other side of Lake Shore Drive," says Frank. "Tennis hadn't taken off back then."

Frank played almost every day in the early years. "I can remember when the south-end [courts] used to have clay surfaces, but that was eliminated because of maintenance problems back in 1971--August of '71 to be exact," says Frank. "They put in liquid cement and there has been some trouble because the cement masons had a strike and the surfaces were not finished too well. When someone falls down they tear open their legs. It's not a smooth surface. It's very hard on your feet. So many of the more experienced or frequent players will play at the north courts."

The courts were overseen by a Park District employee so legendary he had his own nickname: Walter "Mr. Tennis" Piekarski. Under Piekarski's command there were annual summer tournaments, drawing as many as 500 spectators. "I'll tell you when the game took off," says Frank. "That was in 1973, when, if you remember, Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs--suddenly everyone was playing tennis."

The lines at Waveland grew so long that in 1978 the Park District did away with the old honors system in which players reserved the courts by posting their rackets in wooden holders along the fence. Instead, the Park District brought in supervisors to police the flow of players, and imposed a playing fee.

"I guess they had to do something--there were people who held on to the courts for hours by putting an old racket up in the holder," says Frank. "There was mild protest about that fee, though. One fellow got arrested because he didn't want to pay the fees. He went on the court and started playing anyway. That's when they arrested him."

Despite the fees, Waveland's popularity never diminished. On pleasant days and nights dozens lined up to play, including such notables as basketball announcer Dick Versace and Tom Corcoran, former secretary to the Board of Education--all drawn by the lovely breeze and the shimmering lake.

Indeed, Park District officials decided to increase Waveland's fee in part because its patrons were relatively well off. As Mehrberg puts it: "It was like their private club."

The park board did not publicize the proposal, but Corcoran heard about it through a reporter and showed up at a board meeting with several hundred signatures of protest. "This notion that we have a private club is an out-and-out fabrication that Mehrberg uses to make us look like elitists," says Corcoran. "This is no club, it's our neighborhood park. I brought my tax bill to the board's meeting and said, "Here's my membership to the park."'

In May the board voted to raise the summer fees from $20 to $30 for adults and from $15 to $24 for senior citizens; they also brought Mid-Town in to manage the courts. "We're not in the tennis business, but Mid-Town is," says Mehrberg. "They pick the most highly qualified people to run the courts. They can bring in people like Billie Jean King for a lesson. They have the tennis experts. Let them do their thing."

Best of all, Mehrberg adds, Mid-Town wasn't charging a thing. "They're making a civic contribution to the city they live in," he says. "All of the revenue raised from the court goes back to the Park District's tennis program. We'll use it to improve infrastructures on other courts and to provide programs for children from economically deprived neighborhoods."

But Frank wasn't buying it. For one thing, he felt that longtime users like himself should have been solicited about the changes. But no one had asked him about fee hikes or privatization. They came as another ultimatum delivered by people with no lasting ties to Waveland--they'd never even known the legendary Walter Piekarski.

For another thing, he disagreed with Mehrberg on almost every count. He doesn't believe fees should be charged for public facilities; he doesn't see any improvement since Mid-Town took over; and he thinks it's naive to contend that Mid-Town runs Waveland out of kindness and charity.

"They're also getting free advertising--it's a way to pick up business," says Frank. "And that bothers me. Why should any private company have access to public facilities to promote its name? Mid-Town offered these lessons for free at Waveland. I took one, it was very nice. But then they want you to come back and pay for the next lesson. I don't think it's legal. I don't think they should be using Park District facilities to charge for their lessons. Either don't offer them there or don't charge."

Corcoran goes a step further: he foresees a time, if Claypool's policies continue, in which user fees are applied to almost all public facilities. "Claypool puts a halo around privatization, but it's a slippery slope--fees never go down, they always go up," says Corcoran. "Then what are the senior citizens supposed to do?"

Mehrberg says Frank and Corcoran should go to any of the Park District's other 700 or so courts if they don't like Waveland. "They can play for free all over the city, including just up the road at Wilson," says Mehrberg. "I'd venture to say we provide more things for free than any park district in the country. These guys are exaggerating the situation."

But Frank says he shouldn't have to move--he was playing tennis at Waveland well before Claypool, Mehrberg, or Mid-Town was around.

Contract hits home

In the opening weeks of last November's Republican Revolution, it seemed that Mayor Daley's chummy relations with House Speaker Newt Gingrich might protect Chicago from the onslaught of federal budget cuts. Daley was Gingrich's favorite Democrat, about the only one the Georgia congressman had a kind word for. Apparently Daley was affable and nonthreatening, or maybe Gingrich wanted to suck up to Daley's white ethnic constituents.

Whatever, Gingrich and his Senate counterpart Bob Dole are showing no sympathy for Daley these days, as they have proposed to hack as much as $69 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds from Chicago.

It's the most radical budget-cutting scheme since the Republicans took control of both houses. It rips money from every neighborhood of the city, sucking resources from such benign initiatives as housing rehab efforts, police patrols, and meals-on-wheels for seniors.

Other federal programs have already been gutted by the Republicans, but most observers figured the CDBG would be sacrosanct since it's the sort of block-grant effort Republicans say they like. The money gets delivered in one lump sum and locals determine who gets what. "We work with a CDBG advisory council whose representatives come from every neighborhood," says John Holden, a spokesman for the city's revenue department. "The final budget is approved by the City Council. That's local control."

It's not certain how much will get cut. Gingrich proposes a 20 percent cut, Dole 50 percent--and the two will meet in the next few months to settle their difference. Eventually, Daley hopes President Clinton will restore CDBG funds by vetoing the Republican budget; otherwise Daley must either cut popular programs or raise taxes. No wonder he's fighting back.

Daley's opening shot was a meeting last week at Whitney Young High School attended by over a hundred neighborhood activists and social service providers. "I think it is an outrage that Congress is planning to cut the most critical program we have for rebuilding urban America," Paul Vallas, director of the city's budget office, told the crowd.

In the past Chicago has used the influence of powerful congressmen to pass special legislation that exempted this or that developer from federal tax laws. This time Daley's counting on ordinary citizens, like the people on the CDBG council, to rally public opinion against the cuts. "It would be nice if they passed a federal law that exempted Chicago from these cuts," says Holden. "But this is something that transcends Chicago. We're biting the same bullet as everyone in the country."

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

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