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The Dead Zone

The mayor's biggest power play yet—the acquisition of a swath of Bensenville—may soon be a fait accompli.

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If you want to see the political might of Mayor Daley in all its splendor, head west out of the city along Irving Park Road to visit the part of Bensenville they call the "acquisition area."

When you get to Orchard Road, turn right and drive around the neighborhood, taking the horseshoe formed by East Hillside Drive, proceeding down Garden Avenue to West Roosevelt, then taking a left to tour Greenlawn Avenue and Dierks and Hamilton streets. I recommend a nighttime visit for the full apocalyptic effect. It's like a scene from a science-fiction flick about a civilization destroyed by the neutron bomb. About 600 buildings remain—row after row of boarded-up town houses, ranch houses, even a few mansions—but the people are gone. It's deathly still, except for the distant whoosh of traffic on Irving.

This is ground zero for Daley's ambitious O'Hare Modernization Program, a $15 billion construction project that will, if you believe the mayor, ease the snarl of air traffic in and out of O'Hare by replacing the old intersecting runways with parallel ones.

Put aside for the moment any discussion about whether the O'Hare expansion plan is prudent or whether it's been rendered obsolete by rising fuel costs and ticket prices. Instead consider the sheer—oh, what's the word Obama would use?—audacity of the mayor's land grab. I, for one, am in awe.

Millennium Park, Meigs Field, Soldier Field, the Children's Museum—these are child's play compared to what Daley did to Bensenville. In pursuit of this project he persuaded state legislators to let him reach across city lines and snatch up land in a neighboring town. "No other municipality has ever had that kind of power," says one eminent domain expert who asked not to be named.

He won over DuPage County officials and in 2003, having convinced the Federal Aviation Authority and the major airlines to bankroll the deal, herded the General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich into passing the O'Hare Modernization Act. And come July 11 he'll most likely clear the last of his hurdles, when his lawyers return to court to urge a DuPage County judge to lift a year-old injunction blocking demolition in the area.

The land acquisition entails digging up the bodies in Bensenville's Saint Johannes Cemetery and reburying them somewhere else. There are laws on the books designed to protect skeletal remains from such indignity. But the mayor jumped that hurdle by having the General Assembly provide amendments to these laws in the O'Hare Modernization Act. As a result, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, for example, gained a section specifying that "Nothing in this Act limits the authority of the City of Chicago to exercise its powers . . . for the purpose of the relocation of a cemetery or the graves located there."

When Bensenville mayor John Geils became too pugnacious in his opposition to the expansion plan, Daley sent in Rich Pope, one of his most talented political field operatives, to run the campaign of John Wassinger, Geils's mayoral opponent in 2005. Geils won reelection, but only by a few hundred votes in a rough-and-tumble election.

In 2006, when state legislators moved to protect property owners from eminent domain land seizure, Daley's lobbyists had the bill watered down to exempt land seizures related to O'Hare (and, of course, his beloved TIF program). He won over the area's state representative, Angelo "Skip" Saviano, who Geils says counseled him that it's better to make deals with Daley than to fight him.

In my opinion the present Mayor Daley's efforts in Bensenville exceed even the land-grabbing accomplishments of his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, who oversaw the first great expansion of O'Hare back in the 1950s and '60s. The acreage purchased under the old Mayor Daley was for the most part uninhabited farmland. But under the current Mayor Daley the city bought up 533 homes and 72 businesses—a landmass of about 15 percent of the village—and displaced roughly 10 percent of its population. "He ripped the social fabric out of our community and left it to be a wasteland," says Geils.

To compensate, Daley dipped into his stash of federal aviation funds and doled out roughly $805,000 to Bensenville's school districts. But he gave the town itself nothing, even though he'd taken several hundred parcels of taxable land off its tax rolls, thus reducing its tax base and driving up property taxes.

Daley insists that a greater good's being served. The entire state of Illinois—not just Chicago—needs a larger, more efficiently run O'Hare, he argues. It'll cut back on the time and fuel wasted in taxiing and circling. It'll bring more revenue to the city by making it easier for tourists and conventioneers to travel here. In the long run Chicago will hail Daley for his vision, predicts Rosemarie Andolino, the mayorally appointed executive director of the O'Hare Modernization Project.

Bensenville's leaders say there must be a way to build new runways without taking their land. But Andolino says the city absolutely needs the Bensenville property to complete its project. She acknowledges that the residents who were forced to move have been inconvenienced. "But they have been fairly compensated for their property," she says. "We have been very fair."

The acquisitions began in late 2005, when buyers representing the city of Chicago set up shop at O'Hare and invited Bensenville residents to come on in. According to residents and lawyers I talked to, it was like a massive real estate bazaar. The city made its initial offers, and the residents (or their lawyers) made counteroffers. In some instances the bargaining went to court. Most folks got as much as 5 to 7 percent over the fair market value for their homes. To sweeten the pot, the city paid each home owner $27,000 to cover relocation costs.

One by one, several hundred residents took the deal. Holdouts got the hard sell: "They say, 'Everyone's moving, you'll be the only one left,'" says Arlene Benson, a 50-year resident of Bensenville.

Benson says she got phone calls, letters, registered letters, and drop-by visits encouraging her to sell. "I'd ask them to leave and they kept coming back—they were almost stalking me," she says. "They would wait until they saw me come into my house, and then they'd approach me. One woman parked in front of my house. It was Good Friday. I told her it was a religious holiday for me. I didn't want to disgrace it. Another time a man, very rude, came to my doorway. I asked him to leave. But he was parked in my driveway. He would not let me move my car to let me out to go to the doctor. I called the police. Then he left."

Last year a summons server rang her doorbell at 4:30 in the morning, she says. "I was served papers. It was notice from the city of Chicago that my house was going to condemnation.... Com Edison removed my electric meter. I called and asked why. They said, 'We got a notice from the city of Chicago that your house is scheduled for demolition.'"

And still Benson—like roughly 40 other home owners in the acquisition area—won't budge. "I'm 83 years old," she says. "I've owned this home for 50 years. I'm not selling. I'm not leaving."

At the moment, she and her remaining neighbors are holding on by a legal thread. Last July, DuPage County circuit court judge Kenneth L. Popejoy ordered the city to halt any demolition until it had conducted an environmental impact study of the plan. Popejoy's ruling left Chicago and Bensenville in an odd stalemate. The city of Chicago owns the homes, but they can't demolish them. A few weeks ago Bensenville ordered the city to take better care of its property or be ticketed (and would I love to see that). The city sent out workmen to mow the lawns.

At night a security firm, also paid for by the city of Chicago, patrols the streets. Deer, rabbits, skunks, possums, and abandoned cats wander in the moonlight. Bensenville police sweep the area, looking for vandals, thieves, or drunks. "We own the streets even if Daley owns the houses," says Geils. "So we have to police them."

Andolino says the city's completed its environmental impact study; on July 7 lawyers for Chicago and Bensenville will return to Judge Popejoy's court for a four-day hearing. If Popejoy is satisfied that the city's demolition plan adequately protects the environment, he'll lift the injunction.

Andolino is optimistic that the city will prevail. "We have done everything by the book," she says. "The opposition's strategy has been to throw anything up in the air and see what sticks. So far they've lost on every legal issue."

If Bensenville's lawyers lose the next phase and Popejoy lifts the injunction, then the bulldozers can come in to finish off the job. And nobody except a few old-timers will ever remember that this slice of Bensenville even existed.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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