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The Welcome Wagon's on Blocks

The Old Town School puts on a friendly face as its new neighbors grumble.

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Mary Edsey doesn't understand the Old Town School of Folk Music. "It's strange, because the philosophy of folk music is to preserve traditions," says Edsey, a resident of the Lincoln Square neighborhood. "But the school hasn't shown interest in preserving what was unique about the neighborhood before they moved in, the things that fostered a sense of community, the diversity."

Earlier this year Edsey led her neighborhood's crusade to rescue the Davis theater from condominium developers, and as a founder of the new North Town/Lincoln Square Neighborhood Association, she spent the weekend of July 15 at Welles Park, recruiting new members during the Old Town School's two-day Chicago Folk & Roots Festival. The third annual festival stretched the definition of folk with its Saturday night lineup, which featured punk rocker Patti Smith and filled the festival grounds to capacity.

But it also stretched the patience of longtime residents, who've seen Lincoln Square transformed since the school's Chicago Folk Center opened in late 1998 near Lincoln and Wilson. With a new Starbucks operating across the street from the center and another one on the way at Wolcott and Montrose, the Old Town School has suddenly become a lightning rod for the fear and frustrations of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Bertha Schultz, a child-care provider who takes some of her charges to the school's Wiggleworms classes, sat out the festival. "It was really designed for yuppies, whatever they call them. I work for attorneys, real estate people, some of them in the Roscoe area. I saw some of the people I work for here, but not my neighbors."

"We heard from a lot of unhappy neighbors," says Edsey. "Since this is a full-fledged music festival, which it didn't used to be, the noise level has gone up dramatically. And it's drawing a lot more people too. The night Patti Smith played was impossible. That's not what we want for the neighborhood. It's a real issue right now."

The most distressing change for home owners, she argues, is the threat of condominium development. "The area is being overdeveloped. There's all these condos on Lincoln where the first floor is commercial because zoning requires it, but the developers don't seem interested in getting those stores occupied--they just sort of write them off as the cost of building condos here, and we end up with lots of vacant storefronts. We just got our property tax assessments, which went up 53 percent on average, and that just adds fuel to the fire. People are being priced out."

Gail Tyler, marketing director for the Old Town School, has been serving as interim director since the resignation of longtime executive director Jim Hirsch, and she thinks the Chicago Folk Center is getting a bad rap. "People complain so much about the Starbucks that opened just up the street. But we didn't ask Starbucks to move here. We didn't ask for any of the changes that have happened in the neighborhood. We can't control what happens here any more than anyone else can."

She concedes that most of the school's students--88 percent--are white, a fact that doesn't go unnoticed in a neighborhood with a large contingent of Hispanics and Asians. But she challenges the perception that the school's patrons are young and affluent. "The median age of our students is 35. The majority of them are middle income....People make it sound like all of Lincoln Park comes here for classes, but we did a survey to see what zip codes our students came from, and the biggest zip code was this one--60625. The next biggest zip codes were 60640, which is adjacent, and 60647, which is just to the south. In other words, our customer base is pretty much what you would expect from a local business."

The Chicago Folk Center occupies the old Hild Library building at 4544 N. Lincoln. In 1987, when the 43,000-square-foot Hild was replaced by the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library across from Welles Park, 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter tried to establish a cultural center in the older building. Schulter and the Department of Cultural Affairs hoped to duplicate the successful conversion of the old central library building at 78 E. Washington into the Chicago Cultural Center, and the city issued bonds to fund the conversion of the Hild. But after a study predicted that programming for the proposed center would cost at least a half million dollars a year, the idea was abandoned.

The city set out to find an existing cultural institution to take over the building, and in early 1994, Cultural Affairs approached the Old Town School. Surveys indicated that most students would be willing to follow the school north, especially if public transportation and parking were available. The Hild was a stone's throw from the Brown Line, and the city offered to turn over the $2.2 million bond offering to the Old Town School to help offset the building renovation and construction of a parking lot across the street. In 1996 an interim lease agreement rented the building to the school for $1 a year, and in October 1997 the City Council sold the Hild, whose market value was then estimated around $2 million, to the Old Town School of Folk Music for $10.

The school conducted a capital funds campaign that raised $7 million for the renovation. Much of the 1929 art deco building's character was preserved; the school maintained many of the facade's trim details and lighting fixtures and restored two inside murals from the era of the Works Progress Administration. The venue's 425-seat auditorium was immediately hailed as one of the finest in town. The building was magnificent. But its magnificence stuck out like a sore thumb in what was then a mixed-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood.

Less than two years later, the intersection of Wilson and Lincoln is unrecognizable. On the southeast corner, the old Washing Well Laundromat has been replaced by the Starbucks, whose garish clock tower dominates the intersection. West of it, the Daily Bar & Grill has been given a sleek makeover. Catercorner from the Daily, the No Big Deal Sports Bar has become an Italian eatery called Tartufo.

Bea Gilbreth, who's lived in the neighborhood since 1955, says she's fielded calls from real estate agents offering as much as $400,000 for her two-flat on the 2500 block of Wilson. "The neighborhood has definitely been upgraded," she says. "There's a few transients living by the river, but that's it. The new residents--I don't like to call them yuppies. I don't think the term always applies. And I can't say the change has been all for the worse. The neighborhood looks prettier. I think the most noticeable difference is that everyone has a really beautiful front yard now."

"We did a survey on the average cost of a detached single-family home in Lincoln Square between 1993 and 1999," reports Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Organization of the NorthEast (an association of social service agencies in Uptown and Edgewater). "The average cost in 1993 was $145,000; that figure actually went down in 1994 but has been going up ever since. By last year it was up to $255,000. [Mayor Daley has] been saying that he's going to turn Cabrini-Green, Englewood, and the South Loop into mixed-income communities, which apparently means getting well-to-do folks to move into poor neighborhoods. But Lincoln Square was a perfect mixed-income neighborhood, and he didn't seem interested in preserving it."

With higher home values come higher rents and property taxes. "That makes it hard for seniors on fixed income," says Gilbreth. According to Mary Edsey, the home owners who throw up their hands and sell to the highest bidder only make things worse for those who try to stick it out. "The ideal would be for people not to sell to developers who want to build high-priced condos, who don't want to respect the neighborhood we have. But you get a realtor throwing all this money in your face, and if you say no another one's going to come and offer even more, so of course sooner or later you're going to say yes."

The Old Town School can hardly be blamed for the neighborhood's skyrocketing property values, but for some residents the congestion that accompanied the Folk & Roots Festival seemed to highlight the economic forces sweeping through Lincoln Square. The neighborhood's summer festival used to be called Razz-ma-tazz: it was a low-key affair organized by the 47th Ward in conjunction with the chambers of commerce for Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, and North Center, according to one Schulter staffer. "Once Old Town School moved to the ward, the alderman felt that it would make perfect sense for them to take over the event."

Gail Tyler describes the festival as "a free neighborhood event" and says the school made a concerted effort to invite the neighbors near the park. Yet the festival grounds were fenced off, and a one-block stretch of Lincoln between the park and Sulzer Library was cordoned off with police barricades. A sign at the entrance requested a $5 donation, $1 for students and seniors. Most of the musical performances could be seen from outside: Montrose afforded an excellent view of the main stage, and on July 16, the second day of the festival, several area residents took advantage of it.

"I went to the festival last night and didn't see no sign about a donation," said one man, a firefighter. "I was in line with my wife, and they said, 'It's $5 each.' When they gave us our change they said, 'It's a donation.' I was like, 'What?' You do not take people's money and then say it's a donation. I mean, the music was great. I guess it was worth five bucks. I just wish they'd been more up-front about it. I also wish I knew what they're going to do with that money. So today we just chose to stay out here."

"We've had this problem with a lot of these summer festivals," says Enrique Muñoz, assistant director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events and director of neighborhood festivals. "It's illegal to charge for an event taking place in the public way. I don't mean to single out the school. When we give a permit for an event, we stipulate to the organizers that they must make clear the event is free and open to the public. But they find ways. They put up fences and funnel everyone into a main entrance and basically intimidate you into paying. Or else they make the sign that says what you should donate six feet tall, while the sign that says it's voluntary is half an inch tall. It's not illegal, but it's not how it should be done."

"Our 140 volunteers received booklets from the city on how to act," says Tyler. "Nobody was turned away for not being able to make a donation. We estimate 28,000 people attended, which is an increase over last year. We are assuming that many people only gave a $1 donation, or no donation at all. It's not about money. Last year we had a successful festival, but we still lost money on it. We wouldn't have a prayer of breaking even without sponsorships."

The Old Town School has its defenders in the neighborhood as well. "They're good for businesses, good for the neighborhood," argues Maria Bappert, executive director of the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. "We wish more area merchants had agreed to offer concessions at the festival, but that was something we couldn't control."

Frank Crescenzi, president of the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, thinks the Old Town School has improved Lincoln Square. "As for Razz-ma-tazz, one of the reasons we had that festival was to raise money to do something with the Hild Library. Now that the building is occupied, that takes away one of the reasons for the event. The new festival does bring in a little bit of a different crowd, but we feel that the format is essentially the same. Of course some old-timers will tell you they prefer the old festival. But neighborhoods change. Everything changes."

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