News & Politics » Feature

The Wizard

Scott Berenstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology: Big Problems Require Small Solutions

by

comment

On one wall of Scott Bernstein's office at the Center for Neighborhood Technology is a yellowing, hand-drawn diagram--a maze of squares and circles with interconnecting lines, all of which are enclosed within several sets of multicolored borders. It looks like the design for some piece of computer technology, but it's a map of Evanston--or, to be more exact, Evanston's economy. On another wall of the office is a huge chart displaying the periodic table.

The two posters nicely illustrate the breadth of Bernstein's mind--a mind that moves comfortably between the small and the large, reveling in relationships, those between cause and effect, problem and solution.

Bernstein drew the Evanston map 19 years ago, when he was an engineering student at Northwestern University. "What we really have here," he explained, "is a kind of snapshot of the economics of a community." The various boxes represent Evanston's assets--the retail, industrial, and commercial enterprises, the banking industry, the utilities, the housing stock, the people who live there. Other lines, squares, and circles reveal the counterbalancing drains on the city, great amounts of money and human resources flowing out--taxes, purchases made outside Evanston, work done outside the city.

The bottom line, said Bernstein, is that far more wealth is going out of the community than is coming in. This was not just true in 1975 but remains true today, he said, and not just in Evanston but in every big-city neighborhood and suburb. His approach generally is to look for small, community-based solutions to such problems. "This is what I enjoy," he said, "finding some order in a jumbled set of opportunities, discovering how systems work."

Bernstein's passion for order can be overwhelming at times. Center for Neighborhood Technology board member Bliss Browne recently asked him what it takes to effect lasting change in a community. Without hesitation he ticked off a list of eight requirements:

Redefine the accountability standard in the law.

Decentralize the system back to a human scale.

Convince people that resources are controllable.

Provide the information necessary to the people who need it.

Determine what the community believes it most needs.

Get those items on the local agenda.

Build coalitions of common concern.

And identify the political leaders who can be persuaded.

Browne still marvels at the conversation. "It wasn't as though he had prepared all this ahead of time," she said. "It's just the way he thinks." An Episcopal priest, former banker, and founder of her own organization to stimulate creative thought about Chicago's future, Browne calls Bernstein "the brightest human I have ever known." His brain, she said, is like a great computer with unlimited memory and instantaneous access.

Unlike many who appreciate complexity, Bernstein does not dwell exclusively on theory. He's better known for practice, for his determination to change systems--to decentralize and reorganize civilization along more manageable, humanistic lines. He wants to solve big problems with many small solutions, not one big one. The nickname he's acquired over the years--the Wizard--is based on this combination of technological acumen, passion, and vision.

It's not easy to describe the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which Bernstein and a small group of associates founded in 1977: there's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country, perhaps in the world. Its mission statement says its role is "to promote public policies, new resources and accountable authority which support sustainable, just and vital urban communities." But everyone connected with it agrees that CNT is the product of Bernstein's mind, which moves in many directions, often at the same time. So naturally CNT's history is marked by a sweep of projects, plans, and services. Some of them, like launching campaigns to halt the 1992 Chicago world's fair or to curb the Deep Tunnel project, have generated considerable publicity; others have been less noticed but have altered the lives of thousands of Chicagoans. Some have failed, many are still in process, and some are germinating in Bernstein's head even as you read.

Bernstein's hair and mustache are graying, but there is about him a remarkable energy and enthusiasm. He's not only president of CNT but a board member of the Surface Transportation Policy Project; founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Materials Economy; convener of the Housing Abandonment Task Force, the Chicago Energy Commission, and the Campaign for Responsible Ownership; and organizer of several dozen other campaigns, colloquiums, symposiums, and workshops on urban issues.

He's also pleasantly bereft of cynicism. His friend and mentor John McKnight, community director for the Center for Urban Affairs at Northwestern, said Bernstein has a "Peter Pan quality." McKnight added, "He's incredibly eclectic. If we have any problem in society, it's entrenched institutions. Scott's never been frozen into a pattern, never trenched down. He's simply intrepid."

The Center for Neighborhood Technology occupies two floors of a former weaving factory in Bucktown. It's not a very impressive place on the outside--the address is partly obscured by gang graffiti--but CNT transformed the inside into a model of environmental correctness when it bought the building six years ago. A new stairway was constructed of recycled wood and stained with an organic varnish made from orange peels. CNT screened all products used in the remodeling to ensure that they didn't contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. It installed used carpets because new carpeting is chemically treated, and the carpets were tacked down to avoid using glue. Thick, energy-efficient insulation was put into the walls. Between the double-layered windows is a vapor barrier of argon gas that prevents heat from escaping. The window surfaces are also specially coated to block ultraviolet light. All the lighting in the office uses reflectors, which give a high level of luminosity with about half the wattage. "We figured if we put dollars up front we would save in the long haul," said Stephen Perkins, CNT's associate director.

The fliers on the bulletin boards in the reception area are not easily translated. One reads, "What does it take to catalyze an environmental venture?" Others refer to "negotiable local partner arrangements," "community benefit optimization," and the overriding goal, "sustainability."

Many of the 19 full-time employees are frequently out of the office; the ones there move in and out of their cubicles a lot, conferring, studying documents. The overall impression is one of a quiet, relaxed purposefulness.

"It takes strong people to work here," said Perkins, who has been with CNT for 12 years. "But they've got to be people who don't have strong ego needs." The reason is Bernstein. Not that he's dictatorial or tries to be a one-man show, Perkins said. "It's just that his ideas come all the time and in any way you can imagine."

Not long ago Bernstein was down with the flu and out of the office for several days. "He just kept calling in with new ideas," said Perkins. "One day he called five times. He has a way of jumping from one enthusiasm to another." By way of example, Perkins recalled Bernstein's sudden obsession with energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs last summer. "He put aside everything else for two or three days and called all the experts," he said. "He needed to know how they were made and whether a factory to produce them in Chicago was feasible." Staff members are looking into it.

The staff is also still probing the possibility of getting a plant into the city to produce crumbled rubber from old tires. Bernstein came upon that idea when he learned that processed crumbled rubber is more durable than asphalt. The prospect of creating jobs, reducing the number of environmentally dangerous tire dumps, and improving road quality all at the same time is just the sort of thing Bernstein would find irresistible.

Veteran Chicago activist Jacky Grimshaw, who joined the CNT staff last year as coordinator for air and transportation quality, remarks on Bernstein's delight in developing solutions to problems. "We drove up to Milwaukee recently," she said, "and he never stopped talking all the way up--new coalitions, new products, new schemes. He sees these connections. It's like he's always pregnant with some new thing."

Many of the projects conceived over the years have, in fact, come to be. The Chicago Equity Fund, for example, is a national model for financing of low-income housing. The Housing Abandonment Task Force, by raising public consciousness and recommending standards, has steered Chicago's housing policy away from demolition and toward conservation.

The Neighborhood Non-Profit Energy Program led to the energy-conservation reconditioning of some 170 buildings owned by community organizations, health facilities, and day-care centers. A similar program aided by foundation grants resulted in energy reconditioning for 10,000 units of low- and moderate-income family housing. The Coalition for Appropriate Waste Disposal, formed in 1982 to campaign against new landfills in Chicago, is generally credited with launching recycling in the city. CNT has also provided technical assistance on community investment, housing rehab, energy use, and job creation to hundreds of Chicago institutions, from Sears to Aunt Martha's Youth Services, from Provident Hospital to the Best Kosher Sausage Company.

Mary Nelson, director of Bethel New Life, one of the largest community-development and housing-rehab operations in Chicago, credits CNT for much of its success. "They've always been an extended arm for groups like us," she said. "Scott has a heart for the community, yet he's on the cutting edge of technology." CNT has organized coalitions to oppose the Lake Calumet airport plan, to demand changes in Commonwealth Edison's contract with the city before it was renewed, and to more efficiently notify tax-delinquent real estate owners who might lose their properties through scavenger sales.

A very recent project is the Lake Street El Coalition, which aims to cluster around the Lake Street el stations new and reconditioned housing, retail vendors, and manufacturing operations, thus decreasing automobile use, promoting retail and commercial development, and greatly improving the quality of life in badly deteriorated communities. The pilot for this ambitious and expensive undertaking is the Pulaski Road el stop. The idea, which is typical of Bernstein's multifaceted imagination, may not be as farfetched as it sounds. Bernstein is convinced that substantial federal funds could be made available, and the CTA has expressed interest.

Though many of these activities have been well publicized over the past ten years, Bernstein's name is rarely linked directly to them; usually the agent named is the Center for Neighborhood Technology. That apparently is the way Bernstein wants it. "Scott's ego is sufficiently strong that he doesn't need a lot of personal feedback," said Kathryn Tholin, who was the first person Bernstein hired when he started the center and who served as CNT's assistant director for ten years. "He doesn't call attention to himself. The passion is all for the projects."

Bernstein and his wife, Christine Imhoff, live in Rogers Park with their two young daughters. For relaxation he reads science fiction or books on the history of Chicago, and plays the guitar--"a little." He regards himself as a nonobservant Jew, adding that in his view religion is more "a matter of doing" than of believing doctrine. "The one thing I firmly believe is that place matters," he said. "The places people live are important--if place isn't important, doesn't matter, then nothing else does.

"It's a kind of screwy faith I have. It's just the way things ought to be."

In 1977 the Reader ran a short item about a four-day conference on solar energy sponsored by a newly formed organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Along with the story was a picture of founder Scott Bernstein, sporting shades, a beard, and a mop of hair that made him look like Abbie Hoffman's slender brother.

Bernstein, then 26, had come to this enterprise by a circuitous route. Growing up in Chicago, he showed no interest in activism or urban affairs. He enrolled at Northwestern University in the mid-1970s, intending to become an electrical engineer, but his curiosity about how institutions operate led him to stop in at the university's Center for Urban Affairs, where he came under the spell of John McKnight and Stanley Hallett. The center, launched in 1969 in response to the rioting in U.S. cities, was trying to determine how institutions like hospitals and schools could better serve inner-city communities. "Most of our students were social science majors, and a lot were graduates," said McKnight. "Along comes this undergrad in the technical school, and he's simply fascinated with our work. We didn't find him, he found us."

Bernstein said what fascinated him was the connection between technology, social problems, and community development. Couldn't properly applied technology help communities be more self-sufficient? he wondered. And couldn't a more self-sufficient population overcome the sense of helpless isolation that breeds riots? "People generally think that big institutions can heal big problems," said Bernstein. "Schools and teachers take care of education, hospitals and doctors take care of health, the police and the courts insure security and justice." But McKnight helped him see that such thinking is a "terrible mistake," he said, because "these institutions aren't about the prevention of problems. No matter how many doctors, police, or teachers you have or how many more you put in the community, you still don't control the factors that mess up people's lives."

Bernstein got involved with the Health Action Study Group, organized by the Center for Urban Affairs to test these theories at Garfield Park-Bethany Hospital on the west side. The group was attempting to learn why people are admitted to the hospital--not as easy a task as it might seem because medical records usually showed only the medical diagnosis, perhaps a broken leg due to a fall. But what caused the fall? After weeks of interviews, the group determined that the number-one cause of Garfield Park-Bethany admissions was personal assaults, followed in order by traffic accidents, respiratory infections, alcohol and drug abuse, and fires. "You could see right away," said Bernstein, "that hiring more doctors or nurses wasn't going to change any of this." The real problems were complex and societal, not medical.

Bernstein's study group decided to see what could be achieved by tackling one of the problems leading to hospitalization. The one they chose, number ten on the list, was dog bites, which were occurring in the community at a rate ten times higher than in most neighborhoods. It seemed, said Bernstein, "something not too complex" for the students, something they could get their teeth into. The group quickly determined that the cause was the number of stray dogs roaming the alleys, often in packs, and hiding in abandoned buildings. Through the locally based Christian Action Ministry, fliers were sent to schools and churches announcing a $5 bounty for anyone capturing a wild dog. The police department's Animal Control Unit agreed to provide caged vans to pick the animals up at CAM headquarters, and a hot line was set up for citizens to report pack locations. Over a five-week period, 150 animals were apprehended, and dog-bite admissions at the hospital naturally declined. Two by-products of the campaign were also important, said Bernstein: local aldermen and other officials became more attentive to garbage pickup and the boarding up of old buildings, and citizens realized that there were city agencies they could contact about the dog menace.

Next the study group tackled the number-two cause of hospital admissions, traffic accidents. In the 3.5-mile-square area around the hospital, 14,000 accidents had been reported during the previous year--an incredible rate for a community of 80,000 people. The estimated cost in health care, lost work, and damage to property was $250 million. A range of causes was uncovered: unrepaired potholes, drunk pedestrians and drivers, widespread double-parking, malfunctioning traffic lights, illegible stop signs, and extremely high levels of traffic coming off the Eisenhower onto residential streets. CAM obtained funds from the National Highway Safety Administration amid considerable publicity--it was unusual for such a small organization to get money so directly from a big organization. The city responded to the study group's recommendations by filling potholes, installing speed bumps in certain areas, repairing traffic lights, and redirecting traffic off the expressway by making some streets one-way. Although all this made only a dent in the accident rate, it proved, said Bernstein, how "a community-wide problem could be turned into an actionable issue."

After graduating from Northwestern, Bernstein continued working with the urban center's study groups, getting involved in its most publicized venture. Hallett had long argued that local communities were too dependent on outside technologies. According to his much-quoted example, "Potash mined in Alberta is spread over Ohio cornfields, using tools run by energy drawn from Saudi Arabia, to produce corn that is processed, preserved, packaged, and transported to finally put cereal on the breakfast table." What urban communities need, he believed, are small "appropriate technologies" that would enable people to become more self-sustaining.

Thus was launched the concept of food-growing greenhouses on the roofs of inner-city buildings. The urban center supplied the technical expertise, and by early 1977 a half dozen buildings in Chicago sported these greenhouses. "We didn't know what we were doing," said Bernstein, "but it really worked." Or it worked for a time, anyway. The greenhouse at the CAM headquarters on West Madison, tended by senior citizens and youngsters, produced a bumper crop of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage. The project developers predicted the CAM operation would soon be harvesting 26,000 pounds of edibles a year, available to the populace at 50 cents a pound. Meanwhile, heat collected in solar panels on the greenhouse would be directed into the building below, cutting utility costs.

The story was gobbled up by the national press, including the New York Times. "This was appropriate technology people could understand," said Bernstein. "There were predictions in some reports that we'd soon be feeding 400,000 people on the west side. We got calls from everywhere."

As it turned out, those predictions were somewhat inflated. Crop yields were much less than hoped for, and because the greenhouses required a lot of labor, when community enthusiasm waned, the gardens suffered. Today only two of these greenhouses remain in operation, modest relics of a great idea whose time had not come.

But the time had come, Bernstein believed, to establish an entity independent of the urban center to pursue on a more permanent basis the sort of projects the study group had managed. "In a way," he said, "we had become too real for Northwestern, which is after all an academic institution." So in August 1977, in an attic above the Center for Urban Affairs, with the blessing of gurus McKnight and Hallett, CNT was born, with Bernstein as president and a planning committee of some 25 supporters.

From day one, Bernstein wanted the organization to have a publication, less a public-relations tool than an investigative journal and, as its masthead today says, "an information source for building alternative visions for the city." Now in its 16th year, The Neighborhood Works, a bimonthly whose paid circulation has scarcely ever exceeded 2,000, has become a powerful tool for community organizing and has regularly earned awards from the Chicago Headline Club and other journalism groups.

Ironically, in its early years CNT was recognized not so much for its promotion of small technologies as for opposition to a big one, namely the Metropolitan Sanitary District's Tunnel and Reservoir Project (TARP), better known as Deep Tunnel. Bernstein argued that TARP, a proposed 150-mile underground waterway emptying excess rainwater into a huge receiving basin, was little more than "a $12 billion hole in the ground." (His own alternative to this too-big, too-expensive solution to flooding was rooftop holding basins on each Chicago building.) Through The Neighborhood Works and by rallying community groups, enough questions were raised in the early 1980s to persuade Senator Charles Percy and the federal General Accounting Office to radically curb the massive project; funding was sliced 75 percent, to $3 billion, and more than 50 suburbs opted out of the system. Today though the project is still alive it's moving at a snail's pace, and the reservoir component remains a far-off dream.

Bernstein saw TARP as another in a series of mistakes Chicago has made regarding its water problems, invariably opting for the big, capital-intensive fix. The first of these, he said, was reversing the flow of the Chicago River, that marvelous feat of engineering that alleviated Lake Michigan's pollution problem by flushing effluents from the city down the river toward Saint Louis. The second was the creation of the Metropolitan Sanitary District, an agency that is "simply too big and too distantly controlled to be responsive to citizen needs." The third was establishing Chicago's combined sewer system, which mixes rainwater and human waste, virtually prohibiting inexpensive water treatment. TARP was simply the latest costly attempt to fix a system that started out on the wrong foot. "We're a city built on a swamp," said Bernstein, "and we've been paying for it ever since."

In 1980 an issue arose that spectacularly illustrated everything CNT opposed: a group of Chicago corporate and civic movers and shakers announced its intention to bring a world's fair to the city in 1992. From the beginning it was apparent that the fair would conveniently use public funds to clear out the South Loop neighborhood and ready it for massive private development--development that would be enormously profitable to these very movers and shakers. The leaders--armed with all the political, economic, and media support they needed--restricted public input and kept planning documents under wraps.

In 1981 The Neighborhood Works sounded the alarm with a stinging analysis, claiming Chicago taxpayers would be gouged for an extravaganza likely to prove a financial disaster and certain to drain public funds from other Chicago neighborhoods, benefiting not the South Loop residents but the South Loop developers. CNT then organized a coalition that created the Chicago 1992 Committee, which demanded more public input in the plans. In 1985 the Illinois legislature declared that the fair proposals were shot through with conjecture and ambiguity and that no state funds would be available. The fair was dead. CNT was simultaneously blamed and praised for its involvement in the fair's demise. Either way, it had established itself as an organizing force.

Bernstein did not relish CNT's role as a negative force, however. "The Saul Alinsky, Chicago style of community organization was always better at stopping bad ideas than starting good ones," he said. "We've always preferred to stand for something more positive." Ever since the fair controversy, he's struggled to steer CNT in the directions of energy conservation, housing rehabilitation, recycling, transportation, and air-quality improvement.

During the past two years much of Bernstein's time and energy have been taken up with the gigantic (and, many believe, impossible) task of cleaning up the air in Chicago. As a board member of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C., he was among those who badgered the federal government into revising the old Federal Highway Act into something called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, referred to as "Iced Tea"). In its new form, the act recognizes that a steady increase in highway construction results in a steady increase in motor traffic, which results in a steady increase in air pollution. ISTEA still allocates money for roads, but it also provides financial "sweeteners" for pollution-cutting measures and for finding alternative means of transportation.

On a slightly different front, a federal court had created the Lake Michigan Ozone Study Group, which must present to the court by next November a plan to reduce motor-vehicle emissions in the midwest by 15 percent in the next two years, and to continue the process until a total decrease of 67 percent is achieved by 2007--a daunting task in view of the fact that emissions in the area are continuing to rise by 2 to 3 percent a year. Bernstein convened some 25 transportation experts--some from as far away as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.--to assist the study group by brainstorming in a series of meetings and offering their suggestions.

The court's action stems from the fact that a great chunk of land along Lake Michigan, from Milwaukee through Chicago and around the bend of the lake to Chesterton, Indiana, is in severe noncompliance with federal air-quality standards. Only one other area in the nation--in and around Los Angeles--is in worse condition; the Chicago region has the third highest per capita rate for asthma deaths in the country. ISTEA does not spell out the ways and means of correcting the problem, however. That task is left to state and local legislatures and to responsible citizen groups.

Last November, in a conference room at O'Hare, Bernstein chaired one of the meetings with his 25 experts. The get-together, which abounded in technical talk, also offered a range of initiatives whose effectiveness would be measured on an experimental basis in the months before November of 1994 by an elaborate computerized system. Among the projects: developing computer shopping networks to cut down on auto trips to stores; radically increasing the amount of job "telecommuting," whereby employees work at home three or more days a week, remaining in contact with the central office by phone and computer; introducing "Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems" (IVHS), which can help save fuel by controlling the maximum speed of cars, and even the intervals between them on heavy-use roads, through electronic gadgets built into the roads themselves.

Though Bernstein's manner was laid-back, he was unquestionably the leader, keeping the discussion moving while balancing the theoretical and the practical. He made occasional clarifying comments and wry observations, subtly turning the conversation at times in a slightly different direction. Throughout, he himself remained in a state of perpetual imbalance, tipping his chair back and forth at odd angles, sometimes appearing to defy gravity. By the end of the seven-hour session, everyone was clear on the next step: submit decisions and proposals within 90 days to the group's central committee, which would weave the threads into a coherent tapestry in preparation for the next meeting.

The thoughtful tone of that meeting was in marked contrast with the angry, unsettled mood of Illinois legislators in mid-January. A long-standing federal Environmental Protection Agency deadline for action had come and gone, and the state had so far failed to come up with its own practical steps to reduce air pollution in northern Illinois, thereby facing the immediate loss of $710 million in federal highway funds. Lawmakers groused about "bullying tactics" and "blackmail" and insisted air quality wasn't all that big a problem anyhow. But the squeeze was on, so within a period of four hours--with no debate, no discussion, and minimal research--a bill was hatched and approved requiring somewhat tougher and more frequent emission tests for motor vehicles; it was accompanied by an urgent petition for the release of the coveted highway money. The action was a classic example of the big-government quick fix--the sort of knee-jerk, short-term "solution" that actually helped create the pollution mess in the first place.

Bernstein sees the pollution threat as part of a much larger problem, with roots deep in Chicago's history: "our horribly inefficient pattern of development," as he explained it after the O'Hare conference. "We keep spreading out the population, farther and farther into the areas around our big cities. And public policy has directly encouraged the development of these new areas while providing little incentive for maintaining existing communities within the cities. Public money goes into extending water and sewer mains and electric lines; cheap credit is available in developing areas but not in the cities. Billions go into new highways and new airports, while little goes into mass transit or intercity railways. From 1958 to 1989, the federal government spent $213 billion on highways but only $23 billion on railroads and transit." The result is an expanding mega-metropolis around Chicago, he declared. Developed land has increased by 55 percent in the past 23 years, although the total population rose only 4 percent. That means people have to travel greater distances to work, to shop, to have fun, to visit friends and relatives; the automobile is not only the preferred mode of transportation, it's the only practical mode for great masses of people. And thus, explained Bernstein, the spreading cloud of vapor, smoke, and smog that chokes the population and destroys the ozone layer. ISTEA, he believes, could provide the impetus to reverse this trend, if only imaginative people seize the opportunity.

Bernstein is strangely tolerant of the legislature's grudging attitude toward change. "I'm not about to lay all the blame in one place," he said. "The public is supposed to get involved in these things. It's up to us to take action, create change, not wait for somebody else to do it."

Some observers are unimpressed with CNT's efforts to rouse the citizenry and make cities more livable. After all, public concern about energy conservation and the environment hardly seems on the rise, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening, and people apparently feel more helpless than they did 15 years ago. And why hasn't CNT accomplished more? Why haven't its worthy projects been more widely publicized and adopted?

It would be easy to lay the blame on Bernstein and his restless shifting from one great plan to another. The hard answer is more complicated. In the 1970s, for a time, the federal government and private foundations were generous, providing grants of so-called guilt money to organizations committed to salvaging the inner cities. Also in the 1970s, the energy crisis convinced millions, for a time, that small--whether in automobiles, homes, or interest rates--might be beautiful. Hence the interest in rooftop greenhouses and other forms of energy conservation. The 1980s, the decade of greed, reversed these trends: fascination with small solutions fell just as rapidly as the price of foreign oil, which plummeted from $100 to $4 a barrel. Organizations more rigid than CNT might have perished in this harsher environment, but Bernstein was able to shift gears, convincing himself and his colleagues that less is indeed more and shepherding CNT in the direction of projects that could survive.

Today funding is still scarce, but economic uncertainty is not the only problem. Mary O'Connell, a former editor of The Neighborhood Works, speaks of the way agendas on social problems and solutions are constantly shifting, and of the sheer difficulty of making change occur even on the smallest scale. Besides, she said, "Illinois is just not a leading state in interest in developing alternative strategies toward energy use." CNT board member Browne adds, "It's always been an uphill struggle in the midwest. There's very little political will here supporting environmental issues and small community development."

Bernstein agrees. "Harold Washington was the sort of exceptional person who was willing to be inclusive and live with a crazy bunch of ideas. It was democracy in action. Richard Daley prefers to handle problems with blue-ribbon task forces that meet in small rooms and arrange big fixes."

But Bernstein is respected even by many critics of the community-based movement. John McCarron, a Tribune columnist and education writer who found serious fault with the city's activist organizations in a series published three years ago, praised Bernstein's commitment to self-sustaining economies and his unique mix of technical expertise and vision. "He's absolutely right in theory," said McCarron, "and it would work if everyone was an informed, responsible economic actor. The problem is, people's lives are so fucked-up that things like energy conservation or recycling are the last things on their minds."

The one person perhaps most often at odds with Bernstein over the years is Donald Petkus, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Commonwealth Edison. Their battles have ranged from the hassle over the 1992 world's fair in the early 80s to the hassle over the terms of the renewal of Com Ed's contract with the city two years ago. Yet Petkus had only praise for his adversary, saying that the differences between them have diminished. "Com Ed has come a long way," he said. "We're very much into thermal storage and cogeneration of power, and we're actively promoting energy efficiency. We simply don't believe anymore that bigger is better. Scott and I were once 180 degrees apart. Now it's only a matter of a few degrees."

Still, Bernstein's goals go well beyond altering the attitudes of big business. His personal hero is a 72-year-old man named Wes Birdsell, recently retired general manager of Osage, Iowa, with a population of 3,100 people. "The man has made energy conservation and local citizen initiative a way of life," Bernstein said. He spoke to any local group that would have him, and kept a big box full of conservation aids in the trunk of his car to show people: a caulking gun, insulation, weather stripping, plastic for covering windows, and even half of a concrete block to demonstrate how useless it is as insulation. "He turned the city around, changed how people look at their resources, and now energy conservation is rooted in the place." Bernstein has visited Osage on several occasions and keeps in touch with Birdsell for sheer inspiration.

That doesn't mean Birdsell's approach could be transplanted to Chicago, Bernstein said, but he's encouraged whenever he sees ordinary folks taking leadership and "driving the social-change train" instead of riding in a boxcar. "Look at all the community-development corporations that have cropped up and all the citywide and areawide groups supporting children's rights or fair housing policy or whatever. People are finding links and making connections today. I think they're seeing the bigger picture better than they used to. Something is going on."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

Add a comment