For the last two or three decades, politicians in and around Portage Park have pretty much done what they wanted with the business strips in their part of town. Then Adrienne O'Brien and a lot of people like her moved to the neighborhood. Now the neighborhood's becoming a little more like Lincoln Park, and local pols are learning lessons their counterparts in Lakeview and Ravenswood learned long ago: gentrification brings greater expectations--that is, the richer the residents the more they demand. It's enough to make an old ward heeler long for the days of economic stagnation.
"People are starting to speak up if they don't like what's going on, and that's good for a community," says O'Brien. "If you don't speak up, they won't pay attention to you. If they don't pay attention, they'll do whatever they want--and shove it down your throat."
The issue that has O'Brien and many of her neighbors up in arms is development. Many of the older residents of neighborhoods like Portage Park came of age at a time when the most pressing local issue was race. They had a fear, bordering on hysteria, that an influx of blacks would send property values reeling. It was a credo of local politics that picking up garbage, clearing snow, and keeping out blacks were all an alderman had to do to stay in office. The local alderman, Patrick Levar, first won election in 1987 by accusing the incumbent of being "soft" on Mayor Harold Washington.
Much of that racial fear has dissipated, and older northwest-side residents have discovered that instead of falling in value, their homes are worth more to the younger white professionals who are pushing north and west from Lincoln Park.
O'Brien and her husband, a futures trader, moved to Portage Park from Bucktown in the spring of 1998. Back then her primary concern was Dickinson Park, a patch of green just west of Milwaukee and north of Irving Park and next to some fairly busy residential streets. "I wanted the city to put a fence around it to keep the kids from darting into traffic," she says. "If some kid steps between parked cars into the road, there's nowhere for an oncoming car to swerve to avoid an accident. It was a disaster waiting to happen."
She called Levar to see what could be done, figuring she'd at least get a response. After all, politicians in Lincoln Park and Bucktown, where she has managed property, generally return calls from constituents.
Not Levar. "I called and called and left messages and got no return," she says. "People told me, 'Oh, he never returns calls. He's always in a meeting.' I never saw a man have so many meetings. Well, I'm sorry, I don't find that an acceptable attitude. It's certainly not one I'm going to put up with. I went to his office with my then three-and-a-half-year-old son and sat in his office. The receptionist said, 'The alderman's not here.' I said, 'I'll wait.' So I sat there, while my son, who's your typical three-year-old boy, jumped up and down and rattled the gum-ball machine and made little-boy noises. The receptionist said, 'I'll have the alderman call you.' I said, 'No, that's OK. I have nothing else to do.' Well, I don't know for certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if she called Levar and said, 'Get this broad and her kid outta the office!' Because five minutes later in comes Levar all huffy--like I give a damn. I said, 'Alderman, I'm Adrienne O'Brien.' And he said, 'I know who you are.' I said, 'Fine. Now let's do something about the park.'"
Levar said he'd support a fence, but no fence has been built. Still, the issue's far from dead--O'Brien says she plans to take the matter directly to Mayor Daley.
In the meantime she and her neighbors decided to form a community group, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association. "We started in April, and we're about 200 strong," says O'Brien, who's president of the group. "We're not going anywhere out of the neighborhood--we're just going to get louder. Hey, he who screams the loudest gets. Our attitude is that we've got 200 people who are screaming. Maybe each one of us has screamed before, but this time we're screaming together."
In the last few months they've turned their attention to development along Milwaukee and Cicero, especially the once-thriving commercial strips just north of the Irving-Milwaukee-Cicero intersection known as Six Corners. Those strips are in the doldrums, even though the surrounding residential neighborhood is booming. "Generally, there's a lag between a neighborhood's residential turnaround and its commercial one," says Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the Planning Department. "Look at Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland--that's a classic example."
But the Portage Park residents say the disparity between their commercial and residential areas is much bigger than the disparities were in Lakeview and Ravenswood. They estimate that there are about 50 vacancies along Milwaukee between Irving and Montrose. "Our commercial strip should be a strong asset, and it's not," says Ellen Stoner, another member of the Portage Park association. "We have the Portage movie theater. We have lots of beautiful old terra-cotta buildings. People would want to shop here. Adrienne's right--we have to be willing to stand up and be heard on this issue. We have to move it in the right direction."
Instead, many stately old buildings have been demolished and replaced with strip malls. "There was a nice old terra-cotta building on the 4100 block of Milwaukee that was torn down, and they put up a strip mall anchored by a pet supply store," says O'Brien. "Then the pet store went out of business, and now we're left with an ugly and vacant strip mall. The businesses that are here don't reflect the economic changes in the neighborhood. We have dollar stores and loan offices. We have a discount casket shop. They just had a grand opening--woo-hoo! Just in time for Christmas. I want one--you can toboggan in it until you die."
Another lot on the 4100 block of Milwaukee, once the site of another terra-cotta building, has remained vacant for at least two years. "This summer the developer put up a sign saying that a laundromat's coming," says O'Brien. "We don't need a laundromat. This neighborhood's about 90 percent single family. Most people have washing machines. I did a survey of the apartments in the area. I actually called the owners. I found that 90 percent have laundry machines on-site. So I called Levar. I called the Planning Department. It gets frustrating. I'm thinking, come on people, let's get it together. There's a term here--it's called city planning. Yoo-hoo! Has anyone heard of it? I don't see it happening at all. It's like a roulette wheel. Wherever the ball lands, that's what goes up. They approve everything. The attitude is, anything's better than nothing.
"I had a city planner tell me, 'What would you think about a dog shelter?' I'm thinking, 'Is this for real?' I mean, great job, man! Did you go to college to learn this stuff? I mean, why don't you just put in a slaughterhouse? It will go along with the discount casket shop. What are these guys thinking about? This neighborhood's hot. Where are the coffee shops? Where are the bookstores? We don't have to settle for dog shelters."
Carroll says much of this criticism is unfair and misguided. "We have a great concern about community," she insists. She points out that the city helped oversee and fund the development of a large shopping mall anchored by a Jewel grocery store just east of the Irving-Milwaukee-Cicero intersection. It has also conducted several extensive studies of the area, and large portions of Milwaukee Avenue are part of a Tax Increment Financing district, proof that the city is actively exploring new development. "There may be a public-perception issue about what's going on there, but it's not a reality issue," she says. "The development plans for that area include studies that clearly outline everything from the area's history to its current property values. We're very aware of its strengths and weaknesses."
It's hard to know what Levar makes of all this, since he didn't return calls for comment. (I called three times, and each time his receptionist said, "He's in a meeting.")
Meanwhile, another major development dispute has erupted over a proposal to tear down yet another terra-cotta building, at Montrose and Milwaukee, and put up a big, windowless, concrete building--a CVS drugstore--surrounded by a parking lot. Levar supports the proposal, saying that local seniors need a drugstore within walking distance, even though there are five other drugstores nearby.
"This is not an Adler and Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright," says Patrice Thomas, who lives just north of the proposed store. "But it's a beautiful building, and it's the anchor of our neighborhood. And if you tear it down, Milwaukee loses something important." She adds, "I'm not saying that a big development boom is around the corner. I am saying that we have to learn to build from our strength--and our strength is these old buildings. If we could stave off the strip-mining, or strip malling, of Milwaukee, it won't be long before we can get the restaurants, shops, and stores we're looking for. But we can't do it if we turn everything into a little red strip mall."
Despite the protests, the City Council's zoning committee unanimously approved the proposal at its December 7 meeting. "I told Levar, 'Look at all the yuppies in this meeting--put a Starbucks there,'" says Thomas. "Levar said, 'Ah, Starbucks. It came to Edgebrook already. They're not coming here.' I said, 'Pat, Edgebrook is three miles away.' He just doesn't get it."
The proposal now moves to the City Council, which generally rubber-stamps the zoning committee's position. Yet it's not a done deal. If Mayor Daley comes out against the demolition, every elected official, including Levar, will probably do a flip-flop. And Carroll says the city will meet with CVS officials to discuss preservation. "We are in favor of saving the building and having CVS reduce the project to fit the building," she says. "The mayor's very sensitive to what the community wants in terms of preserving the look and feel of a community. We've worked with other chains, such as Walgreens, on similar issues. We don't just want a box development."
In any event, O'Brien and her allies say they'll be watching closely. "Sometimes I think it's all a communication problem," she says. "A lot of these officials aren't used to having to communicate with their constituents. I think it's getting better. At least Levar calls me back now. I don't know why, but he does. Hey, it's not Lincoln Park, but it's progress."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.