To some Hyde Parkers the business district on 53rd Street seems on the skids. Fear of crime, disgust with the graffiti along the shopping strip, and disdain for the teenagers who congregate in the fast-food eateries have convinced many locals that the area is not for them.
Enter Bert Stitt, of Bert Stitt & Associates in Madison, Wisconsin, who appears to be in his mid-40s. Call him a "facilitation specialist," for that's what he calls himself. He's sort of a new-age Saul Alinsky, a 1990s version of the tough, grizzled outsider who rides into town, teaches people how to help themselves, and then rides out.
For a fee of $20,000 (plus expenses) Stitt proposes to lead Hyde Parkers through a six-month process of self-examination, highlighted by a full-day retreat. They will study themselves and their community--focusing on their biases, fears, weaknesses, and strengths--before selecting a strategy for reviving 53rd Street.
"The mission of my work is to help you to find your way along," Stitt told a December 3 gathering. "I can give you a lot of resources and education. But I'm not here to tell you what to do. I can't give you solutions. If you want that kind of person, you don't want to work with me."
For the most part, the response has been enthusiastic. "The real challenge in a community as diverse as Hyde Park is to have consensus," says Irene Sherr, a local activist. "We need someone like Bert, an outsider who understands people, in order to dissect all the different agendas and bring us together."
In some ways it's hard to understand the concern about the strip, which runs from Lake Park to Woodlawn. Stores and restaurants such as Kroch's & Brentano's, Starbucks, Giordano's, and Pier 1 are bustling during the day. "I think that 53rd Street is a good business street and that a lot of its problems have been exaggerated," says Joe Clark, who owns the Art Werk Gallery at 5300 S. Blackstone. "But people have greater expectations for this area."
Some of those expectations come from the many upper- and middle-class residents. "I buy a lot of things on 53rd Street, but there are a lot of things I can't get there," says Sherr. "There is no children's store. No place to get jeans. Everybody wants to know why there isn't a Gap here--with the student base from the University of Chicago a store like the Gap would work."
Instead of stores like the Gap there are several fast-food restaurants, as well as a beeper store and a movie house that caters mostly to teenagers--black teenagers, that is. Hyde Parkers are proud of the fact that theirs is one of the city's few truly integrated communities, but with the pride comes an undercurrent of apprehension. Hyde Park, bordered by poor, predominantly black communities, has an island mentality, and its anxiety has as much to do with class as with race. Meetings on crime issues attract as many blacks as whites, and both blacks and whites share the fear that every crime and every poorly maintained store indicates their community is on the decline.
Complicating matters is the steady presence along 53rd Street of students from the nearby Kenwood Academy. "There can be a lot of kids on 53rd Street, and that makes some people uncomfortable," says Sherr. "Of course teenagers have a right to walk down a street, but there needs to be a mix on the street so that people know it's everyone's street."
Clark maintains that there's little basis for the concern over the teenagers. "There are two east-west streets in this community: 53rd Street and 57th Street. Both of them cater to teenagers and students. But one is white and the other is black. My point is that a lot of people feel intimidated if they see three or four black kids together. But me, personally, I don't see much difference between the University of Chicago kids walking along 57th and the Kenwood kids on 53rd."
In an attempt to address these issues, Sherr, Clark, and about ten other residents formed the Ad Hoc Committee for 53rd Street in early November. Within a few days they contacted Stitt. "We heard about the work Bert had done helping towns in Wisconsin," says Julia Versau, a committee member. "So we called him up."
Stitt sent the group a copy of his curriculum vitae, which offered testimonials from several Wisconsin cities and towns, including Sheboygan, Ripon, and Whitewater. He has also worked in Milwaukee and Racine. "When you have troublesome situations or problem people, Bert Stitt can wade in and do business," the document reads. "He is direct. He is fair. He is caring. . . . Bert Stitt is a dynamic, entertaining, and challenging speaker. His years in Downtown Development work have provided him with many tales, funny and sad, about people and their foibles. Bert Stitt involves the audience and draws them out."
The ad hoc committee, together with Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, invited Stitt to make a presentation to the community, which he did on November 19.
About 100 people attended that meeting, and Stitt's style caught many of them by surprise. He waded in and out of the audience and made references to a community's spiritual needs. Some in the audience were immediately taken, pledging right there and then to raise the money for his fee. Others wondered whether he was just another slick, expensive motivational speaker, telling them things they already knew and selling them services they didn't need.
"The two-hour meeting was part sales pitch, part preview, as self-proclaimed facilitator Bert Stitt attempted to convince local residents that his $30,000 series of motivational meetings and fundraising retreats can effect a needed reinvigoration of the community's business district," read a November 25 article in the Hyde Park Herald. "A number of residents expressed skepticism about Stitt's approach with its strong emphasis on religious values."
Within a week of the meeting some of the initial enthusiasm had waned. Several members of the local chamber of commerce announced their opposition to his hiring. But Stitt had already been scheduled to make two more presentations on December 3, after which the community would decide whether to hire him.
If Stitt was nervous he didn't show it. He began the morning session by taking issue with what he called "disinformation" in the Herald article. "My fee is $20,000, not $30,000 as the article said." He also denied that he's a self-promoter and took exception to what the article called his religious values. "I don't talk religion--I'm talking about spiritual values. And I think you can talk about spiritual values without religion at all. . . . I operate out of Gestalt psychology. I'm open. I tell you how I am feeling, and right now I'm feeling low energy. There is some heavy object in the air here. I don't know what it's about. What happens with organizations like the chamber of commerce is long-standing turf issues emerge. There is opposition to new ideas. When communities start to work, it's actually a process of maturing and giving up teenage paranoia."
Then he opened the floor to questions.
"Who is paying your $30,000 fee?" one man asked.
"Well, first of all, it's $20,000," Stitt responded.
"OK," the man said.
"Do you want to rephrase the question?" Stitt asked.
Sheepishly, the man did.
"Thank you. The answer is that you do, all of you do."
After that there were few critical questions about Stitt's motive, style, or fee. No one had anything good to say about the Herald, and only one man defended the chamber of commerce. It seemed as though Stitt had successfully managed to equate any question about his tactics, no matter how benign, with resistance to change. "I've worked with some of the most difficult personalities in the world, and I think you have a few of them here," he said. "The issue isn't how much I know about Hyde Park, but how much you know about it. How much you want to learn. Or do you know everything? There is a question in this community of whether I'm the right person for the job. You're doing what academic communities do. You're questioning the goods. You're using it as a tool to get nothing done."
Another man asked whether Stitt could handle racial differences. Stitt boldly claimed he could. "Yes, I'm white. That's obvious. What isn't obvious is that I'm part Jewish. What isn't obvious is that my wife is part American Indian."
Shortly after this Stitt declared, "You have a choice as a community. You can either buy my services or you can shop for another." And with that he called for a vote--walking up and down the aisle asking each and every member of the audience whether he or she wanted to "buy or shop." The final vote was 50 to 9 for buying. The room buzzed with excitement as almost all the residents, black and white, showered Stitt with praise. "As far as I'm concerned," said Stitt with a broad smile, "I'm bought."
Afterward Stitt went around the room, asking each person how she or he felt about the meeting. Almost everyone, including a representative of the chamber of commerce, offered glowing praise. But one man said he felt manipulated.
"If you feel that way, it's because this is manipulation," Stitt countered. "Manipulation is not an evil thing. A massage is manipulation."
The evening meeting also went well. By the end of the day the ad hoc committee had generated nearly $10,000 in pledges, including $2,000 from the University of Chicago. If all goes as planned, next month the committee will pay Stitt $5,000, the first installment on his fee, and preparations will begin for the retreat.
"So long as there's a perception that 53rd Street needs help, I think we should be doing something," says Clark. "Bert's a good salesman. He's got a bit of the Machiavellian in him. That's OK. He'll need it in Hyde Park."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.