By Ben Joravsky
For the past eight months, northwest-side activists have been quietly trying to build a grassroots, Alinsky-style organization in Albany Park--an ambitious plan for an ethnically mixed, working-class neighborhood that's never really had a strong organization independent of politicians or government subsidies. But, says Alfreda Johnson, who's taken a leading role in the group, "I think it's time that people got together and stood up for their community."
The new Albany Park Neighborhood Council is backed by the North River Commission, a well-established not-for-profit that's concerned primarily with economic-development issues. Council organizers, led by Kirk Noden, have gone door-to-door in the section of the neighborhood the group covers--roughly bounded by Lawrence and Foster on the south and north, and Kedzie and Pulaski on the east and west--recruiting potential leaders and identifying key issues. It didn't take long to find out that the biggest problems were the typical ones: prostitution, gangbangers, and negligent landlords--sometimes all of them at once.
"The biggest problem around here is landlords who don't take care of their property," says Johnson, who lives in a six-unit apartment building on Spaulding near Foster. "We're hostages in our own apartments. We have our windows shut. There are so many young thugs living here. They intimidate people with their profanity and loud music and alcohol and drugs and illicit kind of sexual attitudes. We call the landlord, but she doesn't respond. She's cold. Listen, I say if you're going to buy a building at least screen the tenants."
Other residents complain of blatant prostitution near the intersection of Lawrence and Christiana. Not long ago Marcia Altinay saw a prostitute and a john in her backyard. "I let my dog out in the back one morning and there they were," she says. "I don't know how to put this, but she was giving this man her services. I lost it. I couldn't believe it. I ran out of my house and started yelling at them, 'Get out! Close the gate! Get out!' She turned and looked at me and said, 'Bitch, I'll kill you.' I was scared.
"I've since learned that the prostitute wasn't a lady, but a man dressed as a lady. I found this out from a neighbor who had similar trouble with her--or him. I described the prostitute, and my neighbor said, 'That's not a she, it's a he.' I don't really care what he or she is--I just don't want her doing business in my backyard."
Having gathered a host of similar anecdotes, the council organizers and their newly enlisted resident activists decided to hold a public meeting on August 3, inviting landlords, police, and city officials. "We want to tell them what's going on and ask what they intend to do," said Johnson before the meeting, "and then hold them accountable--to make sure they do what they say they're going to do."
Their planning went smoothly. One resident, Thomas Wagster, volunteered to deliver the opening remarks. Three others--Johnson, Altinay, and Gloria Sanchez--agreed to testify about problems they'd seen. A fifth resident, Carlos Arce, offered to lead the questioning of city officials, and Darcell Smith--Johnson's cousin, who also lives in the area--agreed to sign people in at the door. They reserved the basement meeting room of a Korean church on the corner of Bernard and Ainslie, and on the day of the meeting they came early to set out folding chairs and pretzels, cookies, and soda pop.
Before the meeting began, some of the speakers were nervous. "This is the first time I ever spoke in public," Sanchez said later. Others were excited. About 60 people showed up, and most seemed eager to support the new group.
Then, while Wagster was starting to explain why they were there and who would speak and when, a woman with a bullhorn began shouting. Within a few seconds four or five other people stood up and began speaking loudly all at once. It was hard to understand what any of them said.
One woman, wearing a white shirt, held a soda pop can in her hand while she shouted. A man with a ponytail, afraid she intended to throw the can, asked her to put it down.
"Don't touch me," she said.
"You touched me!"
She stomped out of the church and into the front yard, where she called the police on her cell phone and reported an assault. "He touched my hand," she told them.
Back inside, Johnson talked about landlords. Altinay talked about the prostitutes on Lawrence. Arce then asked local police sergeant Terry Breslin to answer questions.
"Will you have a sting on prostitutes at Lawrence and Christiana?" Arce said, reading from a list of prepared questions.
"I don't see any problem with that," said Breslin. He started to describe a similar situation in which police had worked successfully with residents to crack down on crime, but Arce cut him off, explaining that the group had to leave the church soon and they had other questions.
A man wearing a black shirt called out, "Let him talk!"
"We have an agenda," said Arce.
"Let the people know," said the man in black.
A voice came from the back of the room--the woman in white had returned. "Excuse me," she said. "I think we ought to have a vote on whether he [Breslin] gets to talk."
Another man stood up and said, "Yes, let him speak."
The same chorus of critics were again on their feet, again talking all at once. The loudest was the woman with the bullhorn. A husky young organizer approached her. "Please," he started.
"Don't touch me!" she screamed. "Take your hands out of my face!"
"Let him speak," bellowed the man in black.
"I hope you understand--" said Arce.
"I understand this is a one-sided meeting," said the man in black. "You didn't invite me."
"Where were you when the bottles were flying and the bricks were flying?" shouted the woman with the bullhorn.
Arce was speechless. He turned to Breslin, but the sergeant had quietly left. So he moved on to the next item on the agenda, calling on an official with the city's building department. "Will you encourage Mayor Daley's antidrug policy?" he asked, referring to the policy that holds landlords accountable for drugs sold in their buildings.
"Sham," cried the woman with the bullhorn.
"You have our support," said the official.
"Will you meet with the community?" asked Arce, trying to ignore the woman.
"Yes," said the official.
Another organizer approached the woman, who yelled, "I'm not leaving!"
"Leave her alone," hollered the man in black.
"You get the fuck away from me!" she shouted.
"Excuse me, we're in a church," someone said.
Arce, determined to follow the agenda, called a local landlord, Peter Tisler, to the front of the room and asked, "Will you reduce trash in front of your building?"
"Oh, yes," Tisler said. "I will try to do my best."
"You mothers!" screamed the lady with the bullhorn. "You mothers!"
"Will you work with the community?" Arce asked.
"Oh, yes," said Tisler.
"Send him to landlord training school," shouted the lady with the bullhorn.
"This is the most pathetic excuse for a community meeting," sneered the man in black.
A uniformed police officer, answering the woman in white's call, walked into the room and motioned for the man with the ponytail to join him. They went into the hallway, followed by the woman in white, the woman with the bullhorn, two or three council organizers, and several curious residents. The woman in white demanded an arrest, the man with the ponytail insisted he'd done nothing wrong, and the cop looked like he had a splitting headache. No arrests were made.
Back in the meeting room Tisler was saying how much he loved Chicago and Albany Park. But no one seemed to be listening. Arce adjourned the meeting.
As people left, Arce, Altinay, Sanchez, Johnson, and Noden stayed behind to analyze what had happened. No one had a clue. One or two of the critics had claimed to represent the local community policing program, but the uniformed cop said he didn't know who they were. Apparently they viewed the council organizers and members as intruders, but they didn't say what they were intruding on. They didn't link themselves to any group or organization. They didn't even identify themselves.
One volunteer organizer, a college kid who'd walked door-to-door talking to residents such as Johnson and her cousin, hung his head and looked discouraged. The others tried to cheer him up. This isn't unusual for Chicago, said Noden. There are all sorts of factions in every neighborhood who are threatened by the formation of a new group.
They decided to meet again. They vowed to hold the city and landlords accountable. Then they walked out of the church.
Outside on the sidewalk were the man in black, the woman in white, and the lady with the bullhorn. The two groups looked at each other in awkward silence, then walked away.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.