Community regroup: ONE's back in business | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Community regroup: ONE's back in business

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One steamy night in early June about 400 residents of Uptown and Edgewater gathered in a local Chinese restaurant to toast the formation of a new neighborhood group.

Actually it wasn't a new organization, but an old group making a fresh start. After about six years of tottering on the brink of fiscal and philosophical bankruptcy, the Organization of the NorthEast is back on the block.

"This has been a good year for us," says Josh Hoyt, ONE's executive director. "We've been building momentum; now I think we're as strong as we've ever been."

The group is now working with the same banks and businesses it once scorned as too middle-class. Its ultimate goal is to bring Uptown and Edgewater's economically and ethnically diverse community groups and residents together under one umbrella. If it succeeds, ONE will emerge as the north side's most powerful organization.

Most observers figure they have a long way to go. "I don't want to knock their success, that's not our purpose," says Ken Bruck, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council, a group that has long feuded with ONE. "There's room in this area for a lot of groups. I see them reaching out to institutions. That's commendable. We've been doing that for years."

The old ONE, a coalition of block clubs and neighborhood groups, focused on helping tenants fight neglectful landlords and educating the poor on the ins and outs of city government. But over the years the group became preoccupied with defending Uptown against gentrification. Most of its fears were exaggerated; not enough high-income professionals have settled in Uptown and Edgewater to drive the poor away. Most demographic studies of Chicago show that despite the gentrification of a handful of neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, the exodus of middle-class families of all races continues.

But old myths die hard. In 1987 ONE opposed the construction of a shopping mall on the grounds that it would displace poor residents and shopkeepers--a campaign that most observers, in retrospect, call one of the silliest ever waged by a community group. The issue was whether the city should help finance the construction of a mall in an abandoned car dealership at the intersection of Berwyn and Broadway. The Edgewater Community Council supported the project, so naturally ONE did not.

To their credit, ONE's strategists raised legitimate concerns about whether preciously needed economic-development funds should be invested anywhere but in the city's poorest communities. To their discredit, they employed clumsy tactics and shrill rhetoric. They tried to paint ECC, former 48th Ward alderman Kathy Osterman, and the mall's developers as agents of gentrification. Few people rallied to their side; most observers just laughed at them. It was obvious that ONE had run out of ideas.

"The group was in debt and facing a lot of internal problems," says Hoyt, who was not affiliated with ONE at the time. "I don't want to bad-mouth my predecessors. I will say that I would have handled that issue differently."

By 1989, ONE had racked up a bank debt of $45,000 and owed another $25,000 in unpaid bills. That's when they called on Hoyt.

"The first thing I told them is that I didn't want the job full-time," says Hoyt. "I said, 'Hire me as a consultant.' With all that debt, I didn't want liability. Later on I became the full-time director."

Choosing Hoyt was a bit of a risk. At age 36 he's one of Chicago's best-known activists, with some 15 years' experience organizing in communities across the city. His reputation is that of a hardheaded negotiator who delights in humiliating his opponents in well-publicized demonstrations.

He's best known for his work with the United Neighborhood Organization, a predominantly Hispanic group that many activists fear has become too chummy with the Daley administration. There was some fear that with Hoyt at its helm, ONE would become a north-side cog in the UNO-Daley machine.

On the other hand, Hoyt is an expert in using federal banking laws to force banks to invest in low-income neighborhoods. He's also a shrewd media manipulator who can generate radio, television, and print coverage with a handful of phone calls. "It's uncanny how many times Josh gets his organizations into the paper," says one veteran organizer who asked to go nameless. "In that regard, we're all in awe of him."

In May 1989, Hoyt became a consultant to the group. Under his direction, ONE sliced its payroll from 14 to 3, its budget from $450,000 to $260,000. "I had a CD cashed out to pay back part of the debt, but that still left a $45,000 obligation," says Hoyt. "And we couldn't use grant support to pay off debt."

Instead, the group continued to act as a broker on energy-conservation loans. In return for bringing qualified low-income applicants to banks, they received a percentage of the loan. In addition, Hoyt moved the organization into a smaller space to cut down on rent and utility costs. "There's less room and people don't have offices, but then we have a lot fewer people," says Hoyt. "People work best in a big room anyway."

The budget cuts enabled Hoyt to concentrate on longer-term goals. "We had to restructure the board, then we had to define issues to give us credibility, then we had to do outreach to the rest of the community." New board members were brought in, most notably developer Dan Burke and Luz Martinez, executive director of Voice of the People, an Uptown-based not-for-profit development company.

Under Hoyt, ONE's main issues became school reform, community reinvestment, and affordable housing. Their attempts to organize the area's local school councils into a single coalition have drawn mixed reviews from the LSCs. Many of them credited ONE's newly hired education organizer Ana Bedard for working hard, but several suspected that Hoyt's interest in their particular schools was not sincere.

ONE scored impressive gains when it negotiated neighborhood reinvestment agreements with the Community Bank of Edgewater and the First Chicago Bank of Ravenswood. The agreements helped dispel their old image. "It's hard to call us pinkos," says Hoyt, "when we're cutting deals with banks."

Their biggest coup came on the housing front, where a year ago they forced HUD secretary Jack Kemp to make good on his pledge to allow tenant control of the federally subsidized high rise at 850 W. Eastwood. For months, ONE had worked with bankers, developers, congressmen, and housing activists on a tenant-management plan. When Kemp delayed implementation, ONE resorted to street protests.

"If you approach people in a reasonable way and ask them to do the right thing and they still don't do it, then nobody really minds that you kick the hell out of them," says Hoyt. "In the case of Kemp, he had made a big deal out of his support for local control. We had won the support of Republicans, Democrats, the City Council, and the business community and still Kemp said no. So then we had a rally and made up a song called 'Jack the Giant Windbag.' I think even Republicans figured he asked for it."

As ONE's profile rose, they reached out to other groups in the area. "I got to know ONE through the education issue," says Raymond Lau, director of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, an Uptown-based social service agency. Before ONE, he says, "the Chinese community here didn't have many links to other groups. Josh invited us to a big community meeting on school reform and it was very exciting. We saw that we are not alone and that there are other people--other non-Chinese people--who share our concerns."

ONE also looked for support from predominantly white segments of the community, like Ebenezer Lutheran Church. "Ebenezer is an old Swedish church based in Andersonville whose membership is falling as many of our parishioners die or move," says Reverend Paul Koch, the church's senior pastor and the president of ONE's board. "When I came here in 1989 one of my mandates was to help the church develop a multicultural parish. Joining ONE was ideal for us."

Over the last several months, ONE has organized three meetings, inviting local church, business, and social service leaders to discuss their visions for the area. The workshops culminated in a June 10 gathering where 40 local groups became institutional members of ONE.

"There are risks to joining a group like ONE; it's not an easy decision to make," says Lau. "We don't want to offend other groups in the community. And we don't want to be used or manipulated by ONE or anyone. In the end, we decided that we have to work with [other groups]. The problems are too big for one group to solve on its own. If Asian youth are fighting with black youth, for instance, it's pointless to [try to] solve that without working with blacks."

Harder work remains. Like every other organization in the area, ONE's educational efforts seem hopeless when measured against the overcrowded and underfinanced conditions of the public schools. And they still have a way to go before they completely lose their reputation as mindless rabble-rousers. For the moment, however, they've made impressive strides.

"There is strength in diversity," says Hoyt. "Our goal is to find ways in which different people can work together."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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