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Easy Targets

The city's new courthouse has to go somewhere. Is it a coincidence that the perfect site happens to be in a poor, black west-side neighborhood?

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By Ben Joravsky and Melody Rodgers

One evening last fall, several of Lorraine Gipson's grown children had dropped by her house for dinner, along with a few of her grandchildren and one or two family friends--a spontaneous get-together of 15 people. "People are always stopping by," said Gipson. "They know they can always come here, because this is our home."

That probably won't be true much longer. Gipson's eight-bedroom Victorian, home to her family for almost 30 years, is in a neighborhood that's slated for demolition. A $212 million courthouse is coming to their corner of the west side, and the building and parking lots will require about eight acres of land--which will mean destroying 67 homes and displacing about 200 residents.

The residents, who live in the few blocks just south of Jackson and east of Homan, have been fighting the project for several months without success. They're learning an old lesson about eminent domain and urban renewal: the city and county have the authority to take their homes in the name of a greater good. Some might say that's the price of progress, but others say this time the price is too high. "I still don't understand why they're doing this--especially when there are alternatives," says Gipson. "They don't have to come here. They don't have to take our homes. Yet that's just what they're going to do. We still want to know why."

The decision to build a new courthouse was one of those ideas that must have sounded great to the planners who hatched it in their cubicles in the County Building. That was about two and a half years ago, when county judges had begun to complain to Cook County Board president John Stroger that they were running out of courtrooms. In particular, they said, they needed new rooms for domestic-violence court, traffic court, and misdemeanor court. Stroger brought their concerns to his political ally Mayor Daley, well aware that no plan of any magnitude would fly without the mayor's blessing. According to county officials, Daley suggested that the ideal location would be a poor section of the west side, where a big project might spark economic renewal. In July 1998 he offered his thoughts in a general way at a press briefing, mentioning the Homan-Jackson site as one of six or seven possibilities.

By the fall of 1998 the need for a new courthouse had become more urgent. The county traffic court had been in a city-owned building at 321 N. LaSalle, and the city was about to sell it to private developers, forcing the county to find a temporary location until a new courthouse could be built.

One county board commissioner, Mike Quigley, argued that it was a waste of money to build a new courthouse, that the county could reduce its caseload by handling many minor traffic cases through the mail. "I proposed a diversion program similar to what they do in Du Page County," he says. "Du Page diverts about 62 percent of its traffic-court cases by having things go through the mail. That means we spend far less money." But, he notes wryly, it also means fewer patronage jobs for bailiffs and clerks and fewer public works contracts for developers and other contractors. Stroger dismissed Quigley's proposal as impractical; several Cook County judges even called it unconstitutional, though the Du Page program had been running for more than ten years.

Stroger put together a task force of judges and lawyers to scout for possible sites, and a few months later the task force came out with a report recommending a location close to the Loop. The report noted that among the sites considered was the Homan-Jackson neighborhood, three miles west of the Loop, which it called "borderline."

Stroger promptly dismissed any downtown site as too expensive, and in the spring of 1999 the county hired a private consulting firm to analyze a half dozen of the south- and west-side locations the task force had already looked at. The consultants also met with the task force, and a year later the task force announced that it was now recommending the Homan-Jackson site.

"Yes, the task force preferred a downtown location," says Jack Beary, Stroger's press secretary. "But the cost of land downtown was prohibitive, so we looked to the west and south sides, where there were available sites that included some vacant city-owned land." He adds, "This was the end product of much study and careful thought. It involved judges and lawyers and planners for the city and the county and the Public Building Commission."

To Daley and Stroger, the Homan site made perfect sense. As Beary points out, the land was cheap compared to land near the Loop. And the site was just north of the Eisenhower Expressway, which would allow people to drive there or walk a short distance from the Kedzie-Homan stop on the Blue Line.

On June 1 Stroger announced the site selection and told reporters that construction costs would be paid with some of the money the county received from the settlement of lawsuits against the tobacco companies. County officials didn't expect much opposition to the plan. They figured west-side residents would welcome a big public works project--32 courtrooms--because it would create new jobs and spur business development. After all, the judges, lawyers, and defendants who would eventually flock there would have to eat and shop somewhere. "I don't anticipate any major problems," Stroger told reporters, "but I can tell you that the county is prepared to work out any difficulties we may encounter."

There was one major difficulty that had barely been mentioned by Daley, Stroger, and their consultants: the residents who lived on and near the site were against it.

It was easy for county and city planners to overlook the residents, because East Garfield Park has been overlooked for years. It's one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, barely touched by the ten years of boom that have transformed huge chunks of the city.

Still, it's one of the few communities that offers housing its residents can afford. Luster Jackson moved there in 1962, looking for a new house where he could raise his family. "Back then I couldn't find what I was looking for on the south side, so I came here," says Jackson, who's president of the Concerned Citizens for East Garfield Park. "I loved it up here. This is where my children were raised. I consider it home. I organized the 3200 W. Jackson block club. We're working together to make this a better community. Why would we want to move?"

Lorraine Gipson feels just as strongly. She and her husband, Woody, bought their property at 318 S. Spaulding in 1963. "It's so big and beautiful," she says. "I thought, 'We can't afford this.' After we bought it, we walked into the house and I still couldn't believe it. I thought, 'This is finally ours?'"

Woody scraped together a living selling used hubcaps and other auto parts, and together he and Lorraine hosted a Sunday-morning inspirational radio show on WJJD AM called "Young Ideas." Like Jackson, they were active churchgoers and block-club members. "We love our community, and we've put a lot into it," says Gipson. "Leaving has never been an option."

In 1985 Woody died of a heart attack, just four days shy of his and Lorraine's 30th wedding anniversary. Lorraine stayed in the house, and over the years she's become something of a neighborhood matriarch. The kids on the block call out greetings when they see her on the street. As one resident puts it, "She's the lady with the open house and the open heart."

Like most of the residents, Gipson and Jackson were caught off guard by the early news stories about the courthouse. Jackson says, "The first notice we got of it--and it wasn't a direct notice, like the mayor or his people called us up--was a story in the papers," in July 1998. "The mayor said there were six or seven possible sites, but his preference was Homan and Jackson. A few days later the reporters interviewed Stroger, and he said that was the best site. I knew right then that if it's coming, it means some people are gonna be moved."

After reading the article, Jackson contacted Stroger and arranged to have him come to East Garfield Park and meet with residents. According to Jackson, Stroger didn't offer many specifics at the meeting, telling residents they shouldn't be alarmed, because the project was still very much in the planning stages and a final location had by no means been selected. "Stroger assured us that we would be notified beforehand of what would happen," says Jackson. "He assured us that we would be part of the process."

Residents say that after the meeting they didn't hear about the courthouse for almost two years--until they read in the paper last spring that it was coming to their community. Jackson and other residents felt they'd been hoodwinked. "It sure looks like the county was intending to come here all the time," he says. "All those task force and consulting reports were for show. Isn't it interesting that they wound up selecting the same site Daley talked about two years ago? I guess we're supposed to believe that's just a coincidence."

The residents were also upset that they hadn't been consulted. "They didn't even allow us an opportunity to speak about it," says Jackson. "Stroger assured us that we would be notified before the site was officially selected, but we weren't. That's one of our key arguments--the lack of due process. Our constitutional rights have been ignored."

On top of everything, the project was bigger than many people had feared. It would uproot everyone who lived on the 13 acres between Homan and Spaulding and the Eisenhower Expressway and Jackson.

The residents have various reasons for not wanting to move. Gipson, who's 61, says she feels too old to pack up and move, and besides, her house still bustles with friends and family. Her 16-year-old daughter, LaToya, and her three grade-school-age foster children live there, and many of her 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren are regular visitors, because their parents stop by almost every day.

The county is of course obligated to pay owners for their property, but Gipson is worried that she'd be paid only enough money to move to a much smaller house or to a town house or a condo, which wouldn't allow her family to stay together. "If I have to move, I want to be given the life that I had," she says. "But where am I going to find an eight-bedroom house with an acceptable mortgage?"

Trying to determine a fair replacement cost is always a tricky issue in eminent-domain battles. Traditionally government bodies try to pay as little as they can to acquire properties, and Gipson figured that the county would try to lowball her by offering a price that reflected the going rate for a similar house in a poor, high-crime neighborhood. But what if she couldn't find a comparable house in a poor neighborhood? What if the only eight-bedroom house she could find was in, say, Lakeview? That might cost over $1 million. The county was clearly talking about paying Gipson what they said her west-side house was worth on the open market--and she was talking about literally replacing an eight-bedroom house. "The county tells me that I will be given 'market value' for my house," she says. "But what's that? The market value for this neighborhood means nothing now."

Other residents were also upset at the thought of being forced to move. Gipson's home is located between the Victory Club, a social center that's been in the community for eight years, and the Agape Community Church, which has been there for ten. "We haven't been given a real concrete plan to replace the building," says Reverend Steven Stultz. "We probably couldn't rebuild the church or the center with what they would pay us. And where would we move it to?"

Joy Gill, a counselor at the Victory Club, says, "They never asked us if they could have our community--they told us and that was that. I agree our community needs to be redeveloped, but it needs to be redeveloped by us."

In May the residents, led by Jackson, began fighting the project. They held meetings that took on the feeling of civil rights demonstrations--they began each meeting by singing the African-American national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and filled the air with determined rhetoric. "We must fight for what's right," Jackson declared at a meeting last June. "If we lose, it will be because the people didn't have the will to fight. I don't want anyone coming to me telling me anything about anything if this courthouse goes down."

They also held marches in the community. "Ain't gonna let nobody take our homes, take our homes, take our homes," they chanted last June. "We gonna keep on marchin', keep on fightin' to save our community."

Unfortunately for the residents, their stand has been undercut by a nasty disagreement on the issue between two of the area's most prominent officials. Cook County commissioner Bobbie Steele supports the plan, and 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith does not.

Steele and Smith were both independents--and early supporters of Mayor Harold Washington--who ran against and defeated the regular organization. They both still cling to the independent label, though of course the definition has changed drastically in the years since Washington's death. These days, few politicians, particularly aldermen, defy Mayor Daley on any matter, and on most issues before the City Council Smith is no exception.

Yet he's won cheers from his constituents by vociferously opposing the courthouse site. Like the other residents of the ward, he found out about the project by reading the newspapers. "No one ever brought the subject up to me about a courthouse," he says, clearly miffed that he was left out of the planning. "As the alderman, yes, I should have been informed."

Smith says he's not against a new courthouse. "I believe one's got to be built--it just shouldn't be built where they want to build it. I think it's bad for the community. I'm just appalled that the people in this area keep getting hit over and over again in situations where they try to fight for themselves and they really don't get any help from the system."

He says he can't understand why the county settled on the Homan site when there was an obvious alternative in the old Allstate Insurance building, at 3245 W. Arthington, five blocks south of the Eisenhower Expressway. It's an enormous facility on about 22 acres of land, with parking for more than 1,000 cars.

Last June, Bob Allen, a leasing agent for Aegis, the management company for the property, got together with Smith to prepare an alternative proposal. They noted that the Allstate site would save the county money and it wouldn't displace any residents. Allen says he brought his proposal to county officials but received no response. "I approached Commissioner Steele with this proposal, and she told me I would have my chance to speak in front of the board," he says. "I never got my chance."

Allen says he also sent a copy of his proposal to every commissioner on the board. "Something is going on if the county chooses to remove residents when there is a perfectly good building here," he says. "No one is going to convince me that something more isn't going on."

Most of the residents are also convinced that something more is going on. Many of them suspect that the city wants to use the courthouse plan to clear the area of poor people and make it available for upscale development.

Even Smith is skeptical about the city's intentions. "There's something going on here, though I don't know what," he says. "It just doesn't smell right to me."

Many residents were dismayed to discover that Steele had supported the plan. They say they have little chance of forcing the county to change sites as long as she supports the current one. "If there was one vote we thought we could count on, it was hers," says Jackson. "Her vote probably would not have changed the board's decision, but how can we convince the other commissioners to vote for us if our own commissioner wouldn't?" At one rally he declared, "Commissioner Steele sold the community out. She's a black woman doing a white man's job."

Smith too has harsh words for his old ally. "My position is that if you are a public official you are supposed to carry out the wishes of the people," he says. "Now, there are times when you are to provide some strong emphasis for leadership and give people ideas that will help them to better their community. This is not one of those times. This has nothing to do with the progressiveness of the community. What can a courthouse do for a community at Homan and Jackson? Nothing!"

Steele counters that she's being made a scapegoat. She points out that the alternative site Smith and Allen proposed is too far from the Blue Line stop for most people to walk, especially given that they'd be walking through a rough neighborhood. "It's not as accessible to the highways or public transportation," she adds, "so there was no point in spending time discussing it."

Steele insists she has nothing to apologize for. "I'm so glad that the community considers me a sellout," she says sarcastically, then rattles off several west-side projects--shopping centers, housing complexes, an empowerment zone--she's helped make possible. "My hand has been in almost every new construction in the ward in the last ten years--is that a sellout? The people that are talking are the people who don't know Bobbie Steele. I think the people from the community know that I have spent my life trying to help this community. I taught school in this community for over 20 years--I have taught second and third generations in this community. And I still live here. Is that a sellout? I don't think so."

The courthouse, she says, will bring jobs and development for her constituents. Moreover, she adds, there was nothing anyone could have done to stop it, so her job was to accept the inevitable and get the best deal for the west side. "I sympathize and have all the compassion in the world for anyone who has to uproot and go somewhere else, but you can take memories with you," she says. "The courthouse is a done deal. The best defense now is to play while you still have the time."

It doesn't seem to bother her that Smith was left out of the picture, but other political observers say that an alderman shouldn't have to resort to marches to block a project earmarked for his ward, that if an alderman truly controlled zoning in his ward, one phone call to Daley should be enough to stop a project. "Here's what I think happened," says one high-ranking county official who thinks Smith's case illustrates the powerlessness of aldermen in the age of Daley. "I think Daley told Stroger to put it on the west side--and so that's where it's going. I don't think Ed has the power to stop it. He's a nice guy, but he must feel helpless. They just dumped this thing in his ward and didn't even tell him."

Smith says he explained his objections to Daley, but the mayor said he had little control over where the courthouse would go--even though many observers agree that the mayor has more say than Stroger over where it's built. "Mayor Daley said that this was a county board decision," says Smith. "I do feel this ward in this particular instance is being slapped in the face. It's kind of hard to believe that this would happen if this was a different ward in a different part of the city."

Smith says he still may try to block the project by getting his City Council colleagues to vote against changing the site's zoning. But he doubts he'll have much success so long as Daley supports the deal. "As a general rule, the other aldermen will vote with the local alderman on zoning," he says. "But just because you are the alderman doesn't mean you get carte blanche decision over zoning. There are 49 other aldermen in the council. They're going to vote the way they want to. But I will continue to fight this."

On June 20 the county board officially approved the site, after Stroger agreed to scale back the project from 13 to 8 acres, which would save about 60 homes. County officials said it was the best compromise for all parties. They said it would take a year or so to acquire all of the land and demolish all of the buildings. The courthouse would be completed in about 2004.

"We took very seriously the concerns of residents--that's why we cut back the size of the site," says Stroger press secretary Jack Beary. "This was all done in the full view of the public. It was all reported in the paper. Members of the county board were kept apprised of what was happening. Commissioner Steele was kept apprised. There was vigorous debate. The city was involved, as was the county and the Public Building Commission. In other words, there was a vigorous and open debate and the people were not ignored."

But Jackson and many other residents doubt that the county will actually give up the extra five acres. "I don't believe it for one minute," he says. "I think it's a ruse. I think they're going to come back and develop that parcel."

For the time being, life in the neighborhood is going on almost as it did before, even though the residents are living under the threat of imminent displacement. Jackson and his allies are still holding meetings and marches, still trying to rally support against the proposal.

Gipson attends many of those meetings. Her home still draws visitors, family, and friends day and night. One evening last fall, Gipson and one of her granddaughters cooked spaghetti and baked blueberry cobbler, while LaToya watched her favorite movie and the smaller children darted in and out of the living room. Finally Gipson called everyone to the table. They joined hands, bowed their heads, and said grace. "Thank you for the food we are about to receive, and thank you for allowing us another day together, Lord," Gipson began. "Please keep my family safe, and Lord, please help us stay together and overcome this obstacle you have put in our way. We know you wouldn't have put us through this if you didn't know we could handle it. Thank you, Lord, amen."

A few weeks later Gipson received a letter from a lawyer hired by the county to oversee the acquisition of land. It offered her $150,000 for her home. It's far too little, she says, to buy a home comparable to the one she and her family are about to lose. "What happens to my family when they move us out of this house?" she says. "What will replace this? Where will we go? They talk about fair market value--that means nothing now. What about the lives of the people whose homes they want to take? That's got to be worth a lot more than their market value." She paused. "My home is everything to me. My memories are irreplaceable. My husband died in the house. I'm preparing to do the same."

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

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