By Neal Pollack
On Wednesday, January 28, Arlene Mejorado stood before the Chicago Board of Education and begged them not to tear down the Virginian, an apartment building on Marshfield just north of Howard Street, where she's lived since she was nine years old. This was the first time she had ever spoken in public, and she was crying and shaking.
"Excuse me," she said. "I'm very nervous."
"Don't be nervous," said school board president Gery Chico.
Mejorado took a breath. "I've been in that building 22 years. They're saying people in that building are drug dealers, and when they say that they're referring to me! I work 44 hours a week. I have three kids. Where are my kids going to go? We're being relocated. My neighbors are being relocated. I have neighbors who I don't consider drug dealers. They're decent people trying to make a living....You've gotta help us. We're in the community, too. We're being pushed out. I am all for cleaning up the neighborhood, but don't clean it out!"
The Virginian's fate became uncertain in September, when Trkla, Pettigrew, Allen & Payne, a consulting firm hired by 49th Ward alderman Joseph Moore, released a report on developing the area known as North of Howard, a pocket of mostly rental properties north of Howard Street and bounded by the lake, the el tracks, and Calvary Cemetery. Suggestions included tearing down the Howard Area Community Center and the Good News Church, both of which provide services to the neighborhood's poorer residents. Together with a low-cost-housing advocacy organization called the Rogers Park Community Action Network, the church and the community center formed a task force in opposition to the proposal. Moore then assured the two organizations they would not be affected.
On November 5, Moore attended a meeting of the task force at the Good News Church. He assured the group that he wanted to work with them. But he also said the Chicago Board of Education was interested in buying and demolishing some properties around Gale Academy, an elementary school that sits in the middle of the North of Howard neighborhood. It was rumored that one of those buildings would be the Virginian. The board had already purchased and torn down five apartment buildings in order to build an annex for the overcrowded school; the task force voted to petition the board not to tear down any more.
At a November 19 school board meeting on Pershing Road, a representative of the task force singled out the Virginian, saying, "There's a piece of property that we don't want you to buy, we think." Gery Chico said he wasn't sure what they were talking about. He looked through some papers and found that the Virginian was already on the agenda. At the request of task force members, Chico agreed to delay the proceedings. They left the meeting believing they had won.
Larry Turpin, pastor of the Rogers Park Presbyterian Church, stayed behind. He was at the meeting on an unrelated issue. Turpin says Moore talked to Chico privately after the task force members left. Then Moore stood in front of the board to speak. He apologized for contradicting the task force, but, he warned, the Virginian was about to go into a sealed-bid auction. If the board didn't purchase the building immediately, it would be lost. According to Turpin, Moore went on to characterize the Virginian as a neighborhood scourge, full of "terrible people," and he said it should be demolished.
"I was shocked and appalled," Turpin says. "My jaw was on the floor. He completely undid everything the task force had just done. I went up to him afterwards and said, 'I hope you will work with the task force on this.' He said, 'Yes.'"
When task force members later found out what Moore had done, they were even more appalled. They didn't know why Moore wanted to overturn their deal with the board. They would soon find out.
Like many apartment buildings in Rogers Park, the Virginian was once a luxury residence, but it saw its best days many years ago. Of its 26 units, only half are occupied. Since June of last year, the Virginian has been owned by Bank One, which foreclosed on it. The courtyard has the atmosphere of a ruin. Brick towers on either side of its entryway are leaning and look close to falling. Flowerpots on top of the towers are cracked and overgrown with moss. Gutters leak, and pigeons roost on the roof. A glass window on one of the doors has been shattered. Anyone could walk right in.
For Arlene Mejorado, the building is a compromise. She pays $385 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her three children, ages two, three, and five. "This apartment is my way of balancing out my life," she says. "I do less with my apartment so I can do more for my kids." With the money she saves, she's able to afford day care for the older children and a full-time babysitter for the youngest. She's also able to make car payments and can take the kids out once in a while. Mejorado knows the Virginian isn't good housing, but it's good enough for her. She also knows that her neighbors, many of whom don't speak English, have even fewer options than she does.
At a December 10 community meeting, Alderman Moore presented a plan to create a "campus" around Gale Academy. Under the plan, several buildings fronting Howard Street near Ashland Avenue would be demolished, including a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and a strip mall that contains a pawnshop and an adult video store. Ashland would be closed off north of Howard, and the entire area, including the present Kiwanis playground, would be turned into a park. The plan, which carries a $6 million price tag, calls for a baseball diamond, two play lots, a field house, and the demolition of the Virginian, which would be converted into a parking lot.
At a December 17 meeting, the school board voted to begin negotiations for the building's purchase. Alderman Moore wrote a letter notifying Fran Tobin of the Rogers Park Community Action Network. Moore said he had wanted to postpone the matter until January, but he received a phone call from the board's attorney late in the day of the December meeting saying that the Virginian would be on the agenda. "By the time I received the message, the board was already in session and I was unable to reach anyone by phone," Moore wrote. He said he drove to board headquarters, but the meeting had ended by the time he got there. He added that he'd planned to urge the board to close on the Virginian deal, "unless someone steps forward between now and then with a feasible alternative plan."
Tobin wrote back to Moore as a representative of the task force. He explained that the Virginian's inhabitants were not the only people in the neighborhood who feared displacement. Some area residents wondered whether the park was another piece of the development strategy connected to a nearby mall slated for Clark and Howard. "Given the substantial development pressure now focused on and around Howard Street," the letter read, "it is inevitable and quite logical that much of the community is at least skeptical when they hear of proposed 'improvements' which will lead to increased property taxes and rents. The real estate market has its own logic. Unless there are structural controls far beyond what now exists, the gentrification process takes on a life of its own and goes where it will, regardless of the good intentions of public officials or civic associations."
Tobin and other task force members began looking for a "feasible alternative plan" for the Virginian. They called John Mitchell, executive director of Uptown Habitat for Humanity, which is located in Rogers Park. Mitchell agreed to examine the building. Moore then invited Mitchell on a tour of the neighborhood with a Board of Education lawyer to look at other properties in need of rehabbing.
Though the Virginian is in poor condition, Mitchell thinks it could still be saved. He says that Habitat for Humanity doesn't take sides in neighborhood political disputes. But if the community could take control of the Virginian and someone would put up the development money, he says, Habitat would be interested. "It's not a promise," he says. "It's not like we can magically make this deal happen. It's not like I can get the board to approve an idea, cut a check, and there we go. Unless somebody comes up with the money, we're not going to get involved. The Board of Ed assumes that we're not going to get the money, and so far nobody's riding in on a white horse."
Tobin and the task force persisted. They staged protests at City Hall and in front of an Evanston branch of Bank One. They tried to identify other sites in the neighborhood for a parking lot. Meanwhile, Moore was meeting with various factions of Gale Academy's local school council, and last week it voted 10-1 for his plan. Moore had already met with residents of the Virginian on January 3 to tell them they were probably going to have to move. They would get the Board of Education's standard relocation package--$1,500 plus moving expenses.
More than 100 units of affordable housing had already been lost to the Gale Academy expansion, and task force members feared the Virginian was not the last in line. "If the only thing the school board wants is parking, that can be solved without tearing the building down," says Sister Cecilia Fandell, community outreach director for the Howard Area Community Center. "Why are we slated to take down buildings? We're in the city, too. I'd like the school board to answer it, the alderman to answer it. Why do we absolutely need that space for parking when the problem can be solved in other ways? If they say it's a crime problem, you don't solve a crime problem by creating a housing problem."
The Virginian has had problems with crime, but, task force members insist, it's far from the worst building in the area. According to police records, during the past year there have been 58 arrests on the Virginian's block. Only five of the people arrested were Virginian residents. Tobin claims the building is too valuable to lose as low-cost housing. "We're trying to put together a positive strategy," he says. "We know the building's in crisis, but it's a viable building. Let's take it over, let's clean it up. There are lots of different ways this can be configured. There's no need to get rid of the Virginian to make this work."
Moore counters that there's plenty of affordable housing in the neighborhood and the Virginian was about to be auctioned off anyway. "We have a situation right now where we have a crack house literally next door to a school building," he says. "No reputable buyer has come forward. Someday someone might come along and purchase it and rehab it. But you have to do more than just hope for something to happen. Sometimes it unfortunately doesn't happen, and sometimes there are occasions where housing units are lost. We can't save everyone, particularly when you've got a dangerous building, not only for the people who live there but for the schoolchildren who have to walk by it every day. Is the task force going to answer to the parents whose child is dragged into that building by some drug dealer when they're walking to school one day? It's all well and good to sit here and armchair quarterback, but up until the time that this plan came out those folks had paid no attention to that building."
On January 27, the day before the school board's final vote, Moore met with Tobin and a couple of other task force representatives, as well as three residents of the Virginian. Task force members presented their alternate maps, including several options that, they claim, would have created more parking spaces than the alderman proposed. But Moore was not moved. "After we went through our whole presentation, he basically said, 'Sorry, the discussion's closed,'" Tobin says. "We said, 'Well, can't we talk about it?' He said, 'Sure, we can talk about it, but the decision's been made.' We said, 'Well, isn't there any openness at all to negotiate any reconfiguration?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'I thought you said you would consider viable alternatives.' He said, 'Well, I think I have enough community support.'
"The way he's presented it is, here's a plan. Do you want a park or not? And if that's the question, then, of course, we want a park, too. He's framing it as there's only one plan, there's only one possibility. Any discussion otherwise means no park. So given that framing, for the most part, people would say, 'Yeah, if that's the way it is, then, sure, I guess we have to have a park.'"
On January 28, the Board of Education voted unanimously to pay $375,000 for the right to demolish the Virginian. Alderman Moore brought along a vanful of kids from Gale Academy and some neighborhood teenagers who held up signs reading "We Support Schools and Parks" and "Parks Keep Kids Off the Street." In his testimony, Moore said of his opposition: "I believe that in their well-intentioned but misguided effort to try and save a building, they're forgetting that what we're really trying to do here is save our children and save the community. And that while we may lose a few units of housing, by enhancing our community we're making it a more attractive place to live."
Members of the task force held up their own signs. Arlene Mejorado gave her impassioned testimony. Sister Cecilia Fandell presented a number of alternate parking options. "Is taking care of bad buildings the role and responsibility of the Board of Ed?" she asked.
In the end, however, it was a chronicle of a demolition foretold. Moore says his office will help Virginian residents find alternate housing, hopefully in the neighborhood. The building should be unoccupied, he says, by May 1 and will be demolished by the end of the summer. The proposed park may take a little longer, he says, because the city has to buy and demolish several other buildings, including the Eagle, an art deco structure on Howard that contains an Ace Hardware, a small church, and a tutoring center, as well as 15 low-income apartments.
"As far as the tenants in the Virginian are concerned," Moore says, "I think that as time goes on they will realize this will provide them an opportunity to secure a better, safer apartment. Their concerns will abate. It's not a good experience to lose one's home. It's a scary experience. But you can't please everyone. I'm sorry that there are some people that are upset. I'm sorry they don't see the bigger picture here."
Arlene Mejorado only sees that she's about to lose her home. "A two-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood runs $700," she says. "With $1,500, I can pay my security deposit and one month's rent. Then where am I gonna go? How am I gonna pay my rent after that? And what about these other tenants that have even less money than I do? They say they want a park. But whose kids are gonna be going to that park in five years? Not mine." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ariene Mejorado/ the Virginian photos by Chip Williams.