Last month at a meeting of about 500 neighborhood residents, the Lakeview Action Coalition made its grand debut. Introducing themselves as Lakeview's first-ever union of banks, churches, businesses, and other local institutions, the coalition's leaders vowed to tackle three of the most daunting urban problems of the day: housing, crime, and education.
Amid the hopeful cheers of its supporters, however, came the silent skepticism of other residents from that north lakefront community. Lakeview already has a well-established community organization--the Lake View Citizens Council, which has been around since 1952. As far as many of the LVCC's leaders are concerned, the neighborhood doesn't really need a new kid on the block. The LAC's leaders say there is enough room for both groups.
"There was a feeling in the community that we were not really a community," says Linda King, a member of the coalition's board. "Until now there was never an organization that worked with what we already have--in other words, the institutions, the churches, the social service agencies. I think that's where we are different from anything else."
"We've seen a lot of groups come and go, but we're still here doing the hard grass-roots work," says Lorraine Hoffmann, president of the LVCC. "[This new coalition] should not be competition as long as they do not pretend to be a community group."
Lakeview has changed a great deal in the last several years. In the late 70s and 80s it was a colorful mixture of working-class white ethnics, Hispanics, older Jews, gays, and young professionals, many of them politically active, looking for cheap rents close to the Loop.
Over the last few years, however, the influx of urban professionals has caused property values to soar. There are still neighborhood taverns here and there, as well as vibrant entertainment strips along Clark, Halsted, and Broadway. But by and large Lakeview suffers from the same disease that transformed Lincoln Park into an urban version of Arlington Heights. Almost every inch of vacant land is stuffed with overpriced, suburban-style town houses; the corner stores have been replaced by strip malls; and more and more independent book and record stores have given way to the chains. Many of the activists who worked so hard in the local independent campaigns of the 1970s were priced out years ago.
"I loved Lakeview for its diversity, for its closeness to the lake, and because it's a real energetic neighborhood," says King, who is a writer. "I first settled here 12 years ago and became real active with the Saint Peter's Episcopal Church. But then the apartment building I lived in was sold and rehabbed, and they raised my rent by $100. I was priced out, and I ended up living in Ravenswood."
King returned to Lakeview last year. "I moved to a smaller place because I like the community so much," says King. "Mainly, I was really involved with my church."
The coalition's president, Michael Golden, settled in Lakeview in 1989 after he took a job with South Shore Bank. "Diversity is such an overused word, but it's true there are so many different kinds of people here," he says. "I'm concerned, however, that people might get pushed out. People used to live right next door to their churches or synagogues; now many have to drive in."
The coalition is an outgrowth of the old Lakeview Tenants Organization. "Basically, the tenants' organization voted itself out of business in 1991," says Golden. "They were concerned that as a tenants' group they were limited to one tiny piece of the problem."
Since the summer of 1991, Golden, King, and other members of the tenants' organization have been trying to build an institutional base for a new group. In this regard they're following the example of legendary activist Saul Alinsky, who preached that community groups should be alliances of the strongest groups in the neighborhood--like churches, unions, and local business associations.
The coalition eventually enlisted Anshe Emet Synagogue, Broadway United Methodist Church, Saint Peter's, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and several local social service agencies. The coalition's leaders took classes at the Gamaliel Foundation, a not-for-profit group that trains community organizers. They managed to build a budget of $87,000, most of it from dues from the member organizations--enough cash to hire two full-time employees.
Last November they gathered some 240 people in a church on Addison to brainstorm about issues. "For me that turnout was incredible," says Golden. "It's not like we were meeting around a controversial matter. We were there to brainstorm, and the energy in the room was incredible."
Those attending the November meeting voted that affordable housing is the most important issue for the coalition to address, followed by crime and then education. At the opening meeting in June, King announced plans to hold a housing summit (which would include federal and local housing officials) sometime early next year.
"There are different things we can do to build more affordable housing," says Golden. One option they're considering is starting a not-for-profit development arm. "The big problem is acquisition cost. There isn't much vacant land. At the summit we will have to think of different and creative ways to reduce our costs."
The coalition has already met with local police officials in an effort to devise new patrol strategies. And as far as education goes, they want to set up training courses for residents interested in running for local school councils.
The coalition's members have been careful to avoid making overtly critical comments about the Lake View Citizens Council. But their presence suggests that the council is no longer the dominant force in Lakeview. Ten years ago, the LVCC had a staff of 13 and a budget of $350,000. Now it's down to one full-time employee and $50,000.
"I think that the coalition is attempting to revive all the organizing tools of the 1950s and 1960s, and hey, more power to them," says Charlotte Newfeld, a former LVCC president. "I tell everyone that two groups are better than one. I don't know if anyone will approach the kind of support we had. When I first ran for president against Bruce Young we had 1,200 people vote; the line of people waiting to vote went around the block. I don't want to live in the past. I wish them well. The only thing I suggest is that they lighten up a bit. They're all so serious. I hope they have as much fun as I did."
Lorraine Hoffmann wonders if the new coalition is already losing sight of issues that are important to a neighborhood. "Yes, everyone is concerned about education, crime, and housing, but sometimes the issues are much more specific than that," she says. "For instance, people want to know about the city's proposal to close the Town Hall police station. We had to fight like hell to get the city to keep it open. That was a very specific grass-roots effort. Similarly, we had to fight against cutbacks in library service. Then there are the month-to-month zoning matters and liquor license squabbles and parking problems that take up so much of your time as a group."
Hoffmann also thinks the coalition is losing sight of the important issue when it comes to affordable housing.
"The real issue is property taxes. You have older people on fixed incomes who have lived in Lakeview for years, and they can't afford to keep up with the increase in taxes. It's fine to be talking about building housing. But the most immediate and pressing issue is tax relief. We have to think about capping the increase in assessing property value."
Some longtime residents privately wonder whether the coalition is fronting an effort by local politicos to launch a challenge against 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen. The coalition's organizers deny any such goal, and Hansen doesn't seem concerned. He attended the group's opening meeting--as did several other local politicians--and he wishes them well. "I try to work with everyone who wants to make this community better," Hansen says.
The coalition members agree with those sentiments. "Our organization is very much a part of the fabric of Lakeview," says Golden. "We plan to be here for the long haul."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.