Progressives in action: a bad sign in Rogers Park | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Progressives in action: a bad sign in Rogers Park

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In Rogers Park, one man tried to make a difference. But before this guy had a chance to feel good about his philanthropy, his seemingly simple act of charity got very complicated.

Six weeks ago this north-side Samaritan--let's call him Sam--was driving to work, listening to WBEZ as members of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee ripped the City Council for failing to act on the issue of safe-school-zone signs. Sam knew all about the signs, having read in this space about the committee's nearly two-year effort to get the city to pay for them. In 1984 the state passed the safe-school-zone law, which toughened the penalties for gang recruitment, drug dealing, and weapons possession within 1,000 feet of a school. In 1988 31st Ward Alderman Raymond Figueroa sponsored an ordinance that would require signs warning that penalties had been increased to be posted around schools. That bill passed the Committee on Police, Fire and Municipal Institutions, but Seventh Ward Alderman William Beavers, the committee chairman, has refused to send the ordinance to the full City Council. Beavers says the city can't afford the signs right now, and he's not even sure we need them.

That's what the tenants' committee was griping about on WBEZ. The more Sam listened, the angrier he became--and not just at the city. Sam lives in Juneway Jungle, where residents and drug dealers have fought to a kind of building-by-building stalemate. "It seemed ridiculous to me. They seemed confused. There is a very serious drug problem in my neighborhood, and they were talking about who was going to buy the signs and who was going to put them up. I knew the signs had already been made, and that they were for sale. Summer is coming, and that's when the problem gets even worse. What they were talking about could take years--in fact, it already had."

By the time he got to work and called WBEZ, the show had ended. But the committee members were still in the studio. Sam told them he had a solution to their problem, at least one that could help in his little corner of Rogers Park. "I told them, "If you can get the signs up, I'll buy them."'

Sam had two conditions. He wanted the signs posted at Gale Academy, 1631 W. Jonquil Terrace, and at Kiwanis Playground, 7631 N. Ashland--both north of Howard Street and both among Juneway Jungle's most popular open-air drug markets. He also wanted to remain anonymous, in part because he didn't want to become a target. "I can look out my window any day and watch drug deals happening. The police are impotent. They don't respond quickly--by the time they get there, it's all over. A drug deal is a very fleeting thing."

The member of the tenants' committee he spoke to when he called WBEZ checked with officials at Gale and Kiwanis, who apparently agreed to post the signs. A couple of days later Sam looked out his living-room window and saw a drug deal in progress across the street. He called police, and this time they arrived quickly enough to make an arrest.

That afternoon Sam drove to Communities Linked for Education and Action Against Narcotics (Project CLEAN), a citywide coalition at 810 N. Milwaukee that has a limited number of the signs for sale. He bought 21 signs at $11.50 a pop, kept one, dropped off the other 20 at the tenants' committee, and went home.

That evening Sam called the police to ask whether they knew that the crime he had witnessed had occurred in a safe-school zone. The cops said they didn't.

Well, the signs would be up soon, and then everyone would know, Sam thought. But he was wrong. A few days later he learned that what he had done just wouldn't do.

The Rogers Park Tenants Committee has a drug committee, and when its members heard about the 20 signs, they acted swiftly. They voted to put up Sam's signs at schools south of Howard Street, because another community group had posted a few signs in Sam's neighborhood last November.

There was just one problem. They didn't ask Sam. Though they did ask him to speak to their group and to write a letter to Mayor Daley explaining why he had felt compelled to use his own money to pay for a service the city should be providing.

Sam didn't take the news well. He had wanted to make an anonymous donation. He didn't want to write any letters to the mayor or give any speeches. Perhaps this should have been Sam's first clue that his life was about to get tangled. Perhaps he should have given up and accepted the group's decision. But being a stubborn Samaritan, Sam drove to the tenants' committee, took back all 20 signs, and delivered them in person to Gale Academy.

Edis Snyder, Gale's principal, was happy to get the signs, and she arranged to have city workers come out and put 11 of them up around the school. But when she contacted Kiwanis Playground supervisor Jim Hobson about getting his nine signs put up, he refused to accept them. "Initially I thought, 'Hey, I'm going to put these up right away,'" Hobson says. But as a loyal member of the tenants' committee, as a board member and a committee member, I have a responsibility to my committee."

Hobson says that the member of the tenants' committee who told Sam it was OK to donate the signs had exceeded her authority. He argues that having someone buy signs for one neighborhood only lets the City Council off the hook and "lends credence" to those who argue that citizens should pick up the tab. "I would rather that he had not bought the signs. We're addressing a larger issue than just Kiwanis Park. But I understand why he bought them--he's looking out for his best interests."

Sam couldn't believe it. "I thought I was helping the neighborhood cope with a very serious problem. This guy is a Park District employee. Instead of his loyalty to the children he's supposed to be there to look after, it's with a community organization a mile away. The school principal has her priorities straight. She said thank you very much and got the signs up."

So Sam called Sister Cecilia Fandel, staff organizer for the Howard Area Community Center, which put up several Project CLEAN signs in the neighborhood last November. Fandel knows Hobson pretty well, but she couldn't get him to budge either. "They have a different approach, which is to make the city responsible for buying and erecting the signs," she says. "It should be done by the city. But we thought it would be a long-drawn-out affair. We couldn't wait around for the city to act."

That was the same reason Sam had for buying his signs. But the more he tried to get them posted, the more the tenants' committee stood in his way. In fact, Harry Armstrong, community organizer for the tenants' committee, says he would have tried to stop Sam from buying the signs in the first place. "If we could have called him in advance, we would have told him, 'We respect you, but don't spend your hard-earned money.' We would have preferred he join us and talk to other people. He went into his own pocket. And we think it's outstanding that people would make these kinds of contributions, but we would rather he had not done it.

"We're not just talking about Rogers Park. We've got other areas just as bad. We're fighting for all the children of our city. Some of our people think that if we start buying these signs, then the next thing they'll ask us to do is buy stop signs and one-way signs."

Principal Snyder, who at this point still had the nine signs that were intended for Kiwanis Playground sitting in her school, was not eager to second-guess the tenants' committee, but she was clearly disappointed by the turn of events. "It's such a shame--for it to get fouled up is so miserable. I only wish there were more people who are willing to take the bull by the horns and get something done. I can't try to cope with the whole neighborhood, city, state, country, or world. I try to do the best I can in my own little area. Most of my energy has to be directed toward my school."

While the signs gathered dust and Sam stewed, Armstrong vowed to carry on the fight over the ordinance, which he admits is a mess. Beavers won't budge, and Figueroa appears to have lost interest. Armstrong says Project CLEAN hasn't helped either. He says the group has been "opportunistically" selling its signs, which have the group's name printed at the bottom. "The fight has always been to get the city to pay for the signs," he says. "We were all fighting Beavers. But now we've got different community groups with different approaches. They have their approach. We have ours."

Jaci Feldman, Project CLEAN's director, says she couldn't care less about the city ordinance--as long as groups like hers can keep nudging the public-works guys to show up long enough to post the signs. And, she says, people will be more aware of the signs if community groups, businesses, schools, and private citizens like Sam raise the money to buy them. "It's crazy that this man went out of his way to do something, and they won't put them up. This guy lives by the school, and he's concerned. If we can get more like him, it would mean even more. We're not going to argue about whether the city is going to do it for us. Let's do it for ourselves."

To date, Project CLEAN has sold more than 1,200 signs, Feldman says. Local businesses, community groups, and student fund-raisers have helped pay for them. Even the city has chipped in. So far the Department of Human Services has picked up 400 signs; it recently ordered 200 more for schools with gang problems. But 50 schools are still waiting for their signs, she says, and the city is about four to six weeks behind in putting them up.

As if there weren't enough confusion, at some point in the last couple of months the city's engineering department came up with the bright idea that the signs should be blue and white. Project CLEAN's signs are reflective gold with a black border and black letters, the colors the state uses for warning signs. The city prefers blue and white because they conform to the city's manual of uniform traffic-control devices, says Thomas Smith, head of the Bureau of Traffic Engineering and Operations.

Whatever the colors, Armstrong says Project CLEAN's signs are "unofficial" until the city passes the ordinance and agrees to pay for them. Smith calls them "acceptable" and says his crews will put up the signs. It takes 20 minutes to a half hour to put up one sign, and Smith concedes his department has many requests from schools piled up. "It's a very busy time for us," he says.

Sam continued to pursue what by now had become a bit of an obsession. And finally, after six weeks, there is a hint of reconciliation in the air. The Rogers Park Tenants Committee appears to have decided that as long as Sam has bought the signs, official or not, they might as well be put to good use. The committee planned to have city workers put up four of Sam's signs at Kiwanis Playground this week--and they even invited the press. They also offered to give their anonymous benefactor a community award. (Still trying to remain anonymous, Sam declined.) And they had the audacity to ask Sam what he planned to do with the remaining five signs.

Armstrong says that while he appreciates Sam's efforts, this Good Samaritan never quite understood the big picture. "If he hadn't heard us on WBEZ, he would never have done it," Armstrong says. "He didn't understand our process. My people wanted to talk with him. They felt violated being told what to do."

Sam says the tenants' committee has made him feel more like Son of Sam. And he has a hard time understanding how he became the bad guy. "I think they are correct that government should pay for the signs. I think they're incorrect in the sense that there are people who are being harmed right now. In my neighborhood the problem is getting worse.

"I can't believe there aren't 200 people in Rogers Park who can afford $11.50. End of problem. Then we can work on getting the police to enforce it. It was certainly worth it to me--I don't have any problem contributing to my community."

Leave it to a guy with nothing but good intentions to really screw things up.

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

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