In February a large pane glass window was shattered at Papa Jin, a newish white-tablecloth Chinese eatery on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Keep Warm--Burn Out the Rich was spray-painted on the side of the building. This Way to Gentrification was stenciled on the sidewalk, with an arrow pointing to the restaurant's door.
Across the street a window was smashed at the Italian storefront restaurant Buona Fortuna. The message in each case was plain: Clear out. Don't come back. Go home to Lincoln Park where you belong.
Guerrilla actions have come to be taken for granted in Wicker Park's poster-glutted streetscape. There was a lot of Die Yuppie Scum in the late 80s, especially on garages. These days it's more politicized. Sidewalks and sides of buildings cry out Stop the War on the Poor; Eat the Rich; Yuppies Afuera (that's Spanish for "outside"); Smash Gentrification; and Gentrification = Class War. Stencils on sidewalks equate yuppies and swastikas. One of the neighborhood's most prominent graffiti, Yuppies Out--the Natives Are Hostile remained on the side of Milwaukee Avenue's Abco Building Supply, a favored rehabbers' resource, for at least a couple of years. Last winter the black lettering was amended to read The Natives Are Still Hostile. In the spring the message finally was erased, but spray painters recently restored the letters' outlines in red.
All the hype about Wicker Park, proclaimed the latest "mecca of cool" and "cradle of the cutting-edge" by local and national papers and music magazines, doesn't reflect what is increasingly evident in this near-northwest-side arts enclave: that it is rife with radical activism, competing community agendas, vicious attacks and counterattacks, and anonymous acts of sabotage.
Roberto Lopez, a Flat Iron Building maintenance man, isn't really loafing. He's keeping an eye on things, keeping his ear to the ground. It's part of his job. He stands just outside his building, a neighborhood landmark that rises at the intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee avenues, and he's wearing his usual billed cap and bemused smirk. It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring; Milwaukee Avenue is clogged with cars and the sidewalks surge with people: area denizens garbed in gritty chic or baggy hip hop, longtime Latino residents, homeless shopping-cart pushers, hiply genteel visitors. This stretch of Milwaukee, once dubbed "Lunchpail Avenue" for its working-class commuters, has long been known for its big, garishly commercial E-Z credit furniture stores. It still is. Except now there also are funky furniture stores. Vintage thrift shops. Ma-and-pa stands that sell cappuccino.
"I call it the 'American tourist syndrome,'" says Lopez, a native of Mexico City who's lived near here since 1970. "People come to this neighborhood and try to find something to keep them amused. They think they've discovered something. Some of the stores around here sell things for tourists now."
Lopez is well-known to habitual sidewalk strollers as the Flat Iron's eyes and ears. The slumping property was bought almost a decade ago by a West Town developer who slowly transformed it into an arts, retail, and nonprofit center that now stands as an uneasy symbol of Wicker Park's ashes-to-fire renaissance. If the six-corner intersection forms the beating heart of Wicker Park, the Flat Iron and its people have long provided the lifeblood. When the building passed into the hands of a Gold Coast real estate firm early last year, Lopez, who barely strays from the Flat Iron's dingy terra-cotta confines, was allowed to stay on as head hands-on man.
But from his front-door perch, Lopez, like many other "indigenous" residents, has seen "Wicker Park" (not just a place, it's a state of mind) go from seedy, inner-city 'hood to a focal point of a burgeoning hipoisie. Some Wicker Park pockets are still fringy, seedy, and unsettling; but the street's mix of flash, slack, and riffraff is part of its appeal.
"Things are out of control now," says Lopez. "There's a lot of speculation, and a lot of artists have been victimized, and residents as well. People with more money are coming in, displacing local vendors, and people with less capital are going down. It's like in Central America or something, when a third world country or a banana republic is taken over by United Fruit."
It's a bohemia in the painful throes of gentrification. The Wicker Park/Bucktown arts district within mostly Latino West Town, hasn't been totally tamed by the ruling class. But there's no denying that a new city frontier is being staked out here. One need only recall how the visual arts industry created a real estate boom on Manhattan's lower east side in the late 1970s and '80s. Developers established successive beachheads that led eventually to the Tompkins Square antigentrification uprising of 1988.
Many residents welcome Wicker Park's down-to-earth vitality, the lively street mix, the cachet of living in Chicago's--and perhaps the midwest's--vanguard arts community. And some of them--most newcomers--are actively resisting the area's "Lincoln Parkization." They fear that Wicker Park's unique ethnic and artistic diversity is in danger of being bleached out as it's glossed up, and that its growing notoriety may lead to even more up-scale real estate activity and displacement.
While gentrification in Wicker Park became a matter of debate in the mid-1980s, the intensity of the argument has taken a dramatic, occasionally violent turn in the last year and a half. Battle lines have been drawn between artists and developers, activists and "gentrifiers," insurgent journalists and arts organizations--to name just a few of the fronts.
Championed most noisily by the Logan Square-based Lumpen Times, one of the most sarcastic, saber-rattling zines in Chicago, the Wicker Park backlash is also brought to us by various antigentrification activists, most of them underground, including small collectives of radicals and anonymous provocateur-pamphleteers loosely affiliated with the Lumpens and the Autonomous Zone, a community/activist/resource center near North and Damen.
Much of the hostility has focused on Around the Coyote (ATC), the Flat Iron-based arts organization that puts on an arts fair every September in which artists' studios and apartments in Wicker Park/Bucktown are opened to the curious. Around the Coyote has been accused of commercializing the area, making it safe for development. But other "arts-commodifying agents of gentrification" have come under attack as well: the Flat Iron Building, Milwaukee Avenue's Booksellers Row bookstore, Letter eX Poetry Newsmagazine.
To this day, no one's sure who mailed a mysterious letter headlined Help Pound the Coyote to many area businesses and organizations late last year. The letter urged readers to Boycott Around the Coyote '94 and listed guerrilla tactics "that have proven successful" in stopping gentrifiers. You could, for example, slash art canvases, spray-paint gentrafuck on businesses, glue locks shut, smash windows of "yuppie artist lofts."
The '94 ATC festival is scheduled for September 8-11. The letter attacking it may have been a hoax, an attempt to discredit anti-G groups. But like other secret dispatches from the front, it's being taken seriously.
How did Wicker Park get this way?
While developer Wes Andrews has been criticized for almost single-handedly spurring gentrification in what he called "Bucker Park," others see him as a sort of street-level visionary who helped transform a marginal, neglected neighborhood.
A former stockbroker and commercial real estate broker, Andrews formed a partnership in 1979 to buy the dilapidated Northwest Tower Building (a decade later popularized as "Tower Coyote" by a tenant who thought the top of the building resembled that animal baying) for a mere $110,000, plus back taxes. More than a few people thought he was nuts. Built in 1929, the first skyscraper outside of downtown Chicago, the 12-story art deco tower at 1608 N. Milwaukee, filled very slowly with cultural groups, social service agencies, and professional firms. Andrews's firm was able to keep a sunny, panoramic office on the building's top floor for a decade before moving to accommodate tenants who wanted the space.
Andrews had seen the future, and the future--however gradually--was heading west. There had always been artists in Wicker Park. But in the late 70s creative types forced out of Old Town and Lincoln Park by gentrification began settling there in larger numbers. At the same time, recent fine arts majors also were attracted by the astonishing surplus of raw space at cheap rents. Artists occupied grungy converted storefronts and musty Milwaukee Avenue lofts by day--and descended on the Rainbo Club, an old hangout of famous son Nelson Algren, by night.
In late '85, Andrews and neighborhood native John Lubinski (now an art dealer in Santa Fe) formed a new partnership, Urban Intersection Partners (UIP), to buy the Flat Iron Building and an abandoned supermarket on Damen two blocks south of North that is now called Parkside Plaza. They borrowed $1.5 million from Northbrook-based Allstate Venture Capital, a division of Allstate Insurance, to develop the properties; two local banks provided additional financing. (Andrews used a small portion of the money to further renovate the Tower Building.) Andrews and Lubinski also formed the Urban Intersection Management Company (UIMC) to manage all of Andrews's Wicker Park properties.
In the mid-80s the intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee was still better known for its dopers, whores, muggers, junkies, firebugs, gangbangers, and debris than for arty neo-Boho derring-do. When UIP bought the Flat Iron Building, it housed little more than neighborhood service stores: a cigar shop and some other small retail, doctors' offices, and the Friar's Grill--which, like the nearby Busy Bee, still serves as a salt-of-the-earth alternative to surrounding cappuccino joints. Most of the second floor was leased out as a public aid office, and the third floor was taken over for furniture storage, with maybe a dweller or two. Andrews's plan was to keep retail on the bottom, use the second floor for galleries and not-for-profit office space, and reserve the top floor for artists' studios. By offering long-term break-even leases to artists ($3 to $4 a square foot in '86) and below-market rates to nonprofit neighborhood institutions, the Flat Iron Building had what Andrews called a "tentacle effect" on the neighborhood.
"We didn't envision an arts community," Andrews said last spring. "We just envisioned lots of people at work, and facilitating start-up businesses and spaces to artists. When we bought this building 50 percent of the commercial district here--four blocks either way--was vacant. We wanted to prove you could take private capital, put it to work in the inner city, and over a period of time create minority jobs as well as long-term capital gains. We got the dynamic, a nuclear reaction, going, with an interesting combination of creative businesses and creative artists and creative, business-minded artists. We created an interchange, a synapse, a healthy community of self-actualizing people.
"We never feared the newly moneyed class here," he continued. "We needed them, and they come in all colors. The community will remain what it's always been--a solid percentage of lower middle class with a lot of working poor and some newly emerging middle class. I think we've passed the critical period of rampant gentrification. We just don't have a 'Lincoln Park product' here--housing that's going to go into the stratosphere. We still have new little shops and services that appeal to the community. We're not going to get 'honky-tonked' by out-of-towners. This area brings every man to his knees--it's a great equalizer. You can meet yourself walking down Milwaukee Avenue. 'Bucker Park' has a force which defies an organized development pattern, an energy that defies typical yuppification and will continue to do so."
Wicker Park began playing out its gentrification script in earnest around '86 or '87. As artists transformed the neighborhood's loft space into livable studios, storefronts became amenities catering to the burgeoning cultural scene: galleries, theaters, salons, coffeehouses, bars. This new bohemia attracted economic investment: brokers and speculators snapped up marginal housing and sold it at inflated prices; commercial landlords lured more affluent commercial artists into rehabbed lofts at the expense of financially unstable fine artists--painters and the like; some cutting-edge visual art was mainstreamed into a more marketable product; graffiti moved from CTA walls to galleries and restaurants; pockets of "yupper-income" housing sprouted practically overnight in lower-income, mixed-ethnic neighborhoods that had been Puerto Rican, Mexican, Polish, Ukrainian, and African American.
And property taxes and rents began to soar.
The Near Northwest Arts Council (NNWAC) was formed in early '86 as a not-for-profit neighborhood resource center whose programs would focus on visual artists, such as the area's Latinos, who'd historically been denied mainstream gallery and museum access. It continues to play that role.
NNWAC put on the area's first studio and gallery walk, the "Holiday Art Tour," in December 1986. From '86 to '88 the council also organized the Face the Street arts festival, which ran a week or two every July. Funded by city and state grants and private foundations, FTS presented a variety of art forms in casual, nontraditional settings. Most events took place outdoors at night--in the streets, the park itself, and the then-developing Parkside Plaza's parking lot, where projectionist James Bond screened the works of independent filmmakers. FTS never drew huge crowds--it was mainly a neighborhood affair--but it did bring in some Chicagoans who'd never been to Wicker Park before.
The festival folded for a couple of reasons, according to Laura Weathered, who has served as NNWAC's executive director almost since its inception. By the beginning of '88, she says, NNWAC had moved to the Flat Iron Building and opened its own gallery, where it could show exhibits the year round "and deal with twice as many artists in the long run." Weathered also says that Face the Street became "a victim of its own success, since it had attracted real estate brokers who were using artists as a come-on [for investment] at a time when we were getting priced out of our leases."
Around the Coyote arrived in September 1990 and changed the local cultural landscape; it helped land Wicker Park/Bucktown on the national arts map, too. The four-day fair, named after "Tower Coyote," now bills itself as "the country's largest artists' studio walk and multimedia arts exhibition." It was phenomenally successful in its first year, drawing tens of thousands of visitors--and hundreds of thousands of dollars--to the community. The public could wander the streets and view the work of hundreds of area artists either in their own studios or in galleries or public spaces such as the Paulina Arts Center and the old Ludwig drum factory. Theater, music, performance, fiction and poetry, and film and video series were held throughout the long weekend at various neighborhood locations.
ATC chairman Jim Happy-Delpech, who moved to Chicago from Paris in 1989, says he founded the organization to give underground, emerging, and independent visual and performing artists in the West Town arts community (the nation's third largest, he says, after lower Manhattan and San Francisco), and in Chicago generally, a larger role in the international art scene.
"Nobody knew Chicago had a big, important art community," says Jim Happy, as he's known. "Ever since Around the Coyote now it's well-known around the world. People talk about it in Europe, Mexico, Japan . . . "
Some tensions developed, however. Did the Near Northwest Arts Council feel that Around the Coyote had usurped its role in the neighborhood? It seems so. "We were initially interested in the idea [of ATC]," says Laura Weathered. "We had some common goals. But after the first year we realized that the politics of their agenda didn't allow any room for ours, and we were critical. After the first festival, we all sat down in a friendly, nonconfrontational way and we expressed our concerns that the festival didn't relate to the Latino community, and that it was accelerating the demise of artists' capacity to be part of the economics that was going on."
The arts council "tried before to do the same kind of thing," says Happy-Delpech. "It was their goal to organize a big festival. They felt the district was their property."
Counters Weathered: "They arrived with the notion that history started with them."
Meanwhile, the Flat Iron Building had emerged as the neighborhood's premier arts center, the symbolic beacon for the surrounding community. Offices, Art Studios, Galleries, Shops, says the old brown marquee that hangs over the entrance.
Built in 1913 by the great Chicago firm of Holabird & Roche, the Flat Iron by the dawn of the 90s was home to about 40 tenants, including a number of well-established non-profit community groups like ASPIRA and the Greater West Town Community Development Project, not-for-profit arts ventures like ATC and NNWAC, a couple dozen artists' studios, a handful of galleries, rehearsal rooms, and performance spaces, two ethnic crafts shops, two restaurants, a physician's office, the Copy Max print shop, and the alternative music/poetry/performance venue HotHouse.
The Northwest Tower Building appeared to be thriving, too. It has been described by Wes Andrews as "a whole different kind of animal" from the Flat Iron because its pricier leases cater more to "newly capitalized professionals"; start-up artists and community groups would have a harder go of it there. (And though Tower Coyote has less leasable space than the Flat Iron, it costs more to operate.) The Tower now houses 30-some entities, including social service organizations like Association House (their offices take up about a third of the building) and the Chicago Abused Women's Coalition, film and video production companies, Pure magazine, a post office box facility, real estate firms, and lawyers' offices. Half the offices continue to be minority run--which is what Andrews had intended.
Urban Intersection Partners filled Parkside Plaza with an Ameritech bill payment center, a grocery, a medical clinic, a coin laundry (now out of business), a taqueria, and drummer-producer Brad Wood's Idful Music recording studio.
Andrews said he was "just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel" when Allstate decided to foreclose on UIP (which owned the Flat Iron and the plaza) in the spring of '91, in the sixth year of a ten-year mortgage deal. Andrews said he was naive when he negotiated the deal and rising interest rates killed him. By the end of '91, when Cole Taylor Bank threatened foreclosure on the Tower, the three properties (with a combined 125,000 square feet of retail, office, and studio space) were 98 percent leased. But turning around the properties took some five years; having banked on 18 months, Andrews wound up defaulting on his loans.
Since Andrews's various partnerships couldn't come up with the $3.3 million they owed ($2.3 million of it to Allstate), the developer filed for bankruptcy and pursued various refinancing strategies to maintain control of the properties. With the Tower in less immediate peril, he scrapped the idea of saving the plaza and focused on the Flat Iron Building.
In the summer of '92 Andrews and representatives from five Flat Iron-based not-for-profit agencies--the Greater West Town Community Development Project (which provides local employment training programs for Latinos), ASPIRA (which promotes education and leadership among Latino high schoolers), the Near Northwest Arts Council, the Hispanic Health Alliance, and the Hispanic AIDS Network--tried putting together a cooperative ownership plan. But lenders weren't interested, and the plan fell through. (The Hispanic AIDS Network and the Hispanic Health Alliance have since left the building.)
In early '92 Andrews met Bob Berger, president of the Berger Realty Group (BRG), and they discussed a Flat Iron partnership. But that December the new investment group Andrews had formed found itself in federal bankruptcy court bidding against Berger for the property. "Wes knew it was coming," says a source close to the transaction. "I think [Berger] decided it didn't make good business sense to deal with him. He didn't need Wes, so why keep him in the deal?"
Though Andrews's group bid slightly more than Berger for the building, it needed ten more days to secure the capital. The judge sided with Allstate's lawyers, who preferred BRG's cash-ready bid, and Bob Berger signed a check on the spot. BRG's purchase price was roughly half a million dollars (and covered back taxes and water bills), close to what Andrews had paid for the building in '85. In addition, BRG had to pay to correct numerous building code violations.
A couple of months later, Cole Taylor finally foreclosed on the Tower. "Wes had still cherished the idea of holding onto the building," says the building's manager then and now, Marshia Jackson. "But he couldn't find the money or get anybody's interest. He wasn't as aggressive, and I think he just kind of gave up." (The Tower was purchased this spring by neighborhood investors Susan Dinko, her husband Charles Hasbrouck, and his parents; the plaza is still in Allstate's hands and is managed by Baird & Warner.)
By the spring of '93, Andrews, a self-described "perfect middle-class Oak Park midwest suburban product" and longtime Winnetka resident, was living in a Humboldt Park apartment with his girlfriend and young son. Once top dog of the Tower, he'd set up a dim, dank office in the basement of the Flat Iron. He soon moved to Los Angeles.
"It's a dog-eat-dog world, and my dog just got et," said Andrews. "If the community stays viable then I know we had something to do with it. But I don't think [the Flat Iron] will be the same in a couple years. They can take the building away, but not what we did for the community.
"In the long run, the community won't miss Urban Intersection, they won't miss Wes Andrews. But you know what? We were a renaissance. I was fuckin' lucky. What a run--12 years."
The Berger Realty Group is located at 40 E. Oak St., a few doors from the Esquire movie theater. Established by Albert Berger in 1926 (he died in 1950), BRG owns and manages six Lincoln Park and Gold Coast residential high rises (three vintage, three modern), and other commercial and industrial Chicago properties. It owns raw land, leases office space, and acts as an investment broker. Bob Berger's brother is developer Miles Berger, a former member of the Chicago Plan Commission and author of the book They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture.
"Wes had a great vision but he couldn't bring the vision to fruition," says Bob's daughter Wendy Berger, who serves as the Flat Iron's property manager with her brother Jeff. "He was very far from turning the building around, despite what he says. There were too many things working against him. It was a strange set of circumstances. It was a tough economy, and let's face it, artists can't always pay their bills. His ideas aren't that different from ours. He couldn't make a go of it, but we're running [the Flat Iron] better because we're more experienced at managing costs."
"It's a different mind-set now," says Juan Molina Crespo, former director of the Hispanic Health Alliance. "Anytime a community is discovered, the indigenous population moves out and the colonizers reap the benefits. We just hope the new management company recognizes some of the vision and work that went into the building, and that they won't violate its commitment to the community--to not-for-profits and artists that have historically been the tenants there. Not-for-profits are often overlooked in the development of a community."
Given Wicker Park's grapevine, you didn't need to be privy to the coffeehouse buzz to sense rumors running rampant. In early '93, while the Flat Iron was practically being held hostage by the Blink film crew (in the movie, Madeleine Stowe lived there), word spread that the arts center would be going upscale; many in the community who'd long looked upon the Flat Iron as a bellwether feared that its new ownership was further evidence of creeping corporate colonization. In recent years, low-income artists had seen such properties as the Ludwig drum factory (now Willow Square, 1728 N. Damen), Paulina Arts Center (1735 N. Paulina), Paulina Arts Building (now Montauk Manor, 1286 N. Milwaukee), and Manchester Building (2035 W. Charleston) redeveloped as loft condominiums; some of these buildings had once provided artists with inexpensive rental space.
One concern was frequently voiced--that when long-term leases renegotiated by Andrews during the Flat Iron's foreclosure period began to expire within the next few years, and more capital was poured into rehabilitation, many longtime tenants might not be able to afford to stay in the building.
Would that be the end of the neighborhood?
Not at all, says Wendy Berger. She maintains that the Flat Iron will continue to be a cultural and social anchor of "the most stimulating artistic neighborhood in the U.S.A.," as a BRG ad puts it. The building, she says, will continue to be a way for her father, "a passionate art lover," to "connect with the art world."
"We don't intend to change the character of the building," said Wendy shortly after the building changed hands. "We're huge supporters of the arts and find it a big, exciting challenge. This is a special building, the center of a small, tight community. You don't see buildings like this anymore. I still don't feel people know it enough. If it's run properly, there's no reason it can't continue to be a cultural arts center. I can't see why it can't stay this way theoretically forever. We don't want to be just a management company. But first and foremost, this is a business. That doesn't mean you disregard the [Flat Iron's] people and personalities. It's a tough balance to create."
In the spring of '93, Wendy Berger set up a small office in Around the Coyote's headquarters on the Flat Iron's second floor. Jeff Berger became a member of ATC's advisory board. Some tenants were leery of the appearance ATC and BRG gave of being in cahoots, and there were charges that the arts organization was being "financed by developers."
When the Bergers took over, Wendy went around sounding out the tenants on their needs. Improved safety systems, sprinklers, smoke alarms, better hall lighting, and water heaters were soon installed. Asbestos was removed from the basement, home to a gallery and some art and music studios. The entire North Avenue facade--partly boarded up after an electrical fire in a dentist's office over two years ago--is slowly undergoing a face-lift.
The exterior could still use a lot of work; like the neighborhood itself, it's a bit frayed around the edges. Terra-cotta is crumbling and falling. The roof leaks into third-floor studios. A particularly sore point is all the rotted window frames and broken glass. One third-floor window slid out and fell onto Milwaukee Avenue last year.
Wendy Berger explains that her company hasn't been able to do all the rehabilitation at once because it would cost tenants too much. "There's only so much money that could be put into it, so we've had to keep it selective," she says. "A lot of what we've done are things you don't see, things that have been a priority to us." She insists that windows and other improvements are on their way.
A Wicker Park backlash began welling up in the spring of '93, soon after the Berger Realty Group bought the Flat Iron. Vandalism at the Flat Iron was sporadic and superficial: spray-painting, stickering, stenciling, postering, some broken windows. Some tenants accused BRG of "heavy-handed lease-breaking tactics" (as one puts it) to rid the building of its marginal elements in favor of a more agreeable, more commercial-arts tenant base.
Remarks an area businessperson familiar with--but not involved in--Flat Iron conflicts: "I told Bob Berger, 'How can you be so passionate about art, but be hated by so many artists?'"
"Andrews had what I called 'Wes's revenge,'" says an artist in the building. "He booby-trapped the building [with long-term leases] so the Bergers couldn't raise the rents."
"Securing the place for artists was Wes's last hurrah," says another tenant.
When Marguerite Horberg opened the HotHouse nightclub in a Flat Iron storefront in 1990, she merely wanted to "showcase a variety of arts that didn't have a venue anywhere else in the city." Since then, however, the HotHouse has become one of the most visible progressive performing arts venues--and cultural centers--in Chicago. Hardly a week passes that the club's music and poetry programming--from local salsa bands to South African poets to avant-garde jazz--doesn't receive notice in the mainstream press. The HotHouse hosts a variety of educational, political, and fund-raising programs. And it's home to the Guild Complex, which features a weekly schedule of readings and forums (the Complex has long outlived its original sponsor, Guild Books.)
Horberg, who has lease options to the year 2000, says she's felt "harassed" by BRG for the last year and a half. "I don't understand why they have this building," she says. "They don't need it. In some ways, it must be a headache for them."
In February '93 the Bergers asked her if she'd consider moving to the burned-out dentist's office around the corner. She says they told her they wanted her space for an "anchor tenant, like a clothing store." Horberg said no: she'd sunk $80,000 into fixing up her space, the other place was trashed and too small, there was the financial risk of moving to a new address and obtaining a new liquor license. Word got around about the meeting, and this may be how the rumor started that the Flat Iron was getting a Gap.
To many locals, the Gap and Starbucks represent the final phase of the gentrified city: clean, well-lighted emblems of yuppieville. Starbucks brand coffee is "proudly" served at North and Damen's Northside Cafe--which, as some residents point out, isn't called Northside for nothing. But Wendy Berger categorically denies the rumor that has a Gap moving into the Flat Iron: "I haven't spoken to any national clothing stores."
In the spring of '93 Horberg was billed by Berger Financial Services for what she calls "vague additional charges on the rent statement." (A number of tenants had begun receiving monthly statements that tacked on utilities--previously believed to have been included in the rent.) Horberg and her lawyer requested a statement itemizing the $4,200 in charges. Instead of providing the statement BRG shut off the HotHouse's electricity. After a few days without power Horberg worked out a payment plan with the Bergers.
"Most of the people in here are struggling and can't litigate like Berger Realty can," comments Horberg. "We don't have ways to protect our legal interests in court. At some point you'd think they'd have some dialogue with the tenants in the building. They don't deal directly with you. They deal with you through their lawyers. That's the playing field. There's not a recognition that it's an uneven playing field. They have the power, money, and resources to drag out the law. If you can't afford to hire an attorney, then it's like you shouldn't be in business. Since this place attracts people to their property, to their neighborhood, I think it should behoove them to support it, not be antagonistic toward it. I think they're just opposed to having a bar here.
"The Bergers fine-combed the lease and found some pieces of text and they seized on minutiae," Horberg continues. "But they overstepped their legality. If they wanted to be arts friendly, it wouldn't have been difficult for them to personally respond. They implied that I had the money hiding from them, knowing all along that my lawyer was negotiating with them. They're legally supposed to notify you before shutting off your power. Then they said, we'll turn your electricity back on if you sign a new lease, a one-year lease. It was sick, sleazy, and illegal. There's a whole bunch of things they've tried to blackmail me with."
Wendy Berger says her family's been fair in trying to work out its differences with Horberg. She maintains that she had every legal right to cut off the HotHouse's utilities because Horberg was behind on her rent. "We approached her about moving, she said no, and we dropped it," says Wendy. "All we're asking is for tenants to live with the terms of their lease agreements. We can't [renegotiate a long-term lease], because there's a contract in place. We intend to abide by the lease, and we expect her to, too. All of this would be so simple if people just paid their rent. The only people we've kicked out are people who haven't paid their rent in six to eight months."
Horberg also claims she was fingered by Bob Berger as an agitator in the building. "He accused me of being the ringleader, the hidden hand in the opposition to the Around the Coyote festival, of bringing in busloads of anarchists from Lake Forest. He said they should all have their diapers changed and their behinds slapped. It was like I was some delinquent ne'er-do-well smashing windows and spray-painting. But people have a lot of reasons to be pissed off around here. It's like people can't think for themselves and be free agents in their own opposition to things."
Horberg adds: "We look forward to having a good working relationship with them, instead of things being so confrontational in tone. I don't want to enflame things and come across as being hostile. But it just doesn't make sense to me if at every turn and bend I have to fight with landlords. At some point it has diminishing returns. It becomes a drain of energy. I'm not in the position to move. I can't win."
Says artist Tom Billings, who rents a studio in the Flat Iron's basement: "I'm scared. I feel intimidated because of these tactics. I'm afraid they're going to throw me out. Bob Berger accused me on the phone of vandalism, broken windows, of being an anarchist. I told him I don't have my membership card yet. I'm a capitalist, an artist just trying to make a living. Then he made some phone calls and called me back and told me not to worry, I was 'golden.' But it's very shattering to my confidence of being an artist in this building. It threatens my well-being and livelihood."
Wendy Berger concedes that running the Flat Iron has "been a learning experience. We realize this is a controversial neighborhood. We've come to accept the passion of the people as part of the community. If there was no disagreement it wouldn't have the feel and excitement of an interesting neighborhood." Though the Berger Realty Group had never before owned or managed an arts building, she feels she's promoted the Flat Iron better than Wes Andrews did, and she still receives inquiries each week about space.
Wendy points out that her family's brought in a number of unproven and unconventional tenants, like Art Attack gallery, Pop Era pop culture shop, Gallery 203 arts cooperative, Subnation magazine, and the No Hope No Fear tattoo studio--all a far cry from a law office. They also leased space to a Genesis art supply store. And Wendy says, "We're going to do our best to get more community groups in here. There are tons and tons of them around, and they're growing stronger and stronger."
She says, "I know what I'm doing here is a good thing, I really strongly believe that. The proof is in what I've done. The proof is in the puddin', so to speak. We won't write a lease shorter than two years. For the retail on the bottom it's five years. The market dictates what the leases are. They go up only in line with inflation, about 3 percent a year, as minimally as possible. We're sensitive to the fact that if you raise them too high you lose people. We want to keep the building full and keep people working here for a long time. The longer the leases are, the easier it is to keep the building full. A full building at cheap rents is better than an empty building [at high rents]. If we're able to operate profitably, things will only get better."
"The tenant mix hasn't changed," adds Jeff Berger. "People aren't worried anymore. If we'd wanted to 'flip' the building we would've done it. We're not in it for the short term. I don't want to see the area develop, but change is not necessarily bad."
Bob Berger has called the Flat Iron the "creative center's creative center," and his enthusiasm for the building, for many of its artist tenants, and for its Wicker Park neighborhood approaches fanaticism. During lunch at Papa Jin, he talks about how to get Flat Iron art out to a wider public. A tall, vigorous 59, he's just come back from a vacation in Palm Springs. Golfing? No, he says, he spent his time reading some of the 18 art magazines he subscribes to. He produces a thick, alphabetically arranged portfolio full of correspondence with artists, galleries, and arts organizations; these letters overflow with plans for the Flat Iron. One plan that he's worked up with Flat Iron artists Alejandro Romero and Paul Sierra involves an international artists' exchange, where visiting foreign artists can live, create, exhibit, and sell their work.
Berger concedes he may have antagonized "a few" tenants by unfairly calling them vandals, but he still believes some people in the building are spreading false information about the family business. He points out that he even tolerates the presence of Revolutionary Communist Party Publications in the Flat Iron, having accepted their denial of any responsibility for attacks on the Flat Iron, and he characterizes the actual culprits as "rich kids from Kenilworth." But he says, "This is America, and everyone is entitled to speak their minds."
Berger says he wants the building to be the kind of place where an art lover from the suburbs wouldn't feel intimidated visiting galleries and studios. To demonstrate his long-range vision for the Flat Iron, Berger provides a letter he wrote in December of '93 to Laura Weathered and the Near Northwest Arts Council: "Since you have tremendous competition for relatively few dollars it seems that your mission should be clearly defined and that your current operation should be limited--focusing specifically on artist shows not on sociopolitical issues. In other words, cater to the buying public--not scare them!"
In May of '93, as the campaign by antigentrification groups and radical neighborhood activists to "liberate" Wicker Park heated up, the Lumpen Times began publishing. Whatever pandered to the "commodification of the artist's lifestyle in the service of a real estate market" and the "Club Med tour of Wicker Park 'artist's world,'" wrote the Lumpen Times, was fair game. Resistance and subversion were in the air.
Dave Meyers, an English teacher and neighborhood activist, was sitting in Earwax cafe with a group of friends that May when they saw a stack of invitations to ATC's Catch the Coyote spring fund-raising gala. They began defacing them.
"It was totally spontaneous, serious play, a casual but critical thing," says Meyers. "We were scratching out 'Catch' and writing 'Fuck.' Fuck the Coyote. We had no clue what was going to happen. Afterwards it seemed inevitable because of the popular hatred of Coyote. It was bound to happen, the dam was about to break. The whole thing snowballed. If we hadn't started it, somebody else would've--and somebody else did. Others saw what we'd done and did it themselves. Some were even intimate friends of Coyote, which is probably how they found out."
"It was a postmodern art thing," adds Dina Fisher, a teacher, artist, and activist, who was there. "But more important, it was a form of political communication. I don't think [ATC] wants to look at what they're doing in a larger context. There are a lot of people who lack access to it. The point is to raise awareness in order to change things. Where there's an art colony, there's a colonizer. It's in the very language."
In any event, hundreds of invitations were taken home by "art vandals," marked up, and returned to various neighborhood spots. Others were mailed in to Around the Coyote.
ATC responded by displaying the marred invitations at an exhibit called "Anonymus [sic] Controversia" that ran for two weeks in the Flat Iron's just-inaugurated ATC Gallery. The invites carried statements like: Coyote = Gentrification, Paid for by Century 21; Butcher the Coyote Into Burgers; The Lincoln Park Chapter of Club Med Invites You to Catch the Coyote--Purchase and Conquer. And so on.
"For years, Around the Coyote has been falsely accused of being the agent for real estate developers, while on the other hand our organization exists solely to promote and exhibit the work of artists," wrote Jim Happy-Delpech in an ATC "newsletter extra" distributed in the neighborhood. "We're very concerned with the issue of protecting artists's [sic] residences and workplaces, but that doesn't mean we should try to keep the public away from them. Gentrification has to be dealt with in other ways, and we hope this exhibit will produce some viable solutions."
People were invited to write their opinions on the gallery's paper-covered walls.
Since the demise of Lincoln Avenue's Guild Books, the Wicker Park Booksellers Row has emerged as the north side's citadel of literary political correctness: the store, which opened in March of '93, specializes in alternative-press, African American, Latino, and gay and lesbian titles, and has hosted successful Puerto Rican and beat poetry-reading series. Former manager Kenneth Corrigan says he wanted to have a bookstore "that embraced all facets of the community in which it's located, and that was accomplished."
So Corrigan was surprised when he picked up the June '93 Lumpen Times and found out that his bookstore was listed in the Boycott Blotter. The notice--the Lumpens said they merely were reprinting a flier that had come in--ran for months and said this: "Besides being another agent of gentrification, Booksellers Row in Wicker Park is also under the management of Kenneth Corrigan who is accused of censorship according to the newly formed group Boycott Booksellers (BB). BB asserts that Kenneth has been scraping flyers off of public property around Milwaukee Ave. in an effort to 'cleanse the neighborhood.'"
Corrigan says he simply removed some posters promoting a Lumpen Times benefit from pillars in his building's vestibule. He felt he had a right to keep his storefront clean; and besides, there was (and still is) plenty of bulletin board space inside the store. Corrigan points out that Old Milwaukee Avenue Chamber of Commerce volunteers periodically go up and down the street peeling fliers from light poles. Not him.
A months-long "running terrorist battle"--as Corrigan calls it--soon followed. Get Out was spray-painted across his building's vestibule, rocks were twice thrown through transom windows, door locks were glued shut on three occasions. Corrigan received threatening phone calls at the bookstore, and he was spit and yelled at on the street. He also was repeatedly attacked in Lumpen Times's now-defunct The Shit column--which, the Lumpens now readily admit, spread false neighborhood rumors, gossip, and innuendo. Later, the Lumpens would write that they hadn't "participated in any anti-Booksellers or anti-Corrigan activity outside of the spoken and printed word."
To top it off, somebody spray-painted Boycott Booksellers Row on the side of Abco Building Supply, across the street from the store, right above Yuppies Out--The Natives Are Hostile. With Abco's permission, Corrigan added Why to the front of the message; someone else then inserted Not after Why. The entire exchange has since been removed.
"I think the anonymous people who committed the actions were sitting around Earwax cafe one day in January and decided to target the upscale businesses they saw coming," says Corrigan sarcastically. "Then we opened, fulfilling their prophecy. I think they were reacting against the upscale look of the store; there was a lot of resentment against its wealthy facade. Anyone who walked in could see that I wasn't trying to be some exclusive club. It's OK to open some cool, exclusive nightclub. But it's not OK to open a community-based bookstore, something for everyone. If we would've looked like some countercultural bastion maybe we would've appealed to them. But then we would've never gotten the diversity of the community through the door.
"[Lumpen Times] escalated it into a mean battle against my person," he continues. "Any accusation possible was leveled at me. Every time a new issue came out I went and drank a gallon of Guinness at the Rainbo. Then I was irate, hurt, and decimated again. These were fascist tactics, like in South Africa. They said they wouldn't attack me anymore, but then they'd attack me again."
Corrigan admits that his abrasive personality rubbed some people wrong. "He had it all coming," says one local business owner. "I got a big mouth and strong opinions," says Corrigan, "and I'm not afraid to express them."
Of the bookstore's assailants, Corrigan says: "These are classic high-ideal, high-energy youth who are misdirecting their energies into a focus that makes no sense. Instead of doing something productive, they're creating noise that has instant results--and is therefore much more gratifying. They haven't even been in the neighborhood long enough to hear what it has to say, and they're already deciding that they're speaking for it. They seem bent on dividing people based on class lines, and their use of the word 'gentrifier' has no bearing on reality. It seems they have gentrification and economic development mixed up. Any improvement is seen as a threat to them. They want to be martyrs in the ghetto. But I do not romanticize the poor."
Did the boycott have an impact on his business? Corrigan says the "publications geared toward the 'twenty-something' Lumpen Times-type market plummeted totally."
And after the Tribune's John Blades published an article on the boycott, Artemisia Gallery's president, Mary Ellen Croteau, wrote the newspaper stating: "And we will continue to call 'gentrifier' anyone who moves into a thriving, diverse neighborhood and tries to sterilize it. Mr. Corrigan, despite his resume, fits that description."
A Cleveland native, Corrigan began selling books in Chicago in the early 80s. As manager of the Booksellers Row in the Fine Arts Building, he jumped at the chance to open a store in Wicker Park, center of the city's performance-poetry scene and near his own home. Corrigan and a group of community residents renovated the stately marble Peoples Gas building, previously occupied by a Lubinski Furniture showroom. They soon added the Morning Light Cafe and a Facets Multimedia film and video rental outlet.
Fed up with the distractions and disruptions, Corrigan submitted his resignation this past January. The store wasn't going to leave, he says, so he felt it'd be best if he did.
"I walked away from my vision," he says. "I'm a bookseller. [The attacks] played a part in causing stress, and the inability to efficiently do my work. It was cumbersome always having to play defense. We were disrupted and destroyed. It just seemed ludicrous to me to try and sell books there. If these things hadn't occurred I'd still be working on Milwaukee Avenue. They'll probably be more successful with me out of the way. It won't have the same karma. My karma wasn't good."
Last summer the Berger Realty Group sent memos to Flat Iron artists and businesses urging them to support Around the Coyote by paying their $40 participation fee; the fee made artists an official part of the '93 festival, with their studios or exhibit spaces listed in the program guide. But some tenants were put off by the letter's admonitory tone:
"Each of us must ensure that we do our part to support the system that supports us," said the memo, written by Jeff Berger. "I understand that last year several organizations that withheld membership fees and actively spoke out against ATC opened their doors to capitalize on the festival. This is unfair to the other participants and undermines the Festival for everyone. We must all put our best foot forward and positively support each other."
Wes Andrews had mounted the same argument in '92. Two of those "several organizations" that ignored him were the Near Northwest Arts Council and HotHouse, and they didn't participate formally in '93 either. One reason they give is that they offer arts programming during the ATC weekend anyway. Says Happy-Delpech: "You don't have to be part of Around the Coyote. But if you want to be fair, then don't open your space." Says NNWAC's Weathered: "I'm open 12 months a year. And it just so happened that I had a popular art opening that weekend [in '92]."
Says Jeff Berger, about his memo: "It was my mistake. We thought we were doing a good thing. It's just one of the many lessons we've learned."
Last August a small group of residents began meeting informally to organize a community group based on "egalitarian, nonhierarchical, and antiauthoritarian" principles. In October they opened the Autonomous Zone Infoshop on Division near Ashland; it's since moved to 2045 W. North.
The A-Zone, as tenants' rights organizer James Mumm explains, "is a place where radical community activists can come together and form collectives to directly challenge the current system. We try to assist the people to find better ways of living, and to cooperatively create alternatives and resistance to oppression." The A-Zone features a bookshop, the "Free Skool," a lending library, and a meeting space. It has given away food and clothing and served as a day shelter.
"It is an experiment in participatory democracy," Mumm says. "We hope to have a building of our own someday and to create a permanent counterinstitution." He says that "not even half of our  pledge members call themselves anarchists."
In the weeks leading up to last September's ATC, the Flat Iron Building--specifically the second-floor ATC office and gallery and the adjacent Happy-Delpech AIDS Foundation (now defunct because of cash problems, it had tried to serve as a studio and exhibition space for artists with AIDS)--came under increasing physical assault: smoke bombs, smashed doors, glued locks, stopped toilets.
Nearly 5,000 Pound the Coyote pamphlets hit the streets in the days before and during ATC '93. They resembled official ATC guides, even appropriated the logo. The handful of people in the neighborhood who knew who wrote it weren't talking, but that hardly mattered: the radical, theoretical rhetoric was already common currency. The pamphlet cheekily referred to its creators only as "critics" and "troublemakers," but no one but A-Zone members distributed it.
The four-page tract attacked ATC for fueling gentrification, attracting real estate development, commodifying art and artists, and fostering racism and class war through the removal of low-income residents.
The pamphlet parodied the voice of ATC organizers: "By colonizing this area first, [artists] made it 'white' enough for us to feel comfortable, for short periods during the day. You can come to Wicker Park and wander among the low income people and 'bohemians,' immersing yourself, however briefly, in a vibrant and active sense of community and culture. And don't forget the excitement you'll get from braving those underclass criminal elements! Never mind the comments you may receive from misinformed and ill-educated critics, you have a right to be here! Always remember that you have money, that's what really matters . . .
"DO NOT under any circumstance question the role of upper income housing development in the neighborhood. We must not let these troublemakers define the terms of the discussion. In fact we urge you to continue to keep silent on the role that this development has on the affordability of the community to the low income residents. Rising taxes and rents are a fact of life, and these whiners should just go away and leave us alone . . .
"DO NOT under any circumstance join in any of the violence that certain maladjusted troublemakers will attempt to inflict upon festival-goers. These uncivilized people will be scratching your cars, knifing your tires, stealing your wallet, accosting you verbally and physically on the streets, destroying your precious Saabs and lofts and ultimately your minds. They have some silly notion that you will be scared away from the neighborhood this way. They are part of the same criminal underclass that is gluing locks and breaking windows of up-and-coming businesses in the area!"
The pamphlet also said: "Jim Happy is Satan."
Reaction was immediate.
According to a Pound the Coyote "newsletter extra" soon distributed in the neighborhood, some ATC staff members, including Happy-Delpech, accosted the first people they saw distributing the flier and accused them of writing it and spreading lies. ATC members then "quickly confiscated" all the "bogus" fliers they could find. (The distributors had paid Willie, a local streetperson, to leave the pamphlets in area businesses; Willie says ATC offered him more money to retrieve them again, but he refused. "I was working for my friends," Willie says.) Happy-Delpech, who's of French-Cameroonian descent, says there was a "confrontation" in the Flat Iron's Copy Max, where pamphlet distributor and A-Zone member Rob B. works part-time as a printer.
"I said to him, 'Do I look white, do I look like a yuppie? Do I look like a middle-class white American? You don't know what it is to be poor. You all come from the middle class. Your parents give you money. You don't know what it is to be angry.' They're all white, young kids. They were writing all these things, but doing nothing to change things. I was trying to reason with them. They said it wasn't them [writing it]."
While rumors persist that Wendy Berger called Copy Max the next day and tried to get Rob B. fired, the truth--confirmed by Wendy and Rob B.--is that she merely asked if the pamphlets were printed there. "She just wanted to know if I'd made the copies here and I said no," says Rob. "She thought they'd done them here for free."
Nothing ever came of the legal action ATC threatened alleging libel and copyright infringement. "That would've been funny if they would've sued us--an arts organization engaging in censorship," says Rob B. "That would've made our day. It would've created a much bigger monster."
To encourage dialogue about Around the Coyote's role in gentrification, ATC organized a panel discussion presented by the Guild Complex at the HotHouse on the last day of the '93 festival. Panel members, who included congressman Luis Gutierrez, discussed how and whether artists had become "pawns of gentrification," and how increasing property taxes and higher rents were forcing artists and families out of the neighborhood. The panel also discussed an "urban arts agenda" proposed by the Fourth Congressional District Arts Advisory Council, which had been founded to give artist communities some political leverage.
The Guild Complex, however, canceled an open mike poetry reading that was to be held at Booksellers Row in conjunction with ATC; instead, it was held at spray-can artist DZine's loft studio next door to the bookstore. Guild Complex pulled out, according to Barry Cassilly, publisher of the poetry newsletter Letter eX, "because committee members were concerned about gentrification and the [Booksellers Row] boycott."
Jim Happy-Delpech hadn't the faintest premonition of Wicker Park's--and the Flat Iron Building's--now contentious arts politics when he moved here from France in '89. In Paris, he says, he was one of the first art dealers in the formerly shabby but now chic Bastille district; he'd organized the first gallery walk in that Right Bank area. In Chicago he found a "rich, thriving underground art community," and he made it his mission to get that art out to the public. Getting caught in the middle of a gentrification debate was the farthest thing from his mind. Not only has he taken heat from ATC bashers; he says he's had to struggle against financial odds to keep the free, all-volunteer festival afloat, despite public and private support.
Since 1990 the fair has grown by leaps and bounds. During last year's festival, says Happy-Delpech, nearly 100,000 persons viewed the work of about 800 visual and performing artists. The visitors pumped a million dollars into the local economy. Six separate walking tours ranged as far as Division, Halsted, Western, and Fullerton.
ATC's intent "was to have artists and the public communicating directly with each other," says Happy-Delpech. "Art is one of the world's best ways to communicate because you don't need to possess language, just emotion. In galleries, you don't talk to artists; they're more for the elite. We wanted to educate people in general and open a dialogue. We wanted to bring back the notion of giving art back to the people, so people can feel art as a part of everyday life. In a world where people express emotion less and less, with art you can become human again.
"In '92 people began to say, 'You're attracting gentrification.' But the people who complained were new people in the district, or less successful artists. Most people were very happy to have the district cleaner. They were happy to have new businesses, since many businesses were more or less dying. ATC helped bring back life. We helped bring prosperity and economic development to the community. But the process had already begun, because artists had already been living there. It is certain ATC helped generate the process, made it go faster, but it would've happened anyway. I accept some responsibility, but there was development here before."
He goes on, "The people attacking ATC are making a lot of noise, but it's not that many people. It's a minimum of people. We have very good relations with the Latino community. We have very good relations with the Old Milwaukee Avenue Chamber of Commerce and the Old Wicker Park Committee. We have good relations with the Bucktown ArtsFest people. We have good relations with all the businesses in the district. The whole problem is the rise of property taxes--as if we have created the problem. [Gentrification] is part of the socioeconomic history of any city. A city is a living body, a district always needs to be regenerated."
C.J. Laity, editor of Letter eX, never planned on getting involved in the battle of Booksellers Row, which still hadn't subsided in the closing months of '93. But he picked up his pen when the December issue of Lumpen Times ran a phony eviction-service ad implicating the bookstore and the poetry publication. He says he'd finally had enough.
"Chicago's Poetry Newsmagazine," Letter eX had formerly been published out of an office in the Northwest Tower Building. It moved into a back office in Booksellers Row in June of '93--about the same time the Boycott Blotter first denounced the bookstore. "We were bothered by what was going on," says Laity, who's also a construction contractor, "but we were trying to focus on putting out a poetry magazine. Then things just got uglier and uglier."
Last fall Laity says he spotted "a bunch of Lumpen Timers" throwing Letter eX stacks away "because we had mentioned their boycott in our magazine." (The article by publisher Barry Cassilly discussed how Letter eX staffers had tried and failed to get to the bottom of the Booksellers Row boycott.) Laity also tells of coming to the bookstore one November morning to find the staff standing in the cold, the shop's locks having been glued shut. By then, he says, the staff was "fed up with the terrorism that they'd encountered in Wicker Park." The bookstore's survival was in question.
"All I read in Lumpen Times was slander, false reports, misinformation, and acts of cruelty and vandalism. That's all I saw coming from the anti-Booksellers Row direction. They could've convinced me, but I never read any legitimate claim why this bookstore was an agent of gentrification. Minimally, it could've been, but no more than any other business in Wicker Park."
The next issue of Lumpen Times ran a quarter-page ad for "Kenneth Barry's Eviction Service: The Alternative SuperEviction Company." The reference was to Kenneth Corrigan (of Booksellers Row) and Barry Cassilly (of Letter eX). The company's given address was that of the bookstore; the phone number was that of the magazine. The ad offered photos of a well-dressed, clipboard-carrying white man talking to an older Hispanic woman. "I have a court order to evict you," says the man. "I have nowhere to go," says the woman. According to the ad, the man can now make any of several deadly responses, including: "Look, Mexican, Puerto Rican, I don't care. You're outta here."
"I was offended by it," says Laity. "People didn't realize it was a real phone number. Whether it's legitimate or a joke, I didn't find it funny at all. I was furious. All of a sudden [Letter eX] is some evil entity, too? We're some kind of racist eviction service? We're a not-for-profit company, it's all volunteer. How can they accuse a not-for-profit organization of being an agent of gentrification? They're wasting all this time and energy fighting the wrong people. These things won't stop the process; it obfuscates the issues. Instead of trying to get community groups or actual residents together to voice their opinions about the issues, they take the law into their own hands.
"I got about 18 or 20 calls [from the ad]," he says. "I was accosted by a guy on the street who could've killed me. I said, 'Listen please. I didn't place that ad. That's the most horrible, just the sickest fuckin' thing I've ever seen.'"
Minutes after he saw the ad, an enraged Laity was exchanging obscenities with a "smirking" Andy Sickle outside the Lumpen Times office at 2558 W. Armitage. "I don't see you giving up your home to a Mexican or Puerto Rican family, you fucking honkie!" Laity says he told Sickle, then a copublisher of the Times. "I told him two can play at this game, writing shit in newspapers, and that I was going to expose what he was doing. I was going to put a story in my paper to let them know what it feels like to have shit written about you."
Laity says Sickle came to the Booksellers Row/Letter eX office a few hours later "to assure me they wouldn't do things anymore and to convince me not to put anything in the paper." Unmollified, Laity says he accused Lumpen Times of being an agent of gentrification itself since its largest source of ad revenue came from the "agents of gentrification" in Wicker Park. Sickle later wrote Laity a letter saying: "Our advertisers, whom you accuse of being gentrifiers for bringing Lincoln Park yuppies to spend their money in Wicker Park, are actually creating community income."
Laity's story, headlined "Lumpen Times Slanders Local Poetry Venue," ran in Letter eX's December/January issue. Laity wrote: "And just who are these Lumpen Times guys anyway? Are they black, Latino, poor? None of the above! What they are is that smirk, that smirk on that blue eyed white boy's face when he saw how upset I was, when he saw the trouble he had created. It's that smirk, that 'fuck you everybody' smirk that is promoted by every business carrying the Lumpen Times, by every business advertising in the Lumpen Times."
"One thing happened after another," Laity says. "I felt like I was being terrorized: What's Lumpen Times gonna do next? I imagined gangs of anarchists coming into the bookstore, like they're gonna lynch me or something. I watched my back, I admit. I was paranoid. . . . [Letter eX] decided to pull out of Booksellers Row about mid-December because of flooding problems. But we were afraid of vandalism too. Our office wasn't in an isolated area. We started missing documents, somebody stole a pile of computer disks. We didn't want any further repercussions against us."
Laity now regrets using Letter eX as a public forum for his personal attacks against Lumpen Times. "We made ourselves look juvenile and put out some crappy issues," he says. "To a certain extent, it's over. If they start doin' shit again, I'm just gonna try to ignore it. I'm not gonna suck Letter eX in any further. But I'll continue my campaign of exposing journalistic irresponsibility."
The mysterious Help Pound the Coyote letter--urging Boycott Around the Coyote '94--was sent to Lumpen Times carriers and advertisers late last year. This single, computer-composed sheet of paper--not to be confused with the Pound the Coyote pamphlet of two or three months earlier--listed guerrilla actions one could take to stop developers and "yuppie-scum" from "invading" Wicker Park.
One could spray-paint "gentrafuck" on businesses; glue their front and back doors shut; make obscene phone calls; slash art canvases ("always gets the message across"); boycott publications promoting ATC; trash magazines that accept real estate advertisements; "smash windows of all new construction, renovation or yuppie artist lofts"; boycott white businesses in Wicker Park; and so on.
The letter also said: "Kill Jim Happy (must [sic] kidding)."
"I can understand them attacking Around the Coyote," says Happy-Delpech, "but now these were personal attacks. It just made me sick." Happy-Delpech promptly filed a police complaint against Lumpen Times's publishers and the "Chicago Anarchists Project"--both of which the letter named as its originators.
Only one problem: the Lumpens' Andy Sickle, as well as neighborhood anarchists, claims the Chicago Anarchists Project does not exist. In succeeding weeks Wicker Park was flooded with fliers from the editors of Lumpen Times disavowing the letter as a forgery. The editors insisted that they didn't advocate random violence against the community, that the behavior described in the letter was contrary to their beliefs, and that they'd filed a mail fraud complaint with the post office.
"We had several calls from people saying they were gonna kick our little college-boy asses," says Sickle.
Since he admits that the Lumpen Times has practiced "borderline traditional ethics in journalism" and conducted "irresponsible" vendettas, Sickle says some people had a motive to implicate the magazine. He accuses Laity; the Lumpens claim it was his "easily traceable" handwriting on the letter's envelopes.
"They blamed me for the document," says Laity. "It's a mystery. Either somebody pulled a dirty trick--or they pulled a dirty trick on themselves in order to make the criticism they were getting [for sabotage] seem less legitimate." Laity claims the Lumpens circulated the fliers disclaiming Help Pound the Coyote to deflect attention from themselves.
"I always suspected a different business owner on Milwaukee Avenue [wrote the letter]," says Kenneth Corrigan, late of Booksellers Row. He wouldn't say who.
Says one North Avenue business owner who carries the Lumpen Times and who received the letter in the mail: "Laity may be crazy, but I don't think he's stupid enough to do something criminal like that."
Some have pointed their fingers at anonymous antiauthoritarian or anarchist cells--perhaps associated with the A-Zone--that bear such names as Collective Chaos and the Wicker Park Liberation Army and operate in the neighborhood. Rob B. and James Mumm admit to being members of a "secret" group, but they deny both circulating the mysterious letter and "committing acts of destruction."
"We've been called the Autonomous henchmen thugs," says Mumm. "But we're not worried about the rumors and slanders about us causing trouble. We don't do things like running around and breaking windows. People should take action, but we don't inspire anyone to do that kind of stuff. I don't tell 'em to do that. We know they'll think of us first, so that's why we don't do anything like that. We're clean."
"We don't use violence," says Rob B. "We just use information. Some people take a more active role in not liking [gentrification]."
In any event, says Mumm, the '94 anti-ATC campaign will be "a lot more lively, entertaining, and resistant. Last year was just the tip of the iceberg."
Tip of the iceberg, indeed. An article in last December's Lumpen Times proclaimed '94 "the year of the Dead Dog, the year the coyote turns on its master."
"Lumpen: Designating or of persons or groups regarded as belonging to a low or contemptible segment of their class or kind because of their unproductiveness, shiftlessness, alienation, degeneration, etc.--a person or group that is lumpen."
The statement appears above the masthead, which now identifies Ed Marszewski and Chris Molnar as "editing nodes," the third member of the original troika, Andy Sickle, having left in June. Farther down, the page says, "Opinions of the writers are not neccessarily [sic] ours either."
You won't find another publication circulated in the Wicker Park area that consistently provokes as much debate as Lumpen Times. "Tipping the Sacred Cows" and "Resistance on All Fours" are how two recent covers put it. With 20,000 copies distributed free throughout Chicago, the Lumpens' "anti-copyright" articles on unofficial American history, street politics, the selling of generational life-styles, and the local music scene, not to mention the pieces they lift from other journals on mainstream media and corporate capitalism, rarely miss their targets. Leftist In These Times, whose offices are just a couple blocks east, seems status quo in comparison.
Interviewed before he quit, Sickle swiveled his chair around in the Lumpens' gloriously unkempt upstairs office and plucked a five-inch-thick dictionary from the shelf above his word processor. He found the definition for "gentrify" and read aloud: "To convert an aging area in a city into a more affluent middle-class neighborhood, as by remodeling or renovating dwellings, resulting in increased property values and in displacement of the poor." That, he said, describes Booksellers Row--and any number of new businesses in Wicker Park. Nevertheless, Sickle struck a conciliatory stance concerning a "cheap personal vendetta that got way out of hand" and helped drive Corrigan out of the bookstore.
"We've knowingly printed stuff that wasn't true, as opposed to what's ethically responsible," said Sickle. "We never intended to hurt any individuals. We tried to leave rather humorous clues that it was all bullshit, but we didn't realize how many people would be shattered by this. [Corrigan's] innocent, and not the evil, guilty man he's been made out to be. I'm sincerely sorry. I do feel bad for pouring gasoline on the fire. We happened to print something that he was unable to deal with. We definitely are guilty of irresponsible journalism, but it says right there it's not true--the column is called The Shit."
This gossip column has since disappeared.
Sickle, however, was less forgiving of C.J. Laity and Letter eX. "We didn't do anything wrong, but some effects came out that were unintended. We agreed to drop the issue entirely. It's buried, a dead issue." Coeditor Chris Molnar beamed as he played back an old phone message from Laity threatening to "mess you up." Said Molnar: "We always look forward to playing our voice mail." (A recent magazine subscription form appropriates a Laity/Letter eX quote: "Anyone who is enemies to Lumpen Times will get censored and terrorized.")
"We jumped the gun and started taking stands before we had initial opinions," remarked Sickle, of the Lumpen Times's occasional take-no-prisoners attitude to gentrification issues. "Now we're getting to the point where we have a legitimate voice about the issues. We've always practiced a more reactionary than a responsible journalism, but now it has some information and understanding about it.
"Things we've dissed hard in the past, like Booksellers, we're not going after right now," added Molnar. "We're learning who to go after and how to go after 'em. If anything, we've caused people to think and think hard. It's like children playing with matches. It's scary, really scary. All you have to do is print something that looks like a newspaper and it's gospel. I'm quickly learning the power of the press."
Sickle was well aware that Lumpen Times is frequently dismissed as the product of "young, white, rich, suburban college kids." He described himself as the product of "an upper-class Jewish family from Highland Park."
But he said, "People can think whatever they want. We're operating on the fringes of the neighborhood in a cheap, unimproved apartment. We're not contributing to oppressive gentrification in the area. [Lumpen Times] represents Latino, black, establishment, antiestablishment, feminist, and radical viewpoints, any special interest group you can find here. We sympathize with the anarchist viewpoint, and we've established a mutually beneficial relationship with them."
Aside from the trashing at Papa Jin and Buona Fortuna restaurants and a noticeable increase in the number of sidewalk stencils, stickers, and fliers, the streets of Wicker Park appeared relatively calm in the opening months of '94. But all was not quiet at the Flat Iron.
In early February, the Near Northwest Arts Council's Laura Weathered, who's lived and worked on the third floor since 1987, received a bill from Berger Financial Services for $29,285.32. The bill included $10,100 as her "share of operating costs" incurred during 1993, and $16,800 for a "previous balance"--for what, she has no idea. (The total, with past-due rent, utilities, and operating costs, has since risen to over $35,000.) Weathered says she burst out laughing. As far as she knew, her rent (with lease options through April '96) was $566 a month--and she'd been paying it. Where did the $841.66 a month in "operating costs" come from? Weathered's February rent check was returned to her marked Insufficient Funds, and it was attached to a five-day eviction notice. After talking to a couple of lawyers, she sent the Berger Realty Group a copy of the lease written by Wes Andrews in '91, and added, "I dispute the amounts listed and remind you of the lease agreement in question."
"This was a slam in the face," says Weathered. "Obviously, low-income artists can't compete against a family dynasty with a slew of corporate lawyers. We don't have the resources. Artists just want to be left alone where they can work in peace and quiet. But it just doesn't seem possible, with all the selective harassment going on. They're probably coming to a rude awakening of building costs, and leaving it on the backs of [artists]. What we created drew the Bergers here, and now that they're here it seems like they want to push everybody out."
Weathered says that when she met with Bob Berger in March to discuss the lease, he told her there were 20,000 other artists in the city who'd like to have her space and that he wasn't in business to subsidize artists. She says Berger handed her a $750-a-month lease that expires at the end of this year.
Weathered, who feels she's being made a "test case," is still in the building and the matter is still "under discussion."
Once again, Wendy Berger stresses that BRG "is not doing anything that wasn't part of the original lease. Wherever the charges came from, they were in the leases signed by Wes. It was the past landlord's oversight. We're doing only what's contained in the leases. They are legal, technical documents. If you're not used to paying something it can be a big change."
In March, BRG took Oskar Friedl, an owner of the basement's Lay Away Visual Arts Gallery, to eviction court; the gallery was a few months late with its rent, according to Wendy Berger. A noise complaint filed by a ground-floor tenant over a band playing at a December art opening also figured in the eviction proceedings. Days before the court date, according to Friedl, Wendy called him and said she'd drop the complaint if he'd agree to move to a different location in the building and renegotiate his lease: Lay Away's $150-a-month lease is up at the end of '95. Friedl declined, and defended himself in court by arguing that there were three other band rehearsal spaces in the basement. He says the judge dismissed the case and told him to keep the music down.
"Numerous different tenants filed police reports over a period of time," Wendy Berger counters. "Would I be standing in court for one complaint? [Lay Away's] lease--written by Wes, not us--very clearly states they can't play music. It's a gallery. The lease for Hi Fi and the Roadburners very clearly says it's a 'band practice space.' The judge told Oskar to 'stop it, don't do it anymore.'"
In May, during the New Pier Show art exposition, Bob Berger asked Friedl if he'd like to run his Flat Iron foreign artists' exchange project. Friedl said no.
Also in May, while the HotHouse's Marguerite Horberg was on a Venceremos Brigade mission to Cuba, her bill from Berger Financial Services rose to "around $20,000," she says, and her electricity was again shut off. Horberg says she was able to operate through another power source, and Bob Berger says Horberg was "illegally rewiring and stealing other people's electricity." She soon received an eviction notice, and both parties now say they're in the process of working out a payment plan.
"What Marguerite really needs is a business manager," says Bob Berger.
"If I had more money, I'd hire a staff," says Horberg.
BRG's relationship with ATC cooled in recent months over back rent. Jeff Berger quit the advisory board this year, and Wendy Berger offered to relocate ATC in a smaller, cheaper space. "I think the future of the organization is in doubt," Wendy said a month ago. "But ATC is identified with the building, and in the long run it brings people to it. No question, ATC has been good for us."
In a recent "dialectic" in Lumpen Times, art critic Bertha Husband noted that "it took quite a few years for the Old Town art fair to degenerate from a festival created by the artists who lived there to a sale of commercial trash and kitschy crafts." Husband proposed that Wicker Park artists act in solidarity and boycott "the art market and the false community" created by ATC and instead create an alternative fair "that would be based on the imaginative, creative potential for art to change reality rather than on the interests of the marketplace." But she suggested that any alternative festival not be presented "as an attack on the A.T.C. or as a critique of gentrification."
A number of major changes have been announced for next month's ATC festival. Among them: a juried show in a central exhibit area where midwestern (not just local) artists must pay a $100 booth-rental fee; the opportunity for nonapplying or rejected artists to participate in ATC by making arrangements for their own exhibit space and for artists who live in the community to open their studios to the public without the involvement of ATC; and the chance for artists studios or exhibit spaces to be listed on electronic displays at different exhibit buildings for $10.
"Part of [the changes] are to streamline things," says ATC's acting vice president, Scott Becker. "Now it's optional. Anybody can be in the thing, any way they want to be. I don't see how we can do it any cheaper [than $10]."
Bob Berger had assumed that the juried show would be held in the Flat Iron Building. He assumed wrong. Happy-Delpech announced that the Flat Iron didn't offer enough space for the juried show and moved the 60-some artists who'd entered it into the old Ludwig drum factory (Willow Square). Not only that, said Happy-Delpech, the Flat Iron wouldn't even be an "official site." There'd be no banners outside, and the program wouldn't mention it at all.
Berger was incensed. His first reaction was to make plans for a breakaway arts fair on the Flat Iron's second floor during Around the Coyote. More recently, he says, he "came to the rescue" and salvaged official festival status for his building as the exhibit site for ATC's foreign exchange artists.
Berger wasn't finished. In early August Happy-Delpech received an eviction notice. Happy-Delpech responds that he can't pay his back rent until after the fair when he has the money; besides, he says, Berger "can't do anything for three months."
In the spring of '94, another letter was sent to Wicker Park business owners carrying the Lumpen Times, and to businesses that advertise in the Times. The letter accused the Lumpens of "vandalism," of being "anarchists," and of printing "misinformation and blatant slander concerning individuals without any regard for the consequences." The letter urged local businesses to support ATC, warning them that "the Lumpen Times and the anarchists who run it are planning to ruin the festivities with a campaign of vandalism and terrorism . . . an ugly, racist conspiracy of hate."
The message added: "Please, help stop the slander before the Lumpen Times staff hurts somebody." It was signed by "the Wicker Park Committee for Honest Journalism, a committee consisting of over forty independent artists living in Wicker Park."
The May Lumpen Times, in an article headlined "Give Me a Fuckin Break," reprinted the letter and offered point-by-point rebuttals of "over ten outright lies and pieces of slander and misinformation" contained within it. Read one response: "Could it be possible that [Lumpen Times and anarchists] are separate entities, capable of taking autonomous action against gentrification, among the many other groups and individuals doing the same?"
The "Committee for Honest Journalism" letter also blamed the Lumpens for the mysterious year-end missive urging antiyuppie sabotage during ATC '94. The rebuttal read: "The letter . . . was an attempt by pro-gentrification forces to discredit the Lumpen Times and anarchists and to further anti-activist hysteria."
The article, signed by Rob B.--"that green-haired anarchist guy who works at Copymax"--accused C.J. Laity of authoring the "Committee for Honest Journalism" letter, and challenged members of the committee "to reveal themselves and publicly take responsibility for their accusations." So far, none have.
Laity denies involvement. "I'm just trying to ignore it," he says. "[The Lumpens] have been blaming me for practically everything. They're trying to make my credibility worse. I'm not even involved, and right now I'm on the defensive. They might be doing this stuff themselves. I agree with the letter--I don't believe there's any separation between the anarchists and the Lumpen Times. This whole thing is like a circus. Who cares? Who fuckin' cares?"
Laity adds that he's "talked to plenty of advertisers and I haven't met one person who received one of these things. I'd like to see a list of advertisers who got letters."
Tom Handley got the letter.
Although Handley, owner of the five-year-old Urbus Orbis coffeehouse and bookstore at 1934 W. North, criticizes the Lumpens for their "petty, nitpicky, neighborhood-bully, frat-house-like tactics" and accuses local anarchists of being "juvenile wankers [engaging in] incestuous public masturbation," he nevertheless agreed to sit down for an interview with Sickle late last year; it ran in the December 1993 Lumpen Times.
Sickle claims Handley helped set him straight about a few things, especially about how bashing ATC and other so-called "agents of gentrification" diverts attention from the real problem: the inequitable rise in property taxes, which victimizes longtime working-class and fixed- and middle-income residents as well as low-income artists.
Handley told Sickle that ATC isn't a cause of the gentrification process but a reflection of it. "Coyote puts money into the hands of artists so they can hold on to their neighborhood," Handley says now.
While many people in Wicker Park point to the Cook County assessor's office as the engine that turns the wheels of gentrification, Handley is one private citizen--and business owner--who actually has sat down and tried to find a way to apply a brake to the process. Two summers ago, Handley says, he and his wife Petra Harris, a former city attorney now in private practice, and another friend "did a lot of investigation about the causes and effects of gentrification and what might work here."
Their plan involves the establishment of a special property-tax, or gentrification, zone. A Chicago neighborhood is now assessed almost as a unit, Handley explains: an assessor determines a property's value, and then a multiplier is factored in "to bring up a market value for tax basis." When new construction, renovation, or development moves into the area, both the assessed values and the multipliers go up, causing property taxes to triple (or more) throughout the entire assessment zone--impacting even those residents with unimproved properties. Owners have no choice but to raise their tenants' rents--or move out.
Handley argues for a method of "fair and proportionate taxation that weakens the mechanical nature of the [gentrification] process" because it distinguishes owners and residents from investors. The property-value multiplier would apply only to new construction or rehabilitation over a given dollar value. The property values of surrounding homes and apartments would still increase (which is desirable), but property taxes for "Ma and Pa Hispanic" and "Ma and Pa Polish," as Handley puts it, would be kept in check.
"There will always be sharks out there to fuck you," he says. "But it would allow some development to come in without disrupting the neighborhood. It would be a process of integration, not gentrification."
Handley says Harris presented their modified tax assessment plan to four Chicago department heads. But ultimately the power to study or implement such a plan, or to identify a gentrification area, rests with Cook County. Handley argues that changes in property taxation can be brought about by "grass roots consensus development and the petitioning of our county officers"--no small task, but doable. He says, "We'd want to put together a package and take it directly to the County Board president."
Laura Weathered points out that fine artists need affordable housing, too--spaces that remain affordable for years to come.
Two years ago NNWAC received a grant from the Chicago Department of Planning and Development to conduct a feasibility study of a proposed West Town Artist Center. Weathered says the center, to be located in a former industrial loft building on Wicker Park's western fringes, would offer a new model of cooperative urban housing for Chicago artists who can't afford conventional mortgages. While a community advisory board has guided NNWAC through the process of developing and financing the building, resident artists will plan, design, and manage the property themselves. The center will house about 20 individual live/work units for low-income artists and their families.
"Chicago is the last remaining major city that hasn't passed specific legislation to protect its artists," says Weathered, who was active in investigating the possibility of establishing urban "arts enterprise zones," or protective cultural districts, during Harold Washington's administration. "Developers don't realize the vulnerability artists are up against. Artists succeed in having more money spent in the neighborhood. Increased investment in an art community forces property taxes to quadruple, and though artists create objects that rich people buy, everybody seems to be making money except the artists. What's that quote? 'Everybody wants an artist on the wall or on the library shelf, but nobody wants him in the house.'"
This spring, as part of their apparent new effort to build bridges and not throw bombs, the Lumpen Times ran a story titled "Hidden Histories of Wicker Park" by a Gilman Chatsworth. The article offered what it called "concrete knowledge and information" about real estate speculation in the neighborhood; it stated some problems, offered some solutions.
In closing, Chatsworth wrote: "Assuming that the person walking home from their 9-to-5 job dressed in nice clothes is the enemy is just as non-productive as complaining about the people with stick pins in their nose and their 'anarchist' friends.
"Next time you walk into another local establishment and overhear the same stupid argument about gentrification you can say this . . . 'yeah, that's great, but what have you actually done about it?' But be prepared to answer the same question."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.