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The Unconverted

Pullman residents greet James Meek's enormous new church project with something less than religious fervor.

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By Ben Joravsky

For almost 30 years the land just east of Pullman has been an industrial wasteland--an untended thicket of trees, shrubs, and weeds of interest to no one but illegal dumpers. Yet now it's one of the most controversial pieces of property on the southeast side.

The Reverend James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, wants to build a church there--and not just any church, but a megachurch that can seat as many as 7,500 people. The local residents oppose the idea, and the tussle has revived a host of old concerns. "In some ways this symbolizes things that have gone on around here for the last 30 years," says Tom Shepherd, president of the Pullman Civic Organization, the largest community group in the area. "There's a lot of history at stake."

At issue are 23 acres of land between 111th Street on the north, 115th on the south, Corliss on the east, and Ellis on the west. According to Shepherd, 30 years ago this was the site of paint and brick-making factories. They closed in the early 70s, and over the years the area experienced the familiar pattern of decay. The abandoned factories were ransacked by vandals and destroyed by fires, and the land became overgrown with weeds, trees, and grass.

"There are discarded industrial sites like that all over the southeast side," says Shepherd, who was born and raised in nearby Roseland. "You had hoboes and vagrants in there, and there were fly dumpers illegally dumping. It's contaminated land--what the EPA calls a brown field--so it's hard to develop something there, 'cause of all the oversight. I don't think the city had any concrete plans for developing. People in Pullman didn't really care. To tell you the truth, it was a nice shelter from the traffic and noise of the expressway. We considered it 'Pullman Grove.'"

Last summer Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale notified Pullman residents that Meeks had bought the site and planned to build a church there. "Beale came to a picnic and told us that Meeks had the land," says Shepherd. "That raised a few eyebrows."

Meeks was known in the area for his efforts to transform Salem Baptist, which is now at 118th and Indiana, into one of the largest churches on the south side. "Of course we had all heard of Reverend Meeks," says Shepherd, "though none of us had met him."

Nothing more was heard about Meeks's plans until a Sunday morning early last November, when a couple of laborers came in with a tree-cutting machine. "I was just waking up and getting ready for church when I heard this droning sound out there," says Shepherd, whose apartment overlooks the site. "I saw a man on the back of a chopper or a shredder that was systematically chewing up the trees and ground cover."

By the time Shepherd got back from church, the chopper had cleared half of the site. "The machine was just churning up the ground cover," he says. "All the trees were ground into little chips, which got spit into the air. It was awful. I mean, this is contaminated land--and they're just sending this stuff into the air. The finer parts got into your throat and made you cough."

Shepherd and other residents started calling city, state, and federal officials. On November 15 Meeks came to Pullman to meet with residents. "He showed up with some church officials, the environmental contractor who had done the tree clearing, and his attorney, Rochelle Jackson," says Kate Chappell, a Pullman resident. "Ms. Jackson was the main speaker." (Neither Meeks nor Jackson returned calls for comment on this story.)

Some residents knew about Meeks's plan, but the scale of the project caught everyone off guard. Jackson told them that the church would be big enough to seat 7,500 and that the plan included a small retail strip, a social service center, and a vast concrete parking lot. "People got upset, the meeting wouldn't stay in order," says Chappell. "We were still trying to understand why the trees had come down, and now we were hearing about this big, big church coming in our backyard."

The opposition barely subsided in the ensuing weeks. For one thing, the residents were upset that Meeks had violated protocol on handling large-scale developments. They said he'd disrespected them and hurt his cause by not keeping them informed. "It's always better to keep people informed, otherwise they get suspicious," says Shepherd. "At the very least he should have told us about his plans to cut the trees."

In addition, the project seemed horribly out of scale given the residents' vision of how the area should be developed. Pullman is a historical community that looks much the way it did when railroad magnate George Pullman developed it in the 1880s. Each year thousands of tourists go there to see the row houses, mansions, and community buildings Pullman designed for his employees. Many residents, including Chappell and Shepherd, had been involved in long-range planning with city and state officials on how to best develop the area in the aftermath of a December 1998 fire that virtually destroyed the old Pullman administration building.

Once they learned of Meeks's plan, the residents felt that city officials had let them down. Why hadn't the city told them of Meeks's plan? Why hadn't the city directed Meeks to meet with them before the trees were cut down? For that matter, why hadn't the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned them of any potential health hazards caused by taking down the trees? Shepherd says, "People began to wonder if it was all some sort of inside deal."

The residents had hoped that the site would remain open, perhaps be converted into a park. "We had been developing a vision of how we wanted our community to go, taking into consideration its historical character," says Chappell. "We hadn't come to any specific decisions about the administration building, but one thing we had ruled out was a big-box development. Well, that's pretty much what the church was proposing for its property. If a big-box project is inappropriate for the old administration building, why would it be right for the vacant land?"

Chappell drove out to Barrington to study the Willow Creek Church, an enormous complex much like the one Meeks proposed. She quickly became concerned that Pullman's tranquillity would be destroyed by the noise and pollution of hundreds of incoming cars. "We had this concern that the church would overwhelm us," she says. "We wanted Pullman to remain what it is--a small-scale walking-around community, very friendly to pedestrians. Now we had the possibility of this huge influx of traffic, noise, and exhaust coming in here every Sunday. And don't forget, Salem Baptist Church is a major political forum, so there would be people coming there for meetings several times a week."

There was one more issue that went largely unmentioned--race. Pullman remains mostly white. Many of its older white residents remember the panic that spread when nearby Roseland went from white to black during the 1960s and '70s. Some residents privately fear that Meeks's church might "tip the scales," as one local put it, sparking panic and white flight. "Some of the passion against the church has to do with the fact that it's a black church," says one former Pullman resident. "Personally, I can't see why they're so upset about the plan--it's a church. What's so bad about a church? I can't imagine them getting so upset by a white church."

But Chappell and Shepherd say race isn't the reason they oppose the plan. "I would be leery of any church of this size coming here," says Chappell. "We wouldn't live here if we were racists. Reverend Meeks has never raised the race issue. Curiously enough, I only hear it from a few white people in our community who say, 'I know why you're against it.' To me that's a very difficult and painful accusation. We love this community."

On May 10 Meeks and Jackson returned to Pullman and met with about 150 residents. "I want to apologize for any misconceptions or misperceptions that have occurred up to now," he said, according to the Tribune's account. "If I could start the process all over again, I would." He assured residents, "I don't want to be an adversary--I want to be your friend."

But despite his conciliatory approach, the two sides remain far apart. "In some ways that meeting was dramatic evidence of the differences," says Chappell. "Reverend Meeks talked with pride at the growth of the church. Our anxiety level is going up as we consider the scale of the project--and he's getting excited about the number of souls saved for Christ."

For the moment it seems that Meeks has the most political support. The area's congressman, Jesse Jackson Jr., is a member of Salem Baptist, as is Beale. Mayor Daley, while not a member, has made several visits to the church in the last few years, and he joined Meeks in his successful campaign to drive liquor stores from many precincts in the Ninth Ward.

The U.S. EPA, which must oversee any development of the site because it contains underground storage tanks that have to be removed, praises Meeks and his plan. "We're in support of developing that property," says Leo Rosales, an EPA spokesman. "They have followed all the steps." What about tearing down the trees? "We don't really agree with that from a public relations point of view, where they didn't notify the community. But they do have the right to tear down the trees, because they own the property."

City planning officials say they'll have no comment on the matter until Meeks presents a formal plan. "A project of this scale is a planned development," says Pete Scales, the Planning Department's spokesman. "That means the church would need a zoning change. There would have to be traffic studies. But we haven't seen any proposal--the church hasn't even made an official zoning request. So we're really not ready to give an opinion one way or another."

Still, many residents suspect that the church has the inside edge, if only because of Meeks's political connections. "There are some people in Pullman who say it's a done deal--you can't fight City Hall," says Chappell. "Frankly, that's a difficult dynamic for us to deal with."

Yet the politics of the project are far from simple. Most of Pullman's residents live in the Ninth Ward, and their alderman, Beale, endorses the plan. But the site itself is in the Tenth Ward, whose alderman, John Pope, hasn't yet taken a position on the matter.

"Politically, it gets really complicated," says one longtime political observer who prefers to remain anonymous. "Beale's going to go along of course, but Pope doesn't have to. Meeks is not a power in the Tenth Ward. Pope's going to do whatever Daley tells him."

As this observer sees it, Pullman's residents still have two possible reasons to hope: Meeks might not have enough capital for his deal, and Pope might decide to try to persuade Daley that it's not worth aggravating so many voters in Pullman.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea/Lloyd DeGrane.

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