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Trouble in Paradise

Airport Agony: How can they do this to Hegewisch?

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If things go Mayor Daley's way, there will be a new airport on the southeast side sometime early in the next century. It will stretch from 103rd Street to 150th in Calumet City, and from the Calumet Expressway to the state line. It will employ 40,000 people and generate billions in tax revenues. It will rejuvenate South Chicago and other worn-out communities. It will encourage investors to build hotels and restaurants on the former sites of toxic dumps and abandoned steel mills. It will generate jobs for the area's poor, most of them black and Hispanic. It will be the most expensive public works project in Chicago's history. It will prove that Mayor Daley is a man of vision. It will accommodate 600,000 flights a year and millions of passengers. They'll probably call it the Richard J. Daley Memorial Airport.

And no one will remember Hegewisch.

Because it's on the south side, some people assume Hegewisch is a slum. That bothers Joe Ciezak. For as long as he can remember (he's 73, and he's lived there almost all his life) Hegewisch has always been what it is now: a tightly knit, clean working-class community.

"When people say Hegewisch is a slum I say, 'What do you know? Have you ever been here? Have you ever seen how we live?'" Ciezak says. "Hegewisch is no slum; we take care of our property."

About 8,000 people live in Hegewisch, most of them white. A lot, like Ciezak, are Polish. A majority are lifelong residents. The community runs from 115th to 138th Street--cut off from the rest of the city by industry and Lake Calumet--as far southeast as you can go without slipping into Indiana. It's named for Adolph Hegewisch, a turn-of-the-century railroad magnate. "He wanted to create an ideal community for his workers," says Ciezak, "like the one Pullman created just to the west."

It's different from other Chicago neighborhoods; Hegewisch seems more like a small town in northern Indiana than part of a big city. Most of the homes are bungalows and two-flats; there are no high rises or apartment complexes. The Fourth of July is still a big deal in Hegewisch. Every spring brings a new Little League season at the local diamond, which is magnificently maintained by the residents. Saint Florian's is the biggest church. Mann Park is where the first Mayor Daley made his last public appearance. In the old library (the new library should open in the fall) they still have the desk into which novelist Eugene Izzi scratched his name as a teenager. People still come from miles around to fish in Wolf Lake.

A lot of the men in Hegewisch used to work five to ten miles up the road in the steel mills of South Deering and South Chicago. That was years ago, in the 50s and 60s, when the economy was booming. Most of the factories have closed since then, and a lot of the older plant workers have retired. Nowadays residents (women as well as men) probably work downtown. You can see them lining up for the train every morning. The South Shore interurban stops in Hegewisch, a fact Ciezak is proud of. There's a lot about Hegewisch that makes Ciezak proud. He calls it "paradise in the city," and for my benefit wrote a brief essay about the neighborhood he loves.

"All through the years, there was a close family association in Hegewisch," Ciezak wrote. "Parents helped their children to grow up in a religious atmosphere with the love of God and friends being utmost of importance to them. . . . It is almost unheard of to have murders and rape in Hegewisch. . . . Reverend Klonowski, pastor of Lebanon Lutheran Church, speaking at a recent ecumenical service, told of police officers telling him when they get a police call to go to Hegewisch the message often comes through, 'There's trouble in paradise.'"

Ciezak was born in 1917 in a house at 13346 S. Burley Ave. not far from where he currently lives. He went to grade school at Saint Florian's and graduated from Bowen High School. He didn't leave Hegewisch until 1942, when he was drafted and sent overseas. His younger brother, Henry, enlisted. Henry died in Europe, killed by a German sniper just a few days before VE Day. He was 24. Before the war, he had never been out of Hegewisch.

They brought Henry's body back to Chicago and dedicated a memorial to him at Saint Florian's. A framed picture of Henry (in full uniform, looking handsome and forever 24) hangs on Joe's living-room wall.

When Joe returned from Europe he married Helen Urbanek, another Hegewisch native. Her father was a pressman for U.S. Steel. Over the years he saved enough money to buy a wood-frame two-flat on Houston Avenue.

"Joe was a friend of my brother's," says Helen.

"We played ball together, and she came to our games," says Joe.

"When he went into the service, I wrote him letters," says Helen. "I wrote to all of my brother's friends."

"We got married on June 1, 1946," says Joe.

They moved into Helen's father's house, and Joe thought about becoming a writer. He'd covered local sports for the Hegewisch News Weekly before the war, and he considered himself good with words. "In the war I wrote love letters for the guys who could not write," says Joe. "I would even write letters in broken English, if necessary, writing it the way they would have written it. I was spelling champ in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades at Saint Florian's. You might say I was champ for a spell."

"Oh, Joe," says Helen.

He decided against journalism (the pay was too low for a fellow with a family) and took a job in sales for a factory in Gary that made screws and bolts. He stayed there for 40 years. He helped organize the Hegewisch Little League; he coached a team; he had two children, a son and a daughter. Both graduated from college. Both are accountants.

Over the years politicians, wars, and fashions came and went, but Hegewisch pretty much remained the same.

"We figured, this is where we were born, this is where we lived, this is where we will die," says Joe.

"Along with our friends and family," says Helen.

"In peace and quiet," says Joe.

"We had no reason to think about moving," says Helen.

"Why should we?" says Joe.

Then on Valentine's Day 1990, Mayor Daley unveiled his plan to build an airport on the southeast side--the center of it targeted for Hegewisch.

Paradise would be obliterated.

From Daley's perspective, it made perfect sense to build an airport there.

Most of the southeast side's industrial base was in ruins. The unemployment rate in South Deering and South Chicago hovered around 25 percent. Thousands of residents had moved, many south to the Sunbelt, in search of jobs. Only the landfills thrived.

Other mayors had talked about projects that might revive the area. Mayor Byrne talked about a giant ski run; Mayor Washington talked about a football stadium, Mayor Sawyer talked about reopening the mills. Nothing came of this talk; the old mills continued to rust.

Through it all, state officials from Illinois and Indiana were meeting to determine where to build a new airport. The metropolitan area doesn't need a third airport, environmentalists and railroad boosters cautioned. But few politicians listened. They were too busy commissioning surveys that told them exactly what they wanted to hear: a new airport would create jobs, taxes, and economic opportunity.

That was the conventional wisdom, anyway, and Mayor Daley could not understand how or why his predecessors ignored it. In the summer of 1989, Daley assembled a crew of advisers and consultants to put together an airport plan. On February 14, 1990, Daley announced that Chicago would seek federal approval to build an airport near Lake Calumet. He put the project under the supervision of Robert Repel, a special assistant to the mayor.

The announcement upset Indiana and Illinois officials. They had been wrangling over potential sites since 1986, when the Federal Aviation Administration agreed that a new airport should be built somewhere in the greater metropolitan area. The FAA left site selection to local leaders, who had put together a bistate commission (four members from Illinois; four from Indiana), which had narrowed its choices to Peotone, Kankakee, Gary, and a site that straddled both states about 100 miles south of Chicago.

To the bistate commission, Daley was a spoiler, though he seemed unfazed by their criticism. On the contrary, Daley proceeded as though the bistate commission did not exist, pushing through the City Council a resolution urging the FAA to fund a $5.1-million Lake Calumet airport feasibility study.

To avert a full-scale battle, Department of Transportation secretary Sam Skinner, a former Chicago lawyer and crony of Governor James Thompson, invited officials from Chicago, Illinois, and Indiana to a summit.

"Actually, there were many meetings and many debates and at times it got very heated," says Repel. "The others would say things like, 'Come on, this has been going on for years, how come you're just getting involved now? Chicago said it didn't need an airport.' And we would say, 'We can't speak for what previous administrations did or didn't do.'"

In the meantime, Daley unleashed northwest-side congressman Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (which drafts all federal tax legislation), and Congressman William Lipinski of the southwest side.

Lipinski introduced a bill that would enable municipalities to tax every boarding passenger $3. The fee, collected and spent at the local level, would raise $100 million a year from O'Hare alone--enough to cover 40 percent of the new airport. Suddenly Daley had money and Illinois and Indiana were on the defensive. They didn't know how they would pay for their airports, and Daley didn't need them to build his.

On July 10, 1990, Thompson, Indiana governor Evan Bayh, and Gary mayor Thomas Barnes swallowed their pride and agreed to revamp the commission, adding three members from Chicago as well as an independent chairman to be selected by Daley and the two governors. For his slots, Daley selected Robert Healey, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, James Compton, president of the Urban League, and his brother William Daley, president of the Amalgamated Trust & Savings Bank.

The final task was winning congressional approval for the head tax--no sure thing since Kentucky senator Wendell Ford, chairman of the Senate's aviation subcommittee, opposed it. But after Rostenkowski killed a proposal (opposed, by the way, by many tobacco producers in Kentucky) to double the federal cigarette tax, Ford converted. (Ford denies any link between his support for the passenger tax and Rostenkowski's opposition to the cigarette tax.) The $3 tax passed in October.

"Daley's D.C. 3 kept flaps down and quickly cleared the runway," read a Sun-Times headline over an article detailing Rostenkowski, Lipinski, and Skinner's efforts. True, the Lake Calumet airport was not a certainty (the bistate commission has until fall to make its decision). But Daley had made remarkable progress in less than a year--"I've never seen the mayor more committed to something," says Repel. He had, as the Sun-Times noted, cleared the runway. And there were no obstacles in sight.

In Hegewisch, reaction to Daley's Valentine's Day airport proposal was instantaneous. People were furious. The project was so enormous they could barely contemplate its scope: 30,000 residents displaced, 500 businesses relocated, 9,500 homes demolished, as well as two communities (Hegewisch and South Deering), one suburb (Burnham), and one-third of another suburb (Calumet City) destroyed.

"How does Daley think he can get away with this?" says Ciezak. "Does he think he's God? Is he so powerful that he can disrupt the lives of so many people?"

On February 21, city officials came to the southeast side to discuss the project with residents.

"We are not going to come in and impose something on you that you absolutely do not want," aviation commissioner Jay Franke told the crowd of 800. "The plan needs community support."

"Good, get out of here," someone yelled.

"Build it in Bridgeport," hollered someone else.

Several residents rose to proclaim their opposition: We are old. We've lived here all of our lives. We've paid off our mortgages. We own clear title to our homes. We don't want to move. We can't afford the hassles. Hegewisch is home. Please don't destroy it!

At one point a Daley official promised to build a new Hegewisch on a site near the incinerator out by the expressway at 103rd.

The crowd erupted in outrage and disbelief. A new Hegewisch? Near the incinerator? By the expressway? You call that Hegewisch?

City officials remained polite. (Repel tries to return every call and attend every meeting: "We realize the lives this impacts," he says. "We're not indifferent.") And loud as the residents of Hegewisch barked, they had no bite. Mayor Daley could build his airport without their blessing. The city had the quick-take power of eminent domain. Daley could condemn their land and just take it away. He'd have to pay them, of course, and if they didn't like the city's offer, they could go to court. But that wouldn't stop the demolition. While they bickered over compensation, Hegewisch would be made part of runway one.

The residents felt deceived. They had voted for Daley. They had cheered when he won. Now who could they turn to? Had Harold Washington (or any black mayor) initiated this airport proposal, every white alderman in the council would have been up in arms. But the new mayor ruled with unbridled power. The old guard who loudly defied Washington (the Dick Mells, Berny Stones, and Eddie Burkes) cowered under Daley's control and uttered no word on Hegewisch's behalf. The Ciezaks, among others, turned to Rostenkowski, Lipinski, and other prominent Polish politicians, but they didn't even respond to letters and calls.

Oh yes, Danny Davis, Eugene Pincham, and a few other black office seekers, in dire need of white votes, protested. Their cries, however, struck no nerve in black Chicago. And why should they? The residents of Hegewisch had proudly supported Eddie Vrdolyak. Where were they when it was old black families being uprooted to make way for the new White Sox park? In the eyes of many, Hegewisch deserved what it got.

Even the papers seemed indifferent. The Tribune headlined an editorial, "Bill Daley a good man for a tough job." (The Hegewisch residents had expected a denunciation of nepotism.) Andrew Greeley called the airport proposal "the most important single plan ever devised for the city of Chicago, a work of brilliance verging on genius. . . . South Deering and Hegewisch are memorable Chicago neighborhoods. But again city leadership must balance competing goods, none of which is absolute, as they contribute to the common good. The continued viability and vitality of the city are more important than two aging neighborhoods, as marvelous as these two might be."

In anger and frustration, Joe Ciezak began writing hostile letters to any official or writer who adopted anything less than a virulently antiairport stand.

To Skinner he wrote: "The best community in the city of Chicago [might be] destroyed by the worst mayor Chicago ever had, a 46-year-old punk. . . . You are the greatest contributor to his maniacal effort. . . . People want to know how you can face yourself in the mirror."

To Rostenkowski he wrote: "We have hoped and prayed our Polish political leaders would prevent this from happening to us. My God, does the Polish pride and concern [extend] only for the people in Poland? Is there no compassion, no feeling for the people of this Hegewisch Holocaust?"

And to Greeley he wrote: "Daley feels he is accomplishing something by building a new town for us with a runway on one side of us and the gas fumes from the expressway in our back yards and putting us there like decent Japanese citizens were treated in World War II. . . . My advice to you is stick to writing your dirty, filthy sex books."

By the start of summer several residents had organized CALCA (Citizens Against the Lake Calumet Airport--a union of local residents, activists, and business leaders. Among the group's leaders were Jan Chabicki, a secretary, and Ron Maydon, a maverick Mexican-American political activist who lives just up the road from Hegewisch. "I got involved because my mom's home would be eliminated by the airport," says Maydon. "Besides, I always root for the underdog and I like a good fight."

It was Maydon who brought Danny Davis, Eugene Pincham, Jane Byrne, and other anti-Daley politicians to CALCA's side.

"This administration is repressive and oppressive," Byrne told a cheering crowd at one Mann Park rally in the summer of 1990. "It stops at nothing, not even taking your homes. They tell you how you should live and where you should live. I hope all of Chicago is listening tonight. I hope they all realize that they can wake up one morning and it could be them."

The crowd cheered and for that one moment optimism was strong. But it soon became apparent that Byrne had no support outside of Hegewisch and that the airport would not be a major issue in the 1991 mayoral campaign.

As time wore on, the residents' facade of unity began to crack. It began with tactical disagreements: Should the airport be put on the ballot for a yes-or-no nonbinding vote? Should Hegewisch's antiairport activists join south-suburban activists? Should they endorse any aldermanic candidates?

Eventually they began to bicker over personal matters--who would run meetings, and who would get to say what to the press--and a rivalry developed between Chabicki and Maydon.

"She was trying to turn us against Ron," says Helen Ciezak. "She started telling us he was no good for the organization."

For a while the residents kept their differences a secret. But eventually they began spreading dirt: This one's an adulterer, that one's a slumlord, this one doesn't pay taxes. It was an embarrassing spectacle--neighbors bad-mouthing neighbors, everyone's motive in doubt.

"I don't trust him," one woman said of a former ally. "He has secret meetings with Repel."

"Repel and I were just talking," the old ally countered. "Have things gotten to the point where we can't even do that?"

Rumors flew: the city was already buying vacant land; several residents had signed secret deals with the mayor; those who supported the airport would get a higher price for their property than those who did not. "It's crazy," says Repel. "None of these rumors are true."

Tenth Ward Alderman John Buchanan got mad at Chabicki because she endorsed one of his opponents. The local newspaper--which supports Buchanan--started taking potshots at Chabicki.

The turmoil reminded Maydon of "the 1983 Byrne-Daley fight in a white-ethnic neighborhood where you have neighbor against neighbor, father against son, and cop against cop. It's such an emotionally charged issue because people are losing their homes, and that's really all they've got. It's what they've been working for all of their lives.

"I'm a 60s kid," Maydon went on. "I'm used to working with Hispanics and blacks; this is the first all-white group I've ever worked with. I walked in here thinking, 'Man, the white community is together.' But I didn't know anything. The infighting is as intense as anything I saw among blacks or Hispanics. If you even slightly endorse the airport--you know, if you say something like 'Gee, maybe this airport won't be a bad idea'--you're suspect and they want to drum you out of the community."

Hegewisch was growing more and more isolated from its neighbors. Folks in South Deering and South Chicago seemed to eagerly await the airport. A survey of a thousand South Deering and South Chicago churchgoers by the community group United Neighborhood Organization of Southeast Chicago pegged support at 54 percent.

In March, UNO released a report that took a subtle swipe at Hegewisch. "It takes courage for responsible leadership to respond to the proposed airport in a creative and visionary way," the report began. "It's easier--safer--to pander to community fears."

The report was not a complete endorsement of Daley's specific plan (but then, there was no specific plan to support). It was, instead, a wish list of the housing, jobs, and general economic development that UNO hoped the airport would create.

"We're not saying, 'Hooray for Daley, thank you for the airport,'" says Jerry Jacinta, a South Deering resident and UNO member. "We're saying, 'If the airport's coming--and it looks like it is--then let us have a say in how it is developed. Let us control our community's future.'"

Unfortunately for UNO, that wasn't how the report was interpreted. "Daley airport plan boosted," ran the headline in the Sun-Times. The article quoted Repel as saying: "Here we have a group composed of a broad spectrum of organizations and parishes that has taken a critical and objective look at the mayor's proposal, unlike other leaders who, for their own personal advantage, have said a knee-jerk, 'No,' to the airport for their own political advantage simply because they thought that was the way the wind was blowing in their communities."

Whether or not he intended to, Repel had apparently domesticated UNO--a group that once took pride in its political independence. (It didn't help when Daley named UNO board member Mary Ellen Montes to his Lake Calumet Advisory Commission, whose purpose, the mayor said, was to lobby for the airport). To Hegewisch residents, UNO had sacrificed its integrity by exchanging an airport endorsement for one or two mayoral appointments and a public pat on the head.

"Don't talk to me about UNO--they only make my blood boil," says Helen Ciezak. "They sold out their community to Daley."

Under attack, UNO vehemently defended itself from such accusations.

"Why should we involve them [CALCA]?" says Pat Kalka, an UNO member from South Chicago. "They're nothing but troublemakers and agitators."

"I appreciate that people in Hegewisch love their community; we love our community too," adds UNO member Petra Rodriguez. "But we have so many problems that they don't understand. We have high unemployment, gangs, and drugs. We need jobs. We need outside investment. The airport is giving us hope. We're not doing this to make Daley look good. We're trying to build a future for our families. I love South Deering; I raised my family here. I will lose my home if the airport is built. My church will be destroyed. I am sacrificing a lot. But sometimes something must be killed so that others can live. Maybe death to South Deering means the start of something new."

It was shortly after the controversy with UNO erupted that Maydon arranged for me to meet his antiairport allies. We met at the Ciezaks'. It was March 26; the gulf war had just ended. Virtually every house in Hegewisch was bedecked with a flag and yellow ribbon.

Helen Ciezak served coffee and cake. People came and went, but the living room was usually filled. There was Bob Ellman, president of the Hegewisch Chamber of Commerce, whose 20-year-old son was stationed with the Marines in the Persian Gulf; Virginia Cap, a hairdresser and antidump environmentalist; Judy Lihota, a housewife who led the fight for the new library; and Mike Aniol, whose family owns several local hardware stores. They were articulate and passionate; at times they all spoke at once.

Two weeks later I returned for my grand tour of Hegewisch. I rode with Aniol, and the others drove behind in Ellman's van. They showed me the sights: Saint Florian's, Mann Park, the new library, the old library, Eugene Izzi's teenage mark, the Little League diamond. The tour ended on a spit of land that cuts into Wolf Lake.

"See that marker," Aniol said, pointing to a stick about 15 feet away. "That's the Indiana border."

A few guys were quietly fishing; some ducks skittered across the water.

"Part of me says take the money and run, I don't need this fight," Aniol said. "But then I come back to Wolf Lake. I came here as a kid all the time. I fished here. I drank beer here. Me and my friends played all sorts of kids' games here.

"We say it again and again and after a while it sounds corny and people stop listening. But--we grew up here. This is where we live. These are our homes. Mayor Daley has to understand. How would he feel if another mayor planned to tear down Bridgeport?"

He paused for a moment as Ellman and the others drove up. "We can't give up Hegewisch, at least not without a fight."

In the following months, Maydon and Chabicki had a reconciliation ("I was wrong about Ron," Chabicki told me; "I'm glad we're all back together," said Maydon), and then another falling out. In June Maydon helped organize a new group, Hegewisch Citizens Against Lake Calumet Airport, and they started meeting at the local VFW hall.

"The infighting is crazy," says Ellman. "I say to people: 'Why are you fighting? You're asking for the same things.' You have to figure that this back stabbing comes out of frustration."

Meanwhile life went on. Maydon's mother was hospitalized. Ellman's son came home from the gulf. Aniol left town for a two-week vacation. Joe and Helen Ciezak continued their letter campaign. And the Little League began its 38th season.

Mayor Daley picked up another victory when, with help from U.S. Senator Alan Dixon, he got federal money to extend the CTA's Dan Ryan line south from 95th Street to 103rd, thus providing a downtown public-transit link to the airport site.

Repel remains confident.

"I have said to CALCA once and I will say to CALCA again: 'You oppose us and I can understand why you oppose us, but we believe the airport is coming and when it does come our door will always be open,'" he says. "I understand their anguish, I understand their concern. We will work with every individual to try and make a relocation plan that is best suited for them. If they are going to lose their job, we'll try to find them another one, maybe with the airport. If they are going to need a loan, maybe we can arrange one with low financing. We want relocation to be as painless as possible. We don't want people inconvenienced any more than they have to be."

As for the residents of Hegewisch, their attitude fluctuates with the daily news. "I plan to fight the airport to the end, but let's be serious--Hegewisch is an asterisk in this thing," says Maydon. "We're up against the heaviest hitters in the city. On their side they've got governors and mayors and secretaries of transportation and senators; our side's got a bunch of senior citizens who never had to make a decision bigger than what kind of ice cream to get for the church social. It's a mismatch. It's like throwing me into the ring against Mike Tyson.

"I'm not saying the airport will fly. There's a ton of things that might kill it. The financing might fall through. There could be environmental concerns--the city's gonna have to dredge all those dumps; can you imagine what kind of crap is in there? Who knows, Kankakee or Peotone might really get their act together. I will tell you this: We will yell and we will scream, but no one's gonna kill the airport on account of Hegewisch. We may be an important part of a larger coalition that kills it, but it won't die because of us."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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