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When the Tail Wags the Dog

How the city became a pawn in one alderman's petty game.

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Lyn Hughes should have known better. You can't offend your alderman, even inadvertently, and expect the city to treat you fairly.

In 1995 Hughes, a slightly hard to figure retired jazz singer, converted her two-flat at 104th and Maryland in the north end of the Pullman neighborhood into a museum honoring A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights leader and union activist who organized the Pullman porters. A year later, after failing to find the absentee owner of the vacant lot just north of the museum, she cleared it of rubble, paved it, and ringed it with a fence to create a parking lot for visitors. In 1997 she installed a sculpture commemorating Randolph and the porters in one corner of the lot.

Hughes was praised by many locals, who were pleased that someone was doing something to attract tourists to a neglected part of the city. But she was about to get blindsided.

When she'd first pulled the museum together she'd gotten help from her alderman, the Ninth Ward's Robert Shaw, and her state senator, Emil Jones. In gratitude, she had a mural painted on the viaduct at 103rd and Cottage Grove depicting Shaw and Jones as heroes of African-American history. Anyone who's followed Chicago politics for a while might laugh at the idea of Shaw, a legendary wheeler-dealer, being portrayed as an African-American hero. Yes, he was the Ninth Ward's first black alderman, but once in office he quickly joined forces with the racially divisive Democratic Party chairman Ed Vrdolyak, then backed Mayor Jane Byrne over Harold Washington in the 1983 mayoral election.

Shaw managed to become a big shot in his ward again, but by the end of the 90s his organization was being challenged by a new political coalition led by Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and the Reverend James Meeks. In 1999 Shaw stepped down as alderman to run for the Cook County Board of Review and slated his son, Herbert Shaw, to run for his old seat. Herbert lost to Anthony Beale, who'd been backed by Jackson and Meeks. The two organizations kept battling, but eventually Robert Shaw and his twin brother, William, saw the writing on the wall and moved their base to the south suburbs, where they began warring with forces loyal to Frank Zuccarelli, the Democratic committeeman of Thornton Township.

Hughes admits she's naive when it comes to Chicago politics. Had she been savvier, she would have buttered up Beale as soon as he became alderman, maybe having a mural of him, Meeks, and Jackson painted on some other viaduct. Instead she tried to stay out of politics.

But Beale evidently thought she was already in up to her neck. In 2001 he had city workers paint over the mural of Shaw and Jones, arguing that Hughes didn't have the right permit when she commissioned it.

Most locals saw that as Beale's way of establishing himself as the big man in local politics. "Anthony's insecure," says Stephen White, a community activist who's considering running against Beale in the 2007 aldermanic election. "He hasn't changed since he was a kid. We grew up together right here in Roseland. We played basketball at the Bennett school playground. Anthony was the kind of kid who if he didn't get his way, he'd take his basketball and go home."

In 2002 the city bought the vacant lot that Hughes had turned into a parking lot at a county auction of tax-delinquent land. When she found out, she pressed planning department officials to sell her the lot under its Adjacent Neighbors Land Acquisition Program. For almost two years she and various city officials exchanged phone calls and letters. Then on September 23, 2004, she got a letter that said, "The sculpture must be removed from the City-owned property no later than Wednesday, September 29. . . . If the sculpture is not removed by such time, the City will remove such sculpture itself." Hughes managed to persuade the city to let the sculpture stay, at least temporarily, but she still couldn't get it to sell her the lot.

In October the planning department and Beale announced that they were seeking bids from developers to build housing on the lot. They were also telling Hughes she could no longer use it as a parking lot.

"It didn't make any sense," says White. "You have a parking lot that's being used by a museum that's honoring a great African-American leader and bringing folks to the community and creating some economic development--and they want to bid it out to build in-fill housing. Come on, man. You have plenty of other vacant lots in the ward where they can put their housing. There are four vacant lots on that block! Why do you need this one?"

Hughes and White both believe the city was acting at the behest of Beale, who they thought was still trying to punish her for painting a picture of his rival on the viaduct wall. (Beale didn't return several calls for comment, though an aide told me to stop calling before slamming down the phone.)

Instead of telling Beale to back off, the city had allowed itself to get ensnared in a petty vendetta. But then that's how this city works. Daley lets aldermen do whatever they want on relatively small development matters, like the future of a vacant lot. It's his way of rewarding aldermen who are loyal to him, and few aldermen are more loyal than Beale, who rarely says a thing during City Council debates.

"As silly as it sounds, this is about Anthony showing everyone he's the man in the Ninth Ward," says White. "The city's not thinking right by going along with it."

Nevertheless, at 5:30 AM on January 7 at least two dozen city workers arrived in the parking lot next to the museum with orders to move the sculpture about a dozen feet to the south, onto Hughes's property. There were laborers, cops, engineers, planners, an art consultant, and press spokesmen, and they'd brought city trucks and cars, a backhoe, and a crane.

Hughes dashed downtown, hoping to win a court injunction to block the city from moving the sculpture. But the city sent five lawyers over to argue against her. They pointed out that she'd filled out the forms wrong, and the judge dismissed her request.

By midmorning the backhoe was underneath the sculpture. "They cracked the base," says White. "I saw it happen--I heard it crack. As soon as it cracked they stopped."

City officials say the sculpture was already cracked and that city workers will be back as soon as they figure out how to move it without causing more damage. In the meantime they put a fence around the sculpture and surrounded the fence with police tape. And they hired a private security firm to guard the lot around the clock.

"The guards were there for three weeks before they left--it's got to be the biggest waste of money I've ever seen," says Martha Boyd, a local activist who supports Hughes. "They spent all of this money to move a statue 10 or 15 feet--then they didn't even move it!"

By Boyd's count, the city assigned six bridge-division workers, two supervisors, one crane operator, one backhoe operator, one planner, one planning department spokesman, five lawyers, and six police officers to the effort. "I figure they spent at least $30,000," she says. "And don't forget the security guards. One of the guards told me it costs $50 an hour for his service--he doesn't get that, his company does. I still can't figure out why they were there. Were they protecting the statue? Did they think someone was going to take the statue?"

Hughes says it's ridiculous that the city has allowed itself to become an instrument of the alderman. "They do anything these aldermen tell them."

I called Jesse Jackson Jr. to see if he planned to use his influence with Beale to broker a deal. But Rick Bryant, Jackson's chief spokesman, said the congressman didn't intend to get involved. "None of the principals has asked us to intervene," he said. "It seems like a petty feud. But the museum must respect the alderman's power--and the alderman should respect the A. Philip Randolph legacy."

Last Friday afternoon I got a call from White, who told me he'd just heard that Hughes had made a deal with, of all people, Thornton Township's Democratic committeeman, Frank Zuccarelli, to move her museum to the south suburbs. "I'm stunned," he said.

Zuccarelli has despised the Shaw brothers ever since they moved to the township. "You have Lyn Hughes going from the Shaw camp to the camp of Shaw's enemy," says one south-side political observer. "If it's true, I'm sure Zuccarelli's doing this to bolster his popularity with black voters in the south suburbs."

Zuccarelli called later that day to tell me that his offer was real and that he saw nothing peculiar about moving a Pullman porters museum out of Pullman. "A lot of the people who live in the south suburbs used to live in the city," he said. "I used to live in the city. This is a great idea. I welcome the museum to Thornton Township."

He said the idea had come out of a brainstorming session with Bob Storman, one of his top aides, and they'd surprised Hughes with a proposal that morning. "You could tell she was pleased with the offer," says Storman. "She hasn't been too well received in Chicago. Why not go where she's wanted?"

Zuccarelli said he didn't have a location for the museum but he hoped to find one in the next few months. He thought the museum could move in a year or so, though he hadn't figured out who would pay the moving costs.

On Monday Hughes called to say that rumors of her departure had been greatly exaggerated. She said she appreciated Zuccarelli's interest but that he'd made only an overture, not a concrete offer. She said her first choice was still to remain in Pullman, though if the city didn't stop hassling her she'd have to seriously consider moving. Though of course then she'd have to get the approval of her board.

I asked if she thought it was ironic that one of the Shaws' biggest enemies had tried to come to her aid. She said she didn't even know they were rivals. "I'm not really into the politics out here," she said. "I run a cultural institution. I'm still not sure how I got involved in all this politics to begin with."

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

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