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Chicago Old Town

In 1969, working for the Independent Precinct Organization [IPO]in Chicago’s north side Lincoln Park neighborhood, we canvassed door to door to build support for community-based initiatives instead of the urban renewal plans of the democratic machine and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration. The city plan called for bulldozing entire blocks of housing, displacing hundreds of poor and elderly families of many races and ethnic backgrounds, and building apartment buildings and condominiums that would cater to wealthy, upper class, largely white people. The area needed rehabilitation and preservation, from our perspective, not destruction and replacement. In canvassing , we met many wonderful people of various backgrounds who would be forced to move, priced out of the neighborhood.

We organized meetings, rallies, and took part in city-sponsored meetings that were supposed to give the people a voice, but largely consisted of city spokesmen telling the residents what was going to happen, whether they liked it or not. The city’s only authentic German beer garden became a center of attention, when the city planners decided it had to go the way of every other building of historical, ethnic, or cultural significance in the urban renewal area. What would the new neighborhood look like? An uninspired collection of modern boxes of uniform size, shape, and costliness, with little attention to amenities that existed in the previous community, because Lincoln Park would be considered a residential extension of the downtown. “Little boxes…full of [just more expensive] ticky-tacky,” anyone?

One night I had to park three blocks from the meeting –place at the edge of an already bull-dozed three-block strip, where the citizens were confronting city planners. Parking was scarce because we had generated a lot of interest in the meeting. The people present were angry and eloquent, expressing their grief at the prospect of losing homes and businesses and facing an uncertain future with below-replacement value appraisals and no help in relocation. The IPO presented alternative plans and proposals that had the backing of much of the resident community. When the meeting ended we felt that we had done well in getting both citizen-involvement and the important media attention.

I walked out of the building after a brief feedback session with my co-volunteers, needing to get back to my apartment on the south side and ready for seminary coursework the next day. The street was empty and dark; many of the street lights were removed with the destruction. I didn’t see anyone around, until I had walked a block, but then I heard from a distance when a gang of Spanish Disciples had spotted me. I didn’t understand all that they were saying, but I knew from a few words and phrases that they had recognized a lone target for their resentments and rage when they saw me. It didn’t matter that I thought I was serving their interests in being there. Their street sophistication did not extend to political disputes between the city and local white liberals.

They were coming at a run, and I decided that I needed to be faster, and so I was. I unlocked my car, jumped in, and sped off just as they were arriving. I didn’t wait to see whether I could persuade them that I was a good guy just trying to help out.

I returned to that neighborhood, continued to canvass, participated in other meetings and demonstrations, but I made sure that I was not alone in the dark after that.

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