Organizing for Change: Stories of Success

Keeping Jobs in the Neighborhood

  Cotter & Co. decides to leave
  Just stopping something is not good  enough
  Getting the city to help
  Negotiating a more acceptable proposal
  Nailing down the details
  Developing the organization

This is the story of a group of residents, working through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), who decided that enough was enough. The area around the intersection of Clybourn and Diversey streets is a part of Chicago that has been most affected by changes in the U.S. economy during the past 20 years, particularly the decline in manufacturing. Many of the long-time community residents felt that they were entitled to a say in the future of their neighborhood. They envisioned a future that did not paint them out of the picture due to rising housing costs and the decline in living-wage jobs.

When Cotter & Co., which had been in the community for decades, decided to sell its warehouse and office space at the intersection of Damen and Clybourn in 1996, old-time residents made up their minds to fight for a new use of the land that would continue to provide community jobs and not drive residents out.

"We were very concerned that we would not be able to afford to stay in our own community," says Liala Beukema, pastor at the Church of the Good News on Wellington Avenue and a community resident. "Transformation was happening around us, and we felt that we deserved to have a voice."

The Clybourn and Diversey area used to be one of the premier industrial corridors in Chicago. Stewart-Warner, Appleton Electric, Republic Aluminum, Kennicott Bros., Vienna Beef, and dozens of other manufacturing facilities, large and small, were located there. Employees were mostly neighborhood residents who could walk to work. People with a high school education could find stable jobs that paid enough to support a family. The surrounding community was a blue-collar mixture of affordable single-family homes and apartments.

Then manufacturing began to leave the city. Through the late 1980s, employees, their union, and community supporters waged a great struggle to keep the Stewart-Warner plant open. A neighborhood fixture since 1905, it once employed 2,000 people. In 1989, the owners closed its doors and soon thereafter sold the land to real estate developer Ron Shipka and Enterprise Development. The old factory was knocked down in 1994 to make way for a gated community of more than 200 homes, called Landmark Village. Enterprise and other developers had already built a number of other new developments on formerly industrial land in the area.

This process of redeveloping older, low-income and blue-collar neighborhoods into updated, upscale new communities is known as gentrification. It generally involves displacement of the old population, which must scatter into other, more affordable areas, perhaps far from jobs and family and old neighbors. Gentrification swept through most of Lakeview and Lincoln Park in the 1980s and '90s, and crept along the boulevards of Logan Square as well. It has been moving steadily west toward the Clybourn corridor for some time.

Not everyone agreed that this was a problem, however. Nor did they think that the desires of neighborhood residents were realistic. "An economist looking at this would say, 'Why in the world would anybody build a manufacturing plant in the city?' Costs tend to be higher and wages higher," James Annable, chief economist for First Chicago NBD Corp., told the Chicago Tribune (Tribune, 1//21/97).

Decades ago, Chicago was an industrial giant among American cities. In 1968, Chicago had 8,087 manufacturers, or 43% of the Illinois total. After losing an average of 125 plants per year, the city was down to 19.6% of the state’s total by the end of 1997 (Chicago Tribune, 1/21/97). In the changing economy of the past three decades, manufacturing fled to the suburbs and rural areas where land was cheaper, as well as to the South and out of the country, where labor costs are lower. Although the city has been gaining jobs in recent years, most of them are in the service sector, where the pay levels for less skilled work tend to be much lower. The Tribune editorialized that gentrification was a red herring. "A variation on timeless class-warfare themes, gentrification supposedly occurs when heartless yuppies and their developer accomplices lay siege to working-class neighborhoods, driving up rents and driving out old-timers. The reality rarely supports the rhetoric…" (Tribune, 5/24/97)

Those people on the front lines of the warfare felt that the threat was real enough. Aware of many previous losing battles, and not sure that they could win this one, community leaders nevertheless began bringing people together and researching the situation to see what could be done.

In the end, they won the battle, although the larger war continues.

Cotter & Co. decides to leave

"Rumors about Cotter leaving had been going around for a long time," recalls Maynard Batie, an elder at the Good News Church. "Many people in the neighborhood were employed there, and were afraid if they couldn't get transportation out to the new location, they would be out of a job."

Batie has lived in the community for almost half a century. In 1956, he and his wife and children were one of the first black families to move into the Julia Lathrop Homes, a public housing project that stretches along the Chicago River, just west of Clybourn and Damen, both north and south of Diversey. After 25 years there, he moved four blocks east. He helped start the first Lathrop tenants organization, and has been an activist all his adult life in the neighborhood and beyond. He retired many years ago from a job with the Chicago Department of Housing.

Sharon Schramel is a single mother who lives in Lathrop Homes and works as administrative assistant with Urban Systems of Care, a project of DePaul University, housed at the Church of the Good News. "At the same time the neighborhood was changing, welfare reform was beginning. It was becoming clear that people were going to have to find jobs. However, all the jobs were moving away. We had to stop the process."

"When we found out that Cotter was talking with a developer by the name of Shipka," continues Batie, "we were even more alarmed. It was Shipka who developed the land where Stewart-Warner was, and we rebelled against the idea that they were going to put more upscale housing here."

Members of the community had already had direct experience with the gated community on the old Stewart-Warner site.

"Just before the Cotter issue, we had stopped a pawn shop which wanted to rent a storefront on Clybourn by Lathrop," says Beukema. "People felt a pawn shop which also sold beepers would be a bad influence, and wouldn't provide any jobs, either. Well, we thought the people in Landmark Village might be interested in helping stop the pawn shop. So we took the church van, and a group of people of all colors, and we went to meet our neighbors."

The Church of the Good News has a long history of community activism, and deep roots in Lathrop Homes, where it had been started in an apartment in 1961. It had hooked up with LSNA around the time of the pawn shop incident, and was becoming more systematic in its community work.

"We started at the sales office. We got out of the van and they said, 'Who let you in?' And we said, 'We're here because we thought you might be interested in working with us on this pawn shop, and we wanted to open up communication.' They threatened to call the police. That experience really began to raise awareness, both within Lathrop and some of the surrounding community, about what impact gated communities could have."

"People were left with the feeling that the development was not intended to be a part of a larger community," notes Nancy Aardema, executive director of LSNA. "There was no sense of neighborliness whatsoever. That fed into people's thinking when other residential developments were discussed."

So when they heard the name "Shipka," the members of the community organization wanted more information immediately. They went to meet with the owner of Cotter & Co.

"The CEO, Dan Cotter, has been a very beloved man in the neighborhood," says Beukema. "He had helped the Boys and Girls Club raise a lot of money, and done other good things in the community. So everybody loved him, and the general attitude was amazement that we would disagree about this. In fact, every time we would raise the issue in community conversations, people would say, 'Dan Cotter has given so much, why don't you want him to get something back?'

"When we spoke to him directly, he was always very evasive. Initially he seemed open to encouraging more manufacturing. The property is zoned for manufacturing. He said no decisions had been made.

"But a couple weeks later, we were invited to a community meeting at Hamlin Park where Enterprise Development presented a plan for about 535 housing units. They were looking for community affirmation so they could begin.

"The community around the church felt like it had been lied to," continues Beukema. "Everywhere we turned after that meeting, they told us it was basically a done deal. I confronted Mr. Cotter, who just shrugged his shoulders and said he had tried.

"However, as a part of the conversation with him, we learned that the developer had an option on the property, based on getting the zoning changed. So we began to ask, what kind of a voice does the community have in the zoning change process?"

A group of leaders began meeting weekly at the church to research the issue and determine what they could do to stop the development of the gated community. Some people were reluctant to get involved, because they had seen the fight around retaining Stewart-Warner, and knew that despite everything the employees and the community did, the factory still closed. On the other hand, the presence of Landmark Village, and the experience of being thrown out when they had tried to make contact, added to people's determination to stop the development at the Cotter site.

One of the first people Beukema and Aardema talked to was Maynard Batie.

"I worked hard to get other people involved, especially church members, most of whom live in the Lathrop Homes," recalls Batie. "It was not easy, because many of these people feel they have no hope, and the attitude that they can't beat City Hall."

"The first interesting thing we found," says Beukema, "was that the alderman has the key role in making zoning changes in his ward in Chicago." They tried to meet with their alderman to discuss the matter, but he was not interested in talking to them.

"The second thing we found was that our alderman, Terry Gabinski, was having a new home built by the developer who was seeking the zoning change, a very large home in the Landmark Village. It raised the question, how could he make an unbiased decision? Not only was the house very large, but our research showed that he had gotten a very good deal.

"So that became one of our first actions. On a very rainy evening, about 75 of us walked over to his house and tied a yellow ribbon with play money stapled to it around the construction site of his new home. The message was, the neighborhood deserves the same kind of good deal that the alderman was getting."

Unfortunately for the area residents, Lathrop Homes, the Church of the Good News, and most of the concerned residents lived in the 26th ward. The Cotter site was in the 32nd ward. It is unwritten law in Chicago that the mayor and the other aldermen very rarely interfere with an alderman's right to decide zoning within his own ward.

"We put together a community meeting at the church," says Beukema. "It was an election year, so we invited all the aldermen who were running for election and who would be impacted by this change, including the alderman from the 26th ward, Billy Ocasio. Neither one of the aldermen came. About 300 people packed into the building. Vienna Beef provided free hot dogs for everyone."

Through a citywide living wage campaign that LSNA was participating in, it had made contact with the owner of Vienna Beef, which had its headquarters and factory only a few blocks further down Clybourn. The chairman of the board, Jim Bodman, had heard about the development and was concerned about the impact it would have on the business. Vienna Beef employed 500 workers, was unionized, and paid living wages, that is, wages that can support a family above the poverty level.

"It was a very exciting night," recalls Schramel. "Jim Bodman from Vienna Beef spoke. 'I've got offers from Wisconsin and Arizona. I can move.' But he didn't want to. He's very employee minded. 'But if you put condo people here, they're going to run us out. We have odors, we have trucks, we run 24 hours a day. If condos are built, we'll take our 500 jobs and move out of the city.'"

Batie says it was standing room only in the church. "We needed to move beyond the aldermen. Bodman got the mayor's attention."

The reaction was more than anyone had expected. Bodman's statement was reported in the Chicago media, and he received a call from Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor declared that he would not support a zoning change, and that there would never be housing on the Cotter site.

Just stopping something is not good enough

"That seemed like a pretty significant victory," says Beukema. "But then it raised the next issue: if not housing, then what?

"Instead of reacting to each case, we saw the need to create criteria for how we would evaluate proposals. What were we looking for? We had a community meeting and talked about priorities. Living wage jobs, where the pay is high enough to support a family. The full number of jobs that we felt the land could produce. It's 17 acres, so we could definitely get something that could create 500 jobs. We wanted businesses that would provide benefits for employees, health insurance and so on. Childcare would be great. Job training that would lead to full-time employment was very important.

"As a community, we put together a wonderful document that we could use to communicate an evaluation of proposals, but also take to the alderman and the city and interested developers ahead of time and say, this is what we're looking for. If you're going to bring something, bring this."

Getting the city to help

The next step was to take their criteria to the city and get recognition of what the community wanted.

"After the mayor said no to housing, we went to Ald. Gabinski's office," says Aardema. "We wanted him to help find a user for the property. He had refused to set up a meeting, so about 20 of us went on his ward night, the traditional time when people can go see their alderman. We got the impression that he wanted to let the land rot, he was so mad at us for stopping the housing development. It seemed like he was really angry because he had cut a deal, and he wasn't able to do his part."

They also met with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

"We talked to Chris Hill, the commissioner," says Beukema. "His department was very clear that it was not their responsibility to pursue a developer. They basically said, 'We'll review whatever developers want to do with it.' It was a very reactive approach.

"If we were in an empowerment zone, or a Tax Increment Financing district, or some other specially designated area, okay, they'd work with us. But not at the corner of Clybourn and Damen.

"Obviously they act when it suits them, we've learned that. They pursued Boeing. But they weren't going to do it here."

Meanwhile, several development proposals came along. The first was for movie theaters. This did not meet the criteria of full-time, living wage jobs with benefits. The second was for self-storage units. This was even worse, since the number of jobs that would be created was minuscule for the amount of land that would be covered. The community let its opposition to both proposals be known.

Almost monthly, LSNA took a busload of residents to City Hall to meet with the planning department or try to meet with a developer.

"Every time we'd hear that there was going to be a meeting with a developer, we'd try to meet with the commissioner, try to meet with the developer," notes Beukema. "If we couldn't get any satisfaction there, we'd end up on the fifth floor to meet with the mayor. We became very close friends with the fifth-floor security guards. They'd see the elevator doors open, they'd see our faces, and they'd pull out the ropes to block off the door to the mayor's office."

But their constant presence made a difference.

"People eventually began to listen, and to call us earlier in the process," declares Beukema. "It also made a difference in the attitude of the neighborhood. Partly because of the early decision of the mayor not to put housing there. But also because a kind of community camaraderie developed over the course of time, as people went to actions together and heard reports about actions. People began to feel like something was really possible."

Aardema believes that they changed some attitudes at City Hall. "When we started, all the doors were shut. And we began to get more doors open. We were really clear, by this time, what our criteria were. The planning department knew when we were on the fifth floor. They were beginning to be much more proactive.

"They sent workforce development people our way. So they were beginning to think about us as an organized group. Community residents started to recognize that their opinions were being valued more."

Meanwhile, Cotter & Co. had moved to its new site out by O'Hare, and its huge building was vacant and ready for demolition.

Negotiating a more acceptable proposal

"Then we got a call that a new developer had taken over the project and wanted to meet with us," says Beukema. "And that was our first conversation with Dan McLean. It was not all positive. We were not buddy-buddy with Dan McLean in any way, shape or form at the beginning."

McLean had three proposals. The first was for mixed-use development, storage and commercial. That was unacceptable. Not only did storage not produce jobs, but community leaders had learned in their research that storage often precedes a transition to housing. The construction for self-storage is cheap and easy to demolish when more profitable residential development becomes possible.

"We made some suggestions to McLean," says Beukema. "There was a possible CarMax deal, but it didn't fly. Eventually he came to us with a plan for commercial development with Costco as the anchor store."

Costco Companies, Inc., based in Washington, was looking to open its first store in the Chicago area.

"We learned that Costco offered living wage jobs, at the time, $8.00 an hour starting pay, with benefits for all employees, both full- and part-time. They were going to hire over 200 people. It seemed like a workable proposal, and there would be other development that would make up the rest of the jobs we were hoping for."

Alderman Gabinski had retired and Ted Matlak had been appointed by Mayor Daley to replace him. The new alderman organized a public meeting to ask for community input on the project. However, he did not plan it for a location that would be convenient to the residents who had been most active, those from the immediate area around Clybourn and Damen. Instead, the meeting took place at St. Bonaventure Church, on Diversey just west of Ashland. That area, further east, is more gentrified already.

Beukema and the other community leaders were convinced that the location was a deliberate strategy to minimize their participation. "We organized a march from the Church of the Good News, which is right by Lathrop, over to St. Bonaventure. We wanted to all enter in a group and show our unity. We also wanted to make it fun.

"We had over 70 people. We handed out sack lunches. We had drums. We had signs. It was a parade."

Aardema remembers it as a culmination of all the things the community had done. "By this time, we had had many, many actions. We had fliered all the traffic in the neighborhood. We'd had candlelight vigils. We'd had prayer vigils. This march was a celebration of all of our work, with songs and a festive atmosphere."

"We sat very respectfully in the back of the room," says Beukema. "We far outnumbered the people from the gentrified area. Costco did their presentation, then we began to ask questions. Really we just wanted a public agreement to two things: that they would do the job training with us, and that they would utilize us as a resource for hiring people in the neighborhood.

"And the alderman stood up and totally lost it. Just absolutely got furious. He said we didn't have a right to ask that, and who did we think we were. What happened next was great. A number of people in the gentrified section of the audience stood up and said, 'We don't get it. Why can't you agree to that?'

"So most of the anger got directed toward the alderman, and we were sitting in the back of the room eating our sack lunches."

The biggest concern of the middle-class residents was traffic. But they saw the hiring issue as even more important.

Mayor Daley and the Chicago Department of Planning worked hard to keep Cotter & Co. in the city. Eventually a site was found and the company moved out near O’Hare, still within the city boundaries. It received an incentive of more than $3 million, with the condition that it maintain its current level of employment. It has struggled to do so.

"There was a lot of energy in the room," continues Beukema. "It scared the Costco representatives, who were from Seattle, and weren't expecting such a lively meeting. I think it was the first time they sensed that they had stepped into a complicated situation. They gave us their business cards, and said we would talk."

But Matlak ran out of the room and called the police.

"As we were leaving the meeting, the police were standing there," recalls Aardema. "And they said, 'You guys look pretty peaceful.'"

"We offered them sandwiches, apples, juice boxes," says Beukema. "It was fun. So that was a victory, at least a partial agreement on the hiring. But the bigger victory was that here are all of these people who at one time were our enemies, or seeming enemies, who are supporting us now, who are starting to understand our concerns. That was very encouraging."

Nailing down the details

Costco agreed fairly quickly to the community's requests, but there was still a lot of work to do.

"In the church we always talk about life being like a sand dune," says Beukema, "where you take two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward. We began negotiating with the city about the training component, and that was not much fun.

"We have this great sense of history in this whole project. LSNA and some of the community leaders have been working on this for several years. But we have seen developers and city staff come and go. We've seen two commissioners in the department of planning, two aldermen.

"Which says something about LSNA and its ability to stand strong. But it also has made it a more difficult journey. Because every time you get somebody new, you have to retool them."

Aardema agrees. "No matter how hard you've worked to create a relationship with the old person, what that new person gets told about is the tension. They are taught that you've got to watch out for these people. We were amazed by the time we were doing the job training, that our allies were still walking into every room treating us as if we were the dead rat.

"When you look at all the benefits that community organizing has brought about in this city, in terms of all kinds of issues, education, housing, employment, safety, yet and still, the people in power always say, watch out for those people. They're scary, you need to put them in their place. So we were ready for a break. We really just wanted to get the jobs and the training going.

"The city gave Costco the impression it would be hard to work with us. That we were antagonistic and negative thinking people.

"We're working very well together, in fact. And they are working with us, treating the community respectfully. And they are hiring our people."

Training was carried out in conjunction with the New City YMCA's Local Employment and Economic Development (LEED) Council, and was made available in both Spanish and English. LSNA did the recruiting.

Seventy people from the immediate neighborhood went through the four-week job readiness training, and 32 were hired. Six months later, 30 of the original 32 were still working. Another couple dozen people from Logan Square were hired who did not need the basic training.

"It's great fun to go into Costco," says Aardema, "because people start calling to you. We've been in this community a long time, and we were working to this moment."

Beukema says she has spent a small fortune at Costco. "As part of our follow-up, we still keep in contact. I go in there several times a week and just talk with people, and encourage people. They're so happy to see you. And Costco is very pleased."

Developing the organization

Beukema left her job as minister of the church when her husband was offered a job in New York, and the family decided to move. She felt the community organization had achieved a victory, and it was a time at which she could leave. But when the East Coast job fell through, Beukema came right back to the neighborhood. At that point, both the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Church of the Good News wanted to hire her.

"The church had made a decision, for all of its 40 years, to do intentional work in the neighborhood. I was very grateful as pastor that they allowed me to spend as much time and energy as I did on the development issue over several years. Now that I was coming back, I asked the church members to consider where they needed my talents the most, as pastor or as organizer."

The church members decided they could find a new pastor more easily than a new community organizer, but Aardema recalls that it was a difficult decision. "They felt a lot of joy, but there was also sadness because Liala wasn't going to be pastor any more. It was also scary because Liala had been a key spokesperson, and her role as a staff person would be different."

Beukema says it has been a challenge. "When you're a leader, you bring people along, but you do a lot more on your own. Now I'm learning to do less and to help other people do more."

The Costco store opened in May 2001. Mayor Daley held a press conference, to which LSNA was invited.

"We took 10 leaders, the only real neighborhood people at the event," recalls Beukema. "We all wore LSNA t-shirts. Mayor Daley could not keep his eyes off us. Every time he mentioned a community victory, he was looking right at our people. We made this happen. Everyone wanted to take credit for it that day, the aldermen and others. But if it wasn't for the community, this store and these jobs would not be here now."

"At least once a month, for a couple of years, we had between 50 and 100 people coming out to meetings and actions," says Aardema. "In a community that has been disinvested for so long, that is really powerful."

"In the beginning, we were doing good to get five people," recalls Batie. "You have to persevere. You run into all kind of disappointments. People say they'll be at the meeting and they don't come. You're looking for 40 people to show up, and there's just 15 people there. You keep plugging away so that people are aware that there is somebody out there who will fight alongside them. Then you can see some success. I feel people have to take responsibility for their own community. People can't just come into our community and do anything they want without consulting us."

Residents are very concerned about the future of the Lathrop Homes, a CHA development in the path of gentrification.

"The residents' perspective is that they want to stay in Lathrop," says Batie, "and they want to see CHA upgrade the property. Years ago, when I lived there, they had skilled workmen on staff to make repairs. Now, things stay broken. It would be an easier task to renovate Lathrop than it would be to renovate a high rise in Cabrini. But we don't know what will happen. We have to be ready to fight."

"The Cotter campaign puts us in a better position for the future," says Beukema, "because the bottom line is that the grassroot people trust us. Of the many, many organizations that have something to say or something to do with their life, they trust LSNA." N

Decades ago, Chicago was an industrial giant among American cities. In 1968, Chicago had 8,087 manufacturers, or 43% of the Illinois total. After losing an average of 125 plants per year, the city was down to 19.6% of the state's total by the end of 1997 (Chicago Tribune, 1/21/97). In the changing economy of the past three decades, manufacturing fled to the suburbs and rural areas where land was cheaper, as well as to the South and out of the country, where labor costs are lower. Although the city has been gaining jobs in recent years, most of them are in the service sector, where the pay levels for less skilled work tend to be much lower.

Mayor Daley and the Chicago Department of Planning worked hard to keep Cotter & Co. in the city. Eventually a site was found and the company moved out near O'Hare, still within the city boundaries. It received an incentive of more than $3 million, with the condition that it maintain its current level of employment. It has struggled to do so.

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