Whose Library Is It, Anyway? Hint: Not Yours

The Mayor held a press conference at the Northtown Library yesterday at which he and Ald. Silverstein announced that the new library will be moved to the affluent north end of the ward, at Pratt and Western Avenues, and built as part of a combined CHA senior citizen building–public library, thus becoming part of a new and innovative partnership, a creative collaboration, a new concept of co-location, an architectural gem, yada, yada, yada.

It’s yet another blow to the economically depressed and struggling south end of the ward, which has now lost its only cultural asset. It is a slap in the face to a burgeoning immigrant community whose children desperately need library services. As usual, Silverstein operated in total secrecy, ignoring attempts at community input, smiling sweetly while preparing to inflict yet another wound on an already bleeding section of the neighborhood.

Everybody was represented in the decision except the West Ridge community. Watch Silverstein, Aldermen Marge Laurino and John Arena, Library Commissioner Brian Bannon, and CHA Chief Eugene Jones fall all over themselves praising one another and the Mayor for their brilliant leadership. It should be noted that the alderman chose the new location, a place I predicted she’d choose months ago, when I learned that last December’s attempt to change the parcel’s zoning to “automotive” had suddenly been withdrawn. All allegedly public information on the site disappeared, a sure sign that the powers-that-be had their own plans in the works. As usual with Silverstein, the most affected community was excluded from the process.

Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune broke the story after 8 p.m. on Thursday night. The alderman’s office didn’t notify community groups until Friday morning, yet another example of her priorities. The plan discussed yesterday includes the new Independence Park and two other branches.  Read Kamin’s story here.

It’s another one of the Mayor’s big ideas, a concept without a plan, complete with an unknown price tag to be paid by generations of Chicagoans yet unborn. Of course, there will be a “design competition” meant to attract architects from around the world. Razzle-dazzle is Rahm’s specialty. Give ‘em a circus and hide what it costs. Help the rich and influential and do a little something for the ordinary schmuck who has to pay for it. When Rahm says “We will make the numbers work,” Chicagoans tremble and the financial wizards who underwrite these deals reap billions.

Watch the entire press conference. Fair warning: I had to split the video in two to get it uploaded, so Jones and Banner may overlap a bit. Sorry about that.



Laurino at least gets credit for thanking the head of the Friends of the Independence Library for her work. As usual, Silverstein took all the credit for herself, never mentioning the hard work of either Catherine Wilson, the library manager, although Bannon remembered to thank her, or the LEARN Coalition, a neighborhood group that obtained more than 2,000 signatures on a petition for a new library, met with the alderman, and apparently thought she was interested in involving the community in library decisions. She may thank them privately, later, but, as usual, when the spotlight shines it shines on Silverstein alone.

I’m not opposed to creative, innovative ideas to solve stubborn problems, but the problems solved here either don’t apply to the problems in this ward or create new, more difficult issues. The point of involving the community in these decisions is that residents know better than experts what problems exist in the communities where they live. Enlightened leadership listens. Silverstein doesn’t. She’s good at the buzzwords, happy to “deliver” this “package” to the ward, but she’d prefer not to have direct contact with most residents, many of whom have strong opinions and won’t be swayed by Silverstein’s  “we can look into that” rote responses.

So what does the community get? Senior housing combined with the new library, which will be located across the street from Warren Park, “where hundreds of children play daily,” to quote Silverstein. She didn’t explain why she thinks they’ll leave the park to go to the library. Maybe it’s the other way around. Considering these are the same kids who had to be protected from a beautifully-landscaped MMD, how will they react when an ambulance appears at the senior residences to pick up a seriously ill resident—or a dead body?  Maybe there’ll be a separate, out-of-sight entrance for that.

While housing / library combinations in other areas will be mixed-income, that won’t be the case in West Ridge. The CHA isn’t sure how many senior apartments there will be, suggesting either 30 or 60, according to Kamin’s story. But let’s not kid ourselves: there isn’t going to be any housing for the truly poor on the north end of the ward. I suspect that residents will be drawn from the immediate area, overwhelmingly white and middle class. You won’t find former residents of the west or south sides living in architecturally-significant buildings near Silverstein. You won’t find any immigrants, either. The sound end of the ward has to live with people who dump garbage and spit all over the sidewalks, but it ain’t gonna happen north of Pratt.

What the 50th Ward really needs is public housing for families, many of whom share living space with other families to meet the high rents landlords demand to offset the recent property tax increases. [To be fair, Silverstein voted against the increase, but only because her vote wasn’t needed, the bill having secured enough votes that she could take a stand favoring her re-election without offending the Mayor.]

To hear the CHA’s Jones tell it, the “wow factor” the architects will produce is great for the community, increasing property values and being “decorative.”  Personally I’d favor economic development over decoration but I’m just a resident. Maybe some of the seniors who lose their homes because they can no longer afford the increased property taxes produced by the “wow factor” can move into the senior housing.

One key to understanding the library’s move is the idea that a ground floor library located in a CHA building will offer targeted services to public housing residents and “…those living in the surrounding area.”  The new Northtown won’t have any families living upstairs, but the surrounding affluent, well-educated community will have its needs met at the expense of the lower-income folks who really need such targeted programming. For example, the existing library does not offer ESL classes because there’s no space to do so, and the “surrounding community” at the new location doesn’t need those services.

Using the library will be expensive and time-consuming for poorer kids. Those on the south end will have to walk 12 or more blocks or take two buses to get to Pratt & Western. Crossing Western is dangerous at all times, even for adults, and I can’t see kids doing this after dark. Many families will be unable to handle the extra expense for carfare, especially if several children need homework help or Internet usage. In some cultures, girls are not allowed out after dark. Clearly, these kids don’t figure into the alderman’s plans.

Of course, their families are welcome to find their own solutions, perhaps carpooling or getting their own religious or cultural groups to fund and provide transit. Relying on public transit is difficult: the new bus schedule for the 155, for example, increases wait times from 15 to 30 minutes. Little kids outside in subzero weather or heavy rains waiting for a bus at 7 p.m. on a schoolnight? I don’t think so.

There’s also a citywide push to restore library hours and perhaps open neighborhood libraries on Sundays. If that happens, Sunday may well become the one day in the week when immigrant kids can go with their families to the new Northtown. There may not be any homework help then, but just being in the new facility should be thrill enough. Wow.

Silverstein had the gall to say that a new library has always been a priority of hers. She claims that in its new location the library will be “close to all our wonderful elementary schools.” She hopes “it will spark economic development along Western Avenue.” What nonsense.

She’s never been interested in a new library, and has repeatedly said there’s no money for it. Once the push for a new Northtown became public, and the community attempted to be heard, you can bet that somebody else linked it to Ald. Beale’s successful push for a library in the City’s oldest public housing buildings, Altgeld Gardens. Silverstein is not known for her interest in or creative solutions to neighborhood problems. About the only thing she can be credited with is making sure the library relocated to the north end of the ward. That’s her base, and she keeps them happy. Immigrants don’t vote yet, so she doesn’t have to address problems of housing, crime, access to public services, and education where they live.

In its current location, Northtown is surrounded by half a dozen elementary schools. There are no public schools anywhere near as close in the library’s new location. Think about it: what schools are within two blocks of Pratt & Western?

She “hopes for economic development”? This huge parcel of land is now off the tax rolls. Aldermen shouldn’t “hope” for economic development, they should work to create it. Silverstein has demonstrated over her six years in office that she has zero interest in economic development, although she steps up and takes credit for every business that opens, no matter how quickly it closes. What kinds of businesses will want to be on Western to be close to the library? Another fast-food joint?

The south end of the ward is home to vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, and an engaged and caring alderman would have proposed one of those parcels for this kind of project. Not Silverstein. If you listen closely to remarks made by Laruino and Arena as well as the Mayor, you hear talk about the need for senior housing on the northwest side, Arena referring to more than 600 units. West Ridge will get 30 to 60 of those. It doesn’t speak well for Silverstein’s influence with the Mayor if this is the best she could do for the community, but, on the other hand, she moved the library where her supporters are, and that’s what’s important.

The ward has grown over the past couple of years, and is now home to more than 70,000 residents, while neighboring wards have lost population.  After her election in 2011, Silverstein had the opportunity to change the ward’s boundaries and did so by cutting out significant voting strength from the Indian community. Nevertheless, in 2015, two Indian candidates ran against her and won roughly 36% of the vote.

I suspect that the south end of the Ward will be cut significantly if she is re-elected in 2019. The ward will shrink to ensure her continued re-elections. This is why the library had to be moved. This is why senior housing was emphasized over family housing. These were not decisions made in the best interests of the entire community. They were made in the best interests of Debra Silverstein.

Of course, it’s possible that this deal won’t come off. I don’t think there’ll be any truble in the City Council, since the Mayor, a quick study, included Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s ward in his plans, thus securing the backing of the Progressive Caucus, who will support one of their own who can help deliver the Latino vote in other wards. This is Chicago, and that’s how it works.  I expect the newspapers will be dazzled as well, although Kamin, to his great credit, points out the flaws in the Mayor’s arguments.

Should the true price tag accidentally be revealed—and when has that ever happened?—the Mayor will still muscle it through. He’ll never face any consequences no matter how costly this grand design is, because it’s only the little people who are held accountable.

Nobody cares about what it costs the schmucks.



Peaceful Demonstration Against Extrajudicial Killing of Rohingya in Northern Myanmar

This morning I received the following message from Nasir Bin Zakaria, Executive Director of the Rohingya Culture Center:
“We, the Burmese Rohingya Community in Chicago, are holding two peaceful demonstrations  to stop the extrajudicial killing of Rohingyas in Northern Arakan, Myanmar.  We would like to invite you to join with us and raise your voice to protect Rohingyas’ lives in Arakan.”
In violation of international law and the provisions of the Geneva Convention, ten days ago the Myanmar military and police forces began indiscriminately killing the Rohingya people, torching their homes and villages.  At least 150 Rohingya, including the elderly, women, and children, have died, and four Rohingya villages were burned down in Maungdaw Township. More than 10,000 people are now homeless, subject to curfew with no place to go, and victims of a blockade which has caused acute shortages of food, medicine, and other essentials–a humanitarian disaster that worsens every day.
In her recent meeting with President Obama, Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated new trade and diplomatic ties with Washington; however, the Obama Administration has now backed away from its previous support of the Rohingya, saying it now believes that genocide is not taking place despite strong evidence to the contrary. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, is heading a UN Advisory Council which is seeking a solution to the problem of Buddhist persecution of the Muslim Rohingya.
Some observers have described the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and religious leaders  as crimes against humanity. The Rohingya are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s official 135 ethnic groups, are not considered to be citizens, and have lost their right to education and health care as well as jobs.
Dates for the Chicago demonstrations are:
Sunday, October 30, 2016, 1:00 – 3:00 pm
2740 W. Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659
Saturday, November 5, 2016  1:00 – 3:00 pm
448 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL
For more information contact:
Nasir Bin Zakaria, 872-203-4921
Omar 773-865-0976
Hassankan 872-235-7393

CPS School Ratings – Check the Scores for Your Child’s School

CPS released its annual comprehensive school quality ratings on Thursday, October 6. To search for your child’s school, click on “Schools” at the top of the page and then click on “School Profiles” and  type in the school’s name. You’ll have access to reports that provide a fairly comprehensive overview of how well the school is educating its students.

The reports outline where each school is strongest and each is weakest. They also provide information on poverty rates, English proficiency, overall academic progress, and other important factors affecting our neighborhood schools.

Under the CPS system, schools are ranked highest to lowest as follows:
Level 1+, Level 1, Level 2+, Level 2, and Level 3.

These reports may prove useful in the debate about funding our schools, especially in view of the teachers’ strike that may occur next week.



Friends of the Northtown Library News

The Friends of the Northtown Library will be holding a book sale on October 21 and 22 to benefit our library. The sale begins at 10:00 a.m. on both days, and ends promptly at 4:00 p.m. Hardcovers, paperbacks, CDs, and DVDs will be available. And they’ll cost less than last year!

If you’d like to donate gently-used books, CDs, or DVDs, please do not put them in the book drops outside the Library. Instead, donations can be dropped off at the Front Desk. Be sure to indicate that they’re for the book sale. Materials in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, Assyrian, and Spanish are especially sought for our multi-lingual community.

If you’re interested in helping with book sale set-up on October 14-15, please contact FriendsofNorthtown@gmail.com.  We’ll soon have a Facebook page, too!

The Friends will be conducting a brief survey asking for information on how patrons use the Library. No names or addresses will be collected.  The survey will be available in Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish as well as English.

We’d like to see the Friends truly represent West Ridge, so our membership form will also be available in several languages.

A Friends group for our younger patrons is under discussion; such membership would require parental permission but would be a good leadership opportunity for our teens.

Both survey and membership forms will be available at the Northtown Library the second week of October.


The Water-Sewer Tax

In this week’s newsletter the alderman says that her vote for the Mayor’s new water-sewer tax was “…necessary to prevent bankruptcy of the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund (MEABF) and finally put it on a path to solvency.”

What she doesn’t say is that several independent analyses all came to the same conclusion: the City will need another $300 million by 2023 just for this one pension fund. Nor does she say that the bill passed without Council debate in a lopsided 40-10 vote.

The tax kicks in next year, raising the average water and sewer bill to $53 per year. It goes up every year after that: to $115 in 2018, $180 for 2019, and $225 in 2020.

The pension fund would run out of money in 10 years without the tax.  However, after the Council’s Progressive Caucus demanded specifics on the plan, the City finally admitted that the new tax will hold off bankruptcy for only seven years. This is solvency?

This tax will hit the most vulnerable Chicagoans hard. With rents escalating due to the property tax hike, other everyday needs like laundry services will also cost more. For example, residents who use Laundromats can expect to pay about forty cents more per load, according to published reports. And those increases will be in place long before the new tax kicks in as Laundromat owners seek to recoup costs from the property tax hike. Neighbors of mine are moving after being hit with a $700 per month rent increase. Yes, $700 per month–$1,600 for a two-bedroom apartment. Granted, the previous rent was on the low side, but $700?

Chicago is rapidly becoming too expensive for average folks. The cost of corruption is killing us.


Silverstein’s Blunder to Benefit Rogers Park

It appears that another ward will profit from the alderman’s wrongheaded refusal to permit a medical marijuana dispensary (MMD) to open in West Ridge, thus depriving the 50th ward of much-needed jobs and sales tax revenues, not to mention a lovely landscaped business gracing Western Avenue.

Remember the Greengate Compassion Center? The MMD had applied last year to build its facility at 6501 North Western Avenue in West Ridge. The alderman immediately announced her opposition, then clarified it twice before finally blocking it in the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). In fact, so sure was she that the MMD would not be approved that she proposed a zoning change ordinance for the site two months before the ZBA’s final decision was announced.

To preserve the illusion of a disinterested ZBA making an independent decision, that ordinance was tabled for a couple of months before the change from commercial to residential became law.

But all is not lost for Greengate. The more progressive 49th Ward may become the MMD’s new site. Ald. Joe Moore  is holding a community meeting on Sept. 28 so residents can hear from Bob Kingsley, the owner, about his proposal to locate the MMD at 1930 West Chase (a Rogers).  The site is different from what was proposed for Western, but every bit as attractive:

To quote from Ald. Moore’s announcement,

“Earlier this year, Mr. Kingsley identified a potential site at 1930 W. Chase, located at the northeast corner of Chase and Rogers. For many years, the site was home to Rogers Pantry, a convenience store that primarily sold packaged liquor. Rogers Pantry went out of business several years ago and the building has been standing empty ever since (see photo below).

Until recently, three licenses to operate home day care centers existed within 1,000 feet of the property. For various reasons, none of the license holders actually operated day care centers out of their homes, but because the licenses were on the State’s registry, Mr. Kingsley could not receive a license to operate a dispensary at the Rogers Pantry location until the licenses expired or were withdrawn.” That has now happened.

The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 28, at the Pottawattomie Park Field House, 7340 North Rogers.


This Extraordinary Moment

We are living at an extraordinary moment in American history.

Our country—a work in progress in the best of times—is struggling to define itself. What does America stand for? What does it mean to be an American? How should their government interact with ordinary Americans? Are taxes killing the working and middle classes? Are the rich to blame for all our problems? Is everyone paying a fair share of the burden?  How do we create a more just society? How large a role should citizens play in determining public policy?

It’s a presidential election year, and the candidates are notable as much for their flaws as their achievements. One promises to change an establishment she’s helped lead for more than thirty years. The other promises to change an establishment that wants no part of him. Are the choices really the status quo or chaos?  Or is the excessive media focus on ultimately trivial mistakes and “gotcha” moments warping our perceptions?

At the local level, we find far too many candidates running unopposed, not because they are extraordinary public servants, but because they have access to the obscene amounts of money required to run for public office, money that is too often donated by outside interests that don’t know or care about local issues but do know and care about who’s in position to influence government spending and no-bid contracts.

Citizens are more than disengaged from civic involvement. They are openly alienated and apathetic. No matter what choice is made at the ballot box, the system never changes. Greed and corruption have all but destroyed our political system and our communities. Venal, self-serving politicians and their political gurus have so sliced and diced the electorate into special interest groups that it’s no longer possible to speak of a common good. The values Americans used to share have largely disappeared.

It’s clear that a disgusted citizenry is not merely demanding change, but determined to get it, willing to work for it, beginning to organize to make it a reality. This time, the ordinary people who pay the bills won’t agree to remain silent.

It probably won’t happen with this election cycle, although there will be some changes. The next election—in Chicago, that’s only two years away—will produce more. Citizens are demanding term limits for officeholders, a voice in spending, a shift in our priorities, and massive change in public policies that produce no appreciable benefit for ordinary folks. They want an end to lying politicians who cook the books and draw the maps that keep them in power, all the while looking out for themselves first.

Change is coming. You can sense it. You can feel it. The next time you attend a meeting called by a local officeholder who replies in generalities to precisely-worded questions, look around at the faces of the audience. Where once there was resignation, there is now anger, and just beyond that, an awakening—and a convert—to the cause of citizen empowerment.

Change is scary, but it’s also exciting. We aren’t quite sure what’s coming, but we are certain that what we’ve had is no longer what we want. It will take time, but the costs of doing nothing are no longer acceptable. The people must seize this moment, not wait for the next one. Too much is at stake.

It’s an extraordinary time to be a part of this great American experiment in self-government.

Edison Park Salutes Those in Uniform

What a great idea! The Edison Park Community Council, the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce, State Rep. Michael McAuliffe, and Ald. Anthony Napolitano have joined forces to sponsor a two-day salute to the men and women who protect and defend our neighborhoods and our country.

Over a two-day span (October 1- 2), the Edison Park community will honor the men and women of the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Fire Department, including paramedics, and the United States Armed Forces. Every penny taken in will be donated to one of three organizations that support police officers, fire fighters, and members of our military in difficult times.

Brotherhood of the Fallen (http://brotherhoodforthefallen.org) offers support from Chicago police officers to to the families of officers killed on the job throughout the country by attending funerals and providing financial assistance to families.

Ignite the Spirit (http://www.ignitethespirit.org/about-us) is a nonprofit that helps the families of firefighters and paramedics in need, with benefits ranging from food to financial assistance. It raises money via various events throughout the City.

Salute, Inc. (http://www.saluteinc.org) offers financial help to members of our military services who are returning to civilian life. Many struggle with health issues, some with PTSD, and some with the conflicts of readjusting to family life or being unable to find work. Salute helps make their transition from the military a bit easier.

The Edison Park Salute includes live music, raffles, kids’ activities, and food trucks. On October 1, the event will take place at Oliphant & Olmstead from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. On October 2, festivities will be held at St. Thecla Church, 6725 West Devon, beginning at 10:00 a.m. with Mass followed by a pancake breakfast at St. Thecla’s Scout Hall.  Donations are gratefully accepted.

The Alderman’s Private Email: Comment and Response

I’m always happy to hear from readers, whether they agree or disagree with what I’ve said. It’s that ongoing conversation that makes writing this blog such a rewarding experience.

Yesterday I heard from Chuck, who commented on my post about the alderman’s private email account and Web site. He wrote:

“You sound like a very bitter organization. You also sound like a an organization trying to oust Democratic elected officials. Alderman Silverstein is all over the 50th Ward map attending events, parties, funerals, business openings, business forums, CAPS meetings, etc.. She hosts countless information gatherings for her constituents, and is constantly doing her best to take care of peoples issues within the Ward. Her husband Senator Silverstein also attends most of events as well. From my experience, her office has helped me on multiple issues of which I’m thankful. Alderman Silverstein is an open book regarding her activities because she works tirelessly and is continuously out and about in the 50th Ward. I suggest you stop your baseless fear mongering. It’s tiresome, tedious and provides no value to the 50th Ward. Thank you for allowing my input.”

I appreciate that Chuck took the time to write, and think I understand his POV, but I respectfully disagree. My response follows:

I’m glad you’ve had positive interactions with the alderman. I do think, though, that you rely too much on the weekly photos of her attending events throughout the ward as evidence that she’s doing a good job. I don’t fault you for that. I’ve always said she excels at the ceremonial aspects of being alderman. There’s nobody better at ribbon-cutting, posing with smiling children, or standing behind a lectern introducing guest speakers at seminars that attract only a handful of residents. It’s the more substantive work—leadership—that is clearly beyond her abilities or interest. It can’t be measured by photo ops.

The point of my post is that there is no reason for any alderman to have a private email account or Web site to transact the people’s business. The real issue is transparency: The City-provided systems are subject to FOIA requests, the private systems are not. You may not care how government works as long as you get what you need in city services when you need it. But it’s precisely because people don’t care about the mechanisms of government that our political system is so corrupt.

When those mechanisms are fully accessible to the public, voters get the facts about how the system really works. We can see how elected officials arrive at the decisions that affect our daily lives, something we can’t do when officials use private emails and Web sites that may collect, track, and store our private information without our knowledge or consent.

Overtaxed citizens are already paying for secure email and Web sites via the taxpayer-funded City system. It’s outrageous that we’re also paying through expense account reimbursements for private systems designed to keep the public’s business hidden.

There’s no hope for political reform in Illinois if people remember the pictures but don’t care about the stories behind those photo-ops. Our political system counts on voters to do just that.

Silverstein Using Private Email & Web Accounts for City Business

Ald. Debra Silverstein has been identified by the BGA and Project Six as one of nineteen alderman who conduct City business on private, unsecured email systems. She is also one of 45 aldermen using privately-owned ward Web sites that may be collecting and retaining residents’ private information when the sites are used to request 311 services.

The Project Six report notes that the use of these privately-owned Ward Web sites “…make it harder for the public to see how their elected officials are serving their respective offices and spending tax dollars. It also opens the possibility for constituents’ personal information being used for political reasons.” Using these private sites to request City services also slows response time, to the detriment of citizens who need City services.

The use of a private e-mail system is questionable for other reasons as well. Such systems are not subject to FOIA requests as government-owned systems are, and do not have the same degree of protection from hackers and cyberattacks that government systems do.

Rather than using the City-provided email address (Ward50@cityofchicago.org), the  alderman uses “info@50thwardchicago.com.”  As the report notes, “All government emails are subject to Freedom of Information requests and provide an easily trackable and searchable source of an elected official’s communications Using private email accounts can make it hard, if not impossible, for citizens or the media to obtain email correspondence and data concerning public city business.”

Silverstein has established a six-year record that demonstrates both a lack of transparency and a preference for keeping her constituents in the dark about her activities. She is well-known for her stealth zoning changes and her lack of candor when it comes to keeping constituents informed. Her photo-laden newsletters convey little substantive information. Now we find that she’s using private systems for public business. One has to wonder why.

Read the Project Six analysis here.