Community Market Garbage
Part I described Silverstein’s first “redevelopment” project in the ward, the demolition of most of Republic Bank’s building on Devon Avenue, its replacement with a parking lot, and the construction of an ATM on a residential side street. Let’s review how well Debra communicated with residents afterwards.
Property owners and residents living directly behind the new Republic Bank parking lot at Washtenaw and Devon were opposed to its construction but our concerns were met with repeated claims by the Bank that “it’s just a parking lot.” This proved to be a lie. There were plans for that lot even before construction began, but, once again, nearby residents were not told of those plans and quality-of-life issues for residents were ignored when those plans were made.
The Bank celebrated the lot’s opening with an hours-long, noisy event that included an over-amplified band. The alderman was present. The noise was necessary to attract shoppers along Devon to the lot. This public event required that an exception be made to the city’s noise ordinance, and it appears the alderman granted it. It was a foretaste of the way the Bank and the alderman would treat nearby residents in the planning and execution of every subsequent public event held in what is “just a parking lot.”
In July of 2013 the first Devon Community Market was held in the lot, complete with soundstage. Jointly sponsored by the alderman and the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, this public event also required the same noise ordinance exemption. The market requires at least two hours of set-up, so trucks, vans, and work crews filled the alley outside our homes beginning around 7:30 a.m., with the crews shouting at one another as heavy poles to support tents, tables and chairs, and the soundstage itself were dragged or tossed into the parking lot. Assembly of tents, soundstage, and other areas, complete with hammering, took more than an hour.
The soundstage was set up at the Washtenaw-Devon corner of the parking lot, again to provide maximum exposure and draw shoppers on Devon to the lot. That it was also aimed directly at the residential housing on both Washtenaw and Fairfield was not a concern. Four hours of ear-splitting live musical performances of varying quality occurred on each of the four Sundays the market was open, once each month from July through September.
That first market I went to the lot to talk to whoever was in charge and complain about the loudness of the music. I spoke to both Amie Zander, then-Executive Director of the Chamber, and the alderman. Both told me—and let me quote Zander—“there will be music.” When I asked the alderman if she would want this kind of noise outside her home, she replied that she wouldn’t mind if it was for the good of the community. I suggested she hold the next market where she lives and see if she still felt the same way.
Big mistake. Nobody interferes with this alderman. She may not care if her actions rob you of your sleep, or the peaceful enjoyment of your home, but she cares a lot if you object to her doing so.
The July market was followed by the August India Day celebration. The reviewing stand was moved to Washtenaw and Devon, across the street from the new parking lot, and the musical entertainment—blasted so loudly from tinny speakers that it was past the point of being heard as music—began shortly after 9 a.m. and continued until after the parade in early afternoon. The reviewing stand construction began in early morning, and the concert-size speakers were connected and blasting immediately after. There was no communication with residents about this, either.
After September the lot was quiet. In 2014 the community market was moved to afternoon and set-up did not start until 2 p.m. The soundstage disappeared in favor of low-key musical entertainment.
Then came the 2014 India Day celebration. The alderman who pledged as a candidate that there would be open communication with residents didn’t tell anybody what she and the Chamber had planned for August 17, 2014.
At 6:20 a.m. trailer trucks appeared in the alley alongside residents’ homes. Barrels were rolled down ramps and into the parking lot. Tables and chairs were unloaded, tents were constructed, an entertainment area set up. I spoke to the man in charge, who snapped at me that if I had any complaints I should talk to the alderman—“she gave us permission.” For the next 9 hours, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon that usually saw residents enjoying yards and porches, we were subjected to blasting music, including 7 hours of live musical entertainment complete with concert-size speakers set up across the alley from our homes. Residents from blocks away said they could hear the music plainly.
While the party crew was setting up, the reviewing stand was being assembled across the street. Shortly before 9 a.m., they, too, began blasting. Hundreds of people came to the parking lot to eat and sit under tents while being entertained. They ate, and threw food garbage everywhere. The party’s organizer’s left the garbage where it fell. Why should they care if it feeds rats? They don’t live here. It’s the residents who were left once again to bear the costs of the business community’s indifference to our quality of life and their belief that they and the alderman owe us nothing, not even simple good manners.
The food garbage remained in the parking lot from late Saturday afternoon until the following Tuesday afternoon, when it was cleaned for the next day’s community market.
But Silverstein doesn’t see the garbage, doesn’t see the rats, doesn’t hear the noise, and doesn’t care how residents are affected by any of these things. Why should she?
It’s just a parking lot.
Coming: Silverstein’s Lack of Communication in General
The alderman claims on her Web site that she “actively engages the business community and residents at every step of development and asks for their input.”
Let’s examine that claim. Let’s review how actively engaged residents were completely ignored by Debra and the business community with regard to the Republic Bank redevelopment project. I’ve complained about this in the past, but it’s a perfect illustration of how the system works in the 50th Ward.
In the Fall of 2011 Republic Bank invited nearby property owners to a meeting on the Bank’s proposed redevelopment of its block-long site on Devon between Fairfield and Washtenaw. The alderman was present; property owners and residents were unaware that she had already signed off on the bank’s plans.
On arrival, residents were told that the meeting was informational only; that all necessary approvals had been obtained; and that the following would occur:
- most of the building on the Bank’s site would be demolished
- a parking lot would be built from the middle of the block on Devon to Washtenaw on the east
- a 24-hour ATM would be built on Fairfield directly across the alley from residential housing.
- residents would lose four parking spaces on Fairfield to accommodate the ATM entry and exit
- a portion of Fairfield, currently a northbound-only street, would become a two-way street for the benefit of ATM customers; this would occur after completion of the relevant portion of the Devon Avenue streetscape
Residents protested vigorously, but it was a done deal. No input from residents was needed, no changes considered. How would this affect property values for those properties closest to the Bank? Silence. What about increases in noise, traffic, and garbage as well as the loss of parking spaces? Dismissed as irrelevant. Bank employees stayed on message: “Our customers don’t act that way.” And what about non-Bank customers? Bank reps were silent.
Demolishing the building from mid-block to Washtenaw would expose residents on Washtenaw and Fairfield not just to all the street noise of Devon Avenue, but would result in a loss of privacy as well, our porches, yards, and residences now clearly visible from Devon. As anybody who’s walked down the street is aware, vehicle noise alone is never-ending, with cars and trucks blasting music that can be heard for blocks in every direction constantly streaming down the street. The city’s noise ordinances are not enforced in the 50th Ward, and the existing building blocked a considerable amount of noise. Not to worry, we were told. We’ve incorporated landscaping, trees and bushes that will absorb the noise and protect your privacy.
The parking lot was a major issue. We were repeatedly told that there was nothing to worry about, “…it’s just a parking lot.” Noise? It’s just a parking lot. Garbage? It’s just a parking lot. What else might it be used for? It’s just a parking lot. Now the Bank owns another lot directly across the street from its building, but decided that it would be too expensive to run cable to that site for an ATM. It was decided that the property owners would bear the full costs of the Bank’s choices in lost property values.
Why did the Bank suddenly need an ATM? It was responding to requests from Devon merchants who wanted to be able to deposit their receipts after the bank closed. How many merchants? The bank admitted to only about a dozen. All this demolition and construction to suit a dozen customers? Doesn’t sound right. Silence. Some of the merchants attended, and sat sullenly listening to residents. Who did we think we were? The Bank agreed to e-mail copies of the plans.
What emerged a few months later, of course, was the news about the streetscape. The merchants and the Bank and the alderman knew it was coming, but the residents did not. The Bank acted before residents were fully informed. The alderman agreed to their plans. But there was even more to come.
Residents then endured months of demolition that began as early as 6:30 a.m., in violation of city law. Cement mixers pulled up under our windows at the same hour. Jackhammers were in use at 7 a.m. I personally witnessed workers throwing unused cement into the sewers on Fairfield. The demolition site was not properly secured at night, and more than once kids had to be ordered off the site by residents. The police were called but stopped responding after a few days.
And the Bank’s promises? The blueprints were never sent to any property owners. The landscaping at the ATM turned out to be day lilies, lovely flowers not known for their soundproofing qualities. Half a dozen spindly trees were planted around the perimeter of the parking lot, with a few more in planters inside the lot, and a few bushes are set here and there, inside and outside the lot. The Bank did not bother to contain its street-level landscaping, so the sidewalks and alley are muddy every time it rains. The gutter just south of the ATM does not run off into the landscaping around the side of the building but instead permits the run-off to flow directly onto the sidewalk on Fairfield. Fun when it gets cold enough to ice over.
The ATM’s signage and lighting are garish and intrusive. But the ATM sign has to be visible from Devon, and who cares about its impact on residents? Every morning as I look out my kitchen window I can see half-way to Talman; if I look out the living room window, I have a lovely view of the ATM sign.
There was no attempt to balance the interests of the residents and the interests of the business community on this project. Commercial development was permitted to alter the character of our residential area, and to negatively impact the property values on two blocks.
All was set in motion without a word to property owners or residents.
But there was much more to come.
Next Post: Everything But a Parking Lot
Our alderman gives herself high marks as a crime fighter. It’s best to read her Web site and campaign puff pieces, including her weekly newsletter, together to see how easily the truth is manipulated.
She claims on her Web site that she “organized several revolutionary multi-jurisdictional public safety stings “ that resulted in arrests for various illegal activities, and that she “paved the way for greater communication and collaboration between law enforcement in multiple cities.” She does give credit to law enforcement professionals like 24th District Commander Waldera and Cook County Sheriff Dart for their help. One of her mailing pieces softens that “organized” claim considerably, stating that she “hosted” the task forces.
It’s hard to believe that a woman with no law enforcement background played any significant role in organizing police stings. Did she really advise Waldera and Dart on police tactics? Did she suggest targets and monitor operations? Was she in a flak jacket at command central when the raids went down? This exaggerated claim is either pure fantasy or pure baloney. Maybe she hosted a meeting at which she was informed about what was about to happen or did happen. Maybe the cops just dropped in to tell her about it. But making herself seem central to police operations is just plain silly.
She also takes outsized credit for her role in “the dangerous situation centered around Sibling’s Bar on Howard Street. “ Silverstein notes that “she received a Partnership Award from the Evanston Police Department for her work…collaborating between different cities and multiple police departments to address a pressing problem….” She doesn’t always include the fact that the award was presented to the 24th District CAPS office as well. It’s likely that the CAPS officers had far more to do with it than she did.
Does she really meddle in police business to such an extent? Is she really in contact with police officials from Evanston and Lincolnwood, actively “collaborating” in police investigations? Should any politician be so involved in police affairs? Meeting with the commander is a standard part of an alderman’s job, but are her claims of “organizing police roll calls” in areas with gang activity legitimate? Or is she just exaggerating again?
She applauds herself for sponsoring safety and crime prevention seminars. She also attends CAPS meetings and meets regularly with business owners to discuss crime prevention. How effective are such activities? How many seminars did she sponsor? She refers to only two for the year. How many people attended? Ten? Twenty? Does she need to be a presence at CAPS meetings? What particular expertise does she bring to crime prevention meetings with business owners? Wouldn’t they be better off talking to police officers? The CPD has a speakers’ bureau for just such events.
She just can’t resist bragging about her importance. She started a recent newsletter by claiming that she “met with leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center at a press conference to discuss local and global anti-Semitism….” In fact, she attended the press conference, held in Chicago to highlight the existence of anti-Semitism in the Midwest. She was no doubt there because of the recent incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in our ward. But the wording in her newsletter suggests that she played an important role in the discussions. It’s this need to impress voters by putting herself front and center at every event that’s so irritating.
Of course, if you’re busy organizing police stings, sponsoring seminars, and discussing crime prevention with business owners you don’t have time to develop an economic plan. It’s another example of how she wastes her time with activities that don’t need her input while the important work of her office is left undone.
Ald. Debra Silverstein’s campaign Web site, recent campaign mailings, and weekly newsletter may reveal more than she realizes about the true state of the 50th Ward and how little she has accomplished after four years in office. This is especially true when it comes to business development.
I asked myself three questions as I reviewed her descriptions of her accomplishments.
- Do they present an accurate picture of how well she has performed as alderman?
- What successes does she claim, and are those claims valid?
- What do her own assessments tell us about her priorities?
Four years ago Candidate Silverstein told the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board that
“On any given commercial street there are numerous empty store fronts and for rent signs. People can blame the economy; however, there has never been a spirited economic plan for Devon, Western, and Touhy Avenues. My major priority is to begin the development of these areas.A major streetscape of the Devon business area is a must and storeowners must be educated on the SBIF funds available to them to help upgrade their property. I also plan to work with the local Chamber of Commerce and numerous community groups to develop a marketing plan to attract not only businesses, but also new customers.”
Four years later there are more empty storefronts and more “For Rent” signs than ever.
Silverstein says that she is “improving business” through the Devon streetscape, and touts a few new businesses that have located in the ward. She claims that Devon Avenue draws shoppers from “all over the City of Chicago and beyond” to buy “unique gifts” from our “unique and diverse shops.” She brags that she “spearheaded efforts to sell and redevelop vacant storefronts on Touhy Avenue,” and that she “worked hard” to bring a “full-service grocery store to our neighborhood” (Cermak Market). She also states that she “actively engages the business community and residents at every step of development and asks for their input.”
All of these claims are demonstrably false.
Silverstein has failed to deliver that “spirited economic plan” for any area of the ward. Based on her own statements, she believes the streetscape alone will draw customers and businesses, when in reality the streetscape makes the shabbiness of the stores and the sameness of the merchandise all too obvious. We’re still waiting for that marketing plan as well. This alderman has never been known for consulting residents on any of her plans, and I know from personal experience that she is hostile and resentful when residents voice their opinions. [More on that later, in another post.]
Silverstein persists in her fantasy that Devon is a multicultural shopping district that attracts shoppers with merchandise from around the world. The sad fact is that the 50th Ward stretch of Devon has deteriorated into little better than a 24-block-long strip mall filled with discount stores, small groceries, and convenience stores. It is true that Little India provides some glitz and glitter in the window displays of the more upscale sari shops, but there are no “unique” stores or gifts to be found anywhere on the street. It is multicultural shopping in the sense that stores are owned by merchants from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. But they sell groceries and phone cards and lottery tickets, not artwork, one-of-a-kind handcrafts, or gift items.
Silverstein’s claim that West Ridge lacked a “full-service grocery store” is simply ludicrous. The neighborhood is oversupplied with large groceries, with 10 supermarkets on Devon alone, from Kedzie to Damen, plus Aldi on California, the CVS food mart on Devon, and Jewel on Howard (on the Evanston side) in addition to the new Cermak Foods. There are also a couple of dozen small grocers, discount, and convenience stores on Devon, suggesting that the real problem is the concentration of food stores there and the lack of grocery stores elsewhere in the ward. This is a direct result of the absence of an economic development plan.
The forced sale of vacant storefronts on Touhy is a particularly shameful episode. These storefronts had been vacant for years, yet Silverstein waited until she was up for re-election before taking action against the owner. She solicited the community’s help, asking that residents attend court sessions and support her efforts. Silverstein touts this as a victory for the community, yet what did she accomplish? The building was sold, and the stores remain vacant. Going to court was nothing but a cheap re-election stunt.
As yourself why she hasn’t taken action against the owners of six buildings on Devon, two of them ugly board-ups and one, the former Sheldon Cord Products, an eyesore for years. You’d think that after her public campaign against the owner of the Touhy storefronts she’d take these owners to court, too. But she hasn’t. Not in four years.
By any objective measure, Silverstein has failed to deliver economic improvement to the 50th Ward. Her claims to the contrary simply don’t hold up.
Coming Next: Did Silverstein Make the Ward Safer?
For a long time all appears to go well in Little Tyber. But then something truly insidious begins creeping into the Tyberian marketplace. Let’s call it reality.
The Tyberian merchants have badly misjudged the demand for Tyberian goods. Not only is the Tyberian population in the community not large enough to support the blocks and blocks of Tyberian-only businesses, but the number of Tyberians in the entire country isn’t large enough, either. Tyberians are less than 1% of the country’s population, and most of them will never visit Little Tyber. Worse, even people from Tyber don’t come as often. When they travel, they want to visit other cultures. Being able to say “I bought it in Little Tyber” has lost its cachet.
The tourist market is also disappearing. Other People from other places are unwilling to come to Little Tyber to look at window displays of traditional Tyberian clothing that they will never buy or wear. Tourists don’t want to make the long trip from downtown just for Tyberian food that they can get back home or at a restaurant closer to their hotel. The floats at the Little Tyber parade have become tacky, too, and sometimes there’s nobody on them, so it’s not such a big draw, either.
Once tourists have seen the displays of traditional Tyberian clothing and eaten traditional Tyberian food, there’s nothing else for them to do except buy phone cards, bottled water, or lottery tickets at one of the many convenience stores in the multicultural shopping districts. Little Tyber does not have museums, art galleries, or theaters so there are no cultural offerings, even for residents.
The merchants ignored the power of Internet shopping as well. Tyberian goods can now be purchased online for less money. Nobody has to drive to Little Tyber for hard-to-find items because there are no hard-to-find items anymore. Tyberian shoppers come mainly to buy groceries at one of the many Tyberian supermarkets. In the winter, they often don’t come at all. They shop locally or on the Internet rather than spend hours driving through ice and snow to shop in Little Tyber in subzero weather.
But there’s a bigger problem. Tyberians themselves now want better schools, cleaner streets, better housing, and a place in more upscale communities, and they begin to move to the suburbs, where the merchants live. They don’t shop only at Tyberian stores anymore. The merchants are dismayed by the lack of gratitude shown by their own people. The merchants gave them a neighborhood of their own and now they’re leaving. Other People are moving in and this is not helping the Tyberian businesses.
The cumulative effect of ignoring 70% of the neighborhood—its immediate market—has caught up with the Tyberian merchants. They are losing money, and are uncomfortably aware that they’ve been losing money for years. The whole shopping district is in decline. Storefronts and commercial buildings are shabby, dirty, and unappealing. Ugly signage stands out more amid the many store vacancies. Tyberian stores begin to close. The merchants, especially those with multiple businesses, decide to act in their own interests, as they usually do.
Refusing to change their business model and carry goods that would appeal to Other People, the merchants demand more community sacrifice to save their businesses. They need Tyberian shoppers from outside the community to support their stores, and they want nightlife and outdoor cafes and ATMs and parking lots. They want “community events” designed to attract tourists, like more Tyberian parades and 5K runs. So desperate are they that they are even willing to allow other ethnic groups in the community to hold their own parades in Little Tyber. The merchants begin to encroach on residential areas to build the things they want. They believe that no sacrifice is too great to demand from the Other People.
There’s yet another blow. The Powers That Be, who sat silently for years, fearful of being attacked as racist if they interfered with the merchants and their plan to repopulate the community to support Tyberian businesses, now act against the threat posed by Tyberian voters. Threatened political interests always have the last word, and soon the largest Tyberian precincts are redistricted out of Little Tyber. The Tyberian population drops to about 23% of the neighborhood. This is not good.
Their voting strength diluted, their businesses dying, their dreams of taking political and economic control of the community near collapse, the merchants settle on a solution. They secretly recruit a young Tyberian to move into the community to attract the Tyberian vote. His mission is to either dethrone the Powers That Be or deny a first-round victory while the merchants offer support to either the Powers That Be or the Powers That Might Be in exchange for retaining their influence and their stranglehold on the local economy.
The merchants’ candidate is new to both politics and the community and gives the game away early. He talks too much. He tells of his plans to bring more Tyberians and Tyberian businesses to the community. His statements are met with outrage by the Other People. The merchants’ candidate says he was misquoted and clams he will represent the Other People, too. He has enough campaign money to spend on marketing to make his new claims seem believable, and the merchants will give him as much money as he needs to make them sound like truth. There are rumors that he is also receiving help from the Powers That Be. No one knows for sure because dirty political deals are always coated with a thin veneer of respectability, and those in on the deal are always mistaken for respectable people.
Meanwhile, the economic slide in Little Tyber continues. Stores open and close every few months. The street is full of vacant storefronts, shuttered restaurants, and empty buildings. Almost every block is the same—convenience/grocery stores, cell phone/electronics shops—and there just aren’t enough customers, yet new convenience stores and phone stores continue to open. Strange hybrid businesses appear: Tyberian bread shops that sell cell phones and cigarettes, traditional Tyberian clothing stores that sell phone cards and pots and pans. Tyberian merchants with multiple businesses are heard discussing whether or not to leave the shopping district.
The Tyberian merchants blame everyone but themselves for what’s happening and believe that the only way to fix the mess they’ve made is to take political power and then continue to do business as usual. They think they have the votes to do it, or at least enough votes to play the spoiler and then collect their due from the Powers That Be.
Either way, the Tyberian merchants do not intend to change a thing. They will not accept that the laws of supply and demand apply to Tyberian businesses. They will not admit that the Tyberian business model has created too much supply for too little demand, and that their target market is so ethno-specific it cannot be expanded beyond the laws of nature. They’re going to try anyway. They don’t want to be just one part of a larger multicultural community. They want the whole thing for themselves.
The Moral of Our Story
Ethnocentrism in a multicultural world is a destructive force.
The Tyberian merchants wanted to create a Tyberian market.
Creating a Tyberian market meant destroying a community of Other People.
The market is dying.
The community is damaged.
Restoring the inclusive marketplace will restore the community.
Neither can thrive without the other.