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months ago, when I learned that last December’s attempt to change the parcel’s zoning to “automotive” had suddenly been withdrawn.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.

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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.

 

 

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