posted by chicago pop
Chicago 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell just had a NIMBY coming-out party.
Or at least it looks like she is trying to get in the Club. And nothing helps score some NIMBY street cred better than hating on the University of Chicago.
But it's not just hating on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY -- if that were the case, we'd have to include hundreds of College students -- it's how you hate on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY.
To really get street cred as a NIMBY, you have to be stuck in the 60s, the way Pat Dowell accused her 3rd Ward Aldermanic predecessor Dorothy Tillman of being "stuck in the 80s" before walloping her in the 2007 city council elections.
You have to believe, like the greatest Hyde Park NIMBYs, that what happened in the period of Urban Renewal, racial turnover, Civil Rights, and inner city decay formed a template that will forever govern the operation of Chicago politics.
You have to think that the grass-roots organizations that were formed then, over 2 generations ago, if not before (whether the Hyde Park Co-Op, the Harper Court Foundation or The Woodlawn Organization), are still relevant and effective, and that the stories these organizations tell about themselves are accurate interpretations of history.
Most importantly, when you get a chance to build something useful on a vacant lot or empty building, you say "No thanks," and make arguments about why you should be able to control and obstruct the buying and selling of private property.
Dowell makes it very clear what she wants in her letter, sent to U of C President Robert Zimmer, Mayor Daley, and, um, the Hyde Park Herald (August 13, 2008).
She doesn't want the University buying land in her ward.
She says as much, referring to her "expressed reservations about the university purchasing land in the Third Ward at this time."
Dowell claims that the University is being high-handed by not bringing her in on its real estate plans, even though she has made it clear that she doesn't want the University in her neighborhood to begin with.
So why is she surprised she's not in the loop?
Even though NIMBY-ism clearly comes in a variety of colors, it still operates according to the same conservative and self-serving logic, in which paranoid speculations are cooked up on the basis of skewed understandings of changes that happened before a lot of us were born.
The 3rd Ward version of NIMBY-ism -- like one of Dorothy Tillman's hats, it can be taken off a hook and worn by anyone -- comes in a standard package that includes ritual incantations about the "history of the university's relationship with its neighboring communities."
We're all supposed to know what this means, we read about "the history" in the papers, University officials work through their guilt by endlessly admitting that there is a "history", when what this history really boils down to is one incident in Woodlawn that happened 50 years ago in utterly different historical circumstances, and with negative unintended consequences that have left that neighborhood worse off than if it hadn't experienced "the history" in the first place.
The story is this: in the early 1960s, the University of Chicago wanted to use federal urban renewal funds, with the support of municipal condemnations, to bulldoze and redevelop Woodlawn the way it had bulldozed parts of Hyde Park, which would have resulted in the displacement of low-income households the way it already had in Hyde Park.
Local folks mobilized to prevent this. It never happened. Local folks were happy, and then their neighborhood went to hell. Somewhere along the line, at the instigation of The Woodlawn Organization and now-convicted felon and former 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, they tore down the 63rd Street spur of the El, something increasingly regarded as one of the dumbest decisions in the history of mass transit.
Fast forward half a century: urban-renewed Hyde Park is a diverse community on the upswing, with its fabric more or less intact, anchored by the University of Chicago.
After The Woodlawn Organization achieved its goal of blocking University-led renewal of its eponymous neighborhood, however, it was unable to keep the area from descending into the very death spiral that the University had sought to forestall, losing population, businesses, and tax base over the next 30 years, as middle class blacks followed their white predecessors out the door.
That's a victory? Maybe not, but it provides a useful scapegoat.
This is the myth that Pat Dowell uses to impute Original Sin to the University of Chicago, and to try to score points with 3rd Ward constituents. It's a myth because the times have completely changed, though the racially charged NIMBY rhetoric has not.
My bet is that today's 3rd Ward voters can tell the difference (see Postscript).
The University is not purchasing land with the financial assistance of federal programs, and is not exercising eminent domain, as was done at the time of Urban Renewal. These purchases are not taking place at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when such actions were charged with political meanings and seemed to embody power relations that they no longer have.
Most unfortunately for the Woodlawn Myth of the Predatory University, the 3rd Ward purchases are taking place at the moment of a historic watershed, when inner cities have regained the interest of markets, imaginations, and entrepreneurs, and when smart, equitable urban development is seen to be a key to future sustainable habitation of our planet.
Any major revitalization of the south side wards around the University of Chicago will probably require the capital and involvement of the latter, in some form of public-private partnership that brings jobs to the neighborhood and builds on the efficiencies of existing urban infrastructure.
So let's put away the canned resentment and take advantage of an historic opportunity to get things moving down King Drive.
Either that, or the vacant lots in the 3rd Ward may collect garbage for another few generations.
I was standing in the parkway of Garfield Boulevard taking these pictures of shuttered buildings, empty parking lots, and vacant land, when I was approached by a African American man about my age.
"You going to buy it?" he asked, pointing to the lot between King and Prairie.
"No," I said, "someone else already has."
"I hope they do something with it," the guy told me. "What we need around here are more jobs. These people want jobs. That building's been empty for 10 years. Someone needs to do something with it."
So I told him that the University of Chicago bought it, and some other lots around here, but that his Alderman Pat Dowell doesn't want the University to own land in her ward.
The guy didn't have a response to that. What he did say was that "we need development that pushes out the people who don't care about the neighborhood, and keeps the people who do."