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SON/SOC: organizing in white ethnic neighborhoods

This is the third article in a series on community organizing in Illinois. The series is made possible by a grant from The Woods Charitable Fund Inc.

These are bungalows — the type of homes their owners are trying to save — on Wolfram Street near Belmont Avenue in the Cragin neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side, not far from offices for the Save Our Neighborhood/ Save Our Coalition.       Photo by Jon Randolph

Legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky wrote in his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals: "Change comes from power. . . and power comes from organization." For Alinksy, "Power is the reason for being of organizations." He did not limit his analysis only to society's so-called "have nots." He also wrote about the "have-a-little-want-mores." These individuals are working-class to lower-middle-class people whom Alinsky believes are "torn between upholding the status quo to protect the little they have — yet, wanting change so they can get more."

Historically, Chicago has been home to countless thousands of "have-a-little-want-mores." They are the blue-collar workers who live in the neighborhoods and parishes, work in the factories and small businesses and dream about a better life for themselves and their children. To improve their lot they have joined unions, become active in local politics and formed neighborhood improvement associations. Key to their dreams is neighborhood stability. Their upward mobility hinges on whether the value of their small homes increases or at least remains the same. Why? If things work out, they or their children can sell the home and move to a better neighborhood, a bigger house, a brighter future. Or, if their ambitions are not fulfilled, they can at least live out their lives in the dignity and safety of the old neighborhood.

Today individuals who fit Alinsky's description of "have-a-little-want-mores" reside on Chicago's northwest and southwest sides. Mainly white ethnic (though there is a growing mix of blacks and Hispanics on the southwest side), these city dwellers face demographic, political and economic changes that seem to be closing out their options. In response, they have formed a network of Alinsky-style community organizations. They have used the church as a key organizational tool. They have selected issues that are admittedly in their self-interest to generate community support and they have attempted to negotiate with governmental entities to reach compromise solutions. They call themselves The Save-Our-Neighborhood/Save Our City (SON/SOC) coalition. Funded mainly through individual contributions with some support from foundations, SON/SOC is an umbrella structure for community and church groups that make up the Northwest Neighborhood Federation and the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation.

"Everybody has the right to obtain power," says Mike Smith, a burly and gregarious professional organizer. He and SON/SOC's other full-time organizer, Bob Gannett, believe that their group has operated totally and purely within the "true Alinsky model." Gannett says, "We are independent politically and economically. . . our people do not get paid or go into politics. . . ." Indeed, SON/SOC's neighborhood organizations should earn high praise from Chicago's populist-progressive organizers and community groups. And they once did. But that ended with Harold Washington's 1983 mayoral victory and the continuing dominance of race in Chicago politics and thinking. Today SON/SOC is outside of the close-knit cadre of community groups that influences the liberal political and socioeconomic scene in the city. Gannett says, "We do not get respect [because] individuals and institutions are unable to go beyond stereotypes." Why?

Basically SON/SOC is a white ethnic organization trying to deal with the race problem in Chicago at the neighborhood level. And as Gannett and Smith point out, SON/SOC is sometimes at odds with both the left and the right on the political spectrum. Says Gannett, "Our leadership has stood up to four Chicago mayors, including Richard J. Daley, and thus we have never been favorites of the political establishment. They know they cannot control us." Who are these "SON/SOCkers" and where did they come from? The answer is a tale of two city neighborhoods: the southwest side and the northwest side.

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SON/SOC's agenda

  • Guaranteed Home Equity Program (GHEP). This plan would create a fund to guarantee property values in city neighborhoods voting to participate. Homeowners joining the program and keeping their property well-maintained for five years would have their homes guaranteed by the plan at 100 percent of current market value. GHEP would be funded by the property owners themselves through an annual fee based on each homeowner's Cook County tax assessment. Estimates of the fee range from $6 to $20 per year for five years. SON/SOC achieved a change in the state law in January 1987 to allow local advisory referenda in Chicago. GHEP was then presented to northwest and southwest side voters on April 7, 1987. It received 77,443 yes votes, an approval rating of over 90 percent. City and state ordinances proposed by SON/SOC to implement the GHEP on a "pilot" basis in these two areas are now awaiting legislative approval.
  • Linked development. As part of the cost of developing Chicago's expanding downtown, lakefront and O'Hare areas, developers of major new office buildings would pay an "exaction" (a mandatory fee based on the size of the project) that would be used for neighborhood revitalization. Under the SON/SOC plan a neighborhood trust fund would be established to distribute linkage dollars equitably to the city's 77 neighborhood areas. Each area would then hold a local referendum to determine how its share should be spent. The proposal is awaiting action by the Chicago City Council.
  • FHA-VA lending policies; real estate abuses. Lax policies that allow unscrupulous mortgage bankers to fabricate false mortgage applications for unqualified homeowners are a major SON/SOC concern. Many times when this happens, the new owner is unable to meet the payments; the mortgage is foreclosed; the house is boarded up; and the community suffers. SON/SOC has also been in the forefront of efforts to halt panic peddling and unwanted real estate solicitation and to ban "for sale" signs in city neighborhoods.
  • Crime. SON/SOC has always pushed for a fair distribution of police manpower for its neighborhoods. It also has pioneered in Chicago a crimestopping program called "Operation Block-watch.'' One of the leaders is Marion Munnich, a housewife and SON/SOC member who lives on the southwest side with her husband Rich and two small children. She explains: "People begin a blockwatch program by first meeting at a neighbor's home. There they are given organizing materials [written in English, Spanish and Polish] and phone numbers of law enforcement and government agencies." Munnich says, "It's a way average people can get their block back even if they have to deal with gangs."
  • Education. SON/SOC helped initiate Chicagoans United to Reform Education (CURE) — a multiracial organization headed by former State Supt. of Education Michael J. Bakalis, now dean of education at Loyola University of Chicago. CURE proposes the establishment of local school governing councils with elected community, parent and teacher representatives. These councils would have the power to hire principals and teachers and to set the curriculum and budget.           Paul M. Green

The Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation (SPNF) began in 1971 when 12 people from two southwest side parishes (St. Gall and St. Nicolas of Tolentine) formed a community organization with the help of the Catholic Charities of Chicago. For several years individuals in these working-class Marquette Park neighborhoods had felt helpless to deal with the issues that were affecting their community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march in 1966 followed by an invasion by some pro-Nazi groups had convinced residents that their area was being used as a convenient battleground to fight out a city wide race problem. It was clear that the direction of neighborhood change had placed their community on the racial frontier.

What is seldom discussed in analyzing racial change in Chicago and most northern cities is the chain of events that takes place. Converging on a neighborhood, unscrupulous real estate agents open storefront offices hoping to profit from the coming change. Often they encourage a speedy racial transition by panic peddling: frightening white homeowners to sell their homes below fair market prices, then reselling them at inflated prices to blacks. Banks become reluctant to lend money in the targeted neighborhood. Known as "redlining" because of the red lines drawn upon maps by financial institutions to designate neighborhoods considered poor investment risks, this discriminatory practice dries up mortgage and home improvement money.

SPNF fought redlining, first taking on a leading realtor and in 1974 challenging the community's financial giant, Talman Federal. The strategy was a "greenlining campaign" in which 10,000 local Talman savers signed petitions demanding that the bank reveal its lending data or else they would withdraw their savings. They won.

Two years later SPNF and Talman went head to head again. This time the community wanted Talman to fund a $15,000 study of two redevelopment proposals. One was for an "ethnic village," transforming 63rd Street into a culturally diverse specialty shop and restaurant district; the other proposed new moderate-income housing east of Western Avenue. When negotiations stalled, SPNF took action. On June 19, 1976, over 2,000 people marched on Talman carrying signs calling for "Redevelopment — not Violence." Long-time SPNF leader Jean Mayer, a toughminded woman who has lived on the southwest side with her family for over 29 years, still expresses amazement at the event. "Many southwestsiders," explains Mayer, "called the bank St. Talman. . . . It was a god. . . but the people were looking for a way to fight back." The protest caught the eye of Mayor Daley, who met later with march representatives, but his death that December ended all negotiations. "It's ironic," says Mayer, "when we took on Daley's City Hall or corporate America, the radical and liberal community organizers were in our corner. But later when we raised the same issues against Mayor Washington, they called us racists." Joe Cicero, who is executive director of the North River Commission on the northwest side, is anti-SON/SOC. He says, "What they're doing is organizing those who have bigotry in their hearts. It's as low as you can get as a community organizer." But Mayer and other SPNF leaders believe that they and their goals have not changed. She says, "We are and always have been average people who just want to protect our neighborhood."

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Like their southwest side brethren, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation (NNF) began as a result of a small meeting. In June 1976 less than a dozen community activists met in the home of Dave and Carole Greason in Logan Square, an old neighborhood on the northwest side. Those attending were veterans of battles over redlining and the Crosstown Expressway. They were also members of the Citizens Action Program (CAP), a national, Alinsky-influenced, community organization network. At the meeting were Joe Crutchfield, former CAP treasurer, and Joyce Zick, chairperson of CAP's anti-Crosstown coalition. According to Gannett, "The origins of NNF stem from the experience of CAP and its successful fight to block the proposed Crosstown Expressway."

The Crosstown was the late Mayor Daley's dream. A 22-mile, billion-dollar expressway, it would have traversed Chicago north and south, linking up with other expressways and relieving traffic congestion downtown. Northwestsiders opposed to the Crosstown called it "Daley's ditch." Under the direction of CAP organizers, many of whom had been schooled in the ultraliberal Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an Alinsky training operation, community residents formed a coalition and stood up to the most powerful mayor in Chicago history. They argued that the Crosstown would destroy over 10,000 homes, displace over 30,000 people and eliminate over 1,800 jobs. They looked to the area churches for institutional support, and to some degree they found it. In the end, the Crosstown was defeated when state and city politicians cut a deal during the term of Mayor Jane Byrne.

That taste of what organized community power could accomplish was in the minds of those at the meeting in Logan Square. But so was another issue: their disillusionment with CAP and the IAF. According to Zick, "We were Chicagoans, interested mainly in our northwest side communities. . . . As CAP became more nationally oriented, they became less interested in our concerns." A feud had developed between CAP's IAF-trained professional organizers and the people in the northwest side neighborhoods. Arguments over funding and agenda priorities were turning allies into enemies. Zick says, "We had become the Afghanistan of the IAF, a client state."

In the months following the meeting a community organizing war broke out on the northwest side. The new Northwest Neighborhood Federation opened an office, hired Smith and Gannett as organizers and formulated long-range goals to establish its stability and credibility in the community. It eventually beat back a challenge from a new CAP/IAF-led organizing effort that tried to maintain the old structure on the northwest side. "Key to NNF's victory," in the words of Gannett, "was its ability to establish a people's agenda from the bottom up. The organization gave the people power and not the smoke and mirrors of CAP." For the next several years the fledgling organization worked on issues like redlining, housing and police protection.

In 1983 Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor. He swept into office riding the crest of a black political movement that advocated racial pride, economic fairness and a redistribution of power. Once again NNF and SPNF, after fighting City Hall for at least a decade, felt left out of the process. As the first year of Washington's term unfolded, both the mayor and his chief aldermanic foe Ald. Edward Vrdolyak played on racial fears as they hammered each other daily. SPNF and NNF activists bristled at administration charges that they had been pampered by previous Chicago mayors. They also challenged the stereotypical way some of the Chicago media viewed their communities and objected to the idea that their proposals were racist.

Frustrated by their new City Hall foes, fearful of their City Council champions — many of whom had opposed them in the Daley, Michael Bilandic and Byrne years — and frightened by their growing isolation in their own city, the northwest and southwest side community organizations decided to fight back by forming a Chicago-wide coalition called Save Our Neighborhood/Save Our City.

SON/SOC was officially launched on February 1, 1984, when 150 NNF and SPNF members met at St. Turibius Church on the city's southwest side. They announced a first-of-its-kind white ethnic convention to be held April 29, the first anniversary of Mayor Washington's inauguration. Explaining the strategy, Mayer says: "This convention idea was to show the mayor that we could organize to defend our neighborhoods, tell him that we wanted to be part of the city and at the same time let him know that we were not 'sheet people' [supporters of the Ku Klux Klan]."

Launching its own newspaper just prior to the convention, SON/SOC reiterated its charges against Washington and at the same time called for reconciliation and understanding. The frustration and fears of a city dominated by the complicated issues of race, class and political competition were clearly visible in the paper's often scalding criticism of the mayor.

Most telling was an editorial affirming the right of white ethnics to determine their own identity: "We must stop being made to feel ashamed or apologetic about being who we are. For too long we have let others define 'white ethnic' as another name for racist. Who gives any leader, member of the press, educator or churchman — black, brown or white — the right to besmirch our good name, origins and accomplishments? This easy racist label must stop, or there will be no rational discussion left to be had in this town, just shouts and more name calling."

On April 29, 1984, over 1,000 SON/SOC delegates filled the grand ballroom of the Chicago Hyatt-Regency Hotel. Convention organizers produced 17,000 signed personal petitions from northwest and southwest side residents, who pledged their support and loyalty to SON/SOC's efforts. Keynote speaker Mayer centered most of her remarks on the theme of neighborhood stability — the same general topic she had first raised with other CAP leaders back in the anti-Crosstown Daley era. "We want to make sure the house we have sunk our money into won't lose its value through forces beyond our control. All we want is to hold onto something we have struggled so hard to achieve," she told the assembled delegates.

Press reaction to the convention was generally favorable. The most wanted response, however, came from Mayor Washington

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SON/SOCkers and Illinois legislators meet to discuss the coalition's Guaranteed Bone Equity Proposal at the State of Illinois Center in Chicago. This was their second meeting on March 7. From left are Jean Mayer, Joyce Zick, John Kincinas and retired Judge John McGrury, all of SON/SOC; and Sen. Frank D. Savickas (D-15th, Chicago), Rep. John P. Daley (D-21, Chicago), Rep. John J. Cullerton (D-7, Chicago) and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago).       Photo by Jon Randolph

himself, who was attending a conference at Harvard University: "White ethnics have nothing to fear from my administration. . . . I will cooperate with all [their] worthy goals."

By autumn of 1984 peace had broken out between the mayor and SON/SOC. A Tribune editorial called the new relationship "astrange, hopeful alliance." Key to the rapprochement were two prominent black Chicagoans. Insurance executive Alvin J. Robinson, a member of Chicago United (a liberal-oriented organization of some of the city's top business leaders that seeks to resolve racial tensions), used his longstanding friendship with Washington to bring about a quiet August summit meeting between the mayor and SON/SOC. Former 20th Ward Ald. Clifford Kelley added the political muscle of an elected official who for years had moved easily between the white and black communities in Chicago. A frequent guest on Chicago political commentator Bruce Dumont's popular WBEZ public radio program, "Inside Politics," Kelley was moved to action when he heard a SON/SOC member list his concerns about the mayor's attitude toward white ethnics. (It should be noted that Kelley was convicted of bribery in 1987 and is currently in a federal penitentiary. At the time of his sentencing, his friend and talk-show colleague Tom Roeser, a businessman and president of the City Club of Chicago, sent a character reference letter to the judge, highlighting Kelley's work on behalf of SON/SOC and calling it "a mission for which he could derive no possible political or financial benefit.")

Washington now openly endorsed SON/SOC's Guaranteed Housing Equity Program (GHEP) and several other of its agenda items (see box, "SON/SOC's agenda," page 25). The reconciliation reached its zenith in April 1985 when SON/SOC held a clout-heavy reception to present Robinson its "One Person Does Make a Difference Award." The high point of the evening was an appearance by the mayor. He charmed the crowd with his wit and excited their hopes with his calls for reconciliation. The racially mixed crowd cheered loudly as he concluded: "I intend to be. . . one of the best mayors this city has ever had. I can only be that with your help."

What went wrong? Even up to the February 1987 mayoral primary, Washington continued to voice support for the coalition's home equity and linkage proposals — admittedly with some new reservations. (See detail on SON/SOC's agenda in box on page 25.) However, his sweeping reelection victory gave him undisputed control of the City Council and ended the possibility of a white-ethnic threat to his leadership. Ever the shrewd pol, Washington recognized a new political reality based on his new political strength. If groups like SON/SOC had to be disappointed, so be it. White-ethnic Democratic politicians might give lip-service support to SON/SOC's agenda, but they were not going to go to the mat with Washington for an organization that had been a pain in the neck to them for over a decade.

Washington's opposition in the late fall of 1987 left SON/SOC with few vocal defenders. The mayor called SON/SOC people "zealots" and their proposals "divisive and confrontational." For veteran coalition members it was business as usual. They had been doublecrossed by City Hall and left once again to make their own way.

Beyond all the complicated issues and emotionally charged language is the dominant factor of race. The question facing SON/SOC today is a simple one: Can white ethnics organize to survive in a racially changing city without being labeled bigots? The debate rests on two points of view: historical racial reality v. futuristic racial idealism. SON/SOC members, many of them elderly homeowners, have seen one after another of their old working-class, bungalow communities racially integrated and then eventually resegregated. For those who attempted to stay, familiar streets turned strange and dangerous when economic decline followed racial turnover. Today most SON/SOC people find themselves with little room to maneuver in. They cannot afford to play racial "checkers" and jump over the problem by moving to the suburbs. Moreover, they are city people who have had a lifelong love affair with Chicago. As one elderly southwest side woman asked me, "Why should the burden of racial integration be placed solely on our shoulders?"

Yet if race seems to underlie all issues in Chicago, the city's changing population patterns show that class is replacing race as the new segregator of urban life. The growth areas surrounding the Loop, the expanding gentrified areas on the near northwest side and around DePaul University and Lakeview all have one thing in common: They are expensive. These "Yuppie-type" neighborhoods almost guarantee themselves a high percentage of white residents. And those blacks who can afford to join the gentrifying crowd will not be recent residents of the Chicago Housing Authority or working-class families with lots of school-age children. Like their white counterparts, black urban

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professionals are well-educated single persons or childless couples with a good deal of disposable income. In short, this is economic gerrymandering. As these upscale residents eliminate affordable housing by condoing and upgrading every building in sight, they put incredible pressure on city neighhborhoods that still possess moderate and livable housing. Those are the neighborhoods that SON/SOC represents.

Thus the clash. Is it race? Yes. Is it economic gerrymandering? Absolutely yes! Is it fair? No! — to both sides.

Opponents of SON/SOC and GHEP are not without strong views of their own. According to Northeastern University Professor Robert Starks, a well-known black activist and chairman of the Committee on Black Political Empowerment, "Both sides need a common dialogue to get beyond racism and code words." He respects SON/SOC's fights against redlining and banking abuses but warns that these people "are victims of their own mythmaking" and that they should "join with potential black movers into their neighborhoods to fight racism and discrimination." Other foes, like 15th Ward Ald. Marlene Carter, a black whose ward includes some SON/SOC neighborhoods, reject the concept of GHEP. Carter says, "There is no need to stabilize housing values because they are not declining."

To be sure, many blacks are moving slowly up the economic ladder in Chicago. But there are fewer neighborhoods today than in the past where middle-income working people can afford to live. Moreover, because of past racial differences, there is no record or evidence in Chicago that integrated working-class neighborhoods can survive. Thus SON/SOC is on the firing line.

Allies of SON/SOC see a difficult road ahead. According to Bill Higginson, former vice president of Chicago United and a key player in efforts to resolve SON/SOC's differences with Washington back in 1983: "It will be difficult for SON/SOC to gain wide acceptance, even though they have a diverse and positive agenda on critical city wide issues. The racist tag is difficult to lose even if it doesn't fit." Conservatives like Roeser see a liberal bias against SON/SOC and white ethnics. He says: "If a community of blacks were trying to preserve their neighborhoods, these liberal community groups and the liberal media would be saluting them." And according to an influential insider on the Chicago fundraising scene, who wished to remain anonymous: "Many foundations will not support a community organization like SON/SOC because it has an all-white board. They would not apply this principle to a group with an all-black board. White ethnic has become a pejorative term in Chicago."

In Alinksy's words: "Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have." SON/SOC members have come to believe, especially after the death of Mayor Washington last November, that the chances for GHEP passage in Chicago's fluid political situation are limited. The coalition's one remaining trump card was to tell white-ethnic Democratic elected officials that either they go all-out for home equity or else the SON/SOC communities will go over to the Republican party.

In the past, Democratic officials, most of whom were never SON/SOC supporters, would have scoffed at such an ultimatum from a group outside of the regular party organization. But these are new times. The phrase "Chicago Republican" is no longer an oxymoron. Moreover, because of the city's changing demographics, ethnic Democratic pols now realize that they cannot afford to lose any sizable chunk from their vote base. They take SON/SOC's threat seriously, especially when they see the coalition's new GHEP button. It reads: "Home Equity Or Else" — and shows a picture of an upside down donkey.

On February 1, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (also Democratic committeeman of the southwest side's 13th Ward) held an extraordinary meeting of state and city elected officials at the State of Illinois Center in Chicago. A few days earlier Madigan had announced his support for GHEP and had promised that if the City Council refused to deal with this issue, he would introduce state legislation preempting the city on home equity.

At the speaker's meeting Mayer laid down SON/SOC's terms: "For years, our people believed they have had a contract with the Democratic party. However, if there is no support on this home equity issue, then we believe that the contract has been broken." In the ensuing discussions, white and black speakers divided along racial lines. Neither side was able to see that they were far closer to being allies than adversaries.

In many ways the organizing efforts of the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation and the Northwest Neighborhood Federation have been a huge success. By uniting under the SON/SOC banner, they now reflect the views and concerns of a vast percentage of Chicago's white ethnics. Yet their original goal of gaining power and respect for their communities remains as elusive as ever. The only real change is that under Daley they felt ignored, while under Washington and his successor, Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, they fear for their neighborhoods' very survival. White ethnics in Chicago have become a convenient scapegoat for various groups — white and black. Yuppies and lakefronters can maintain their economically segregated neighborhoods by pushing the issue of racial discrimination on the backs of the southwest and northwest side ethnics, while black leaders can score political points by dismissing the legitimate concerns of white ethnics as racist rhetoric.

The historic resegregation trails on the southside's major east-west thoroughfares (55th, 63rd, 71st, etc.) are now considered insufficient evidence to support neighborhood stabilization efforts — even though meaningful integration of Chicago's working-class white and black families is taking place only in SON/SOC communities. Erik Wogstad, SON/SOC's home equity project director, sums up ethnic frustrations: "Race intimidates the political power structure and frightens off white liberal organizational support. . . . [To them] we are funny neighborhoods that no one has to respond to." We shall see.□

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University. He is co-editor with Melvin G. Holli of The Making of the Mayor: Chicago 1983 and The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition.

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