Meanwhile, the same problem had occurred on the neighboring block, which drew the attention of Michael Smith, then a staff member of the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation. When inquiring about the situation, Smith found neighbors urging him to talk to Mayer to find out how she'd handled it. That's when Smith — "the first community organizer I ever met," Mayer says — knocked on her door, sensing she could be of help to his young organization. The conversation led to others; the subjects turned from alleys to other neighborhood issues, such as mortgage bankers' abuse of FHA loans, a practice blamed for creating abandoned homes in the area. "I didn't know anything about that," Mayer says. So Smith left her some reading material. She was hooked and soon joined the federation's board.
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Today, Smith can laugh about teaching Mayer an early lesson in organizing: He got a better deal on the alley than she did. The residents on the block he organized got a paved alley, not just gravel, funded by the condo developer. But in the years since, few people can say they've one-upped Mayer on a community issue.
Mayer is currently vice chairman of her southwest side group, usually referred to in shorthand as the South-west Federation. Over the years, she has held other titles with the organization, including president, and has come to embody its spirit of volunteer activism. Never a paid community organizer, Mayer has been her neighborhood's, and the federation's, chief spokesperson on a range of issues. In the 1970s, hot topics included solicitations by real estate salespeople and redlining of the area by lending institutions. More recently, issues have included school reform, winning official approval of private security patrols for part of the federation's territory and running a home-equity insurance program that protects homeowners against declines in property values. Then as now, the issues involve battling forces that would undermine people's confidence in where they live and sometimes destabilize communities for profit.
Smith, now a co-director of a Southwest Federation-supported group called the Institute for Community Empowerment, places Mayer in league with other high-profile community leaders in Chicago's history, such as Gale Cincotta and the late Nancy Jefferson, both from the west side. "Jean has never been bought off or compromised by the forces she's dealt with. She's been an incredible example of civic and personal involvement in her community," Smith says.
Mayer says she's proud that the community groups she's worked with "have taught people who the real enemies are. The real enemies are not one group of people who want to move here from someplace else. It's the institutions and groups like the real estate industry, the financial industries and the political establishment that want to control the way we live."
That's pretty strong rhetoric coming from a grandmother, but that odd mix is part of Jean Mayer. She's a prim, courtly woman who looks like somebody's chaperone, which, in fact, she was — for the teen club at St. Turibius Catholic Church — before embarking on her career as an activist. Her matronly appearance notwithstanding, she's fully comfortable with speaking her mind and with letting a reporter know that he's out of line for asking her age (a subject she will not discuss). Mayer's friends agree that she is characteristically blunt because she operates from an inner security about who she is and about the justice of her cause. If so, that may be what has shielded her spirit from the angriest of accusations tossed at her over the years.
Mayer is not universally seen as a do-gooding activist. Because her neighborhood is predominantly white, many have accused Mayer of promoting an agenda for bigots, of being their tool if not a racist herself. Keeping the community white has been the factor behind the issues she's embraced, they contend. In 1984, when Mayr's south-west side group joined forces with an organization on the northwest side to stage a "white ethnic" convention, protesters compared it to a Ku Klux Klan rally.
"Jean knows what's in her heart," says Michael Smith, "and that allows her to absorb some of those charges in a natural way. She knows that when you represent the interests of your community and it's right, that you're going to be criticized. Her attitude is, 'Fine, call me what you want, but I'm very secure in what I am as a person.'"
All the charges and denunciations sometimes grew "bothersome," Mayer says. "Mainly, I just considered the source." She insists the years have vindicated her by showing that what she pushed for did not foster segregation, but preserved the community as a safe, attractive place to live. Her federation's southwest side, encompassing about three square miles around Marquette Park, is no longer uniformly white. Its longtime boundaries — 51st Street south to 75th, Bell Avenue west to Cicero — host blacks, Hispanics and Asians who like the community for the same reasons whites do. Crime is low, homes are affordable and generally well-kept. Some of the incoming minorities have helped with community issues and, hence, have become part of the Southwest Federation's board, Mayer says. "They rose to leadership positions and it happened naturally. We didn't have to go out and dragoon people and have tokens here and there. That always offended me," she says.
Many people in the last two decades have learned that getting on the wrong side of Jean Mayer can be a mistake. She embraces confrontation. Mayer will picket your house or business, shadow you at public appearances with her sharp questions and cause phone calls and telegrams to cascade upon your office. She's been known to make state lawmakers blanch when they see her striding toward them in a Capitol corridor. "In one word, Jean Mayer is a bulldog," says Alvin J. Robinson, president of the commercial insurance brokerage Insurers Review Services Inc. and a longtime ally of hers.
The Jean Mayer canon of tactics has included following former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne in a bus painted with a bright, pointy-noised likeness dubbed "Byrneocchio" Or there was the time she and a few dozen compatriots showed up at the office of Alderman John S. Madrzyk and demanded a meeting. Told to wait, they passed the time by singing patriotic songs. It wasn't until the group began "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" that Madrzyk came out to see them.
In 1976, still early in her career as an activist, Mayer helped organize a march of 2,000 people on the southwest side offices of the former Talman Savings and Loan Association. The Southwest Federation had accumulated evidence that Talman, with a long tradition of investing in its community, had changed its corporate heart and was encouraging people to move to the suburbs by setting stricter requirements for applicants wanting mortgages in the "declining" southwest side.
The Talman rally, part of a broader campaign directed at lending practices of banks and thrifts, was a southwest side civil war, dividing friend from friend and challenging long-held loyalties. "There were people who didn't talk to me for years. Talman was like a temple. We were marching on St. Talman's," Mayer says. But she adds that the campaign forced Talman, now part of
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the Dutch-owned LaSalle banks, to change its ways and she wryly notes that each year it buys a $1,000 ad in the Southwest Federation's ad book.
Robinson, who hooked up with Mayer through SON/SOC, comments that to understand Mayer, one must appreciate her sense of drama. That's what she studied at the University of Illinois and one of her favorite roles was as the title character Mrs. Savage in a play called The Curious Savage. "Everybody was trying to get her into the loony bin, but she was saner than all of them," Mayer says. Staging plays helped teach her how to get folks working together as a team, she says.
The 1984 convention that critics derided as a festival of racism was SON/SOC's effort to launch itself as the premier voice of the city's bungalow belt. "We were talking about a white ethnic agenda," Mayer recalls. "Everybody went absolutely nuts because, of course, Washington was mayor and people told us we couldn't talk about a white ethnic agenda. We said, 'Why not?'"
Most points on that agenda were really the mainstream stuff of community improvement. Crime and reforming the schools were staked out as concerns then, as were the recurrent worries about real-estate solicitations and FHA abuses. The convention spotlighted the controversial home-equity insurance program as a priority. There was a "let's protect what's ours" sense to the convention that produced its right-wing bent. But one element on its agenda was stunningly liberal. SON/SOC was endorsing an idea called linked development, which would have funded neighborhood public works projects by taxing construction of office buildings in Chicago's then-expanding downtown.
SON/SOC thought there was a chance that Washington, owing little to the city's major business interests, would sign on to linked development. He dodged the issue during his first term but came out against linked development after he was re-elected. Since then, the shriveled market for downtown construction and the ardent pro-business stance of Mayor Richard M. Daley have pushed linked development into the shadows. Mayer insists that's a shame. "Downtown gets the lion's share of the infrastructure money. Drive around the streets in my neighborhood and it's a disgrace. I was up in Ottawa and Montreal and I never even saw a pothole. I don't understand it because they have worse winters up there."
Much of the 1980s at SON/SOC was consumed by its campaign for home-equity insurance, which it finally won in 1988. That's when the General Assembly approved the program after seeing Mayer send legions into the Capitol wearing buttons depicting an upside-down donkey and saying, "Home equity or else." The buttons were a warning from a faithful Democratic constituency that years before had left the party in presidential elections.
Mayer chuckles when she remembers how she sent a copy of the button to U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, then running for president, along with an appeal to support home equity. She later approached Simon at an event and was nearly hauled off by Secret Service agents who mistook the button as a threat. "You're the one who sent that 'dead donkey' letter," she remembers a Simon staffer telling her.
The home equity battle was so prolonged because it was a perfect red-flag issue in Chicago's ongoing racial tensions. The proposal called for setting up an insurance pool, funded by slight additions in homeowners' property taxes, that would reimburse those who had to sell their houses for less than an appraised value. Participating homeowners had to sign up for the program and were ineligible for claims for the first five years. It would apply only in specifically defined white communities.
The plan is at work today and has about 2,000 participants on the southwest side and another 1,000 on the northwest side. Supporters say it has stabilized the communities by curbing fears about rapid racial changes and real-estate panic peddling. Critics say it keeps minorities out of those neighborhoods by discouraging current residents from putting their homes on the market.
Mayer's take on the dispute is that families of all races are participating in home equity and sharing the program's benefits. It really ought to operate citywide, she says.
Looking back at that 1984 SON/SOC convention, Mayer says she's proud that, except for linked development, the SON/SOC agenda has seen progress. Crime is being addressed through a plan to implement private security patrols around Marquette Park and efforts to get more officers assigned to local police districts, she says. On education, Mayer notes that SON/SOC has trained neighborhood residents to serve on councils that run 56 schools. And home equity is law.
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During the 1990s, Mayer says the SON/SOC focus has shifted subtly from advocacy to implementing its hardwon gains. She has organized fewer pickets and protests in recent years, leading some to suggest that her "bulldog" ways are mellowing. "We've grown a lot closer over the years," says Alderman Madrzyk, Mayr's onetime foil who represents her home 13th Ward. "Jean is very informed and a first-class lady," says Madrzyk, who finds her "a little more willing to sit down and talk" than she was years ago.
Robinson, the insurance broker, also says she's mellowed. "I've seen issues pop up where she'll only utter one sentence rather than organize 20 people like she used to," he says. But another viewpoint comes from Robert T. Gannett, a longtime Mayer associate who is codirector of the Chicago Neighborhood Organizing Project. "If she's getting less confrontational," Gannett says, "then that may mean the politicians are cooperating. Jean's never lost her sense of natural anger and a sense of what's right."
Mayer insists her taste for confrontation hasn't abated and says she recently took part in a meeting where "I got to insult a mortgage banker who's trying to wreck our neighborhood and that felt really good." She's also taken on a new cause — working to safeguard the city's services for the mentally ill. Daley has talked about hiring private firms to run the city's 15 mental-health centers, a move Mayer believes would yield poorer service for clients.
And there is more to her life than community organizing. Mayer's husband, Joseph, retired four years ago as a plastics executive. They like to travel, in part to sate his passion for scuba diving. Joseph volunteers at the Shedd Aquarium, where once a week he vacuums out the whale tank. Jean volunteers at the Terra Museum of American Art. The couple are close to their two grown children and dote upon their three grandchildren.
It's that Norman Rockwell image that makes her such a fascinating example of grassroots activism. Mayer says she has no desire to be unique that way. More people in more neighborhoods need to understand that they're just as good as the powers that be, that they can challenge them effectively, she says. "Some people get nervous when you start talking about power. To me, power means the ability to effect change for people. So I don't think it's a nasty word. I think it's a good word for people."
David H. Roeder, editor of Chicago Enterprise magazine, has covered Jean Mayer and SON/SOC for years. Roeder is a 1993 winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for excellence in Chicago-area journalism.
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