Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cops and Robber Barons: How Wicker Park Got Gentrified

In July of 1994, I published a lengthy piece in the Lumpen Times, on the newly contentious topic of gentrification. At that time, Lumpen was a fledgling little magazine that had a large readership in a rather small geographical area, in and around Wicker Park. I called my journalistic style at that time dada-surrealist, with cut-and-paste as one organizing principle. "Cops and Robber Barons" largely focuses on the redlining practices of the banks, which helped pave the way for the resettling of Wicker Park in the '70s and '80s. I am not a statistician, and wading through hundreds, thousands of pages of microforms - microforms! at the library downtown, strained my math muscles to the limit. I found a lot of information startling, not for its content, we all know that banks are not ethical beacons, but for the clarity and stark picture of reality that emerged from this search through records made public through the Community Reinvestment Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. A large red line had been drawn around Westtown and Wicker Park, and hardly a dime was lent to any poor person or person of color, even for the most minimal of home improvement loans, for a few decades. And then, Wicker Park exploded, and it's as if a huge can of white paint was tipped over onto the intersection of North, Milwaukee, and Damen, with banks suddenly dumping tens of millions of dollars into the area. 

Interspersed with that story, the text sadly overburdened with statistics presented by someone who loves numbers but was barely able to stay above water through thousands of pages of them, are vignettes about the wide variety of police abuses and instances of brutality that continue to pollute our communities today, particularly our poorer ones, as in Wicker Park in the '80s and '90s. There's a bit here and there about graffiti and its importance; at that time, I'd met quite a few writers, artists, and activists who used graffiti as their medium. 

Some attention is paid to the psychology and public persona of the gentry. And, ultimately the question of the role of artists and writers in siding with the forces of oppression, or in creating a richer, more equitable world by siding with our neighbors, is the most important and where I ended my story, back then. 

A week after publication, I was brutally assaulted by police in front of several hundred people (probably unrelated to the article, but who knows, that's a tale for another day), who had come outside to see what the commotion was all about as a bunch of us were violently arrested for making music at the six-corners in the new arts district. I'm not yet sure if that was a work of art, or not. 

Cops and Robber Barons

The Truth in Lending Practices of Corrupt and Racist Chicago Banks

[we wanna turn away from disturbing events, disturbing thoughts]

Last summer I met a Puerto Rican man who gave me a quick literacy lesson at the corner of North Avenue and California. He told me there's a cop in Humboldt Park named Arceo who went into a Puerto Rican family's front yard and started feeling the daughter's breasts while her mother looked on in shock. The young woman resisted; the cop pushed her to the ground, pinned her to the ground, face down. He then pulled her shirt up over her head, held her hands behind her back …

Channel 26 and other Latino media reported on the event; it never made it into white media. No public outcry from the Puerto Rican community led to the dismissal of the cop.

The man I talked with had a thousand stories like this one. He wrote about it in the only media available to him: graffiti. He wrote the cop's name upside down, repeatedly. This is a dis that cops recognize.

[I walk through Wicker Park looking for art this vital, this social. I don't usually find it.]

Graffiti is a vital form of communication in Chicago's ghettos. Although Wicker Park and the larger West Town area are still a ghetto, with an overall 32% poverty rate, the wealthier white settlers and the settler mentality are taking over. The large FDS (“Fuck Da System”) that used to get sprayed on the big brown Mussolini wall at Walgreens on Milwaukee got replaced by the corporate-inspired, ominous-sounding “Follow Da Leader” mural on the el ramp, cleansed of content and adrenalin.

I use the term “settler” to define people who move into an area, take over larger and larger spaces, and attempt to dominate that area. Settlers view the natives, the preceding inhabitants, with condescension, bigotry, hatred, brutality. Like Columbus, settlers even try to blame the natives for the destruction of the indigenous community. The recent spate of media attention from Spin, Billboard, New York Times, and Newsweek reinforce the settler mentality in Wicker Park / West Town, consistently ignoring the pre-existing communities.

The settler mentality can't accept graffiti as legit. Graffiti's not controllable, not in the way that tamed and poised “art” is. It's associated with “gangs.” And, most importantly, as Da Leader blabs in his “Mayor Daley's Graffiti Blasters” pamphlet, “Graffiti is an ugly form of vandalism. It creates fear, lowers property values ...” So never fear, Wicker Park / West Town settler: Pilgrim Daley's military sodablasting squads and graff squads are there for you, to cover your unsightly blemishes, your costly devaluations. Nevermind the infant mortality, the police brutality, the economic deprivation, the pain that lives in the Puerto Rican, Mexican, African-American, and poor white communities that preceded you.

Focusing on graffiti's a joke in West Town. But the gentry's whole attack on graffiti and young people of color makes sense – if turning a buck through gentrification is the goal. Focusing on the physical appearance of a neighborhood diverts attention away from root causes of urban decay – state and institutional neglect and attack, slumlording, and discriminatory lending practices.

[it's hard to quantify pain and oppression: how much easier is it to cover them up?]

I went to another gentrification meeting at Near Northwest Arts Council last fall. Various factions of settler society discussed gentrification, the forced removal of people of color from Wicker Park / West Town. The Old Milwaukee Avenue Chamber of Commerce gentry were there, along with some white pioneers from the early Old Wicker Park Committee days, a few artists (“It's important we be aware of what impact we're having. This is the third neighborhood I've lived in where gentrification is happening …” - To what end, awareness?), small businesspeople like Gary Marx and Ken Corrigan, and assorted anarchists and independents.

There was no one from Wicker Park / West Town impacted most by settlerism in the room. I couldn't get over the impression that the word “gentrification” is overused and not understood. Overused by settlers, understood by almost none of the low-income Latinos, African-Americans, and poor whites I've ever talked with in this neighborhood. Any discussion of the forced removal of the poor and people of color that uses the “G” word is probably taking place without our input and participation.

Ken Corrigan suggested targeting the banks, rather than the “fronts” of gentrification like the horrendous and distasteful Around the Coyote and Bookseller's Row. I thought, “Man, you fuckin' do that.” The meeting ended with a goon from Chicago Artists' Coalition calling the now infamous and critical “Pound the Coyote” pamphlet “fascist”; so much for dunderheaded arts organizations and freedom of expression.

[there's a town in England where in the old days only wealthy landowners could live. It's called Gentry.]

When we look into the root causes of the destruction of the West Town Puerto Rican and Mexican communities and into the recent resettlement by whites, it's inportant to look everywhere – macro, micro, national, local, theoretical and practical, general and specific. As in ghettos elsewhere, physical structures and property values in West Town (bounded by the Chicago River on the east and Humboldt Park on the west, Kinzie on the south and Bloomingdale on the north) decayed when the wealthy decreed it. Loans to low-income people of color for home improvement and purchase dwindled throughout the '70s and '80s.

In general, West Town banks make a mocker of the idea of “fairness in lending.” Research into local banks reveals an ugly, racist approach to the people who lived here before the arrival of the new settlers: this approach laid the foundation for resettlement.

I recently stepped inside Manufacturers Bank for the first time since I moved to West Town; the fresh graffiti on the sidewalk that read “This Way to Gentrification” had already been scrubbed off.

Manufacturers Bank sits in the geographical heart of Census Community Area 24, West Town, and has no other facilities or branches outside of its 1200 N. Ashland office. (It's also headquarters for West Town Community Bankers. See below.) Its lending practices reflect the racist, class and gender biases of our society, and of most area banks.

Manufacturers Bank lent a mere 15% of its $6,671,000 total housing dollars in West Town in 1992, the most recent year that data is available. Two-thirds of that was lent to wealthy whites; this means that Manufacturers Bank lent only $340,000, 5% of its total housing lending, to West Town Latinos. Latinos make up 62% of West Town's population; African-Americans 9%. If Manufacturers has an interest in West Town, it's clear that it lies with the wealthier whites settling in.

African-Americans can forget approaching Manufacturers for housing loans. The bank lent a grand total of $7,000 to African-Americans in '92, 0.1% of its lending; it lent $753,000 to Latinos, 11% of its housing lending.

Like most West Town banks, Manufacturers Bank lent heavily to comfortable and wealthy whites, most of whom live in the suburbs and other areas that are 80% or more white. And, like most West Town banks, Manufacturers made no FHA or VA loans.

At another point of the “pleasantly dilapidated” Wicker Park Bohemian Triangle (bounded by Division, Milwaukee, and Hoyne) sits Fairfield Savings, whose lending practices show even less concern for West Town communities. Fairfield lent over $12 million for housing in '92; $60,000 of it, 0.5%, landed in West Town.

Fairfield S&L (Damen Ave. and North) is a white man's bank. It lent Latinos $196,000, 1.6% of its housing lending, in '92. Fairfield lent nothing to African-Americans. Ninety-seven percent of its dollars went to whites.

It's clear that opposition to the forced removal of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, African-Americans, and poor whites from West Town must call Manufacturers, Fairfield, and other banks to the carpet for their role in ripening West Town for the invasion of the Old Wicker Park Committee types and the gentry in general. See the accompanying chart for further details.) By disinvesting in the community, and not lending to low-income folks, Manufacturers and Fairfield made it difficult for people to make repairs for code violations, or to purchase the $10,000 home that existed here.

A Mexican family I know applied to a West Town area bank for a loan to purchase a house in Bucktown in the early '80s. The loan officer told them that they needed 25% down. I don't know if that is common; I doubt that it is. Obviously they didn't have the money. Today, they are well aware that they'll have to move soon. If you don't have the money and the right skin color, the banks won't give you a loan.

[the Old Wicker Park Committee, the “fuck da poor” gang, embody the settler mentality – condescending, arrogant, brutal.]

In early April, Old Wicker Park Committeemen David Schabes and Robert Gatz threw together a proposal for Clinton's Empowerment Zone Program – the new “urban renewal.” (The original Urban Renewal led to the destruction of many already-exploited urban communities in the '50s and '60s.) Eager to exploit Census data indicating conditions of extreme oppression in West Town, particularly among Latinos and African-Americans, and no longer content with the gentrification of the Bohemian Triangle, the gentlepeople of OWPC sought big federal money to extend their bleached suburban dreamscape outward, westward, Funding would likely have been used to further dislocate the very people it purported to empower. Fortunately, it was rejected by the City Council.

The Bohemian Triangle acts as epicenter for the resettlement of West Town. Census Tract 2414 lost 41% of its Latinos and 17% of its African-Americans between 1980 and 1990; median rents increased 22% beyond inflation; total housing unites decreased 3.7%. People in Census Tract 2415 experienced 34% increases in rents, and a 16% drop in Latinos. Housing stock fell 9.4%.

These figures do not reflect general trends in West Town. West Town is going through a period of depopulation, with a 30% drop to 1970 to 1990. The white population showed the only major change from 1980 to 1990, dropping 23% from 31,415 to 24,117. The influx of young artists must not be keeping pace with the flight of Poles and Ukraines. As the population of Latinos remained the same, and since the number of housing units fell by 6.6%, people of color must be doubling up, living in more cramped quarters.

The Old Wicker Park Committee proposal, which gathered local gentry into a West Town Coalition (WTC), reveals much about the settler's mindset and worldview. It reads like an hallucinatory college textbook – boring yet fantastic, the words seem to have no relation whatsoever to the conditions and communities of West Town. Central to the West Town Coalition proposal is the proposition that West Town residents are “plagued by common and familiar urban and societal problems.”

Contrary to West Town Coalition's assertions, ethnic groups do not share common problems in West Town. It's hard to get a clear economic picture from Census data, though, for this reason: in the population figures, the number of Latinos is listed as a category separate from the others, and people of Spanish descent are included in the other categories. This throws of the economic data for each group.

For example, the 1990 Census says that poverty status in West Town is as follows: Latinos 37%, African-Americans 47%, whites 25.9%. But the 25.9% figure includes approximately 20,000 white Latinos, bring the poverty percentage up for the category. A more realistic figure is probably about 14%.

There's an African-American man who often begs for change at North/Milwaukee/Damen; often he has no place to sleep at night, and few settlers offer to make room for him. A Puerto Rican friend of his sometimes invites him over; he sleeps with 21 other Puerto Ricans in a small apartment in Humboldt Park, with hammocks strung one above another. Very few settlers face such overcrowding. Mexican immigrants often face deportation at the hands of La Migra; settlers don't know that fear. A few months ago, I saw a police car intentionally try to hit a young Puerto Rican on Division St. for no reason; very few settlers experience the police as an army of occupation. Levels of infant mortality, AIDS, and unemployment are far lower in settler society than in any community of color. These are not “common and familiar” problems.

To meet those “common problems,” the WTC proposal claims that West Town has achieved and desires “to maintain a multiethnic community together peaceably with mutual respect and appreciation in an attractive and healthy environment with thriving commerce; stable public and private investment; safety for people and property ...”

It's impossible to “maintain” something which doesn't exist. Fear, anger, and mute suspicion do not make for peace, respect, or appreciation. A Puerto Rican mother packing to move knows a far different “shared sense of the community's history” from the West Town Coalition settler pushing her out the door, or the sheriff tossing her belongings into the street.

Last summer, a cop chased a young Latino through Wicker Park. He tackled the young man, and pinned him to the ground. A lieutenant, who was standing nearby, walked over and kicked the young man in the ribs. I asked the Art Institute student I was talking to, and who had seen the kick, if she wanted to go get the cop's name and badge number; she said no, she had to go.

[our tolerance for other people's pain increases with our distance from the realities of their lives]

The Old Wicker Park Committee's vision of West Town is the gentrifier's vision: the “thriving commerce” it fawns over is the increasing glut of settler businesses in the “already revitalizing commercial district” at Damen, North, and Milwaukee. This vision essentially demands the removal of low-income Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans – why else would the Old Wicker Park Committee have opposed Deborah's Place, a shelter for homeless women? - and yet the word displacement never enters into the WTC''s myopic vision or its proposal as the overwhelming problem that it is.

Displacement also affects low-income artists and writers, although to a far lesser degree. Many whites in West Town think of themselves as “starving artists,” while paying $13,000 a year for art school. Very few of them actually live in conditions of poverty. Severty percent of the children of single mothers in West Town live in poverty; some actually are starving.

Last year, I made about $7,500. I made ½ the median income for West Town whites. I think I'm low-budget. Still, I made about $2,000 more than the average Latino, and about $1,000 more than the average African-American in West Town.

Within the Bohemian Triangle, Census Tract 2414, whites made $19,552 per capita in '90; this was almost four times the Latino per capita income. In Census Tract 2415, bounded by Milwaukee, North, and Ashland, Latinos had a poverty rate double that of whites, and made about 1/3 as much per year. These trends, strongly influenced by the new white settlement, make displacement likely, for as rents go up, only the settlers can afford them.

The Old Wicker Park Committee's West Town Coalition focuses heavily on investment, service, cosmetic beautification, policing, and on bogus notions of multiculturalism – with a smattering of liberal-sounding concerns like housing, education, and culture thrown in. Contradictions abound.

  • At no point in WTC's proposal do the authors even acknowledge the existence of a distinct Puerto Rican community. Probably because their only contact with Puerto Ricans comes in statistics, which lump all Latinos together.
  • WTC sees “a burgeoning arts community that acts as a magnet to public and private investment. Actually, there's no contradiction here; clear, concise, direct statement of the unity of settler art and money.
  • It's clear who WTC wants in their “underutilized park spaces and facilities.” A few years ago, Old Wicker Park Committee pushed to get Wicker Park (the actual park) changed to “passive use.” “Passive use” is code for getting African-Americans off the basketball courts.
  • WTC calls for “community policing,” which more effectively enlists residents as snitches. In a show of settler unity, some artists have joined block clubs that call the cops when the “natives” get restless. Old Wicker Park Committee and East Village Association (EVA is a WTC partner) have evolved close relations with Chicago Police District 13; Old Milwaukee Avenue Chamber of Commerce with District 14.
  • The specter of “gang violence” promotes settler unity; talk of “gang elimination” sounds ominous. Yet according to 13th District Criminal Activity Reports for April '93, published in EVA's own newsletter, one out of 110 crimes committed that month was “gang-related.”
  • WTC sees “family-oriented systems of values” in its vision of a healthy community; that's why they include Humboldt Christian School in their proposal. In addition to propagating anti-choice, anti-women views, such fundamentalist organizations are infecting Latino children's minds with profoundly idiotic, authoritarian tripe.

One of the most telling contradictions in WTC's vision of West Town lies in the participation of the West Town Community Bankers (WTCB) group. WTCB “meets monthly to ascertain the needs of the West Town Community and to develop the necessary services and products to meet those needs.” With rare exception, the banks listed have shown no interest in low- and moderate-income people of color. WTCB draws banks like Manufacturers and Fairfield (see above) together with other West Town banks, like 1st Security Savings on Western Ave. In '92, 1st Security Savings lent over $34 million for housing; of this total, it lent a whopping $8,000 to African-Americans in all Chicago; $1,887,000, or 5%, to Latinos. Lending to whites exceeded $28 million, or 86%. Of the $7,486,000 lent in West Town, the majority went to whites.

Other banks in West Town Community Bankers include Cole Taylor, Avondale Federal Savings Bank, and Mid Town Bank and Trust, where Miles Berger sits as Chairman of the Board. Mid Town made no housing loans to African-Americans in '92 (see accompanying chart for details).

Recently, there has been a shift in West Town lending, as indicated in WTC's Empowerment Zone proposal. Like vultures, “several downtown banks have expressed an interest in becoming part of the coalition.” Drawn by the greed of speculation and resettlement of Wicker Park, money has started to pour into West Town: Chicago banks dumped around $10 million in Census Tract 2414 in '92 alone (other Tracts nearby received a few hundred thousand, maybe a million or two). This money fuels gentrification; it fuels the construction of the Candyland pastel postmodern houses popping up all over. By inflating property taxes in the surrounding area, this money drives poor people out.

WTC's proposal is notable as much for who it excludes as for who it includes. WTC identifies “existing groups with knowledgeable and motivated individuals” as “community assets”; yet its list of committed partners reads like a who's who of West Town gentry.

Across the board, the WTC proposal excludes some of the most vital organizations at work in West Town – Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Campos Puerto Rican High School; Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center; Autonomous Zone; and Centro Sin Fronteras. It's no accident that all of these groups oppose the further removal of the poor and people of color from West Town.

WTC's proposal harks back to OWPC's successful efforts to get Wicker Park designated in the National Registry of Historic Places in '79, and city landmark status in '91. Although these distinctions lack the driving force of real estate speculation and banking discrimination, they certainly stoke the displacement machine: major renovations get a 20% income tax credit from the feds; the state freezes property taxes for eight years, with another four years of reductions.

As the comprehensive anti-gentrification manual, Displacement: How to Fight It says, “On the whole, historic preservation laws are far more protective of buildings than of the tenants inside them …. these efforts to conserve our historical heritage may winde up imposing severe displacement costs on the lower-income people to whom these buildings have 'trickled down'.”

I talked one afternoon in Earwaxx with an architecture student new to the area who marvelled at the mansions of Wicker Park. I told her of the dozens of low-income Puerto Ricans who were pushed out of just one mansion so that one small yuppie family could remake This Old House. She said, “Yeah, but those poor people didn't appreciate the architecture. The rehabbers are preserving beauty.”

[the price of European-based notions of beauty exact a high toll from people of color – forced exclusion, eviction, and displacement.]


A Mexican man I know moved to the Bucktown area in 1979; his rent was $130 a month. Now he's married and has three children. The five of them live in a small two-bedroom apartment that costs $400. Their family income plummeted when the father had heart transplant surgery and lost his job.

In West Town, from '80 to '90, median rents jumped 66% beyond inflation, from $138 to $383, while median family incomes fell 5.6% from $21,744 to $20,532. Compare this with Lincoln Park yuppie heaven, where rents increased 43%, while family incomes skyrocketed 82%, from $41,077 to $75,085. Or compare with the more stable far northside North Park, where rents increased only 17.7%, while family incomes edged up 3.5%. Statistics for all Chicago show only a 40% increase in rent, with a slight 2.4% drop in income.

A $600 apartment would cost the average West Town white family with two kids 13% of its income. The same apartment would cost the same size latino family 32% of its income. The white family would have to rent a $1,500 apartment to spend 32% of its income on rent. Those $1,500 apartments are starting to pop up in West Town.

Clearly, most people in West Town face crisis economic and social conditions, conditions which gentrification and settlerism only exacerbate. New developments like the single-family Candyland houses along Wabansia between Damen and Ashland affect the surrounding area and its people in hideous ways (beyond the visually hideous). The owner of a Bucktown 3-flat recently told me that when his property taxes tripled in one year, he got back down to earth by passing the costs on to his tenants, whose ropes tightened. This pattern repeats all around West Town.

There's a tendency among the new settlers of West Town – among speculators, artists, even among some progressives and radicals – to look upon poor people as colorful backdrop to our activities, whether financial, artistic, personal, or political. I have done this.

Until we wake up to our own collusion with powerful downtown interests, we will at best continue to make idle proclamations against white invasion, unable to build community for ourselves and with others.

In the late '60s, the federal Kerner Commission Report suggested that high concentrations of oppressed people near the cities' financial centers caused the uprisings that shook the gentry. Since then, in cities from Seattle to Boston to Chicago, efforts to move poor people to the outskirts, on the model of South American cities ringed with shantytowns, continue to wreak havoc on African-American, Chicano, Mexican, Puerto Rican, poor white, and other communities. Like Seattle, alternative music and art are doing the dirty work of the gentry in West Town, making ghettos safe for the gentry to reclaim the inner city. Like Columbus sailing the ocean blue, we explore Milwaukee Avenue …

Recent activity against Around the Coyote marks a turning point in the settling of Wicker Park / West Town – many people are opening up new avenues of creativity and expression that welcome dissent, instead of trying to clamp down on it. It's vital that artists, writers, and musicians work with the raw substance of life around us, with the people around us, rather than merely or only turning inward, rather than joining settler block clubs and neighborhood watches.


Some Sources
Culture and Imperialism. Edward Said. 1994.

Displacement: How to Fight It. Chester Hartman, et al. Legal Services Anti-Displacement Project. 1981.

Home Mortgage Disclosure Act microforms. Located at Harold Washington Library, 5th Floor, Gov't Publications Dept. 1992.

Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat: an anti-racist story of the U.S. J. Sakai. Morningstar Press, Chicago. 1989.

U.S. Census. 1980 and 1990.