It’s a double show this week, as we talk with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s Kim Wasserman about working with the city to re-evaluate the Industrial Corridor in their neighborhood, and with the Tribune’s Chris Jones about the possibility that the Uptown Theater could finally come back to life after being boarded up for thirty-seven years.
Two very different subjects, but there is a thread that runs between them. It’s about how the city uses its enormous power to pick winners and losers in neighborhood development.
“The fact of the matter is many people in Little Village work in the industrial corridor in our own community so we recognize how important those jobs are,” Kim Wasserman begins. “We recognize how important that income is to our families. What we are saying is why can’t we attract and have industry that doesn’t kill us?”
For many years, Wasserman’s LVEJO led the strenuous fight to close two coal-fired generating plants, a battle they ultimately won in 2012. The Crawford plant was in Little Village, the Fisk plant in nearby Pilsen. The two former power plant sites had the residue of more than a century of burnt coal, and there has been a lot of debate about what should replace them. Recently, the City announced that it had a plan for a huge warehousing and distribution center.
“They want to come in and potentially do a one-million [square foot] warehouse with trucks,” she explains. “This is a huge concern for us. We shut down the coal power plant because of air quality issues and now we are being confronted with a whole nother set of air quality issues. And when we looked at the job potential for warehousing and truck driving it does not look good. Our folks are going to Bolingbrook for warehousing jobs, being massive temp agencies, massive check fraud, I mean just tons of abuses that warehouse workers particularly women are facing. These are not sustainable jobs that our community is looking for.”
What her community does want, Wasserman asserts, is for the City to ask what they need before making a deal and announcing it later.
“So what we’re asking,” she says, “is to say if an industry is coming in how close to a school are you? How close to a park are you? How close to peoples’ homes? What is the impact going to be? Because we can no longer afford to just have industry show up overnight behind our homes…What we say is if you actually plan properly an industrial corridor you could solve part of the violence problem in Chicago. Little Village is one of the youngest neighborhoods in the city.”
So it’s not NIMBYism, she explains. Her community wants jobs. But it wants a say in what kinds of jobs they are.
“There is a direct correlation between the violence in our streets and the economies in our community, she continues. “We can no longer continue to deny that and so when young people in Little Village do not have a job and have nothing else going on then we need to be asking ourselves is the industrial corridor doing its job in training young people, employing young people? And right now we can say no, which is why Little Village has one of the largest violence rates in the city.”
There’s another deep frustration the LVJEO feels, and it’s one that’s often expressed at our table. Job training is worthless if it doesn’t lead to work. Wasserman talks about Washburne Trade School, which was once in her neighborhood, but has been gone for decades. And why is that?
“What we saw at Washburne was a systematic shutdown because there were too many young people of color coming into the Unions,” she claims. “And what we recognize particularly in Environmental Justice communities, you can have all the workforce development, you can have all the training opportunities, internship opportunities and people will go through them. The problem is there is no job at the other end of that. And so one of the things that we have actually done in this past year is get involved in policy at a state level.”
LVJEO and other organizations, Wasserman says, fought for and won provisions that the State solar programs must hire the formerly incarcerated, residents of “Environmental Justice” designated communities, and people coming out of foster care. It is, she claims, “the first time ever that environmental policy has made the direct correlation to these communities and it was a huge success. Our first graduating class from Little Village just graduated from the solar program and will be getting employed because these contractors and developers have to – have to – hire from EJ communities.”
There’s a strong emphasis on youth activity at the LVEJO, due in no small part to the fact that Little Village claims the largest population between 18 and 21 in the City of Chicago.
“It’s so important to ask the question of where is the space for a young person’s narrative in this process,” Wasserman declares. “Putting more police on the street is not going to solve this problem. Putting young people to work is what will help solve it. Giving young people an opportunity outside of just college is what will give our communities a chance and that is what we’re fighting for here.”
(The second segment begins at 27:30)
Our second guest, Chris Jones, said this of the Uptown Theater:
“There was no choice but the restore the Uptown Theatre. It had to be done. To knock it down would have been an act of brutal vandalism. It’s just too beautiful, too special, too much of a tie to the past. It’s the sort of building that a city that cares about its brand, its history and its soul just does not lose. And it can only be a theatre so it’s really just as simple as this being the right thing to do.”
The Tribune writer and critic has written extensively on the latest plan to revive and reopen this massive 4,381-seat theater, which was described at its opening in 1923 as having an “acre of seats.”
“My feeling on this,” he enthuses, “having reported on this story for close to 20 years, my feeling on this is that this will happen. It is inconceivable to me politically that this would not now happen.”
The rehab will cost $75 million, according to the developers and concert promoters who are driving the plan.
“So essentially this theatre is owned by entities,” Jones explains. “Separate entities controlled by Jerry Mickelson, best known as a concert promoter of Jam Productions. My sense of why he first got the Uptown was largely as a defensive move against somebody else getting it. He of course competes with Live Nation and other such massive international concert promoters…They are a huge business in and of themselves in this city but its competitors and venues compete for big acts and that’s where the money lies, so I think he felt that if he didn’t get the Uptown the danger was one of his competitors would. ”
And did Chris Jones mention that the Uptown is a very big theatre?
“They are talking about having a potential on the ground floor to take out the seats for concerts so it could be upwards of 5,000 people. It will be the biggest theatre in the city that’s not a so-called arena. I would point that a lot of acts don’t like playing arenas because they are not great for the audience, so it will have an inherent competitive advantage for a potential sell-out artist because they will be able to sell more seats,” he says.
And of that $75 million they estimate this project will cost, the majority of it will come from – well from you, the taxpayer. About 23 million pledged from the state, 8 million in federal tax credits, and about $13 million in city TIF funding. But is even that enough?
“I’ve been in it a couple of times. It’s not in good condition,” Jones says. “I mean the one element of this that I am a little cynical about is whether they can do it for the amount of money they’ve said.”
Nevertheless, plans are being dawn up, some of the funding is falling into place, and Jones says actual restoration work could begin this fall. And he says the element that’s present this time that wasn’t in the past is that the project’s being driven by experienced people from the private sector, using a mix of their own money and public funds. And it all raises the perennial question: Is the Uptown being restored because the neighborhood is getting so gentrified that it was just time? Or will the new Uptown Theater drive gentrification on its own, ultimately creating a very pleasant, enjoyable venue but also pushing out people as the rents and mortgages rise?
“So the renaissance of the city ,” Jones responds, “And when I say renaissance it’s a renaissance for some. But nonetheless that has made this possible, so the argument that people won’t come to Uptown has dissipated. Now will this gentrify Uptown? I think it will, and I’ve got a lot of messages from people saying what a bad thing that was…and I think that is something to be concerned about. On the other hand will the Uptown provide jobs in Uptown? Will the Uptown Theatre make the streets of Uptown safer? I think it will because there will be more people on the street there and there is a significant crime problem in Uptown and some of those streets don’t have a lot of people walking on them at night. And I think once you add this kind of activity in a neighborhood it will liven those things up. And the Theatre if it’s buzzing, as we hope it will be, it will provide real jobs and it is likely to bring restaurants, bars. It’s going to bring all that with it. The question, of course, is always the question in Chicago – how will that be distributed. Will it be fair? Will Uptown be preserved? Will attention be paid to affordable housing, all of those questions.”
You can watch the show by clicking the photo above.
You can read a full transcript of this show here: CN transcript August 9 2018