Logan Square residents divided over Ald. Moreno’s approach to affordable housing

The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Aug 6, 2015.

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Protesters argue in front of Ald. Moreno’s office.
Photo by Dominic Gwinn

Dozens of protesters clashed in Logan Square this week while calling for 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno to pursue more aggressive affordable housing options in the neighborhood.Moreno has supported big development projects like the “Twin Towers,” a multi-building apartment complex across the from the California Blue Line station, which some residents say will lead to mass displacement of longtime residents. Because of this, organizers from Somos/We Are Logan Square, a community group of residents concerned about the increase of large-scale development in Logan Square, organized a rally against Ald. Moreno on Tuesday evening in front of the alderman’s neighborhood office.

However that group was soon joined by Moreno supporters, though smaller in number, who marched ahead of Somos/We Are Logan Square shouting slogans like, “Moreno amigo, el pueblo esta contigo,” (“Moreno, my friend, this town is with you”), while holding signs up in support of transit oriented development projects, or T.O.D.’s, like the “Twin Towers” project.

While both Moreno’s supporters and the Somos/We Are Logan group had the same message of increasing the supply of affordable housing, their differences collided in front of the alderman’s office where heated shouts and shoving drew the attention of onlookers and police.

“My street used to be populated with families,” commented Logan Square resident and Somos/We Are Logan supporter Justine Bayod Espoz. “I used to know all the little kids on our block, you’d see kids playing outside all the time. If you come to my block now on a Sunday afternoon you won’t see anyone on the street. The rents have increased exponentially in this neighborhood…We have two or three developers sending us letters a week asking us if we want to sell our property.”

Kyle Smith was on the street watching the two groups march in front of the alderman’s office on Tuesday. He’s with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that studies urban economies and environments, and said one thing he’s seen across the city, including in neighborhoods like Logan Square, is the loss of housing units.

“There’s been a movement away from rental towards ownership, and buildings have been torn down, converted. Two flats converted into single family homes, balloon frame homes being torn down and replaced with fewer units on sight,” said Smith. “I think that everyone agrees that gentrification is a major issue, and I think the real way to address it is, one, to add more units to the housing supply through something like T.O.D., and also focus on preservation activities on the side streets.”

Meanwhile Noah Muskowitz, an organizer with Somos/We Are Logan Square, reminisced about the daughter of a tenant he recently worked with in an attempt to avoid their eviction.

“During the course of the eviction, when she was afraid she was going to have to go to a different neighborhood, her grades dropped to a C,” said Muskowitz. “That’s a huge emotional impact for a child. It’s not just, ‘Oh, you have to move’, it’s the displacement of communities that they’ve spent their entire lives supporting. Their access to child care, their access to resources, and when you displace that it completely ruins someone’s life.”

Muskowitz added that he thought it’s incredibly disingenuous for Moreno to act like he’s fighting for neighborhood residents facing displacement when he’s part of the problem.

In response to the protests, Moreno’s office released a statement Wednesday morning saying that the alderman was, “gratified to learn that a group of 1st Ward residents saw fit to express their support for his proactive and substantial efforts to provide more affordable housing opportunities in the 1st Ward.”
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This post is also available in: Spanish

Chicago teachers rally to protect schools from deep cuts

The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Jul 30, 2015.

Logan Teachers Protest

Chicago teachers are holding their breath once again as the cuts to the education budget begin to trickle out of City Hall, leaving many educators struggling to adjust before the new school year.

The rally came on the same morning as Fitch Ratings, a credit-rating agency, lowered Chicago Board of Education’s rating to BBB, more commonly referred to as “junk” status.

“These cuts are unjust; our children have paid enough,” stated 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa at the rally. “We’ve gone through 50 school closures,. We’ve seen thousands of teachers laid off. We’ve seen cuts to sports and after-school activities; we’ve seen cuts to music and the arts, and now we’re being told that our children and their families are going to have to suffer through more cuts.”

Hector Gonzalez, a bilingual teacher at Kelvyn Park High School, has been teaching at the school for 10 years, but now he’s worried about what could happen next. “We used to look forward to a raise, and now we don’t even have that. Now, who knows if some of us will even have our jobs? I used to say every year, right before my students would leave at the end of the year, ‘I’ll see you next year.’ I honestly was afraid to say that this year because I’m afraid I might not be there.”

Amongst the shake-ups that are causing the ire of many teachers and parents are cuts to handicap student programs, the shifting of school start times and the closing of bus stops for selective student programs. Schools have also been forced to cancel after-school activities, as well as reconsider supplies while enrollments continue to decline in public schools throughout the city.

“We’re going to have to tell kids, ‘I’m sorry; I know you want to stick around and do all these extra things, but we just don’t have them this year,’” commented Gonzalez when asked about after-school programs. “We just can’t afford to pay people for coming into our building to help our kids.”

“We always make it work, somehow,” remarked Jackie Charles, a fourth grade teacher at Darwin Elementary. “I would rather spend my own money on my students than have them not have what we need at the time, and I think that’s how most teachers operate. Schools get by year after year, and we do the best that we can, but I think people are starting to say the best that we can is not good enough.”

This post is also available in: Spanish

Avondale on the Rise

The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Jan 22, 2015. 

While trendy neighborhoods like Logan Square continue to attract growing numbers of twenty-somethings in search of cheap rent and bustling nightlife, Chicago’s quiet Polish Village hopes to maintain its historic working-class roots as new businesses and homeowners start to settle in the area.
“The neighborhood has a good balance of affordability and public transportation,” says Emily Taylor, head of the Avondale Neighborhood Association. “That’s something that we’ve been trying to highlight, the good points the neighborhood has, because it’s like the neighborhood’s been ignored over the past 10 or 15 years.”

As one of the few neighborhoods in Chicago that contains not only residential zoning, but commercial and industrial as well, some developers are viewing the area along the Chicago River’s North branch as something more than just a manufacturing space.

“A lot of those buildings…bow truss type buildings…a lot of them were in foreclosure,” says Dana Fritz, chief of staff for 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell. “Now with the economic turnaround, now we’re seeing those properties get purchased and people putting money into them. There are already some established businesses in that corridor. It’s very exciting because you have the river there and you can do a lot of stuff on the river. It’s a physically attractive place. They can bring people in for tours and utilize that river bank as sort of an event space. So not only do you have jobs there from the businesses on the manufacturing side, but you also have a tourism component too. So those businesses are drawing people in, seeing how those products are made, and as an added benefit, they can hang out in the neighborhood.”

Some residents have already noticed a shift in the neighborhood. Dave Roberts, who owns Late Bar on West Belmont, sees population shift as positive and unavoidable due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Logan Square.

“The neighborhood’s changed a lot already, but it’s going to change even more, and change is good.” says Roberts with confidence. “Some people complain about the whole “gentrification” thing, but other cities would kill for that. I worry about where people who live here are going to go, but still, it’s inevitable.”

Alderman Rey Colon, whose 35th Ward cuts through a large portion of Avondale, agrees, but feels the change will be gradual. “Avondale has a lot of single and two-flats; it’s more family-oriented, mostly working class folks. I don’t see that changing at the same pace as Logan…there’s not this momentum or “gentrification,” if you will. I think a part of it is that people are just not familiar with Avondale. Like when you get at Logan Square on the Blue Line, you’re getting off at, “Logan Square.” There’s no Avondale stop; there’s Belmont and Kimball.”

For now, however, Taylor and the neighborhood association are hoping to highlight some existing businesses in the neighborhood. “There’s kind of an eclectic business community; there’s a beekeeping supply store, a maker-share space for people to work out 3-d modeling, and an accordion store. There are a lot of quirky things and we really encourage people to explore Avondale and appreciate what we do have.”

“Avondale Welcomes You, Bienvenidos” – photo by Dominic Gwinn

Banned books week highlights censorship

The following story originally appeared in The Torch, the student newspaper of Roosevelt University, on October 9, 2014

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On Saturday, Sept. 26, tucked quietly in the back of Logan Square’s City Lit Books, a crowd of roughly 30 men, women and children gathered for a showcase of imagination concocted to indoctrinate the minds of Chicagoans during  National Banned Books Week.Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 was National Banned Books Week.

While Sam Bradwell, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parent, plucked away at his upright bass, a raspy cupped trumpet puttered softly as Katherine Larkin read aloud “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

And Deirdre Harrison gave a glimpse into the Iranian revolution. These societal rebels were, in their wiords, “challenging state censorship.”

The American Library Association (ALA) started it back in 1982 with the intention of bringing attention to the harms of censorship on frequently challenged books.

It is part celebration, part social awareness campaign.

All across the country, scholars, teachers, librarians and authors came together to protest and argue that the only bad book is one that suffers from a state-sanctioned embargo.

Chicago’s most recent exposure to censorship took place when Lane Tech College Prep High School suddenly pulled Marjane Satrapi’s 2000 autobiographical graphic novel, “Persepolis,” from its course curriculum in 2013.

The school received serious backlash from parents and civil rights groups that still resonates more than a year later.

“There’s an established protocol for challenging a book. The ALA has all these guidelines of what you’re supposed to do, all these different channels you can go through, and what [they] did was so offensive because they didn’t even know about any of that,” said an angry Bradwell.    “They just sent the guys in and pulled the book from the library. I mean, How many different ways can you do it wrong?”

While Lane Tech has since made the book available for students in its library, “Persepolis” remains absent from the school’s curriculum for, according to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Satrapi’s use of, “graphic imagery and language.”

Deidre Harrison’s daughter attended Lane Tech.

And as a parent,Harrison continues to disagree with the school’s move and CPS’ complacency.

Harrison stood before the crowd reading select passages aloud, displaying the scenes for the audience.

“To see a narrative, especially from a girl’s perspective, number one about dress codes, is totally relevant to all of them, and this idea of dress codes reflecting tribes…it’s interesting,” said Harrison. “She’s like, ‘I am religious, but I want to define that for myself,’ so this idea how women, in whatever constructs they are, get to define what that means, what their value is…I think it’s a super relevant narrative. It’s a graphic novel, and there’s not a lot of women-authored graphic novels. Graphic novels are one area where women are doing real interesting stuff.“

At Roosevelt University, English Professor Ji’Hyae Park encourages her students to read “Persepolis” in her ENG 115 class, “Exploring Comics and Film.”

“I chose ‘Persepolis’ because it is a comic that has been adapted into a film successfully, which, therefore, fits into the topic of the course.  Moreover, it’s a great autobiographical comic,” said Park. “While   I do think that comics like ‘Persepolis’ might be more effectively used for certain ages than others in the classroom.  I don’t think it makes sense to ban the book.  From what I’ve read, the images depicting torture are what some people object to. But what they fail to understand is that these are images reflecting a child’s imagination of torture—not a realistic depiction of torture.”

Park also said that she thinks Satrapi is trying to do something different than only show graphic images for their own sake, but instead explore how children attempt to make sense of things that they perhaps do not yet understand.

“She reminds us that even though we try to shield children from violence and torture, they encounter it anyway.  I think it’s better to encounter it in this comic, which doesn’t sensationalize torture, but instead makes readers aware of the politics that make it possible, and how it impacts the everyday lives of people,” said Park.

Restricted access to literary works is certainly nothing new as William Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne have all been chastised throughout history for conflicting community values and suggestive themes.

Canadian author Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, “Little Brother,” which encourages readers to challenge authority figures and stresses technological awareness, was recently restricted from Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Fla.

In response, Doctorow and his publisher, Tor Books, sent 200 copies to the school free of charge.

“The brilliant thing about life in the 21st century is that challenging or banning a book just makes it easier to get and all the more intriguing for having been challenged,” Doctorow wrote via email when questioned about the effectiveness of censorship. “If the principal of Washington High wanted to really make sure that every kid in his school wanted to find out just why this book was so dangerous that they shouldn’t be allowed to read it, all he had to do was challenge it.”

Professor Park herself is no stranger to the scrutiny over literary material.

“I did teach a book that was the object of controversy, ‘Blu’s Hanging’ by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, in an upper-level college course on Gender and Sexuality in Asian American literature,” said Park. “The book initially received an award from the Association of Asian American Studies, but it was later rescinded because some people thought it portrayed Filipinos in a racist manner. The way I designed the course, however, was to ‘teach the controversy.’ I intentionally chose books that were divisive and controversial to get students to respond to the literature, but also to understand the academic debates that shape the way literature is publicized and taught…But there is a vast difference between a book like ‘Persepolis’ that is trying to educate readers about the dangers of totalitarian political regimes, as well as the problems of stereotyping an entire people by the deeds of a few in power, than something that sensationalizes torture or violence for its own sake or in an exploitative manner.”