Helen Shiller’s Chicago Uptown legacy

Was the 46th Ward alderman Uptown's savior or its scourge?

Photo: Michelle Nolan

On July 20, 2010, Helen Shiller experienced a day she thought would never come.

It was the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the 46th Ward alderman’s magnum opus of “balanced development,” her frequently used term for business and residential growth that doesn’t displace lower-income residents or lessen racial diversity. Opening that day was Uptown’s new Target, the retail anchor of Shiller’s $151 million pet Wilson Yard project. Built on the site of a CTA bus barn that burned down in 1996, the development also includes a new Aldi, storefronts along Broadway north of Montrose Avenue—and, most important to Shiller, 178 affordable apartments for families and seniors.

Under the bright fluorescent lights inside Target, the event seemed somewhat surreal to Shiller. There she was, five-foot-nothing, looking, as usual, like some sort of gypsy librarian—slightly tinted eyeglasses, big gold hoop earrings, a clip holding back her untameable dark brown hair—standing next to her one-time political adversary, Mayor Richard M. Daley. This was the mayor whose budgets she was the lone “no” vote on in the City Council for years. The mayor who, to no avail, mounted candidates to unseat her. The same mayor she slowly warmed up to as she brought him proposals for improvements in Uptown, namely Wilson Yard, which Daley eventually helped fund with $54 million by backing her creation of a tax-increment financing district.

And there was Da Mare, with his perpetually glossy forehead, talking real nice about his sometime rival. “Today,” he said,
“I just want to thank Helen Shiller for her strong commitment and her beliefs. She took a lot of flak up here, from a lot of people. And now as we cut the ribbon, everyone is going to think it’s the greatest project we’ve ever had in the Uptown community.”

The flak the mayor spoke of involved rancorous opposition from a small but vocal corps of mostly white, mostly middle-class residents who pooled their collective loathing into a group called Fix Wilson Yard. In December 2008, they tried to stop construction, filing a lawsuit against the city citing abuse of the TIF district, which siphons off tax dollars to pay for development projects in areas considered “blighted.” At an August 2008 Fix Wilson Yard meeting, the source of contention was clear: the affordable-housing component. Residents compared the proposed multistory Wilson Yard Apartments and Wilson Yard Senior Apartments to Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and other Chicago public-housing failures. Uptown already had enough affordable housing, they said, and even more would create a low-income density that could lead to increased crime. Fix Wilson Yard’s suit was thrown out; a Cook County judge ruled the group waited too long to file the suit—seven-and-a-half years after the TIF district was established. But the resistance exposed the polarization of Uptown.

“Anybody could’ve gave up just like that,” Daley continued. “She could’ve said, ‘I’m giving up, it’s too much controversy.’ Helen knew the objective.” As the mayor spoke, Shiller thought about the aerial photo of Uptown taken in the ’70s that hangs in her ward service office. In the shot, the ’hood looks like the most disinvested parts of the South Side. It reminds Shiller how far Uptown—the much-disputed majority portion of her ward that also includes specks of Lakeview—has come in her 24 years in office.

Shiller couldn’t hide her pride, but the alderman was harboring a secret: She wasn’t going to seek reelection to a seventh term. She wouldn’t make her retirement public until two weeks later, on August 5, 2010. Following Shiller’s retirement announcement, commenters on Uptown Update and other sites frequented by Helen haters gleefully invoked the Wizard of Oz tune “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” in rapturous celebration of the political demise of “the Wicked Witch of Uptown.” The virulently anti-Shiller blog Chicago News Bench began selling T-shirts as early as summer ’09 featuring a photo of Shiller doctored to look like a cross between John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo the Clown and Heath Ledger’s the Joker. The prescient flip side read helen shiller gone in 2011.

Why all the hostility? Her detractors complain Shiller is antidevelopment (except when it comes to affordable housing) and unresponsive to crime. Why, her critics wonder, is the grass always greener on the other side of the 46th Ward? “Uptown is surrounded by some very successful retail strips: Andersonville, Lincoln Square, Lakeview,” says Richard Thale, a board member of the Uptown Chicago Commission, a prodevelopment civic group, and Uptown resident for 11 years. “It’s very disheartening. My guess is [the lack of development] has a lot to do with concerns about public safety.”

Though the 46th Ward’s two police districts, the 20th and 23rd, rank among the city’s lowest in overall crime, there have been several highly publicized shootings in the past few months. “Business is difficult with Uptown being labeled a trouble spot for crime,” says Kasra Medhat, who owns the Magnolia Café near the Wilson Red Line station. When he opened the upscale restaurant in 2001, he thought he’d be a trailblazer for a burgeoning neighborhood. But he says, “Uptown hasn’t changed much. …Compared to Lincoln Park, growth in Uptown moves at a fraction of the speed.”

For some Shiller constituents, worse than crime has been the lack of response to it from their alderman. “It seems like a real no-brainer to say, ‘We have killings, these need to stop,’” says a 52-year-old Uptown resident who requested anonymity because she is one of several writers for Uptown Update. “I get the aldermanic e-mailings from all the wards around us—Schulter, Smith and Tunney. Even just giving lip service, saying, ‘We’re all concerned, go to your CAPS [Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy] meeting.’ It’s next to nothing but it’s something. Helen’s silence has become funny.”

Shiller says crime in her ward is “totally overstated,” but maintains she has been just as concerned as her constituents about the recent uptick and is in close contact with district police sergeants.

While none of the 11 candidates running for Shiller’s seat are campaigning as the antithesis of Shiller, all of them have put public safety on the top of their platform. Michael Carroll, a police officer in the running, has vowed to personally go block by block to eliminate crime trouble spots. At a recent 46th Ward aldermanic campaign forum at the People’s Church on Lawrence Avenue hosted by Organization of the Northeast, which advocates for diverse, mixed economic communities in North Side neighborhoods, I meet 80-year-old Bernice Perkins, an Uptown resident since 1970.

“I think Helen has put her heart and her soul into this community,” Perkins says, gripping a cane. “She’s a lady and a half.” A few years ago, the lawn in front of Perkins’s Chicago Housing Authority senior building on Sheridan Road was being taken over by drug dealers. So she went to Shiller’s office and campaigned for a fence, which was erected after Shiller took the issue up with the CHA.

Of course, Shiller’s critics would say that’s classic Helen: putting up a fence to keep drug dealers out while disregarding the root problem: the drug dealers.

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