| 10 | Thursday December 4, 1986-- public meeting
On December 4th, the Park District arrived 3 hours before the meeting to set up and check sound. They had brought their own mike and amplification, a podium and an easel. We had set up the church mike across the stage, but the Park District told us to remove it, so we moved it to the floor, in front of the stage.
At 6:45, the church was already half-filled, with a line outside. The Park District had laid out cloth runners on the sidewalk and church steps; it felt like a gala event. They had brought flags in stands. They roped off the front two rows for “special guests” such as their architectural and planning staff, the public relations officers, and others. Then two distinguished Park District trustees entered: Walter Netsch, the architect who had designed the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus, and Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African-American History. Sylvia Herrera did not attend.
We produced about 200—slightly less than in October. As people arrived, Park District ushers handed out agendas, with copies of playlot designs A and B. But there was no Plan C! Jesse Madison had not yet arrived. I saw Bob Meghier and asked him about Plan C. “These were the only ones we were told to bring,” he said, his face devoid of expression. So he was in on it, and would be of no help to us. The agenda suggested the community would vote on the designs. At 6:50, we hastily caucused in the foyer.
“Just as I feared,” said Manuel, “They’re being tricky. This was supposed to be a celebration.” He exhaled deeply. “Well, are you all ready? You have to embarrass the boss in front of all his top staff and his Trustees. The community knows nothing about Plan C. They don’t know we were already promised more. If you don’t intervene, they’ll be happy to vote on whatever choices they are given.”
“Did they think we were going to sit back and take this?” said Delia incredulously. “We need to tell the audience about Plan C! How do we do that?”
An LSNA board member named John Miller had joined our caucus. John was a large, blond, serious fellow, who lived east on Logan Boulevard, near St. John Berchman’s church. John was radical; he was always there when it came time to fight “the power structure”. Tonight, he was crackling with energy. “You gotta show ‘em,” he said. “Do you have a copy of Plan C?” I produced my copy. “OK, let’s go across the street to the office and make a couple hundred copies.”
“We don’t have a copier,” said Manuel. (In 1986, the LSNA office had neither copiers nor computers.)
“OK”, said Miller. “I’ll run this over to Kinko’s on Western Avenue. Then we’ll pass copies out row by row. Delia can go on stage and warn people not to vote for anything but Plan C.”
“Yeah, how do I get up there?” asked Delia.
“It sounds like a good plan,” said Manuel. He had been studying the Park District’s agenda and design plans. 1 “You know, their agenda is entirely in English. They probably don’t even intend to translate.”
“Should I ask them?” offered Miguel.
“If we ask them now,” responded Manuel, “they may call out and get someone. Better we say nothing. Let them blunder into the meeting without a translator; then people can stand up and say they don’t understand. Then the Park District won’t have a solution. Delia could go up and offer to translate. That’s how we get up there. They’d be looking for a quick fix. They’d probably take Delia. We should prepare some audience members, now, before the meeting starts.”
“What if they don’t allow translation?” I asked. “Then you just disrupt the meeting”, said Manuel. “We have our own mike. They made us move it…but they forgot to make us disconnect it.”
“Do you really think they’d let me translate, when they just switched designs on us?” asked Delia dubiously.
“Just offer your services humbly, see if they bite.” said Manuel with a shrug.
“Shouldn’t we try to talk to Mr. Madison first?” asked Delia.
“I think not,” said Manuel. “He’s already decided to go around you. That audience is the source of your power. We’ll educate them, and they’ll be on our side. They’ll let him know his game is unacceptable. So just smile when he gets here--don’t let on that you’re wise to him.”
“I’ll be back in about half an hour, forty minutes,” said John Miller, clutching the plan, and going outside to unlock his bike. “Buy me some time, Dee. Give ‘em a filibuster.”
“You’re going on a bike?” asked Miguel.
“Don’t worry,” said Miller, who rode off to Kinko’s, two and a half miles away.
I had a copy of the “consent decree”. There had been a lawsuit in federal court a few years before, filed by black and Hispanic persons, alleging the Chicago Park District had discriminated by underfunding parks located in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The consent decree was a 90 page court order--a settlement that had been agreed to by the plaintiffs and the Park District, listing the parks that were shortchanged. The court order required that future annual spending should be increased for these parks. Playlot 293 was on the list. This document had been part of my early Playlot 293 research, but I didn’t know why I was still carrying it around in my briefcase. Now, I thought it might suddenly be useful, as a prop, to buy time.
Manuel, Delia and Ana Lilia broke away to talk to Spanish-speaking audience members, asking them to stand up and ask for translation as soon as the meeting started, and warning them about the switch in plans.
Then Jesse Madison and Tish Martin entered, greeting us and others at the back before making their way to the podium on stage right. They knew everyone in the first two rows, so there was much hand shaking and hugging in front of the neighborhood audience, who sat in rows 3-24. Park District security guards from the front rows were roaming, surveying the audience, one with mirror shades, and all with walkie-talkies. Madison started the meeting at 7:35. Delia and I were on the left, close to our live mike.
After Madison introduced himself and his guests, he started talking about Harold Washington’s commitment to the parks. A woman stood up and asked a question in Spanish. Madison looked surprised.
“They’re asking if this meeting will be translated,” one of Madison’s aides told him from the front row.
“Oh, I didn’t think we needed that,” said Madison. A man stood up with another question in Spanish.
“He says his mother doesn’t understand English and they need Spanish translation,” said the aide. There was spontaneous agreement voiced by dozens of members of the audience. Walter Netsch in the second row rolled his eyes and looked annoyed.
Then Delia took our mike and walked up to the front: “Mr. Madison, I’d be happy to translate. I can make it go quickly. I have the church mike.” [insert captioned photo Delia in audience]
Madison appeared relieved at the quick solution. Delia climbed onto the stage. We had gained a foothold. Delia took twice as long translating Madison’s remarks as Madison did making them. The guests in the front rows showed their impatience. They hadn’t expected translation, and they now knew they were in for a long meeting. Madison had prepared a long speech outlining his goals and accomplishments.
John Miller was back with a ream of copies before it was time to vote. Madison had turned the podium over to Bob Meghier, who was explaining Plans A and B. [insert photo Meghier at podium] I went to the back to huddle with John, Miguel and Manuel. “You stay up front and help Delia,” Manuel said to me. “We’ll pass out the plans. We each take an aisle. Start at the back; work your way forward. Just hand a bunch of Plan Cs to the person on the end and say ‘pass these down’, then say: ‘This is the plan the Park District already promised us. Vote for Plan C!’ Speak loudly. Make eye contact. Talk to about 3 rows at a time. Move quickly to the front. Keep working the rows, even if the Park District tells you to stop.” They got up and started distributing the flyers. [insert photo John Miller passing Plan C] Madison noticed quickly and walked to the podium.
“What are we doing here?” he asked.
Then, from the stage, Delia explained the Park District’s trick in Spanish. She was animated. The audience started murmuring. Our plan passers had covered half the church and were working their way forward. The security guards made no move to stop them. Madison’s expression darkened; he didn’t understand Spanish. Then John Miller left his aisle, went to the stage, took Delia’s mike, and explained the trick in English. Madison lost his composure. “Who is this man? I’ve never seen him before!”
Then I took the mike and held up the consent decree. I explained the lawsuit, as the plan passers completed their work. I said promising our leaders a playlot with trees and bushes and a drinking fountain, then coming out and asking residents to vote between two inferior designs, was not consistent with…the spirit of the court order. [insert photo Joel Monarch describing consent decree while Walter Netsch listens] Walter Netsch exploded. He stood up, eyes blazing, and pointed a finger at me. “Bullshit!” he spat. “This has nothing to do with the court order!” The audience became hushed, but then quickly began to react, talking openly, while Delia translated my remarks and called for a vote in favor of Plan C. Then, Jesse Madison raised his hands and called for order. There was dejection on his face. [insert photo Jesse Madison at podium]
When the crowd quieted he said slowly, “We have tried, in good faith, to do something positive for this community.” This remark was met by loud denials from several in the crowd. “But there are some people who are not grateful for our efforts. It is clear to me that we cannot ask you to approve these plans tonight. You will all just have to…await further developments.” There were a few cheers and boos. Dr. Margaret Burroughs sat completely stone-faced. This was supposed to have been a night when blacks, whites and Hispanics all came together to celebrate a new beginning, on the eve of Harold Washington’s re-election.
Madison adjourned the meeting, without any further closing remarks. He and his entourage left quickly, beating most of the audience out the door. Netsch and Burroughs followed, and wouldn’t even look at us. But one of the architects told me: “Good for you. Keep on fighting.”
We stood outside the church and talked to audience members as they left, reassuring them we’d hold out for Plan C. There was only one reporter, from the local Extra. Believing we had an agreement, we had not sent out press releases. The reporter interviewed us and would write a short article. 2 About 20 minutes later, we went across the street to the LSNA office to debrief.
“Man, you pushed his button when you held up that consent decree!” said Miguel to me, hi-fiving and laughing exultantly. “Did you see Netsch jump out of his seat, all red-faced?”
We took a moment to applaud John Miller, who flashed a rare and brief smile. John loved conflict and was proud to be able to quickly join us and help catalyze a reaction. John Miller would die six months later, in his middle thirties, of a heart attack, before the playlot had been completed.
“They wanted a celebration; this was the big rollout of their pilot program,” said Manuel, shaking his head. “They did this to themselves—they could have just stuck with the plan. They promised Plan C. They could have called us, if we were really partners. But they tried to trick us, so we did what we had to do, to represent our people. Now we have to let them cool off. Give them a few days, then one of you can call Tish Martin. We can wrap this up with one more meeting downtown.”
I called Tish Martin on Friday. She admitted Madison was still angry. I told her we wanted Plan C, but we were ready to be the Park District’s community group for the playlot, just as Mr. Madison envisioned. She said she would accept this as my apology, and that she’d probably get back to me in a few days.