| 1 | July, 1986—“Playlot 293” becomes an issue

My involvement with Unity Park began in July 1986, when a young man named Manuel Guillot (Ghee-Yot), a staff organizer from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, rang our doorbell, introduced himself, and asked me, “If you could change one thing in this neighborhood, what would it be?” Connie Baznik and I had bought our house the previous October, so I was a relative newcomer to this northwest-side Chicago neighborhood. I thought about it, then pointed toward the corner of Kimball and Drummond:

“They could fix up that little kids’ playlot,” I said.

“So if there was a meeting about it, you’d come?” Manuel asked. I agreed that I would. Later that month, I got a flyer inviting me to a planning meeting at the LSNA office, a block away from Playlot 293.

Much later, I learned Manuel had been sent out by his boss, Joe Mariano, LSNA Executive Director, to go “fishing”, door to door, for an issue. Fishing is a technique described by Chicago community organizer and author Saul Alinsky, to organize a neighborhood, where there is no existing organization. Others also objected to the condition of Playlot 293, so Manuel chose that as our issue. Manuel was the son of a Guatamalan diplomat and a Spanish mother. He was 5’7”, with dark hair and European-style dress. Educated and soft-spoken, with a slight accent, a twinkle in his eyes, and a nervous, self-effacing laugh, he was a practicing Buddhist. He would be our organizer for the next year. [insert photo Manuel Guillot]

There were about 10 people at the planning meeting. Delia Torres chaired. Dee was my neighbor on Drummond, at the corner of St. Louis. She and her family, and her husband Miguel Torres’ family, had all been neighbors in Cuba and had immigrated to Miami, then to Chicago, where both families bought 2-flats in Logan Square. Manuel selected Delia as our leader; a mother of 2 young children, bilingual, she was outspoken and easy to like. This would be her first time chairing a meeting. Manuel had obviously spent time preparing her; we followed a written agenda and meeting formalities, including motions and votes.

We named ourselves “Parents for a Decent Playlot”, and decided to invite our local Park District supervisor to a meeting in Playlot 293. We wanted regular cleanups, a soft surface, new equipment, landscaping, and expansion into the adjacent parking lot. Delia sent a letter to supervisor Carrie Jacobson.

A few days later, Carrie Jacobson responded, agreeing to the meeting, which we set for August 21st, in Playlot 293. Parents for a Decent Playlot was now a “committee of 7”. We would meet at the LSNA office with Manuel, discussing strategy and preparing flyers that we distributed door to door. Our first flyer read: “We Want A Playlot, Not A Junkyard!” 1 The original committee included Connie and I, Delia and Miguel--all of us from Drummond Place; Nora Bendfeldt from Parker Avenue, Ernesto Vega from Schubert Avenue, and Anna Lilia Maldonado from St. Louis Avenue. We met several times before August 21st. Manuel told us we needed to produce 100 to 200 people if we expected to be taken seriously. So we went door-to-door every evening, canvassing all the blocks around Playlot 293.

Manuel met with me privately several times. He explained he was training me as a leader. I had recently graduated law school and was a practicing attorney. He said: “Joel, you will come to see the difference between law and organizing. If the law were on our side, we could just hand things over to the lawyers. But when we don’t have rights, we have to organize. We want someone in power, our target--it could be government or a business--to do something not in their self interest, that benefits us. When you can produce large numbers of people to assemble in public, you can pressure targets to make changes, because they want to please their customers or the voters. But you have to produce, and people have to be united. This is the work of organizing. And even when you produce, the target may reject your demands.

“This is just a little concrete playlot, but maybe we can win something here, and bring the people together. Your legal education will be helpful evaluating power. But it can also be a negative—there may be times I will ask you to forget your instincts and all your legal training, and think like an organizer.”

1. Appendix p1 (public meeting flyer, August, 1986)