Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Flashback 1996: "Protest over theater heavy on melodrama"

     Former Alderman Bernie Hansen (44th) died Sunday. Figuring that I must have spoken to him at some point, which isn't typically true about today's crop of City Council zeds, I went digging and found this from 25 years ago.    
     What impresses me is that, even though I was a quarter century younger, it's so marinated in cynicism. It's almost pickled. If anything, I'm more cheery now than then, which is the reverse of how it's supposed to be.
    A bit of update is in order: the project was scrapped due to neighborhood resistance. Mike Quigley became congressman for the 5th District. 

     The thought of community protest leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not sure why, but I'd have a hard time opposing anything built in my neighborhood, no matter what it was. They could tear down the lovely gray stones on my street and start building an oil refinery and I probably would just tense my jaw and walk on.
     Maybe it comes from being a journalist. I've seen too many concerned citizens righteously banding together to fight to keep an AIDS hospice or a group home for the handicapped or a children's swing set from blighting their neighborhoods and lowering their property values.
     Maybe it's cowardice. When the city began covering the lovely old red cobblestone alley behind our street with asphalt, I briefly considered seizing the banner of protest and trying to stop it. But it was a momentary impulse, a fantasy, the way some drivers, waiting for a train to pass at a railroad crossing, muse about abandoning their cars and hopping the freight to points unknown.
     Asphalt could be an improvement. I can't trust myself to judge, because I know that owning property blinds people to such evaluations. It makes them selfish and oversensitive. Jesus could come down to Earth and start curing the sick, and very quickly the neighbors would complain to the city, "That glow of goodness surrounding His head—it shines directly into my bedroom window at night. . . ." "The shout of joy the sick give when they're healed—it frightens my dog!"
     Still, despite paying a mortgage, my first reaction to news that a giant, 16-screen cinema and shopping center is to be built at Broadway and Surf, two blocks from my house, was this: "Whee!"
     Movies are fun. Shopping is fun. Adding joy was the prospect of a dreary strip of Broadway being torn down, a block of gritty, empty, decaying storefronts, punctuated by a few dingy businesses, such as the establishment apparently called "LIVE NUDE DANCERS." Anything would be an improvement. They could replace it with a hog rendering plant and I'd be happy.
     Here at last, I thought, was one project that no one could oppose. So I was more than a little surprised to see a bright orange flier from something called the Residents' Committee Concerning the Broadway-Surf Development. The flier was headlined: "a 16-screen, 3800-seat movie theater! 7 stories tall—more than 77 feet! traffic of 350 cars, & trucks loading!"
     Struck by the flier's urgency, I compared it to my benchmark of wild alarm, a cardboard poster from Abundant Life Ministries on South Cottage Grove, headlined "WARNING—AWAKE! AWAKE! YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!" I keep it over my desk.
     The similarities in tone were striking. Residents' Committee: "A SEVEN-STORY CONCRETE MONOLITH, ruining the value of your home, whether you own or rent!" Abundant Life: "NO WATER IN HELL! TORMENT FOREVER!"
    The committee flier announced a meeting at the Wellington Avenue Church Wednesday night, and as a student of hysteria, I decided to go.
     My central concern beforehand was that I would be alone, or nearly, forced to interact with the fervid organizers, waving literature in my face.
     To my shock, 400 people showed up, including the would-be developers, clutching their drawings with that sunken-eyed, haunted look so typical of people in their situation.
     While parking and traffic seem to be the central valid concern about the proposed cinema, residents couldn't resist raising every objection imaginable. "Teenagers" and "riffraff" would invade the neighborhood. Popcorn would be littered, attracting "rodents and insects." One woman at the back of the room warned that our "mothers and sisters and daughters" would face an increased threat of rape, presumably by young men driven to frenzy by Demi Moore films.
     Still, as far as these meetings go, this one was relatively tame. The crowd only hissed and booed a little when people spoke in favor of the project.
     Some speakers failed to understand that, despite our democracy, the community can't just vote to keep the project out. Ald. Bernie Hansen's name was invoked, in the hope that he would bend to popular will, which of course was overwhelmingly opposed to the project. Hansen wasn't there, but his aide, Mike Quigley, was, and he reminded the residents that they had been against restricting the area's zoning when development was still theoretical, and therefore good, and not specific, and therefore bad. He poured oil on the waters by dangling the possibility of some as-yet-unnamed political maneuver thwarting the developers.
     But his boss, in a conversation the next day, seemed to think that while the project, in general, was a done deal, the developers might yet find it in their hearts to work with the community to change the particulars. Hansen added the Chicago version of "or else."
     "Things get tied up," he said, philosophically. "Time is money. There are ways of stalling things, of making things a little more difficult. Not that you could stop them. But it makes them more attentive toward the community needs. I don't think you are going to make anybody happy."

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 30, 1996

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