Can four white Communists stop redevelopment in Cabrini-Green?

JAN. 16, 1999
The battle lines have been drawn in the next big fight to save Chicago's public housing, and this time City Hall isn't taking on public housing residents, but the four people living at 1142 North Orleans -- the lone private building that remains in the square block bounding Cabrini-Green.

The city's most notorious housing development definitely has a new face -- the four dwellers of 1142. They're sometimes called the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop Police Brutality and the Displacement of Public Housing Residents. They're sometimes called the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. They're always white.

And they're bona fide Communists, with a capital "C." The banner hanging from the balcony at 1142 screams "Stop Urban Cleansing" and the third-floor sitting room boasts large pictures from the great Red past -- Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

And after a few years of rallying against evictions and police brutality in Chicago Housing Authority developments on the West and South sides, they moved closer to the action.

The dwellers -- Richard "Grant" Newburger, 41; William "AK" Small, 31: Shawn Wall, 21; and "Seven" Linzmann, 18 -- worked out a deal with the building's African-American owner in early 1997. Since then they have been living in the dilapidated three-flat on the edge of Cabrini-Green, opposing demolitions in what they've deemed the city's most criminal redevelopment plan.

They say they became victims of that plan in May when they claim the building was sold to the city -- which has plans to tear it down and expand nearby Seward Park.

With the help of a former teacher's union attorney, the dwellers took the city to court late last year to remain in the building until their lease expires on March 31. Two days before Christmas they got their wish, and the city let them stay.

Although the city initially offered them $5,000 to leave, the dwellers' attorney, Michael Radzilowsky, who says he likes to fight City Hall, said they wanted no part of compromise.

He says his clients have noble ideas. But citing what he calls "cooked up" community support for the well-known consent decree -- and agreement between CHA, the city and residents that will allow more demolitions and give residents a fifty-one percent interest in development -- Radzilowsky also says their "win" won't rejuvenate the discussion on what to do with Cabrini-Green.

"Where are the credible voices of opposition in this neighborhood?" he asks. "They're not there anymore."

Not so, say the dwellers. Instead of giving up and moving out on March 31, they plan to, within the next three months, round up enough support to save the 1142 North Orleans building from demolition and to resurrect what they call the true voices of opposition with a civil rights museum and educational center in their building.

And while it may seem the height of folly to think that a civil rights museum will ever take over the 113-year-old building, the dwellers have pulled out a strong hook -- their claim that civil rights martyr Medgar Evers once used the building as a headquarters while campaigning for fair housing rights here in the late 1950s. This single event makes their building a landmark worth saving, the dwellers say.

But there's not much there left to save. The city has already torn down six buildings the Cabrini area -- and on the dwellers' one-block by three-block parcel, the 1142 building and the high-rises to its west are the only remaining structures. The city attorneys say the dwellers are a major setback to development in that area.

"It's not that we think the residents of Cabrini shouldn't have a beautiful park. But if they put it here, they might as well put up a sign that says, 'Whites only,'" says Newburger, who notes the pricey new town homes and mega-Dominick's Fresh Store across the street. "Look around. They're building things not for the people who live here, but for those they're expecting to move in once they move all the blacks out ... If our building is allowed to stand they won't be able to put out that message."

And who better to speak for the community but the ghost of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who was shot and killed in front of his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963.

Newburger says that once he and his colleagues started staging protests in Cabrini against police brutality -- most notably the December killing of 21-year-old resident Brennan King by a police officer, the community began to trust them and tell them their stories.

Among the tales were those of Evers. Not only did he stay at the building, residents said, but he also stood on its porch and rallied the black community -- which was quite new to the Near North Side at the time -- about fair housing.

What better icon to champion the current movement but a man who gave his life in opposition, Newburger says.

Too bad it's nearly impossible to prove.

To start with, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, who in 1954 helped form the Mississippi NAACP and eventually became its national board chairman, says in a written statement that she doesn't remember any connection to a building on the Near North Side of CHicago.

But that doesn't rule out the possibility, she says. "I can't be definite that he never stayed there," reads the statement from Evers-Williams, who now lives in central Oregon. She says her husband spent summers here prior to 1950, they year they met.

This matches stories told by Nehemiah Russell, principal of the Cabrini-Green middle College alternative school, who says he saw Evers twice during the summer. But Russell says he remembers Evers in the neighborhood a little later than that. He says Evers came to the Near North Side following the 1955 race killing of Emmett Till in Money, MIssissippi. Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, had been taken from his uncle's home, murdered and thrown in a river for flirting with a white woman.

Russell says he saw Evers on the building's porch in 1955 -- three years before the first high-rises were built.

"I didn't get a chance to talk to Evers. I really just said, 'Hi,'" recalls Russell, who is known for his admitted "political" affiliation with Chicago's West Side gangs, both then and now.

But Mamie Till Mobley, who still lives in Chicago, can't place Medgar Evers here at the time. She says she doesn't remember meeting NAACP representatives until later that year.

"I had already been called a Communist," recalls the 76-year-old. "I didn't even know what that was until I got down to Mississippi for the trial," where she likely did meet Evers, who regularly attended the proceedings.

Another possibility is that Evers frequented Chicago a few years later, after his brother, Charles, moved here from Mississippi in 1957.

Vowing to get rich and support the movement back home, Charles Evers says he soon fell into the life of a hustler, running numbers for the mob and "managing" prostitutes out of hotels and night clubs. He says his much more conservative brother wanted no part in the racket.

"When he came here, he would ask me, 'What color is that money?'" Charles Evers recalls from his office at WMPR-FM, a radio station he manages in Jackson, Mississippi.

But did Medgar visit 1142 North Orleans, a lovely building that neighborhood residents says was owned by a conservative black family at the time?

Charles Evers can recite at least four of his Chicago addresses from memory (his favorite is 1313 West 13th), but he has no recollection of himself or Medgar spending time on the Near North Side.

"It just wasn't our part of town," he say. "But that's no to say for sure he wasn't there."

And it's not to say that the area wasn't active. According to NAACP archives in the Library of Congress, Medgar Evers' own organization was holding meetings just two blocks away from the three-flat as early as 1955, when black first integrated the Trumbull Park housing development on the Far South Side.

The records also show that Evers was quite meticulous in recording his expenses when he traveled for the NAACP. Over the years, it seems he documented every trip, from Seattle to Springfield, Illinois.

But nowhere in these records do the words "Medgar Evers" and "Chicago" appear in the same place, according to Fred Baumer, senior research assistant in the library's manuscripts division, where a large portion of the NAACP's official documents are kept.

"This isn't as difficult as proving the Virgin Mary appeared on a deserted island," an exasperated Baumer says after a week of searching through the files. "But it's getting close to that."

Maybe he wasn't here on official business, the dwellers say.

Maybe he wasn't visible enough to makes headlines back then. Many long-time residents say they didn't hear of Evers until his death.

Maybe it will take years to wrest the story from those who know it, like the years it took to eventually convict Evers' murderer in 1994.

And maybe the dwellers can perform miracles to condense what appears to be a life's work of historical research into the next few months.

And why not? The dwellers go at these projects with the zeal of college activists -- even though their wire-rims, Mao buttons and "power to the people" mantras seem somewhat out of place in Cabrini. Not to mention that as a visible white group, they tend to stick out.

But it doesn't matter to them, or area residents -- in Cabrini they're just part of the community. Newburger and Small, the older members, are no strangers to organizing public housing. Newburger came to Chicago in the early 1980s to work against public housing lockdowns.

During these rallies he met Small, and later, organizing in local high schools, they met Shawn, who joined up with them because, as Newburger says, "she was just always aware that she never liked mean things." Seven, the group's youngest, was recruited form Lincoln Park High School, where the group did much of it's organizing before they moved to Cabrini.

"The reason we moved in here was because it ... was the only place you could move in Cabrini where you were close enough. The public housing people were not about to have us move in," Newburger says. "We'd come to Cabrini and people would say, 'Where were you last night?' so we had to be where we were needed."

The dwellers also say that when their building was sold, they were asked by residents to stay and fight. And last week at 1230 North Burling, a building in Cabrini-Green, it was obvious that the dwellers have a relationship with residents. They greet people warmly by first name and are welcomed in return. In fact, residents frequently work to protect them -- Cheryl, who lives in the Burling building, and two others who were staffing the building's guard room waited out in the bitter cold late on the night of January 6 when Newburger was arrested in the building's parking lot for disorderly conduct -- just to make sure the police "weren't going to take him anywhere."

Even those who aren't paying much attention to them know who they are. Tyrell, who is part of a small group hanging around outside Burling, says they're around all the time. "They live here just like us," he says.

Does he know that they're Communists trying to save the building over on Orleans? "What? No, wait, that building over there. Yeah, I know, about that," he says. "They don't need to be tearing down nothin' else over here."

But as Small shouts at the building over hand-held microphone and amplifier, railing against police injustice, a large portion of those nearby couldn't care less. Most are tying to shovel out their cars -- as of the Thursday following the blizzard the Cabrini parking lots remained unplowed and nearly impenetrable.

Still, the dwellers are an earnest bunch. Departing for home they bring at least eight kids from the area back to 1142 to draw and spend some time with them. "We're trying to teach them about their rights and stuff before they have their records," Newburger says. "To be able to have your kids go somewhere where they'll be protected and looked after and learn something that's useful and valuable is important."

Inside 1142, the walls are line with banners that say things like "Fix it up, don't tear it down." The upper floor includes an office where they make leaflets, fax press releases and store copies of the Revolutionary Worker. In the cramped kitchen a sign on the sink where water runs continuously warns, "Don't turn off," to make sure the water doesn't freeze on the way up. Not exactly the most logical place for a civil-rights museum.

But that argument provokes Newburger. "Well, frankly this is about the struggle for black people to live anywhere they want in Chicago. What is the North Side?" he asks "It's much more logical not to put a civil rights museum anywhere near white people because white people have no real need to know about the struggle of black people against oppression, do they?"

So if they succeed, then what? The quit their day jobs? (All the dwellers work nine-to-fives -- Newburger as a computer consultant for a financial company, the rest as temps.)

They won't give up, says "AK" Small, who spends every evening canvassing high-rise after high-rise, passing out flyers and drumming up support.

He says their next steps -- all of which must happen before the lease ends March 31 -- are to convince a local, state or federal agency that the building is either architecturally or historically significant, keep the city from tearing it down and then secure funding for a museum.

Needless to say, city officials are skeptical.

"Next thing you know, we'll be trying to get every Hilton made a historic site," says Jerome Siegan, the attorney who originally defended the city in the dwellers' suit to retain possession of the building.

While he and David Tkac, the mayor's point man on Cabrini redevelopment, often make snide remarks about the dwellers -- including Tkac's comment in a December 24 Chicago Tribune article suggesting that they go find a "three-flat in North Korea" -- they touch on the important issue of what constitutes a historic site.

"It's like all those 'George Washington slept here' sites you see on the East Coast," says Meredith Taussig, public information officer for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, with which the dwellers recently filed for status.

Unfortunately for them, Taussig says, the commission's "work plan" for 1999 already has been set, which means 1142 won't even be considered, let alone studied, until 2000. "Unless," she says, "an exception is made."

To intensify the bureaucratic nightmare, that exception would have to be approved by the city's Department of Planning and Development, which oversees the landmarks commission and, no surprise, has everything to do with the redevelopment project in Cabrini-Green.

In addition, the commission always seeks a blessing from a building's owner before granting it landmark status, Taussig says. Considering the city itself now owns the building and could easily refuse requests, "Well, that makes it even more difficult for them, doesn't it?"

Other groups, like the Illinois Preservation Agency, which funnels requests to the National Register of Historic Places, have the power to preserve as well.

Despite the obvious glitches -- like the fact that the agency only considers sites whose historic significance is more than 50 years old, the Evers plan could meet the agency's criteria, says it Chicago programs manager, Kent Haag. Those conditions include the ability to relate the structure to people, events or periods significant in history.

"We should not let things get torn down until they've been fully examined," says Haag, even though he doesn't have final say on sites like 1142. "This guy (Evers) wasn't just anybody; he was somebody."

But in the high-stakes game of Cabrini redevelopment, preservation efforts may not be enough -- especially without support from the "big guns."

"You just can't stand in the way of progress," says new Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who lives one block east of 1142. White, who's spent the greater part of his life in Near North, doesn't remember Medgar Evers in the neighborhood. But he says if Evers was there, it's worth commemorating -- with a compromise.

"Here's a thought: When we do build the new park, how about we dedicate a room in the office of the library to Medgar Evers? What's wrong with that?" White says. "Besides, who are these people? Are they black or white? How do they know what's best for the community?"

That's another sticky point. Should a group of white Communists who are not living in public housing speak for an entire area and hold up the "progress" that the city claims will help the area?

"A lot of people don't have any experience fighting city hall," Newburger says of area residents.

And then there's the new park expansion, where Newburger says residents at Cabrini, who find themselves harassed by police anyway, will find even more problems. "You're going to a park where that's a common everyday occurrence and you're not going to go to that park very long," he says.

But if compromise must be the solution, it may take the work of Bertha Gilkey, a consultant who helped orchestrate the consent decree between CHA, residents and the city and who currently is the strongest Evers-museum proponent who is not considered an extremist.

"If we have to tear the building down to get the museum, so be it," says Gilkey, a long-time advocate for tenant ownership of public housing. "Although you do feel the history of a place more when it's been around for while."

Instead o facing what could be years of deliberations, Gilkey says she will ask the city outright to relinquish ownership of the building to Cabrini residents and then appeal to foundations for funding.

"We could even bill the museum as a satellite of an existing museum or library -- whatever it takes," Gilkey says.

Although the consent decree promises that more than 800 low-income housing units will be built after the city demolishes old high-rises, Gilkey says the community must be concerned with rebuilding more than just bricks and mortar.

"It would be the first time in this country that public housing residents operate a museum and pay tribute to a man who paid his dues for civil rights -- so much so that he gave his life," Gilkey says.

So what happens to the dwellers? Worst case scenario, they have to move; best case, they continue to rail against the city's continuing redevelopment plans backed by a center celebrating the life of a man, who if he had lived might have been fighting the same battles.

But, if it comes to it, they say they have not choice but to settle on compromise, just as long as people know how it came about. In the meantime, all they can do is continue organizing "fix 'em ups" of Cabrini buildings.

"That's okay," Small says. "After all, we're just preparing minds for the day when revolution comes."

Email Kelly McEvers >>
Copyright 1999. New City. All rights reserved