Schulter exits; His legacy remains Part 2

Ald. Eugene Schulter

Ald. Eugene Schulter Credit: Jane Rickard

This weekend marks the end of an era, not just for Chicago, but for Ravenswood. Today, for the first time since 1975, the 47th Ward will not be represented by Eugene Schulter.

Schulter’s impact on the Ward will last well into the future, even as the laminated signs disappear from our alleys and his name from projects completed.

Schulter joined the council at the age of 26 in 1975. At the time he was the youngest alderman to ever serve. Schulter will be remembered in the Ward for his leadership in the movement of the Old Town School of Folk Music main campus to Lincoln Square, the establishment of the Sulzer Regional Library and the economic revitalization of Lincoln Square.

In part two, we look at some of the civic projects and legacy of his time in office.

Sulzer Library

Among the big projects that will last generations is the creation of the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library. Was it Schulter’s creation of that of Ed Kelly, his political mentor? Both politicians take credit for the library.

The library was opened in the fall of 1985 at a cost of $5.5 million to replace the Hild Regional Library. Although the design created “one of the city’s brightest and airiest” libraries, the 65,000 quare foot building “lopped about 30,000 square feet” from the original design according to Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader.

It also suffered from a design flaw that allowed water to leak into the structure as late as 2001.

By 2001 the library is reported to have had the second largest circulation in the Chicago Library System according to the report by Joravsky. A report in Inside Publications in 2001 says the branch had a circulation of 72 percent that of the Washington main branch.

In August 2001, according to press reports in the Reader and other local newspapers, the Sulzer branch collection was hit with a purge of the collection. Activists estimate the library lost ten percent of the total collection, up to 35,000 books.

Schulter joined Sulzer’s Friends of the Library and local media in a confrontation with central office staff as news spread of the purge. In a basement confrontation at the library Schulter got into a shouting match with “one of (Library Commissioner Mary) Dempsey’s staffers,” according to the Reader’s interview with Ron Roenigk, a member of the Sulzer Friends of the Library.

Schulter, the Friends of Sulzer and others met with Dempsey later that week. Their agreement to create an advisory council does not appear to have been followed-up as there is no such council presently active at Sulzer.

Old Town School of Folk Music

According to the Chicago Tribune, “most people credit (the arrival of the Old Town School of Folk Music) with kick-starting the neighborhood’s transformation. The opening in 1998 transformed the former Hild Library building into a neighborhood cultural center with regular music performances. The first location for the school was in the Old Town Triangle on North Ave. In 1968 the school moved to a 13,000 square foot location it still owns on Armitage.

Schulter says he approached the OTS to move into the Hild Library building, vacant after the construction of the Sulzer Library. In 1994 the OTS was chosen as the preferred recipient of the former Hild building. This assessment of Schulter’s role was shared by Bau Graves of the OTS as well as Schulter.

The new 43,000 square foot $10 million site opened in 1998. It had a 400 seat venue for concerts and allowed the school to expand enrollment to 6,400 students per week according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. In 2010, the school laid the ground for an $18 million 27,100 square foot expansion across Lincoln Ave. from the Hild location.

An economic engine, the school employs 300 teachers and staff and expects to add 250 when the expansion is complete.

Although the school plans to add up to 4,800 students a week after the completion of the addition, plans for handling the parking crunch have not yet been explained.

The school also holds an annual Folk and Roots Festival in Welles Park each summer.

The school has also acted as a magnet. The strip of Lincoln near the school does not appear to have as many issues with storefront vacancies and the school is credited with attracting the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative.

Lincoln Square Pedestrian Mall success and failure

It may not appear like it today, but at one time the small boutique stores of the Lincoln Square Mall struggled against larger retail areas, particularly a Lake View big store strip centered on Belmont, Ashland and Lincoln.

An entry in The Encyclopedia of Chicago by Amanda Seligman notes the situation:

The intersection at Lincoln, Lawrence, and Western Avenues had never been as popular as other regional shopping districts, and the growing number of empty storefronts after World War II made some merchants worry about their ability to attract customers. In 1956, they erected a statue of the late president Abraham Lincoln, for whom the area and its major street were called. In 1978 they developed the Lincoln Square mall, a pedestrian plaza that required a controversial rerouting of local traffic. The chamber tried to evoke an Old World flavor with European-style shops and a lantern imported from Hamburg, Germany.

Although he was just in his 20′s and two years in office at the time, Schulter claims credit for the redevelopment of the mall. “One of his first initiatives as Alderman was to change the traffic flow on the 4800 block of N. Lincoln Avenue to create the pedestrian mall in the Lincoln Square,” his web site says.

The pedestrian mall began filling the storefronts south of Lawrence Avenue. However, the area north of Lawrence continued to languish behind the mall.

In March 2006 a Chicago Tribune story noted a city plan to purchase 11 parcels in the “4800 block of North Lincoln” and the “4900 block of North Western.”

“Of those buildings, maybe three are occupied” by commercial tenants Schulter told the Tribune.

In September 2007 the city Community Development Commission approved acquiring 16 parcels saying the businesses “do not represent the highest and best use of the land.”

However, the owner of Chicago Soccer, Imre Hidvegi, and the owner of Decorium Furniture, Tim Le, organized against the eminent domain.

They pointed to their successful businesses and their investments. On December 5, 2007, as Schulter guided eminent domain legislation towards a vote, a group called Save Lincoln Square met at Chicago Soccer to organize against the City Council vote. When the crowd asked why Schulter wasn’t there to meet with them someone announced that he had open ward night at his office and wasn’t available.

Someone else announced they were residents and stood up saying something to the effect of ‘I’m going to go down there.’

According to Tom Mannis of the Chicago News Bench 200-300 people marched down Lincoln Ave to Schulter’s office. A report in the ChiTownDailyNews said the number was closer to 100.

“Alderman Eugene Schulter yelled at his constituents and threatened to have the police haul them away,” Mannis reports. Mannis’ version was confirmed to The Bulldog by other witnesses that night.   The video below, from the Chicago News Bench shows the protest.  

The Sun-Times Mark Konkol noted Schulter’s capitulation:

Bowing to pressure following a community protest and the Sun-Times coverage of his redevelopment plans for the Lincoln Square business district, Alderman Gene Schulter (47th Ward) pulled an ordinance that would have allowed the city to use its eminent domain powers to gobble up the 4800 block of Western.

(In a statement Schulter said) I would like to also take this opportunity to thank the many residents of the 47th Ward who have called, written, and emailed their thoughts and views on this issue to my office expressing both support and concerns.

Other achievements

Talking to Schulter during an informal meeting last spring, prior to being cut-off from further contact, Schulter told The Bulldog he had a hand in the development of most of the business in the Ward.

It was a fantastic claim from a person who had never started a small business.

Here are a few of the major claims on the Schulter’s bio on the city web site:

  • Developed Levy Senior Center
  • Established Western and Belmont police and court facilities
  • Created fire station at Damen and Grace
  • Created new field house at Chase Park
  • Advocated for substantial improvements at Welles Park and Paul Revere Park
  • Created new jobs and retained jobs in the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor
  • Created Greening of Ravenswood
  • Sponsored capital and operational improvements at schools in ward, new additions at McPherson and Chappell
  • Fought negligent and delinquent landlords in ward
  • Established Lake View High School Campus. (“city’s first school campus.” I guess the campus at Lane Tech came later?)

The Western Avenue North TIF, which is unmentioned above, reports it funded one project. It also hung out several million dollars for small business development. Millions move from this TIF to other TIFs in the city.

The Western Avenue South TIF helped the Martha Washington Hospital campus transform into a senior campus and can be considered a TIF success.

It too ships millions of dollars out of the community to help the city’s general revenue fund.

Greening of Ravenswood doesn’t seem to have been active for several years. Its website is for sale.

The Ravenswood Community Council, itself a creature of Schulter, is trying to reinvent itself after years of failure.

The Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce has collapsed. The industrial corridor is reinventing itself as an artist district.

The neighborhood schools are adequate. As noted in previous Bulldog reports, sadly, they are not excellent. Responsibility for their problems are denied by our elected officials, though the shiny new additions are credited to politicians who have supported fiscal policies that have robbed the schools of potential resources.

In the 15 months The Bulldog has existed  Schulter famously returned from vacation to vote against a recommendation that would cut his control of street sweepers and trash collection. Later Schulter told the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce he would fight cuts to their funding.

(What happens when the Chamber crosses the alderman? Read about it here.)

Later, Schulter did not appear at a special meeting of the City Council called to put a referendum on the ballot regarding increasing police presence and to reconsider the parking meter lease.

For the final word on Schulter’s legacy we refer you to a report carried by WBEZ: “We really felt like we had no word,” Tim Le of Decorium told the radio station about Schulter’s eminent domain plans.

Read Part 1 of the Schulter legacy.

*** Update 110515 5.03P Bau Graves name had an extra ‘e’ (Beau). ***