Resting on Chicago’s northwest side, Jefferson Park can be accurately described many ways: Sleepy, tree-lined, an urban nirvana for many residents seeking an appealing section of the city to have a life and to bring up a family.
Nearly indistinguishable from neighboring South Edgebrook, Forest Glen, North Mayfair and Mayfair to the east, Union Ridge and Big Oaks to the west, with faint differences to Portage Park to the south and some variance with Edgebrook and Wildwood to the north, this bounded enclave is often a lifelong residence or first choice and final destination for its denizens. Unlike first-time homebuyers who consider the Lincoln Park or Old Town neighborhoods a way-stop prior to making their voyage to the land of milk and honey in western or northern suburbs, inhabitants of Jefferson Park become permanent residents by conscious choice.
A tight-knit community in which bungalows dominate the landscape, the community’s bonds of affection are strengthened at Saint Cornelius or Saint Constance, where Catholic mass is still celebrated in Polish, just as they are undoubtedly boosted at a monthly assembly of the Jefferson Park Association, Cub Scout meetings or Chicago Park District youth baseball.
Solidly middle class, and a healthy mix of white and blue collar workers, the neighborhood is dominated by independent businesses, inhabited by small business owners, along with the occasional executive or attorney, and an assortment of city workers, expressly firemen and members of law enforcement.
Likewise, Jefferson Park’s confines boast of a smattering of “mom-and-pop” stores and eateries where locals line up for Mother Cluckers Kitchen, sit for an upscale dinner at Legno, and, for some, their biggest conflict amounts to whether to stop in at Rex Tavern or Gale Street Inn to put away a few.
Other than the brief cacophony triggered by the once-a-year Jeff Fest event, the lone disturbance in the community is the constant din of the Kennedy Expressway, which drives like a stake through the heart of the neighborhood. While the community has flourished and deftly avoided shattering divisions which have splintered other sections of the city for decades, the triumph of Jefferson Park is now imperiled by 45th Ward Alderman John Arena’s proposal to build Section 8 housing at 5150 North Northwest Highway.
Brought to light for public consumption on January 26, Arena’s measure advances a plan to build a 100-unit, mixed-income residence on the spot of the former offices of a food distributer in the heart of Jefferson Park. Part of a broader plan to usher in new construction elsewhere in the area, under Arena’s plan the complex would feature retail stores, parking, and 80 of 100 units offered below market rates, 20 of which are set aside for current residents of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).
At issue is “mixed-income” housing. A byword for low-income, working poor toiling in decaying inner-city public housing units, 40 of the proposed units at 5150 North Northwest Highway would house residents earning between 30 and 60 percent of the area’s median income. For good measure, Mr. Arena is earmarking remaining units for veterans and those with disabilities.
A controversial alternative to traditional public housing projects, Section 8 makes all rental properties open to grantees through the Housing Choice Voucher program. A policy administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Section 8 tenants, half of whom are dependent on welfare benefits, pay up to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income in rent. The federal government pays the remaining amount in annual rental fees.
In practice, a majority of landlords seldom lease to Section 8 tenants. This circumstance often leads to a high concentration of Section 8 tenants housed in the few residences which do accept subsidized renters.
In announcing the plan, Arena morphed into the role of social-justice warrior by converting Jefferson Park and his constituents into test subjects. “The Northwest Side traditionally hasn’t been the best participant in solving the poverty problem. It’s time for us to get more serious in that effort,” Arena told reporters when rolling out his blueprint to overhaul his ward.
Refusing to stand by passively while Arena foisted his unwanted funhouse-mirror scheme to re-style a cherished neighborhood to gratify his piety to socially progressive politics, residents immediately lined up in opposition. On the vanguard of defiance to Arena’s plan was the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce, the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and several hundred residents unwilling to see their neighborhood condemned unheard. Paramount among their concerns attached to the debut of Section 8 housing is schools, declining property value and, naturally, crime.
Originally scheduled to greet residents at the Chicago Police Department’s 16th District community room on North Milwaukee Avenue on February 9, residents deduced Arena arranged the meeting at the 16th District as a means of flight from a large crowd to fend off what he anticipated would be crushing criticism for his social experiment. Astounded residents recognized his ploy, Arena agreed to move the meeting to the Branch Community Church at 6215 West Foster Avenue. A larger venue, Arena would face residents bitterly disapproving of his scheme.
Amid his re-scheduling a meeting to face his constituents, Arena came up against a growing backlash to his proposal on social media in the two days prior to the February 9 forum. Failing miserably to restrain his anger, Arena revealed himself to be a man filled with guile, artlessly responding with vile slanders on Facebook and directing venomous attacks at legitimate and thoughtful voices resistant to his hopelessly distorted plan to import Section 8 housing into Jefferson Park.
In a string of abominable posts on social media demonstrating a striking level of hostility at his constituents, Arena let loose with crude, subliterate vulgarity while clumsily striving to portray opponents to his plan as paranoid, bigoted cranks who spread fear and lack compassion. Naturally, Arena hurled the Progressive Left’s preferred weapon, the baseless charge of racism:
“I am not ready to cead [sic] this country to the racist, classist, knuckle-dragging and generally subhuman puddle of DNA that makes up the base of Trump supporters. We have made too much progress since scrubbing the Bush idiocy from the Oval Office.”
“Go ahead. Move to Indiana and live in a third world economy. Sh*t schools and low wages. And read a newspaper or something. We removed the “tampon tax” not imposed one. Bring a bag and you don’t pay a bag tax. Put water meter in and you don’t pay the water increase. Rail against everything but offer no ideas and think only of yourself. Life is not taxes but taxes pay for all of the services you use everyday [sic]. Time to grow up and be a part of society.”
“So what. Section 8 vouchers are everywhere and can’t be discriminated against. Just because you are driven by prejudice does not mean the ready of the community should be. And god [sic] forbid people of modest incomes [sic] be give [sic] a small shot at quality housing.”
Following his overwrought outrage turning the public square on social media into a verbal junkyard with words which could hardly convince skeptics of his plan or enrich his standing in his ward, Arena thankfully, and mercifully, removed his calumny from public view.
In the midst of the spiraling crisis, Arena, at long last, met 45th Ward citizens at Branch Community Church on February 9. A meeting he loathed by virtue of his deficit of leadership on the tangled Section 8 matter, Arena placed tight restrictions for those in attendance. Anticipating rancor, the craven Arena disallowed non-45th Ward residents to lessen the number of citizens with whom he has incubated a grievance and posted proxies at the door to check identification to certify residency.
Such a spineless caveat did not hinder those with strong opinions for the coming disaster for this quiet neighborhood: Denied entry at the door, several hundred area residents gathered outside to express disapproval for the entirety of the meeting. Included among the demonstrators was 41st Ward Alderman Anthony Napolitano, who admitted his office had been inundated with calls opposed to Arena’s grand scheme. A man alone on an island, Napolitano is the solitary Republican seated in the Chicago City Council.
Inside Branch Community, Arena’s tepid entry followed with a calm reciting of his ground rules warning attendees they would be dismissed or he would halt the meeting if mayhem ensued. In contrast to the intrepid keyboard-warrior performance he turned out days earlier on social media, Arena oversaw the meeting less provocatively and signaled a trace of courtliness voters expect in a member of the Chicago City Council.
Despite his unavailing ambition for a bloodless and sedate gathering, the meeting was an unmitigated disaster: Consistently upstaged by residents, Arena was confronted with the wrath of voters the entire evening. Often met with jeers, laughter and rounds of applause after denunciations of the measure were uttered from residents, Arena’s childish tantrum on social media two days earlier manifest itself in bursts and flashes throughout the meeting with angry reminders of attendees’ violations of decorum.
Initially intending to fixate on two proposals, one of which was the construction of a storage facility, a majority of the meeting revolved around the Section 8 housing proposal.
After briefly allowing residents to speak, Arena shifted tack and produced Josh Wilmoth, president of Full Circle Communities, Arena’s partner on the Section 8 housing project. Retailed by Arena as an objective expert, Wilmoth pushed forward with a futile venture aimed at shutting down Arena’s critics. In his third-rate sales pitch, Wilmoth proceeded to reel off a myriad of preventive measures his organization draws on to exclude the kind of rabble associated with public housing projects from infesting the residence proposed in Jefferson Park.
As residents listened intently, Wilmoth continued to appeal to the audience, seeking to set Full Circle Communities apart from the dreary image residents clutch of public housing. Included in Wilmoth’s toothless presentation was a statistical and rhetorical lightshow replete with visual aids which included percentages, bar graphs and charts touting success stories from previous Full Circle investments in Section 8 housing and, laughably, a ridiculous comparison to an apparent tour de force Full Circle achieved outside of Chicago.
With Wilmoth’s amateurish exhibition falling flat, Arena, desperate for the meeting to end, turned the podium over to residents for the meeting’s final segment. A gesture he would later regret, the 45th Ward alderman barely sustained 40 minutes of rage directed at him and against his plan as a seemingly unending column of residents stood before the audience and assailed his development plans for their neighborhood.
Learning life is distinct during face-to-face meetings, Arena randomly chose residents who, one by one, lined up to peel away Arena’s reasoning for situating Section 8 housing in their community. Illustrating an impressive grasp of the consequences of introducing Section 8 housing into their neighborhood, residents alternatively inquired of and assailed the alderman, reminding Arena Section 8 housing is not a risk-free proposition.
In what may have drawn the loudest and most passionate applause of the evening, several residents stood to direct personal indignation at Arena. One brave soul took to the podium to assail Arena’s reflexive labeling her a racist on social media and, in her own way, reminded the unworldly alderman his fictitious allegation only succeeded in cheapening a grave charge. A second voter reminded Arena of his slurs on social media; a third challenged the alderman to re-locate his unpopular proposal in his neighborhood at Six Corners.
Given the level of fury cast at the alderman, one would reasonably suspect Arena would reel from shock or register amazement. However, witnesses watching the spectacle unfold say Arena made no serious attempt to engage in debate and mechanically called on residents to speak with a steely silence, preferring to endure the meeting instead of presiding over it as if the entire evening was a colossal waste of his time.
John Arena may be in public service, but he does not serve the public.
Lacking political smarts and modesty, Arena carelessly underestimated the resolve of Jefferson Park residents and citizens from surrounding neighborhoods with his Section 8 proposal.
Primarily a political damage-control operation, Arena’s tone and behavior prior to and at the Branch Community meeting was scarcely wise or realistic. Guided by hauteur and not clear thinking, he was unable to convince voices sounding alarm to a plan which residents fear will throw a valued neighborhood into chaos. While residents were at times animated, in view of the fact they have a broader concept of what is at stake, they often offered sober, intelligent, and enlightened lines of inquiry and articulated opposition to Arena’s proposal.
Meeting residents with cold indifference while basking in his power, Arena’s tone-deaf response to urgent requests to abandon his plans illustrate Arena confuses his election to public office with elevation to a role of medieval lord presiding over a fiefdom: He mistakenly deems 45th Ward constituents as serfs, deferential nonentities who are perpetually in his debt.
It is, however, Arena’s social-media activity in advance of the February 9 meeting which is so disturbing and what inspires the deep, durable unhappiness Jefferson Park residents harbor against the alderman. As residents turned to Facebook to enunciate reasoned arguments against Arena’s proposed facelift for 5150 North Northwest Highway, Arena re-acted with fury in an online rampage unbecoming a Chicago City Councilman.
When met with a variance in opinion to his proposal, Arena branded those who disputed apostates guilty of a moral lapse, wrote abuse, rejected valid concerns over his proposal as unbecoming provincialism from nasty right-wing elitists clutching odious views and described Jefferson Park as a hopelessly and intractably racist neighborhood.
That Arena cast such scorn is a paradox: A political fraudster and hypocrite, Arena engaged in the very behavior he condemned in others. By registering contempt online, Arena dismantled his posture as a dispenser of grace, the healer of broken lives and an agent of reconciliation. Arena’s online act only proved harassment is his preferred choice to suppress disagreements.
Residents of Jefferson Park do not fear change; they are not discontented, ungrateful, disobedient or rebellious; and they are not without sympathy for the underprivileged. They are, on the contrary, passionately concerned with their community. Residents in Jefferson Park are uninterested in public squalor overwhelming their streets, overtaking their schools, businesses and parks and regardless of assurances from Full Circle and Alderman Arena, residents are basing their unease on a keen appreciation of on-the-ground realities in their community. Wracked with anxiety over the prospect of poverty invited into their neighborhood, residents in this area are opposed to any social experiment which will usher in hallmarks of a poverty-stricken hell hole: Gang graffiti adorning walls, changes to local commerce, once impeccably-maintained landscape taking a littered look and a matter of undeniable fact, rising violent crime.
Angered his constituents are better informed than he had prepared for, Arena adjourned the assembly, retreated and vowed to schedule future meetings after discovering what voters, when roused, are capable of. A short-sighted politician, Jefferson Park’s alderman demonstrated his only concerns are with tomorrow’s headline and next his next election, not a future when he no longer holds office.
Mr. Arena, however, should be well advised there are consequence to such hardball tactics. He can pour perfume by the bucket over this Section 8 housing proposal, but it will emit the foul odor of a public housing project for an eternity.
An epic flub on his part, Mr. Arena barely scraped enough votes together to defeat challenger John Garrido in 2011. While the 2015 ward election returned him to office with a wider margin, a 2019 re-election bid is accompanied by a fire he ignited and no pious sermonizing will be sufficient for Arena to salvage his political career.
Now bitterly in earnest against him, Jefferson Park residents may be required to wait another two years to have their sagging hopes lifted, but the public will respond and Arena will learn the perils of ignoring his constituents.
[Photo courtesy Chicago Sun Times]