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War of Words 

Faced with anti-yuppie grafitti and a stinging satirical attack, Alderman Eugene Schulter fights back with a lawsuit.

Developer Jim Gramata was converting a Lincoln Square two-flat into a single-family home in May 2000 when somebody scrawled "No yuppies" on the front porch. Antigentrification comments were spray painted on the property four more times that year, the words bigger and bolder each time.

Nearby homes were also getting hit. Across the street, on the 2100 block of West Agatite, Mary Johnson was having a single-family house rehabbed; she was moving out of Lakeview, which she thought had become too gentrified. Someone kept scrawling "No yuppies" on her siding and garage door, along with messages such as "Affordable housing in the 47th Ward: how about it, Gene?"--a reference to Alderman Eugene Schulter. She had the graffiti painted over, then started writing messages of her own next to the tags, pleas to the vandals to stop. Once she wrote, "Sorry we're not home. Please take a marker and leave a message." She asked police if the vandalism qualified as a hate crime and was told that yuppies weren't a protected minority.

Johnson moved in last December, and her first night in the house a noise woke her up shortly after midnight. She found a fresh "No yuppies" message across her front porch. Still in her pajamas, she went to the police station and demanded that police photograph the tag immediately because she wanted to paint over it so her kids wouldn't see it when they woke up.

The Lincoln Square area got most of the "No yuppies" graffiti, but people saw tags from Ashland to the river and from Addison to Foster--an area encompassing most of Schulter's 47th Ward and a piece of Richard Mell's 33rd. Gramata, Johnson, and other home owners went to Schulter for help, and they say he acknowledged the problem but did nothing about it until Channel Five picked up the story in late December. Then he offered a $5,000 reward solicited from area businesses, put out a press release, and went on TV to rail against what he called "almost a hate crime." He said, "We can't allow people to be targeted because they fit a certain economic or cultural profile or because someone else doesn't like them."

In May 2001 police charged a neighborhood youth, 18-year-old Sean Barnes, with eight counts of criminal damage to property, including spray painting a for-sale sign at Bell and Cullom as well as Gramata's and Johnson's houses. Police allege that several area youths told them Barnes had been bragging about painting the graffiti and that soon after they brought him in for questioning he confessed to 21 acts of vandalism.

Most of the property owners decided not to press charges, but Gramata, Johnson, and a few others stood firm. Barnes appeared before a judge on June 7, in a courtroom at Belmont and Western. Schulter, who lives down the street and around the corner from Barnes, was there, along with 20 home owners and developers who'd been victimized, among them Gramata and Johnson. Barnes--who's tall, has a baby face, and shoulder-length blond hair--came with a lawyer, his mother, stepfather, and two siblings. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of a year in jail, though he'd be more likely to get probation and community service.

The case was quickly continued. After both camps filed out of the courtroom Gramata said, "I understand the frustration with gentrification, but there are other ways to get the message across." He hoped Barnes, who's now 19, would eventually be sentenced to jail. Johnson, a former probation officer, wanted Barnes to personally apologize to all of the victims and do community service. "I think this is a kid who needs to be made to walk in someone else's shoes," she said. Both she and Gramata were convinced that Barnes was guilty.

In mid-October, Barnes's lawyer, Julie Aimen, challenged her client's arrest and confession on the grounds that he wasn't properly read his Miranda rights. On her advice, Barnes declined to comment on his case. His mother, Stella Peters, says he works at a video store and still lives with her. She also says he's considering a career in law enforcement or working with troubled teens. He has no previous arrest record.

Even residents convinced of Barnes's guilt don't think he's the only culprit. They point out that not all of the anti-yuppie taggings were in the same handwriting, and realtor James Miller says a video camera he set up at a home he was selling caught two young men on mountain bikes spraying paint, though police told him his videotape was too blurry to be helpful in identifying them. He says that on another day, when he came to change the videotape, he saw what looked like the same two biking away from the house--one was wearing a ski mask, the other was tall, blond, and clean-cut. He chased them, but they escaped.

Schulter acknowledges that there may be more than one offender, but he considers Barnes's arrest a victory over the idea "that any group of people should be excluded from any community. We have sent a message loud and clear that we're proud of our diversity." Some residents aren't convinced that Schulter likes his ward's diversity, arguing that he wants to stop the graffiti mainly because it sometimes targets him.

Resentment against gentrification has simmered among some Lincoln Square residents since the mid-90s, when affluent home owners began flocking there. Many of them had moved from Lakeview and Lincoln Park, though some came from the suburbs. In 1999 hundreds of residents jammed the Sulzer Regional Library to protest the planned condoization of the Davis theater.

Schulter bowed to community pressure and helped save the theater, but many people still thought he was too cozy with developers and not concerned enough about changes in the neighborhood's character or about the loss of its working-class and minority residents. Last year when Starbucks announced plans to open second and third stores in the area, 200 residents marched along Lincoln Avenue and burned the alderman in effigy in front of his office.

Schulter defends himself by saying that during his 26 years as alderman crime rates in the ward have dropped, property values have risen, and new businesses and residents have flowed in. He says that when he was first elected "you couldn't get a mortgage if your life depended on it, you could not get insurance. People who haven't been around for a while don't have that sense of history." He says it took years of toil to create the "family atmosphere" that makes the community attractive today.

He also points out that he's tried to rein in developers through down-zoning (by limiting new construction on side streets in the ward to single-family homes) and by sponsoring a City Council ordinance mandating a 38-foot height limit on condos to keep them from dwarfing nearby homes. He says he's also vigorously prosecuted slumlords; improved parks, schools, and infrastructure; helped lure the Old Town School of Folk Music to the area; and supported the birth of a theater district. And he says rising rents and property values that change the character of the neighborhood are inevitable. "You can't stop people from moving into the neighborhood. You can't violate the Constitution."

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman who happens to live in the area, says the down-zoning measures Schulter has taken do tend to slow gentrification. And Harriet O'Donnell, vice president of the Ravenswood Community Council, points out that an alderman simply doesn't have the power to keep pricey condos from being built.

But Schulter's critics insist he could do more. Lisa Brooks, owner of an area Web development company, said in a letter published in the Sun-Times that while she didn't condone the graffiti, she thought that if Schulter fought harder for affordable housing and did more to support locally owned businesses and community diversity the tagging campaign would probably end. Area resident Chuck Mertz, host of a talk show on WNUR, invited whoever was painting the graffiti to come talk anonymously on his program about what they wanted, but no one responded to the offer.

In early May piles of a four-page newspaper--"Alderpuppet Schulter Purports," a parody of the quarterly "Alderman Schulter Reports"--appeared at area coffee shops and hangouts. It included a photo of a "No yuppies" tag captioned "Despite the bounty, free speech still reigns in the 47 Ward."

The Onion-inspired newsletter, which listed no publisher and had no bylines, featured mock news stories (including one about a $5,000 reward for anyone who wants to run against Schulter) and conceptual satire (including a connect-the-dots puzzle that revealed someone clutching a money bag and a coupon that could allegedly be redeemed for 30 minutes of the alderman's time). Not everything in it was satire; there were, among other things, figures on voter turnover in the 47th Ward and graphics illustrating the area's skyrocketing rise in rents and home prices during the 90s. But the satirical material contained several vague, unsubstantiated allegations that Schulter took bribes from developers.

Schulter's response was to sue--for $1 million--the Crossroads Fund, a nonprofit that awards small grants to Chicago-area community groups working on social- and economic-justice issues and happened to be listed in the newsletter as providing the funds for it to be published. "I have no problem with legitimate dialogue, fair criticism and humorous commentary," Schulter said in a press release, "but this impugns, misstates and distorts my history of service in my official duties as alderman." He refused to discuss the suit further, referring all questions to his lawyer.

The executive director of the fund, Jeanne Kracher, said she couldn't discuss the newsletter because of the lawsuit, but she did say it was the first time her organization had been sued. In a press release she called the suit "an attempt to stifle community criticism of Schulter's public performance around gentrification and development in the 47th Ward." Valerie S. Lies, president of the Chicago Donors Forum, a nonprofit organization of metropolitan grant makers, says there's no precedent for foundations being sued for actions of their grantees. Dick Simpson, who recently wrote a history of the City Council, says there's no precedent for an alderman going to court to silence constituents either.

Since Schulter is a public figure, he'd have to show not only that the tabloid defamed him, but that it defamed him with "actual malice"--by publishing information it knew was false. In August an attorney for Crossroads asked that the suit be dismissed because Crossroads didn't write, edit, review, publish, or distribute the newsletter, and at a hearing on Monday, October 15, the judge did so though without saying why. That same day Schulter's lawyer, Robert Fioretti--who'd subpoenaed bank and printer records trying to find out who'd worked on the tabloid--filed a new lawsuit against the two individuals listed in the records.

One woman who worked on the tabloid and wants to remain anonymous says it was published by members of Community Organizing Works, a small group formed by residents unhappy that the Davis nearly went condo. She says Crossroads gave COW a grant of less than $400, which it used to print 1,500 copies of the newsletter. And she says the people who worked on the paper didn't list their names because they wanted to keep readers focused on the issues they were raising rather than on personalities.

She also says COW is responsible for an anti-Schulter Web site--www.47ward.org--that defended graffiti as free speech and ranted about the alderman. A statement on the site about the lawsuit says, "We will not be chilled, squelched, squashed, or stopped. We are constituents of this ward, and the alderman has to deal with the fact that we don't agree with his policies." The woman says that the group has been looking for a lawyer and that the ACLU is considering whether to take the case.

In early July, after a hiatus of several months, anti-yuppie graffiti began appearing again in the neighborhood. A swastika and "yuppie faggot church" were sprayed on the door of the All Saints Episcopal Church rectory, at Wilson and Hermitage, and new "No yuppies" tags turned up on real estate signs near the church. Since then the graffiti has appeared only sporadically. Police questioned Barnes, who's been free on a recognizance bond, but no one's been charged for the offenses. Schulter says he won't offer a new reward.

Realtor James Miller says several of his signs got tagged in that round, but he notes it hasn't hurt sales and may have even helped them. "There have been a couple of people who saw 'No yuppies' on the sign when they came to look at a house and said, 'That tells me this area is appreciating, that it's a good investment to buy here.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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