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Our Loss 

He devoted his smarts to improving the city, but the city didn't always want improving. Now Bob Wulkowicz is hitting the road.

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By Ben Joravsky

"This is it," says Bob Wulkowicz, pointing to the boxes, books, and papers that reach the ceiling and cover the floor. "This is my life--you try putting your life in a bunch of boxes."

Wulkowicz, a 58-year-old fighter for long-shot (some might say hopeless) environmental causes, is leaving town. The bastards, he says, finally got him down.

In his own unconventional way, Wulkowicz is a quintessential Chicago type: the neighborhood rebel. He was born and raised on the near-southwest side near Cook County Jail, in what was then an enclave of Poles, Bohemians, Lithuanians, and other eastern European gentiles. But he never completely fit in.

"We lived in a three-flat at 21st and California, purchased by my grandfather with the pennies he saved," he says. "When I think about who I am I see parts of my father, my grandfather, and my mother. There's a real stubborn streak in us all, and we're all wise guys. We had these exchanges where the style was to get in your put-down before they got in theirs. My mother loves to read. Her story is that her father was a tailor, and he had a little shop one block east of California at Cermak. She came home with library books, and he threw them in the potbellied stove. She was mortified. And her reaction was to fill our home with the things her father said she couldn't have. I grew up in a house where there were books everywhere."

At a very early age he took to sneaking rides on streetcars just to see what existed in the world beyond Cermak and California. "I used to ride to the lakefront--I worshiped the lakefront--and play in the rubble of the World's Fair. Riding that streetcar showed me things I'd never otherwise see. I remember at Wacker and Wabash there was a beggar. He was a black guy with a chicken on his head. I don't know how he kept it there, but I was terrified. Wouldn't you be terrified of a guy with a chicken on his head? That stuff's gone now. For better or worse, the city of my youth no longer exists."

His parents scrimped and saved enough money to send him to Saint Rita High School, then at 63rd and Claremont. They might as well have saved their money and sent him to the local public school. It was a time of conformity, and the harder the priests of Saint Rita pushed, the harder Wulkowicz pushed back. "I was a skinny kid with a big nose and acne, and I got crummy grades. They had tracks back in those days--the science track, the business track, that sort of thing. All the scum was sent to refrigeration class. That's where I was. It was the greatest bunch of people--a collection of misfits who went on to become serial killers or Nobel Prize winners. You know, the typical dregs of the Catholic system."

His nemesis was the school's disciplinarian. "He was the keeper of the unruly. He'd punch you in the kidney just to keep you in line. He disliked me as much as I disliked him. He'd send me to the 'jug,' the early-morning detention center, where they make you write a thousand times 'I'm not a jerk' or 'I really do believe in God.' I did stupid stuff. I learned how to fill my mouth with lighter fluid and spit it out and light it with a lighter so it made this huge ball of fire. There was a Spanish teacher no one really liked. He'd have his back turned, and I'd let out a huge fireball. The class would howl. He'd turn around and see nothing. Oh hell, I guess I was a pain in the ass who deserved the jug."

The highlight of his high school career was the friendship he developed with another student, Stuart Dybek, who remains a close friend. Dybek, now a successful fiction writer, recalls, "He was this odd-man-out kind of guy who, because he was funny, was tolerated but not highly regarded. He certainly got my attention though. He was a big influence on my life. There was this whole intellectual movement in America that was just defining itself, and instinctively or intellectually, Bob was already at areas I wouldn't get to for a while. I found in this enormous haystack of books which was his room this thing called the Evergreen Review, and it happened to be the issue with all great poems like 'Howl.' This was the kind of stuff I came into contact with at his house, and it had an immediate electroshock impact."

Dybek says Wulkowicz was "the first guy I'd seen who intellectually defended himself against something which in some vague way I suspected was screwed up--in this case our high school. He did it through noncompliance and practical jokes. Imagine Gandhi with a sense of humor--that was his nonviolent resistance. Ironically, he was generally regarded in school as someone who was stupid, even though he was brilliant. He scored off the charts on the SAT or whatever the test was--he had the highest score in the school. This place was so stupid that they were trying to find out if he cheated. Of course if you get the highest grades how can you cheat? Whom are you copying from? They didn't know what to make of his score. It was ultimately regarded as one more weird thing this fuckup did to screw up the system."

Dybek wrote a story about Wulkowicz, "The Long Thoughts," that's in his collection Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. The main character, Vulk, is pure Wulkowicz, right down to his battles with the school disciplinarian, his messy room, his artistic talents, his hilarious family exchanges, and his valiant rebellion against mindless conformity in a city he'll never truly escape. Vulk and his best friend, the narrator, spend the better part of one school night wandering around outside County Jail in the middle of a snowstorm. They settle in an all-night Laundromat on 26th Street, where they drink burned coffee, make wisecracks, quote Ginsberg, watch the dryer operate, and lip off to a cop. "I wrote it as it happened--it's a pure piece of autobiography," says Dybek. "I didn't know how Bob's family would take it, but the last time I saw him we had lunch with his father, who's a wonderful guy. He didn't seem miffed. He said, 'Hey, write any more stories about us?'"

After graduating from Saint Rita, Wulkowicz went to the Art Institute, intending to study sculpture. He fell in love with a fellow student, married when he was only 20, and dropped out to make a living as a union electrician. He and his wife--they divorced many years ago and he remarried--had three children they sent to Francis Parker. As an electrician, he worked on some of the biggest projects of his day, including the Sears Tower. But for a while he was Parker's business manager, and in his spare time he invented things, working out of a cluttered workshop on Elston Avenue.

As the years wore on, he became a vocal opponent of many public-works projects and private developments. He was particularly obsessed with construction that paved over land or cut down trees. He contacted reporters, wrote letters to editors, attended hearings, and got into debates with engineers and bureaucrats whose plans he criticized. "I didn't mean to embarrass anyone," he says. "I thought of us as colleagues working for the public good."

In the 70s and 80s, he drew up alternatives to numerous projects, from the expansion of the exit and entrance ramps on Lake Shore Drive to the redesign of the Kennedy Expressway. He accused the city of needlessly killing hundreds of trees by oversalting the roads. He designed a floating net he called "the spider," which he wanted the Park District to install at its swimming pools to protect kids who foolishly hopped the fence at night when they didn't know how to swim.

His proposals were well received outside of Chicago--the Lake Shore Drive ramp proposal won the Presidential Design Award, the highest engineering honor bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts. But even though he offered his ideas to city officials free of charge, few were adopted. Many local engineers and bureaucrats regarded him as simply an eccentric. And if they didn't take him seriously, it was because they didn't have to--he had no clout, no political connections. That never seemed to discourage him. "I'm a bulldog who's not smart enough to understand I can't do something, and there lies the capacity to get it done," he says. "I don't mind banging my head against a wall, because sooner or later I figure I'll find the door and get in."

His efforts brought him to the attention of Walter Netsch, the architect Mayor Harold Washington chose to head the Park District board, and in 1988 Wulkowicz went to work for the Park District. He had no title, staff, car, or trappings of power--he occupied a space in the bowels of Soldier Field. But it was, he says, one of the happiest times of his professional life. He reveled in his independence, making it clear to everyone he was not a go-along-to-get-along kind of bureaucrat; a poster on the wall of his office at home shows Einstein above a caption that reads, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." "I worked on problems that needed solutions," he says. "I was a troubleshooter. And there was a lot of trouble at the Park District."

During his time with the Park District, he devised a giant hose gadget to keep park trees watered during a drought that was tried in one park. He also designed a glowing tape that warned kids not to dive into the shallow end of a swimming pool that was used briefly in some public pools. And he wrote a massive cost analysis that helped persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to fund the current massive lakefront-erosion project.

But he never completely fit in here either. After Netsch left, Wulkowicz had few high-placed admirers. Mayor Daley brought in his own bunch of bureaucrats, and they didn't see why the district needed a troubleshooter, especially one so outspoken.

In 1994 he started a neighborhood protest against a concrete-crushing dump the city had OK'd for a tree-filled park next to the football stadium at Lane Tech High School. The city eventually closed the dump and removed the debris--the trees have never been replaced--but Wulkowicz's bosses let him know they didn't appreciate his public advocacy. He promptly wrote a series of internal memos criticizing the Park District for not hiring more minority contractors on a million-dollar project, and he engaged City Hall officials in a public debate on one of his obsessions--the killing of trees along Lake Shore Drive. "Their death was assured by unchanged practices in salting streets that have been shaped by former Mayor Michael Bilandic's demonstration that a lack of salt un-elects mayors," he wrote in a letter published that June in the Sun-Times. "Bureaucrats interested in keeping their jobs translated the lesson into a philosophy of 'one ton good; five tons better.'"

In July he was out of a job. A year later, representing himself, he filed a suit charging "wrongful retaliatory discharge." The Park District countered that he hadn't been singled out but was one of about 100 employees laid off in a budget-saving move. In 1997 the case was dismissed.

Wulkowicz kept writing and lecturing on environmental and engineering issues, but he felt more and more alienated from his home city. The bulldog had finally tired of banging his head against the wall. "I gave them my best ideas for a city I loved, and they canned me," he says. "I put together that strategy for convincing the Army Corps of Engineers to fund the lakefront shoreline protection--a multimillion-dollar project that will protect the lakefront for 100 years if they do it right. And nobody even said thanks."

After his wife, Martha Murphy, retired from teaching in the public schools, they decided it was time to move on. They sold their north-side house and bought some land in Nova Scotia. "We'll live there in the summer," he says. "The rest of the year we'll travel around."

City officials of course have no plans to honor his contributions, most of which they ignored. Dybek says Wulkowicz's departure reminds him of when Nelson Algren--another neighborhood rebel who felt unappreciated around here--moved to New Jersey in the late 1970s. "Algren was a guy you deeply associated with eastern European neighborhoods and people who don't have a voice," says Dybek. "Like Algren, Bob really loves Chicago. It's sort of poignant to watch him go. The city's losing a necessary watchdog."

"Sometimes I'm bitter, sometimes I'm not," says Wulkowicz. "I'm scarred and calloused, but I've got to move on. Some people will be glad I'm leaving." He pauses, then laughs. "Screw those bastards. Maybe I'll just come back."

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

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