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The City Livable 

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By Michael Miner

"I left the Tribune in May 1991, and we left Chicago about a year later. We had always planned to retire early," Lois Wille was telling me. "At that point I'd been writing editorials since late 1977, and after a while I felt I was writing about the same problems over and over."

Wille, who'd won a Pulitzer as a reporter at the old Daily News in 1963 and another as editorial-page editor of the Tribune in 1989, had nothing left to prove, except possibly that she could counterfeit the dudgeon of youth when contemplating urban troubles that are familiar, cyclical, and irremediable. "We love the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia," she said, and that is where she and her husband moved.

But she didn't leave Chicago behind. In '94, during one of her trips back, she met with nonagenarian developer Ferd Kramer. A quarter century earlier, when Kramer was president of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, he'd paid her $2,000 plus royalties to write Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront. Now Kramer was touting a second great urban struggle. The Dearborn Park Corporation had just liquidated itself after building a thriving neighborhood on 51 acres of abandoned rail yards south of the Loop. Acting as a catalyst for other developments, Dearborn Park had transformed the near south side. A historic accomplishment, thought Kramer, a founder of the corporation and one of its most tireless champions, and a story that deserved to be told.

Wille didn't see much of a story. The land had been vacant, close to downtown, potentially worth zillions, and the pillars of Chicago capitalism had decided to develop it. So they did. End of saga. Besides, her seat-of-the-pants impression of what they came up with wasn't favorable. "I remembered the north half going up. It did not look like a great place to live for me. I had the impression of a raw settlement with nothing around it. It looked depressing."

But she hadn't seen the north half lately, or the newer south half at all. Hop in, said Kramer. "In the first place," Wille told me, "I was impressed at a 92- or 93-year-old whizzing me around the south side in a car." Impressed? "First I was appalled," Wille admitted. "Then I was awed. Anyway, I was surprised to see these tall, narrow frame houses facing State Street and to see the community that had developed as the place matured. We walked through the north half. I hadn't really looked at it up close. I loved Thomas Beeby's white town houses. I'm not sure Beeby loves them--I'm not sure he even acknowledges he did them. But it was like a mews--green and leafy and absolutely charming."

So Kramer picked just the right time of year to show you around, I said.

"Oh, he did. It was June or July. And he just persuaded me to do this."

The day after she saw Kramer Wille ran into John Madigan, president of the Tribune Company, at a bookstore in the Loop. She told him what she was going to be doing. He recalled that the company had bought a studio apartment in Dearborn Park, and he offered to let her stay in it. So she wound up writing about Dearborn Park while living (on and off) in Dearborn Park--and she liked the area so much that she and her husband eventually bought a studio of their own.

The story she tells in At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Chicago's Dearborn Park is of rich, powerful white men who didn't get enough respect. Wille begins her story in March 1970, at a meeting Tom Ayers, president of Commonwealth Edison, was having in his office with the chiefs of Continental Bank and Sears, Roebuck. Thirty-seven stories high in the First National Bank Building, they found themselves looking south out the windows, and one of them happened to say, "What the hell should we do with those tracks down there? They look so awful."

Those tracks pressed like a tumor against the blighted south end of the Loop. For that matter, the entire Loop already was dying after dark. But how easy it was to imagine a vibrant new community rising next door and transforming it. The group of three soon expanded, and Kramer, "mastermind of Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores and head of Draper & Kramer," was one of the first on board. Wille makes it clear that the movers and shakers who chipped in $14 million in corporate seed money to get the Dearborn Park project going doubted that they'd ever get their investment back--at least not directly. They acted to protect the Loop because that's where their businesses were and because as the Loop went so went Chicago. "Most of them lived in the suburbs," Wille writes, "but their hearts as well as their wallets had deep roots in Chicago."

But who understood their altruism? An early Sun-Times editorial advised City Hall to insist "that the corporation, which could reap enormous in development of necessary social services." A coalition of community groups denounced plans to close off Dearborn Park to through traffic as racist and elitist. In 1985 developer Phil Klutznick "writes a four-page, single-spaced letter to [Mayor Washington's planning commissioner] laying out, in rather formal, stuffy language, the history and goals of Dearborn Park, its problems and triumphs, the sacrifices of its founders, and the importance of completing the project. He attaches a list of the 32 Chicago corporations that invested in the effort and the names of the prestigious executives who sit on Dearborn Park's board, noting how eminent they are." Klutznick wanted the city to agree to provide infrastructure for the unbuilt southern half of the development. His letter accomplished nothing. "This is not the way to impress the populous-minded Washington administration," Wille writes.

But then, the autocratic Richard J. Daley administration had also watched and waited. Over the years the corporate fathers had never found a single mayor--and there had been six of them--half as eager as they themselves were to get things done. However, City Hall had limited resources to commit to urban development, and plenty of community groups were wondering why any of those resources should be poured into a real estate deal driven by the city's downtown white elite while their own neighborhoods went begging.

To that elite, Dearborn Park was a self-evidently excellent idea. Yet Ayers, Kramer, Klutznick, and others less passionately involved beat against stiff political winds for a quarter century before a scaled-back rendition finally was completed (the original goal was 120,000 people living in the South Loop; reality was 14,500) and the corporation dissolved three years ago. In the meantime, the same cast of corporate characters met utter defeat attempting to launch a 1992 world's fair, a project whose excellence was never evident to anyone but themselves. And by the end of Wille's story, the corporate culture in which this elite once flourished had vanished.

"The ties that bound the old corporate clique that invested in Dearborn Park had loosened," Wille writes. Sears moved to the suburbs; Continental Bank, First Chicago, Harris Bank, Marshall Field, and Carson Pirie Scott were bought by out-of-towners. "Corporate executives of the 1990s were too busy fighting takeovers and appeasing Wall Street to have time for the long lunches and after-work cocktails that solidified the relationships that led to...Dearborn Park. They were more likely to eat lunch at their desks than at the Chicago Club."

Wille goes on, "And they were on the move. A staff member of one prominent civic group complained that the rapid turnover among corporate leaders robbed his board of its memory. 'Our trustees have civic pride,' he said, 'but so many of them know nothing of Chicago's history, compared to executives of the 1970s. They may not know each other all that well. I don't think one of them could say today, "We need $15 million," and go out and get it.'"

In conversation Wille mentioned another change. Her book is peopled with high-flying architects, the Michelangelos to the financiers' Medicis, each with his own idee fixe on how to make a city. Bruce Graham, with his dense, stacked superblocks; Bertrand Goldberg with his serpentine River City; Harry Weese, who began buying dilapidated old office buildings and turning them into Printers Row. "Another thing missing now is the role of architects in city planning and urban planning," Wille told me. "Larry Booth still does good things. But it seemed years ago when I was first covering urban issues I was always running around talking to architects, because they were full of ideas. And I don't hear that anymore. I don't know who would be Harry Weese today."

At Home in the Loop makes a nice counterpart to Here's the Deal, Ross Miller's recent study of the Block 37 fiasco. Whatever the compromises, Dearborn Park--aside from the new grade school that no one who lives there attends--is an urban success, "one of the nicest places to live in any American city," writes Wille. Block 37, despite its skating rink and summertime youth programs, is a travesty. "I found Miller's book fascinating," Wille said. "It shows the hazards of ripping up part of the city when you're not sure what you're going to replace it with. That could have happened to Printers Row if not for Harry Weese, Larry Booth, and [developer] John Baird. The people who built Dearborn Park had no particular feel for those buildings. They would just as soon have torn them down. They're still kind of touchy about that. John Baird, who still plays tennis with Ferd, likes to tease Ferd about which came first. The truth is they needed each other. Dearborn Park without that gateway to the Loop would have had a lot of problems."

Wille writes that a company that invested $250,000 in Dearborn Park in 1974 and another $125,000 in 1984, when more money needed to be ponied up, would have got back $355,888 when the corporation dissolved. That's a loss of $19,112. So much for reaping enormous profits.

Wille's sharing in the gallantry. Ferd Kramer paid her $35,000 for her book--an amount for three years' work she can't begin to justify to herself except by recalling that when she took early retirement she presumably swore off working for money. Wille wrote what she pleased and found her own publisher (Southern Illinois University Press), but she did ask Kramer and Thomas Ayers to check the manuscript for errors. "I think Tom Ayers felt the nobility of the business community and the selflessness of the business community in supporting this did not really come through," Wille told me. "Ferd was there at the time, and he said, 'Yeah, that's in there.' And Tom never pushed it."

Kramer's nobility is such that he's still trying to repay the Dearborn Park investors. Half the money Wille's book makes goes into the pot. Wille said she can imagine how thrilled companies like Com Ed and Peoples Gas will be "to get a check for $13 from my book."

Crimes Against Banality

The sporting press castigates a bumptious parvenu unworthy of the brotherhood:

Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times: "How would you like to be Pat Riley and hear the courtside play-by-play man say, 'This has become embarrassing!'? And how about being subjected to a low-life question from a doofus who once ran a hot dog stand and now passes as a Chicago talk-show host? The guy asked Riley whether he would shave his head if he knew it could inspire his team to a seven-game series victory. It's amazing the old street kid from Schenectady didn't pummel the guy into a hot dog."

Fred Mitchell, Tribune: "WSCR-AM (1160) sportscaster Mike North drew an uncomfortable stare from Riley and a verbal reprimand from NBA director of communications Brian McIntyre for posing a ludicrous question to Riley during the postgame press conference Saturday.

"'Pat, seems like you've done everything that you can,' North began. 'Would you, if God came down tonight and said you could win the next four games if you shaved your head, would you do it?'

"After a long glare from Riley, North said: 'Seriously...seems like you're overmatched.'

"Riley, after another long glare, said to North: 'That's a heck of a question....Who do you work for?'

"North said: 'I work for the SCORE in Chicago.'

"Riley: 'That's a really nice question, sir.'

"McIntyre later pulled North aside and reprimanded him for the nature of the frivolous question. McIntyre later indicated to reporters that North's press credential would be rescinded after any other such indiscretion."

Bob Verdi, Tribune: "'If God came down and said you could win the next four games if you shaved your head,' a Chicago radio talker, Mike North, asks, 'would you do it?'

"Riley looks over and is almost speechless. He thinks he's seen it all....Now some wise guy asks Riley if he will cut his hair off just to create interest. It's that tedious."

The basketball writers don't challenge an arrangement whereby an NBA official grades them on the questions they ask at press conferences and can banish from the hall reporters whose questions he deems impertinent. They may thank him for stepping in to protect the dignity of their guild.

Because postgame press conferences are routinely broadcast in Chicago, we're all familiar with the caliber of question that serious reporters pose:

Pat, to lose on your home court like that, that's got to hurt, doesn't it?

Pat, you're down three-zero now. Do you think even a great coach like yourself is going to be able to find the words to get your team back up for the fourth game?

Pat, it looks like the wheels came off your club today. How do you get those wheels back on in 48 hours?

Pat, how does it feel to watch your team turn the ball over 32 times?

Pat, your big man only got off four shots. Does that make you wonder about your inside game?

Pat, Jordan came up big tonight. Pippen came up big. Are you willing to let them come up big as long as you stop the other Bulls, or are you going to try a different defensive scheme next time--so even though they might come up big they won't come up as big as they came up tonight?

Pat, the guys you need to step up didn't step up when you needed them to. That's got to concern you.

Pat, I want to follow up on that last one. You weren't able to go to your big go-to guy today, and your other go-to guy never got going either. Was that the difference in the game? I mean, the Bulls were going all game long to their go-to guys because they really had it going.

Pat, you're down three-zip and you've got to find a way to get back in this series. Are you going to just take it one game at a time? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lois Wille photo by Terri Wiley Popp.

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