The Unwinnable War | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Unwinnable War 

The Illinois Medical District Commission still won't budge for Bill Lavicka's Vietnam vets' memorial.

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Bill Lavicka's attempt to make permanent his memorial to Vietnam vets on the near west side just suffered another blow. He'd asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan to intervene, and on April 29 she wrote him a letter saying that as much as she wanted to help him she didn't have the legal authority to do so. That's the same thing everyone from 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis to 11th Ward alderman James Balcer to Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn has said.

In 1987 Lavicka, a near-west-side rehabber and Vietnam vet, decided to build a memorial on two adjoining lots in the 800 block of South Oakley. He owned one of them. The other was owned by the Illinois Medical District Commission, a relatively obscure body whose seven members are appointed by the mayor, the governor, or the president of the Cook County Board. The commission oversees the construction needs of three of the major hospitals--Stroger, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's, and the UIC Medical Center--in a district bounded by Congress, 15th Street, Ashland, and Oakley. It also oversees the development of the 1,500 or so lots it owns in the area. For two years Lavicka badgered the commission, until it finally agreed to let him use its lot temporarily for his memorial.

In 1989 Lavicka built the memorial--bright red columns surrounding a mosaic-tile map of Vietnam. He's maintained the property ever since, trimming the grass and tending a garden, and the memorial has become a gathering spot for local veterans, many coming from the nearby VA hospital.

After 9/11 Lavicka asked the commission to allow the memorial to stay in perpetuity. "I want this to outlive me," he explained at the time.

The commission members refused. They said they couldn't legally allow the land to be used for any purpose that wasn't related to medicine, even though they've leased a much larger chunk of property at Ashland and Roosevelt to a group that built a shopping center. There isn't much they can do with the lot, which is small and in the middle of a gentrified residential block. They could sell it to a developer who wanted to build a condo or town house, but that isn't related to medicine either. "They just don't want to set a precedent," explains one high-ranking gubernatorial aide. If they made an exception for Lavicka, they might have to make one for somebody else.

Lavicka has tried to appeal to the commission members' patriotism, suggesting that making the lot a permanent memorial would be a goodwill gesture, especially now that the country's sending another generation of men and women off to war. In November his oldest son, an army captain home from Iraq on leave, appeared before the commission. It hasn't budged.

There are tactics the politicians who say they support the memorial, particularly the aldermen, could use to pressure the commission. They could, for example, deny building permits on other commission-owned sites until the commission agrees to make the memorial permanent. But insiders say nobody wants to play hardball with the commission until a higher authority, like Mayor Daley or Governor Blagojevich, takes a stand.

Daley has been quiet on the issue, but Lavicka plans to make a direct pitch to him on May 21, when the mayor attends a Little League opener a block from the memorial. Lavicka, who's met the mayor numerous times, realizes that it's a long shot, but he hopes to steer Daley to the memorial site and make a personal plea for help. "Mayor Daley has a son in the military, and I have a son in the military," he says. "I think he can appreciate the importance."

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

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