Category Archives: Civic Life

Tom’s Remarks @ UIC Urban Forum – “Three Chicagos”

UIC-Urban-Forum-2014 From the 1pm session, “Who can balance a neighborhood’s soul against the will of urban capitalism?”

UIC Forum panel

Moderator Laura Washington, Alderman Jason Ervin (28), Prof. Alice O’Connor, Tom Tresser, Prof. Rachel Weber is just to Tom’s left, out of this picture.

Remarks of Tom Tresser at the UIC Urban Forum – 9-18-14

[Listen to remarks @ SoundCLoud, about 4 1/2 minutes]

“Who Can Balance A Neighborhood’s Soul Against the Will of Urban Capitalism?” is the sorrowful title of our session this afternoon. Short answer – we can and we must.

Another way to frame this question is to ask “What is a city for?” or “What is Chicago for and WHO is it for?” To me, after 30 years of grassroots education, organizing and community building, I would answer that Chicago – as many cities across the planet – has devolved into a mechanism to strip mine the assets of the many and transfer them into the pockets of the few.

I will now resist the temptation to recite a list of woes that include foreclosures, violence, parking meters, school closings and wage theft – and rather underline a few stories that bring to life the tension that this session surfaces and the unfulfilled promise of this conference.

In 2008 I helped found Protect Our Parks to fight the privatization of Lincoln Park. We sued the Latin School, the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago over a deal to give a chunck of Lincoln Park to the Latin School. That work led me to co-lead No Games Chicago, an all-volunteer effort to derail Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. I then took on the task of exposing and opposing efforts to privatize Chicago, including the Chicago Infrastructure Trust. It seemed that during those years I and my allies were in direct opposition to many of the keynote presenters and stars of this conference. The voice of the neighborhood and a sense of the public trust was nowhere to be found. Who was pushing what agenda for Chicago?

Right now at the CivicLab we see two sets of stories that really surface the theme of this session. Mike and Carmilla are two homeless activist researchers investigating the machinations of the hedge fund Blackstone Group in the Chicago housing market. They were occupying a home that was bought by a subsidiary of Blackstone and are now litigating and trying to understand what happened to them and who has profited from their misery and the misery of other modest and low-income people across the USA. Lauren is a former Chicago public school teacher who was steered to a corrupt developer via the “Homes For Chicago Teachers” program in 2005. Her experience with shoddy and dangerous building practices led her to sell quickly at a loss and now that unit is so far under water as to make the subsequent owner impoverished and another candidate for homelessness. These two stories are not isolated and, I believe, illuminate a very nasty side of Chicago’s urban policy and power structure.

Finally, another story that places a boundary around these other stories. Patrick Thompson, the grandson of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and a commissioner of the Water Reclamation District and a partner at the law firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, is seeking to be the next alderman from his family’s traditional political stronghold, the 11th ward. The current alderman, James Balcer, has agreed to retire to make way for the next generation of Daleys to govern Chicago.

Chicago is, in my view, three Chicagos. One for the powerful. One for the wealthy. And one for everyone else.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to challenge all in attendance at the UIC Urban Forum to think differently about “Who is Chicago for?” and to resurrect the spirt of Jane Addams and Florence Scala, two powerful women who lived and worked not too far from where we are meeting. Ms. Adams was a civic innovator and Ms. Scala was a civic protester – both were bold and creative and challenged the powers that were and dared to speak out and act out against corruption and incompetence, injustice and poverty of spirit.

It’s time to think boldly and act boldly and to bring to forums such as this the Addams’ and Scalas of our time. We need to hear them and to we need to heed them. Where are they? I know who they are and I feel that their voices and their examples are what we need to be about at a conference at a major public university event that has the word “neighborhood” so boldly emblazoned on its masthead.

So I’d like to invite you all to the CivicLab on November 11 at 7pm for a session on “Civic Innovation” where we can learn about and learn from such practitioners. Let’s build on their work and offer a refreshing response to the question “Who is Chicago for?”

Thank you.

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Interview Reveals (mostly) All

Jim Jacoby of the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative and Jim Cohen of BeSparked interviewed me in July for this series of master designer podcasts. What, you may ask, do I have to do with design? Ah ha! You’ll just have to listen to this wide-ranging 47 minute interview where I talk about my background in the arts and the connections between design, space and civic engagement. If you do listen – please comment at the bottom of the podcast web page.

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CivicLab Profiled In Progress Illinois

Tom teaches-Ellyn_FortinoThe CivicLab was profiled in the June 27th edition of Progress Illinois.

“July marks one year since the CivicLab, a non-profit organization, opened its “democracy design studio” in the West Loop of Chicago.

Looking ahead, one of the CivicLab’s co-founders says big plans are in the pipeline for year two of the co-working space, which is dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation for social change and civic engagement.

Seven organizations focused on issues such as housing justice, voter registration and health care are currently working out of the CivicLab’s storefront, located at 114 N. Aberdeen St.

Other activists, designers, educators and tech experts also gather and do research at the space, which is housed in a rehabbed 1890s firehouse that sits across the street from Harpo Studios, where “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was previously filmed.

In addition to offering a place where people can collaborate, the CivicLab hosts educational workshops and is behind the volunteer-based TIF Illumination Project, which is working to promote transparency around Chicago’s controversial tax increment financing (TIF) program.” [read the full article]

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