By AARON GETTINGER
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) has a blunt sense of her mission on City Council.
“My job is to advocate and get the resources for my community, and I’m going to do that by any means necessary,” she said. “I just feel like God has given me the opportunity to help the people in the community who often don’t have a say, who are not at the table.”
In an interview with the Herald, Taylor said she wants to work with Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) to facilitate the drafting of a community benefits agreement (CBA) with the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and the University of Chicago, whose development south of the Midway Plaisance has caused concerns about displacement in Woodlawn for decades.
Together with Hairston, Taylor wants to assemble all the involved groups — the CBA Coalition, the University of Chicago, the Obama Foundation, 1Woodlawn, the Washington Park, South Shore and Woodlawn chambers of commerce, South Shore Works, Englewood’s Kennedy–King College, et al. — and “get into a room together and figure it out” before the new City Council’s second meeting in June. Taylor said she did not want to meet with the groups independently “because they’ll milk that thing, and we’ll all be cut out of it and nothing will happen for either part of the community.”
“Things we agree on, great. Things we don’t, we’ll figure out at some point,” she said. After all, Taylor said, all the parties want the OPC to come. She said 5th and 20th ward communities do not have time to waste. Those that do not attend the meeting are abrogating their say in the CBA.
Taylor’s priorities mirror the Coalition’s:
- A community trust, which the Coalition says will “support the first source employment center, business development center, affordable housing and related initiatives”
- A 35% affordable housing set-aside of new constructions “and a real conversation about what ‘affordability’ is,” noting that Section 8 housing voucher recipients often still pay hundreds of dollars in rent
- A property tax freeze, “because the people who stay through all the good and all the bad in Woodlawn definitely deserve to say, ‘Well, we’re about to get some investment” from developers.
She said she is open to compromising but cautioned that she discounts cordialness and niceties in negotiations.
To say that Taylor has an uncommon background for an alderman would be an understatement. A teenage mother, she served on the local school council at Mollison Elementary School, 4415 S. King Dr. for 21 years. In 2015, she led a successful hunger strike to prevent the closing of Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St. She said she moved to Woodlawn after getting priced out of Bronzeville.
“I was a part of the CBA Coalition before it was a coalition, because I lived on Maryland [Avenue],” she said. “And once I heard [the OPC] was coming, I was devastated, because it was Bronzeville all over again for me.”
A democratic socialist and an independent Democrat, she launched a bid to represent the 20th Ward on City Council, made it to a runoff in which neither Democratic committeeman Kevin M. Bailey nor Maya Hodari (whom the Sun-Times and Tribune endorsed) placed and, with substantial backing from the teachers’ union, won a landslide victory.
With all the fears about gentrification and displacement in Woodlawn, “Everything is on hold, in my book, until I organize the community” and developers from the U. of C. to longtime community leaders like Torrey Barrett, Leon Finney and Byron T. Brazier to the Obama Foundation to Sunshine Enterprises, 503 E. 61st St., whose mission is to start and grow 200 businesses in Woodlawn before expanding further into the South and West sides.
“There are going to be some fights, because they’re not used to having people who are standing up and fighting for the everyday people who live in my community,” she said. “I’m that everyday person. The only thing that’s changed is my bank account: I might keep more than $20 in it before the next paycheck.” (Aldermen make six-figure salaries.)
Taylor expects the OPC to ultimately be built in Jackson Park. “The first Black president deserves a building. He deserves a space, and if this is how he and the city want to honor him, I’m OK with that,” she said. But she does not agree with the process, saying the city and Chicago Park District have put the cart before the horse.
Regarding Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District, the legal battle over the OPC’s right to be built in Jackson Park, Taylor said is not concerned about it. “They were starting construction; it only stopped because of the lawsuit,” she said. “In my own little way, I think it’s going to happen. And I want to be prepared either way.”
“I feel like they got the eye of the media,” she said. “You had all these [local] groups saying this exact same thing, and now it becomes a big issue because some folks who don’t look like us or live on this side are standing up for us? I’m OK with that. I’m just fine, because we were not getting the traction that we should have got when we came to it.”
The city gave the Obama Foundation use of the planned OPC campus for 99 years for $10. “I can’t get three boxes of cereal and a gallon of milk for $10,” Taylor observed.
She rued the use of TIF funds to support mega-projects like Lincoln Yards and The 78. “That money was set up to help communities like mine, and you get supported downtown? How much more space do they have downtown?” she asked. “I don’t think they have any. But you all are steadily pouring money out of communities and then going, ‘They’re bad. They’re disinvested. They’re crime-ridden.’ You’re not doing anything to support it! Or you’re taking money that’s supposed to be for [those communities] to do it.”
Woodlawn has long been dominated by pastors like Barrett, Finney and Brazier as well as the U. of C.; three of Taylor’s City Council predecessors have been convicted of felonies. She wants a better sense of what social services the area churches offer, and she wants to hold open houses with stakeholders to determine what they own in the community.
“For too long, we’ve had all these wonderful gyms in the 20th Ward, and nobody knows about them,” Taylor said: she did not know that the YWCA Parks Francis Center, 6600 S. Cottage Grove Ave., existed until three years after she moved to Woodlawn. She wants a better sense of how prominent organizations are doing outreach and how their services are accessible to locals. She said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) did a great job at distributing TIF dollars to schools in her ward and wants to do the same in the 20th.
She plans to discuss the University of Chicago with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at their one-on-one meeting, saying her constituents feel the school has “open access to Woodlawn, and they can do whatever they want without repercussions.” She said 20th Ward residents asked for a parking garage to be built alongside the new projects like the Rubenstein Forum conference center, the Woodlawn Residential Commons dormitory and the Study Hotel, but none is under construction.
She has met with Office of Civic Engagement head Derek R.B. Douglas but not President Robert Zimmer or other senior figures in the U. of C. administration. “I want them to know where I stand,” she said. She supports the unrecognized Graduate Students United union in their effort to get recognition and a contract. She wants to know how many people from South Side communities work at the U. of C. “in jobs where they can move up” — in administrative roles, not as security guards — and how they do hiring outreach.
“It’s their responsibility to do a good job,” she said. The U. of C. has “a 70-year history of displacing folks from Hyde Park and Woodlawn,” Taylor said. “How do you start to make it right?” Taylor said she is asking the Chicago Department of Law to get all commitments regarding future development in the 20th Ward in writing: “something we can legally hold them to if they don’t.”
In a May 21 interview, Hairston said she would follow up with South Shore groups following that neighborhood’s May 18 community summit. Hairston and Taylor have both signed onto a 100-day plan put out by United Working Families and the Grassroots Collaborative that includes a CBA; Hairston said she was particularly keen on its affordable housing, tax relief, workforce development and anti-displacement efforts and the community trust fund, which she said echoes her community stabilization plan for South Shore that involves the sale of bonds.
“It takes some time to put all that together,” Hairston said. “We’re aligned. This is the starting point, and there will be conversations.”