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TODAY

Monday, July 22

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Airbags

Saint Boniface — the saint, not the long-abandoned church at the northeast corner of Noble and Chestnut on the city's near northwest side — was a German saint. He was a high-ranking official in the Church who had converted and grown Catholicism throughout much of Germany before a group of as-yet unconverted heathens fell upon him and 52 of his fellow travelers on the banks of the River Borne.

Well, good for him, but seriously, can we do something about this church? For those of us who live in its very near vicinity, Saint Boniface causes no little consternation. For years, crackheads and meth addicts lived in the rectory north of the church. Local hoods use the church as a staging ground for breaking into cars and homes, since it constitutes nearly an entire city block without prying eyes. The convent which once stood east of the building, on Chestnut, is now a pile of bricks, recalling something more like Beirut in 1986 than Chicago in 2007.

Ironically, the whole problem of the abandoned Church can be blamed on the early parishioners, who turned up their nose at their co-Catholic Poles, who had settled just north along Division Street, forcing the Polish to open their very own church, Saint Stanislaus, not five blocks away. Saint Stanislaus still has a local parish, and brings in families that have resettled in the suburbs every Sunday. The Germans who left the neighborhood forgot about Saint Boniface rather easily, and the Archdiocese shut it down in 1990. As they will, the historical preservation groups pounced, refusing to let the Archdiocese or the City knock the building, built in 1902, down (the Boniface parish was established in 1864; the current church replaced the original wooden one).

While the Preservationists tut-tut and decry the attack on Chicago's heritage, the residents near the school watch as a rotating group of dope addicts and hoods — at least two gang sets are currently feuding in the area — use the alleyways behind the church as a getaway or hiding spot. The street is covered with broken glass; apartments and homes are routinely broken into and vandalized, and graffiti — I'm not talking artistic stuff, either, but more along the lines of "Ashland Viking Nation" written in print — is routinely painted over, hardly enhancing the look of the block.

But tear it down? Really? A century-old structure that, just by virtue of its existence, tells such a rich story of that neighborhood, and in fact of Chicago?

It's not right. We can't do that, we can't keep doing that. Especially at a time when developers and large corporate entities have so infiltrated city government, displacing the people. Chicagoans, always ready to complain about how the city is changing, have gotten further away from the political process that plans their communities. Part of that is the power vacuum left by the dismantling of powerful ward organizations, but a lot of it is just resident apathy.

In a lot of the city — particularly the dense residential neighborhoods that form an arc from West Rogers Park, through the Northwest, West and Southwest Sides and ending in Roseland and Chatham — residents tend to do a good job of staying informed and keeping tabs on their local power brokers — precinct captains, priests, high-ranking cops and tough old ladies — and have been somewhat successful in holding back the tide of "over-development." Over-development, of course, is just a euphemism for corporate takeover.

And, as with Byzantium, it's only a matter of time before they're overrun by Young Turks.

When I hear the dope fiends trying to break into the church or see little kids walking though fresh broken glass, I don't get mad at the Chicago Archdiocese, or the preservationists, or Alderman Burnett (27th). The problem is underlying. The problem is that more and more, new arrivals treat their neighborhoods as bedroom communities, rather than actual communities they have a vested interest in. They mask their laziness and apathy with jokes or complaints about political corruption, the "Chicago way."

If we lose Saint Boniface, we should gain something that, in 2107, our great-grandchildren can look at with awe. Something that, just by standing, tells a story about our neighborhood, and our community. Alderman Burnett has opened his office to the community on this issue — will the community step up and make sure that we protect our community's history or, failing that, leave something that tells our own story?

Next door, in the 32nd, Ted Matlak was not quite as inviting to residents, and he paid for it with his job. The 32nd has undergone a shocking plasticization over the last 15 years — not by people, but by the developers' notion of what will draw high-income residents. It is to the credit of the Ukrainian community that they have been able to hold together as the rest of the ward slipped into the King Kondo Kingdom.

Let's not paint too rosy a portrait, of course. Look at many of the neighborhoods with strong political organizations, and protecting the neighborhood's character and heritage quite easily and worryingly morphs into xenophobia, redlining and racism. Locals wring their hands at the idea of affordable housing not because they oppose the idea of guaranteeing working class housing, because of their worry of the "type of people" it will invite into their neighborhood — the stereotypical project dweller, who in the minds of so many Americans is a shifty lay-about, almost universally Black, almost universally criminal. As Chicagoans, we have a particularly dark history of this kind of "protection" of our neighborhoods, and we need to be sensitive to that. Today they're locking out developers (and thereby the dreaded, fictional "Yuppie"), tomorrow they're locking out the working class, minorities, whoever.

Chicago, the city we love, is our responsibility. We will make decisions that will impact what type of city we hand off to our children. Not becoming involved in your community is a decision — a sin of omission. Those sins of omission, building by building, block by block, precinct by precinct, ward by ward, are amplified into one giant void, a big black hole of inactivity that sucks into it any chance of truly balancing a respect for our history and the rights of all of us to live in this wonderful city with growth and prosperity.

I believe that we can still craft the types of local community organizations that both protect our heritage and build community without reverting to hatefulness. I believe that we can protect our Saint Bonifaces without sacrificing growth, or from the other perspective, that we can grow without sacrificing the Saint Bonifaces in our neighborhoods.

That makes me a believer, of course — but it was the heathens that killed the Saint.

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Comments

thomas and milwaukee / June 20, 2007 1:23 PM

so, what are we to do? i live near the church and would love to see something happen...in a possitive light. what is burnett purposing? what are the community groups to talk to? is flores involved at all? (i know it's not technically his ward, but it's really close by).

i would like to be more informed and i would like to help.

SBI / June 22, 2007 8:11 AM

For a comprehensive look at the Saint Boniface situation, go to:

saintbonifaceinfo.com

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at rc@gapersblock.com.

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