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Tuesday, May 28

Gapers Block

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John Alexander Logan entered public life after his election to the Illinois State House of Representatives in 1852. Like all good Chicago politicians, Logan was a Democrat. Sure, he technically wasn't from Chicago and he later defected from the Party, but there was a war on — the Civil War — so we've forgiven him these minor trespasses. On the Northwest Side, not a block from the square bearing Logan's name, newcomer Green Party candidate Jeremy Karpen seeks the same office and acceptance.

The heart of the Logan Square neighborhood lies at the somewhat awkward intersection of Logan, Kedzie and Milwaukee. As the three streets dodge around the central square, the combination of ill-timed lights, lane mergers and potholes make accidents seem perpetually imminent. Accidents, however, are few, and the chaos is surprisingly orderly.

For a few months in 2005, Abril Mexican Restaurant and Dunlay's on the Square faced off across the traffic, potent symbols of the neighborhood's changing dynamics. Abril had been a neighborhood institution for decades (childhood trips to birthday piƱata parties date it to at least 1985), serving up tasty and unpretentious Mexican food at reasonable prices. Opening across the square in January 2005, Lincoln Park spinoff Dunlay's offered burger specials and Rogue's Dead Guy Ale on tap.

The pairing didn't last long; Abril shut its doors for good the summer after Dunlay's opened. A series of changes in ownership culminated in the addition of grilled tilapia and tableside guacamole to the menu (despite years of delicious guacamole made kitchen-side). Customers left, the restaurant closed, and the massive space lies vacant today.

While Dunlay's is certainly not responsible for the demise of the Logan Square icon, the series of decisions that led to Abril's self-destruction seem to underline both the changes and continuities present in the neighborhood today. Someone at Abril apparently thought the future lay in grilled tilapia and "contemporary" Mexican food — it seems they were wrong.

But what does this have to do with the state House of Representatives? (And why do I suddenly have such a craving for guacamole?)

This November, Green Party candidate Jeremy Karpen will face off against incumbent Democrat Maria Antonia "Toni" Berrios for the 39th Illinois House District, which encompasses four neighborhoods: Logan Square, Hermosa, Avondale and Belmont-Cragin. It's a fairly large district, stretching from the Western El stop nearly to the Brickyard on the far West Side.

Logan Square, however, appears to be the key battleground in both candidates' campaigns. Berrios' office sits on the Logan Square/Wicker Park border, at southeastern tip of her district. Karpen's campaign, run mostly out of his apartment, is also some five miles from the district's northwestern edge.

The race promises to highlight many of the neighborhood's economic, social and political complexities.

To illustrate the changing economic demographics of the neighborhood, Paul Levin, long-time resident and Executive Director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, also uses metaphors of food (at least I'm not alone):

"Logan Square was always a neighborhood that had a good mixture of economic classes. The illustration I usually use is the layer cake... Into the 1970s and the '80s, the middle [income bracket] got thinner and the top got thinner and the bottom [bracket] got bigger. But then in the '90s that started to change again slowly. And we're back now where the middle and top layer are at least two thirds, if not more, of the cake. The low income population is down again."

Logan Square has been steadily gentrifying in recent years. Condos have gone up, as have property values. Dunlay's is one of many establishments designed to cater to the cavalcade of hipsters and young professionals that have moved in over the last number of years.

Rents certainly seem reasonable to those coming from the Lakefront and neighborhoods like Wicker Park; Karpen, for instance, pays less for rent in Chicago than he did in his home state of Minnesota. Levin and housing activist Deborah McCoy, however, worry about the upward pressure on rents and the pricing out of long-time, lower income residents.

There are socio-cultural factors at play as well. Many of those who moved into the neighborhood in the 1970s and '80s were Latino families, mostly Puerto Rican. The economic resurgence of the last number of years (as well as the growing reputation of Logan Square as a trendy area) has attracted a demographic that tends to be younger, single and whiter.

Alderman Rey Colón, however, cautions against predictions of a Logan Square "white out." He points to the historical mixture of cultural and economic groups in the area. "Unlike... Lincoln Park, Bucktown, or Wicker Park, I believe the 35th Ward's community areas will continue to be dominated by working class people and will continue to maintain its cultural diversity," Colón said in an email.

On the surface, Representative Berrios and her opponent seem to embody two poles of today's Logan Square: Berrios is a long-time resident of Puerto Rican decent, Karpen a young, white professional who moved to the area four years ago.

But things in Chicago are rarely that simple, especially when politics is involved.

If Berrios' name doesn't sound familiar, it should: her father, Joseph Berrios, chairs the Cook County Democratic Party (CCDP). The elder Berrios is arguably one of the most powerful politicians in the city. And the CCDP is so synonymous with Chicago-style politics that a Wikipedia search for "Chicago Machine" simply redirects to the entry for the Party.

Representative Berrios is nearly inextricable from her father. Both supporters and detractors mention them in the same breath, and there is a strong sense of her as a cog in the well-oiled Machine. While this grants the neighborhood power via Berrios' connections, there are also concerns that her political will lacks independence.

Karpen, on the other hand, is a political newcomer, with little in the way of clout or well-heeled connections. "This is a grassroots campaign. My opponent has raised $200,000 in each of her last three elections, and she's never faced an actual opponent in the general election. Whereas, at most," he laughs, "I'll probably end up raising around $10,000."

While the Chicago Machine remains strong, there is growing frustration in Illinois with all levels of the state government. In Logan Square, resources controlled at the state level for necessities, such as education and infrastructure, have been stymied in the Springfield budget gridlock.

"The State Legislature in the last couple of years has just not been able to accomplish very much, unfortunately," says the Chamber of Commerce's Levin. "The Democrats control the legislature and the governorship. And all of the in-fighting that has gone on has not been helpful... [the] wrangling in the legislature has just been terribly embarrassing."

Discontent before the 2006 gubernatorial election led to a high point for Illinois' Green Party. Faced with the uninspiring choice between Governor Rod Blagojevich and Republican contender Judy Baar Topinka, a record 10 percent of Illinois voters pulled the lever (or touched the screen) for Green candidate Rich Whitney instead.

Two years later, and with next to nothing accomplished downstate, dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party runs rampant. Berrios' problem, if she has one, may not be her ties to Chicago politics, but her ties to Springfield.

The image of state legislators as out of touch is one Karpen certainly hopes to cultivate. A licensed professional counselor, he works full-time with at-risk youth at a residential facility and spends his Saturdays running a partner abuse intervention group in the community. He argues that this background and his working-class roots help him understand the issues affecting the majority of Logan Square residents in a way that Berrios, despite her extensive community ties, does not.

"I think one of the most important things I'm bringing is a different perspective," Karpen says. "I'm saying, 'why don't you try electing a clinician, putting someone who's working in social services, who's working on the front line with the people that are most affected, that are falling through the cracks? [Try] putting someone like that in office, who has the ability to look at policy through more of a human lens.'"

Community activist McCoy sees Berrios' record as symptomatic of politics in which careerism is placed above the issues affecting communities. "[Berrios] will support women's issues and that's great, but she's not a leader by any means," she says. "I don't see her developing other leaders. I don't see her having the courage to stick her neck out on controversial issues."

Logan Square also has examples of strong leaders and political change, says McCoy, a resident of 25 years. She singles out State Senator Iris Martinez as "pretty fearless" and notes the unusual circumstances that brought 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón to power.

In 2003, Colón went up for a second time against then-Alderman Vilma Colom, protégé of 33rd Ward Alderman and Machine bigwig Richard Mell. Colom was also supported by Joseph Berrios. To the surprise of the press and the Machine, Colón won.

"Well, anybody that had been living in Logan Square knew that people had been working for years to get Vilma out," McCoy says, laughing. "So it was not a miracle. It was the result of hard work, of people knocking on doors."

Colón's election reflects Logan Square's politically independent streak, tied to a history of community activism. For Anna Barnes, now a board member with the Logan Square-based non-profit, The Neighbors Project, it was a major selling point of the area. "I was impressed with the organizing capacity of the neighborhood... and felt that I could better support local initiatives in a community that was well-organized," she said in an email.

In order to win, Karpen will need to turn his cadre of volunteers into the organized "critical mass" that elected Colón. He has drawn on some of his ties to neighborhood groups, such as the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, where discontent over issues such as affordable housing and support for lower-income residents run deep.

Development, particularly surrounding condominiums and the fate of the Mega Mall on Milwaukee Avenue, is a dividing issue in the community. The downturn in the economy has left numerous recently constructed or renovated condominiums standing empty. This troubles McCoy, who laments the resources put into condominium development at the expense of affordable housing.

The destiny of Mega Mall, seen as either a community hub for small vendors or a blight on the neighborhood depending on one's perspective, has similarly stalled. After fire ripped through it in 2007, Berrios proposed the site for the relocation of the Chicago Children's Museum.

Colón called that proposal "unrealistic", but McCoy's sentiment is a bit stronger. "The Mega Mall employs hundreds of vendors," she says. "They would displace a hundred people to employ a few people. I mean why don't we take out a couple of luxury condos to put the Children's Museum in?"

Alderman Colón believes the economic downturn has slowed development and lessened its impact as a political issue. "In fact, the lack of development has become more of an issue," he said. Karpen argues that housing and development are still major issue in the community, and he takes his opponent to task for what he sees as a disconnect between Berrios and the neighborhood.

"She hasn't actively supported the development of new affordable housing within our district," he says. "She's instead gone on the side of developers... as opposed to supporting legislation, or advancing legislation — which is the larger problem — that would help raise the economic conditions of the people that already live in the district."

The question, so often the case in politics, is whether the issues will feature at all. Berrios' voice is conspicuously absent here; she did not reply to requests for an interview. Why should she? Berrios' holds almost all the cards in this electoral deck, and interviews offer nothing but the public acknowledgement of her opponent and the possibility for slipups.

Plus, the political landscape in Logan Square has changed. Ironically, Alderman Colón represents at once the best hope and possibly the greatest threat to Karpen's candidacy.

While Berrios has never faced an opponent in a general election, rival Democrat Pedro DeJesus challenged her in the 2004 primary. Alderman Colón did not endorse Berrios, a quite perceptible display of the tensions that existed between Colón and the Joseph Berrios/Mell team following the bitter 2003 aldermanic election.

In 2007, the contentious rematch between Colón and Colom resulted in additional aldermanic circuses. A third candidate, Miguel Sotomayor, entered the fray, and his 20 percent take of the vote threw the Colón and Colom into a runoff.

Colón, however, has been twice elected Democratic Committeeman, and political imperatives, if not time, have healed the rifts between the alderman and Berrios/Mell. Colón says he has a "responsibility to support and promote qualified, Democratic candidates," and will endorse Representative Berrios.

There's a certain irony to the fact that the man who made his name as an anti-Machine candidate, will now be coordinating any Logan Square attack against Karpen. Ultimately, there is a difference between competitions within the Democratic Party and the desire to maintain Democratic hegemony over elected office.

Even Democrats unhappy with Berrios (or, more probably, the Dick Mell/Joseph Berrios team) are unlikely to break party ranks. A lack of endorsement of Berrios from someone like Senator Martinez — who did not endorse her in 2004 — is about the best Karpen could hope for out of the Democratic Party.

Ironically, Karpen hopes (unofficially) to ride the coattails of this year's most popular Democrat, presidential candidate Barack Obama. Despite Berrios' solid Democratic voting record, Karpen hopes that Obama's message of "change" will inspire voters to take a chance on someone new.

"Barack Obama is going to be bringing out a lot of [people who are] saying, 'No, I want to go in a new direction,'" argues Karpen. "That new direction might translate into some protest votes for me, in a city in which corruption is almost viewed as quaint."

McCoy thinks there might be an opening for the political newcomer. "I think he has a shot because there has been a lot of dissatisfaction." She hastens to add, however, that "no one sees [Berrios] really as a threat. She's not doing anything bad. She's not like some of the other people we took out."

Contentment with the status quo presents a serious problem for Karpen's campaign. "Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to create excitement or momentum for elected offices like the State Representative or State Senate Races," notes Colón. "Most people just don't know what they do or how their votes in Springfield impact their daily lives back home."

Whether or not voters will connect the stagnation in Springfield with Berrios remains to be seen. We will also have to wait until November to see whether Logan Square voters will view Karpen as one more symptom of neighborhood gentrification.

Asked about the dynamics of race and cultural identification in the race, Colón argues that, "[t]here has been a significant influx of young, white residents move into Logan Square[,but.]... [u]nless something dramatically happens to gain Jeremy Karpen and the Green Party district-wide name recognition, there are just not enough Green Party loyalists to carry him."

McCoy disagrees with concept of whites uniting behind Karpen, Latinos behind Berrios. "I don't think a person has to be Puerto Rican to represent Puerto Ricans or white to represent whites. I feel that I'm well represented by Iris Martinez... I would like to see people give a little bit more attention to people's qualifications than their origins."

Karpen admits that one of his greatest challenges will be to change the conversation from one of carpetbagging and race identification to one about the issues facing the neighborhood. He says Berrios' record disputes the "notion that she will de facto represent the people of the community somehow better because she is Puerto Rican."

"I'm not new to the issues that are relevant in this community, because I myself am a working class kid coming into this neighborhood to work on the issues that are important here," he says. "We're talking about health care, we're talking about a living wage, we're talking about the graduated income tax, and affordable or supportive housing in the community."

Ultimately, the race mirrors today's Logan Square. The political, social and economic factors in the race are also present in the day-to-day life of the neighborhood.

In 2005, Logan Square residents appreciated the familiarity of Abril, even while making room for something new in Dunlay's. In 2008, the community remains a mixture of old and new, defying those who look at its changing demographics and make stark predictions.

Come November, Karpen is hoping that the neighborhood's politics match its dining preferences. He's hoping that Logan Square will take a chance on a candidate walking the line between community roots and change. Someone who, like the neighborhood's namesake, deviates from the Chicago norm.


About the Author(s)

Brienne Callahan studies media, elections and politics - currently from Melbourne, Australia. She rambles about those and other things at Completely Unnecessary.

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