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Chicago Mon Sep 14 2009

UIC vs St. Francis UPDATED

It's been over a decade since parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi church broke into the historic cathedral to halt its demolition in 1996. It was neither the first nor the last time that Gerardo Reyes felt that his church was threatened by its neighbor - the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As UIC has developed and expanded its south campus, Reyes and others feel there has been a pattern of deception and unfriendliness that is designed to chase out the St. Francis community. These machinations are surfacing once again, say members of The St. Francis of Assisi Preservation Committee, this time in the form of parking fees.

"UIC says they are a good neighbor," said Reyes, head of the preservation committee, "but if they are a good neighbor, why did they close and narrow the roads? And why are they taking away the parking that they promised us?"

The parking in question was allotted by UIC for the St. Francis Community before south campus construction began. Parking was free in designated university parking lots on Sundays for parishioners attending mass.

The promise that Reyes cites is documented in the Jan. 24 edition of The Chicago Journal, in which UIC spokesman Bill Burton is indirectly quoted as having said that "university officials plan to make room there for parishioners indefinitely."
There was never any written agreement, however. The lack of such documentation made Reyes and other preservation committee members nervous from the get-go. Now their worries have come to fruition.

Mark Rosati, a spokesperson for the university, says that parking was provided to the parish to minimize disruption to the community during the construction phase.
"But now that the construction is over, we cannot continue to allow free use of public property to an outside party, under state law," Rosati said.

Rosati describes the fee, two dollars for two hours, as being "very reasonable."
But a press release issued by the St. Francis Preservation Committee states that it will be two dollars for parking permit-holders, and eight dollars for those without permits. This worries Reyes, who says that, as The Mother Church of Mexican Immigrants, St. Francis attracts people passing through town; people without permits who may now attend mass elsewhere.

"I don't know anything about that," Rosati said of eight dollar parking ticket.

Admittedly, it can be hard to see what the big deal about a parking fee could possibly be.
"[The parking fees] eventually will drastically reduce church attendance and lead to its shut down," said Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University, in a recent letter.

Balkin's argument goes like this. The St. Francis community is largely blue collar, with little money to spare. Put that money toward parking, it comes out of the collections plates. Less money in the collection plates means less money for the church, which may mean that the Catholic Archdiocese might try to close the church again, like they did in 1995 and 1996.

"A supposed need for parking space is the pretext for getting rid of poor and working class immigrants whose presence does not fit into UIC's vision for a homogeneous campus and gentrifying condo development," wrote Balkin.

The parking fees were first implemented during mass last weekend, and it has yet to be determined what effect they will have on the parish in the end. Reyes remains hopeful.

"This is our home. We've defended it before, and we can do it again," Reyes said.

Caleb Melby is a journalism student at the Medill School.

UPDATE: Mechanics received the following reply from Mark Rosati, associate Chancellor for Public Affairs at UIC.

Dear [Mechanics]:

Regarding the recent Gaper's Block item about parking at UIC, the Chicago Journal article which reported that the campus would provide free parking to St. Francis Church parishioners "indefinitely" was from January of 2002, not 2009.

As for the quote in your story from an individual alleging that UIC has a vision of a "homogeneous campus," it is unfortunate that your reporter didn't ask me for a response. If he had, he would have learned that UIC has for many years been among the most diverse university campuses in the country (check the annual US News & World Report rankings) and that many of our 26,000 students come from families of limited financial means, recent immigrants or their children, and are the first generation in their families to attend college. To give just two examples of the diversity of our campus, UIC educates more Latinos at the undergraduate and graduate level combined than any university in Illinois, and we are No. 1 in the Midwest in baccalaureate degrees earned by Latino students.

In education, healthcare, economic development and community engagement UIC is a good neighbor - and that will continue to be the case.

Sincerely,

Mark Rosati

Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs

University of Illinois at Chicago

 

Caleb Melby / September 16, 2009 6:35 PM

I had prepared a series of questions pertaining to the allegations that were raised by both Reyes and Balkin. I planned to discuss these with Rosati, who I was referred to by the Chancellor’s office. Unfortunately, Rosati allotted about two and a half minutes to speak to me, and only a handful of my most basic questions were answered. In this vein, I very much appreciate Rosati’s letter as a clarification and as a diversification of perspective. I only wish he would have provided that time in our interview so the information he provided could have been included in the article itself.

And while Rosati’s angle is well-appreciated, I think he takes a very narrow interpretation of what Balkin could possibly mean when he describes the campus as “homogenous.” Indeed, there is no question that the population at UIC is diverse – racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically. But of course the issues raised by Reyes and Balkin have absolutely nothing to do with the demographics of the student body and everything to do with the communities surrounding the university. Rosati’s refutation is therefore a virtual non sequitur. Balkin’s quote refers to his belief that these surrounding communities are not part of what he sees as the “UIC vision” for the area. In this sense, “homogenous” refers to a contiguous university space uninterrupted by non-university factors – it has nothing to do with the make-up or success of UIC’s student body.

This leads us to how complex the issue is. Latinos are succeeding in huge numbers at UIC, which is highly commendable. But at the same time, communities like St. Francis feel they are being derailed by UIC. This proves there are no good or evil actors in this conflict, but simply decisions that have both positive and negative impacts for different groups. This is a line that, in this case, is drawn along the division between student and nearby community member – not along divisions of race or class.

UIC is put in a difficult position because it is a metropolitan university, meaning that if it wants to expand, it must do so in preoccupied space. This is a problem that is not presented to institutions located in less densely populated areas, and the stress of making such decisions must be great. I’m sure it is the hope of every Chicagoan that a happy medium can be reached, whereby UIC can continue a legacy of educational excellence and the community that surrounds it can maintain its historical vibrancy.

Best,

Caleb Melby

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