We are Logan Square

February 26, 2014

Tenants in Logan Square are fighting their eviction as well as the forces of gentrification sweeping through their neighborhood, explain Amien Essif, Serena Himmelfarb and Gala M. Pierce.

WHEN JUDGE George F. Scully announced his next eviction case, eight people rose from their seats on February 20 to show support for the longtime Chicago resident, who is a community organizer in his 50's and on medical disability.

The landlord's lawyer had yet to arrive, so the judge moved to "pass the case," sliding the file under the bottom of the stack in front of him. One of the defendant's supporters whispered, "If it had been [the defendant] who didn't show, he would have been evicted immediately."

Eventually, the lawyer showed up, and after a brief hearing, the defendant, who requested that he not be named in this article, won his request for a continuance. He now had eight days to get his affairs in order and vacate his apartment at 2536 N. Sawyer Ave.

This particular eviction case is the first of several that will likely come before the Cook County court in the coming weeks, all issuing from the very same 50-unit apartment building on Chicago's northwest side. In fact, 2536 N. Sawyer--a property owned and managed by M. Fishman & Co.--is at the center of a struggle for housing justice and against gentrification in Logan Square, one of Chicago's largest Latino neighborhoods.

Tenants facing eviction and their supporters picket M. Fishman's offices in Logan Square
Tenants facing eviction and their supporters picket M. Fishman's offices in Logan Square

In October, shortly after buying the apartment building, M. Fishman & Co. informed many tenants that their leases were being terminated and that they would have 30 days to vacate their homes unless they paid significantly higher rent--$200 or more per month, according to tenants. Shocked by the news, about 10 tenants held a meeting in the basement of their building to discuss what was going on.

As they discussed the situation, a picture of what M. Fishman & Co. was up to began to emerge: The company, which the current tenants found unresponsive to their requests for repairs for everything from doors that don't lock to an elevator that doesn't work, was instead using its resources to renovate the building only for those who could afford the changes. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

IN FACT, tenants feel that their landlord is being outright hostile to them. On a Facebook page called Fight Mass Eviction in Logan Square, tenants allege that Fishman has made renovations without proper city permitting, while forcing tenants to live in squalor or breathe unsafe substances from hazardous chemicals. Another post charged that "undesirables," such as retirees and single moms, are not being offered the chance to renew their leases while younger, "hipper" tenants are. One tenant on a fixed income with medical issues, for example, is not even being offered a chance to pay higher rent.

Authors of the page suggest that Mark Fishman, the owner of M. Fishman & Co., depends on his political connections to get away with these practices, specifically his relationship with 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon, to whose political coffers Fishman has made large financial donations. The Facebook page calls for a boycott of M. Fishman & Co. and points to affordable housing, rent control and other tenant-friendly initiatives as a way toward housing justice in Logan Square.

Tenants developed a couple of demands for their landlord: end the evictions and maintain rent at a reasonable rate.

"We've made several attempts to contact [M. Fishman & Co.] and negotiate something with them, but they've refused to talk to us," says tenant Laurissa Dziedzic, who was at the first tenant meeting. Frustrated with the non-response, tenants organized a picket outside of their landlord's office on Jan. 30 with the help of the Chicago-based advocacy group Metropolitan Tenants Organization in order to bring their situation to the attention of their Logan Square neighbors and whoever else would listen.

It was 28 degrees and sleeting the afternoon of the picket--not the kind of weather that eases a pending eviction--yet several tenants, flanked by about 60 supporters, rallied in front of the offices of their evictor. Addressing a frigid but attentive crowd, tenant Paul Donnelly called out over the bullhorn, "How can one person just walk in with all his money and change everything?"

SINCE THE picket, organizers have met tenants of other M. Fishman & Co. properties, aired their concerns with Ald. Colon at his meet-and-greet "ward night" and participated in community meetings to shed light on their situation as well as broader issues of gentrification.

This is not the first time that M. Fishman & Co.'s practices have incited accusations of gentrification. In 2010, owner Mark Fishman co-founded the non-profit organization I AM Logan Square (short for Independent Artists and Merchants of Logan Square) along with Ald. Colon. I Am Logan Square, according to its mission statement, "promotes and supports the arts and cultural development in Chicago's vibrant Logan Square neighborhood." But it is an institution that many residents see as a front group for M. Fishman & Co.'s real estate projects.

Local artist José Gonzales is one of the skeptics. In 2011, Gonzales, a lifelong resident of Logan Square, started up a weekly open mike event at Nothin' Less Coffee House, a venue that was leasing its space from M. Fishman & Co. The event showcased local performing arts talent--from poetry to comedy to music--that drew attention from local media and notable guests like José Jimenez, one of the founders of the anti-gentrification street gang Young Lords.

"The ambiance was welcoming," says Gonzales. "It was the kind of diversity that we should all strive for. I'm talking about everybody and anybody was at that open mike. I'm talking about hipsters, activists, artists, Latinos, Asians, Blacks--everybody. 'Diverse' isn't the word. It was global, man. That was the best part of it."

In the fall of 2011, I Am Logan Square moved its art gallery to 2644 N. Milwaukee Ave., directly next door to Nothin' Less. The new neighbors seemed to be a perfect fit--a nonprofit supporting the arts adjacent to a community arts coffee house.

But the following summer, only two years after the coffee house had opened, M. Fishman & Co. declined to renew its lease without explanation or negotiation, according to Gonzales. At the last open mike, resident artists passed around a petition to ask M. Fishman & Co. to keep the place open, but by the early fall of 2012, Nothin' Less had closed its doors for good.

Even before Nothin' Less's lease expired, Chicago's Eater.com reported that Intelligentsia--a high-end Chicago-based coffee company with more than a dozen stores nationwide--was looking for a location in Logan Square for its first "concept store." Then in April 2013, Intelligentsia opened the same doors Nothin' Less had shut less than a year ago, effectively raising the price of a cup of coffee at 2642 N. Milwaukee from $2 (about what Gonzales says he paid for his coffee) to $4.

LUIS TUBINS, former resident poet at Nothin' Less, is disappointed that the coffee house shut down and considers its closure part of a trend of gentrification in his neighborhood. "I don't see the families that I grew up with, the demographic that I grew up with, benefiting from those changes," he said. "Rather, I see them being pushed out along with the changes."

"Gentrification has winners and losers," says Dr. John Betancur, professor of Urban Planning Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In Chicago, the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods have most often been subjected to the forces of gentrification--neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown and Pilsen. The process of gentrification, explains Betancur, is driven by speculation on property in lower-income neighborhoods with good housing stock. Those properties are bought, sometimes fixed up for little money (a "lipstick job") and quickly flipped or sold for profit.

Gentrification often drives out middle- and working-class Black and Latino families who are replaced by professionals with more disposable income and a taste for high-end consumer goods. The original families, says Betancur, "don't have the ability to compete with them so they become displaced."

Though Chicago has seen many communities displaced by gentrification during the past 100 years, the city has also witnessed resistance to the market forces and big investors seeking to reshape its urban landscape.

In August 1931, following the eviction of an elderly Black woman on S. Dearborn St., hundreds of people turned out to carry her furniture back into her home. The police intervened, sparking a riot that killed three, but which led to Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak issuing a temporary moratorium on evictions.

While no long-term headway was made for housing rights, some rioters did win work relief. It was only one of many "rent riots" that took place in the early 1930s, concentrated in New York City and Chicago and often led by members of the Communist Party.

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS later, the Chicago Freedom Movement developed a focus on the city's housing conditions and tenant rights. Working with local activists, the Chicago Freedom Movement helped form tenant unions in Chicago's West and South Side neighborhoods.

Under pressure from a combination of rent strikes, pickets, sit-ins and outreach, many slumlords were forced to sign contracts that made housing conditions a precondition to rent payment. Related organizing to demand housing rights across the country put pressure on Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968, which prohibited discrimination against a renter or home buyer based on race, sex, religion or national origin

As Chicago's lack of quality affordable housing yet again reached crisis levels in the 1980's, a coalition of housing rights groups led a campaign to pass Chicago's Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance. The campaign also led to the founding of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, with whom tenants of M. Fishman & Co. are currently working.

And there are still plenty of reasons to organize. When M. Fishman & Co. and developers with similar agendas successfully flip their properties, argues Betancur, it doesn't just push individuals and families out of the neighborhood and force them to move to less convenient places with longer commutes to work. It will change the character of the neighborhood.

"Not only are families displaced, but entire communities are displaced," says Betancur. "With them, the institutions that support these people will get disbanded or dissolved, including the social services, neighbors helping neighbors who watch children and the small, ethnic businesses that serve the community--essentially, the entire neighborhood fabric."

In a blog post titled "Mark Fishman is not why Logan Square is gentrifying," Chicago writer and urban policy analyst Daniel Hertz makes the case that the problem of displacement on the city's northwest side is bigger than one person. "Consider that when between a quarter and half of all eligible neighborhoods are gentrifying in cities all over the country in the course of a single decade, we're not talking about the actions of individuals," writes Hertz. "We're talking about something systemic. Specifically, we're talking about capitalism."

But gentrification, unlike gravity, is not a force of nature. Gentrification is an economic process that reflects how urban spaces--including housing--are shaped by the profit motive. But it is also a social and political process that can be shaped by other pressures. As a big developer, Mark Fishman has a vision of how to fatten his pockets, and he "donates" to the ward alderman so Colon will present Fishman's vision as if it were "in everyone's best interest."

But as Chicago's own history shows, residents can and do find ways to push back. Residents who don't want to be chased out of their homes by unaffordable rents can seek out allies and patiently organize. And if they are able to join together and speak with a loud enough voice, they can even be heard.

Sebastian F. Gutierrez contributed to this article.

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