Chicago Tribune: In Uptown, freshman alderman angers advocates for the needy – challenges to Salvation Army food truck, ‘cubicle hotels’ split a gentrifying neighborhood

By John Byrne, City Hall Reporter

In the city’s Uptown neighborhood, sprawling lakefront parks butt up against crowded apartment buildings. Shelters and substance abuse facilities share blocks with landmark mansions and newly built condos.

That tension has been cast into relief in recent weeks by Ald. James Cappleman. Halfway into his first term, he has managed to enrage advocates for Uptown’s sizable homeless community with attempts to shut transient hotels and to force out a Salvation Army truck that serves meals to homeless people.

It’s the latest fight for the future of a pocket of the North Side that has been on the cusp of gentrification seemingly for decades.

Cappleman said he’s trying to provide humane housing options and to prepare Uptown’s many social service agencies for the new reality they face as government budgets tighten and grant money becomes even more scarce.

“I want these providers to succeed in getting the resources to meet the needs of the people who need their help,” said the 46th Ward alderman, who’s quick to point out he is a licensed clinical social worker.

Critics see Cappleman as the representative of a pro-development agenda that views the neighborhood’s homeless and mentally ill populations as obstacles to the condo construction and retail growth seen in nearby lakefront areas.

Sandra Ramsey, executive director of the Cornerstone Community Outreach homeless shelter in Uptown, called it “the classic fight.”

“No one cared until it was discovered: ‘There’s the lakefront, the beautiful housing, the theater district,'” Ramsey said. “I feel sorry for people who got a good deal on lakefront property, and they didn’t realize when they heard from their Realtor about the ‘diversity’ that it meant these people who live in the neighborhood who are now an inconvenience to them.”

Protesters want some rooms at the Chateau Hotel in the ward to stay affordable for its low-income residents now that a developer plans to renovate it. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune / January 7, 2013)

Uptown lived up to its billing until the 1940s with its shopping and theater districts. Poor Appalachians doing wartime production jobs moved into the neighborhood seeking inexpensive housing carved out of what had been larger luxury apartments. During the 1970s, the federal push for deinstitutionalization resulted in people with mental illnesses ending up in Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park, where there were more halfway houses and small apartments.

Other neighborhoods encouraged development, but the anti-gentrification forces stopped much of that in Uptown. Longtime residents boast of diversity the way Chicagoans in other parts of the city tout their restaurants and bars, even as real estate investors salivate over its proximity to Lake Michigan and the CTA’s Red Line.

Cappleman’s 2011 election as alderman gives his vision the inside track for the large part of Uptown that’s in the 46th Ward. As part of his efforts to remake the ward, Cappleman took a hard-line stance against people who feed pigeons near “L” stations in the ward and pushed to outlaw loitering in bus shelters.

Last week, protesters gathered outside both his ward office and a nearby long-term hotel that’s about to be rehabbed into pricier rental housing. The alderman is sensitive to the perception that he’s targeting the poor and the agencies that serve them.

“This isn’t about getting rid of social services. It’s about helping them work together,” he said. “This tempest has to be addressed in a way that lets (social service providers and at-risk residents) know I’m standing with them.”

Cappleman’s pledge to find common ground is cold comfort to Erin Ryan, board president of the Lakeview Action Coalition. The coalition has been pressing Cappleman to ensure some of the rooms at the Chateau Hotel in the ward remain affordable to its low-income residents now that a developer has bought the building with plans to renovate it.

Ryan said Cappleman has not responded to the group’s attempts to meet with him to discuss the situation. She dismissed the alderman’s argument that the lousy condition of the hotel requires its closing.

“He hides behind this idea that he’s merely concerned with people’s safety,” Ryan said. “Again, there’s no urgency, no threat to people’s safety at the Chateau.”

And she said the situation at the Chateau is just one of several recent Cappleman initiatives that have left him at odds with the ward’s homeless residents.

“There’s clearly an anti-homeless, anti-poor bent to all of this,” Ryan said. “And it’s kind of perplexing, particularly in Uptown, which has such a long, rich history of diversity and acceptance.”

Cappleman introduced an ordinance to force so-called cubicle hotels like the Wilson Men’s Club in Uptown, where small enclosed sleeping areas with wire mesh ceilings can be rented for around $300 per month, to improve their conditions or shut down. Cappleman said Chicago should provide better inexpensive housing options.

Ryan said many people who can’t afford to pay more will be forced onto the street if places like the Wilson close. That’s the position Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears to be taking as the cubicle hotel ordinance awaits a City Council hearing.