Roula Alakiotou - Transcript

Transcript of Roula Alakiotou Oral History
Interviewee: Roula Alakiotou
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: January 28, 2013
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Total time: 22:02 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: This is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater historical society interviewing Roula one of our living treasures from her home. The date is January 28, 2013.

DN: Roula maybe you could tell us a little bit of your background and how you came to live in Edgewater?

RA: Well, I was born in Greece and I came to study architecture. When I was a student I met my husband and we decided to move together. So, I joined him in 1972. And we’ve lived here since then.

DN: Oh my goodness. 1972? You must’ve been just born.

RA: No, no, I was a student of architecture at UIC….

DN: So you are a longtime resident of the Edgewater community?

RA: Yes, 41 years.

DN: How do you decide to become interested in community? Because you had a career doing other things, raising children?

RA: I think it’s because of the children. I had twin girls in 1978, and Sheridan Rd, if you remember, was well known for being a senior citizens strip. At young families had a hard time with condominium associations. And for the kids to play it was not the most comfortable area to be. So, I approached the then Alderman Volini, Marion Volini, about doing something with the Berger Park. Because there is just a miserable park with, you know, one swing and one turnaround platform. It was directly accessible to the high-traffic. It was rather dangerous. So, I talked to her and she was sympathetic to the issue and she wanted to help families to stay in Edgewater then, Sheridan road. So she did some preliminary things to make it a little easier…you ou know, blocking access to the traffic and improving things a little bit.

But she referred me to Edgewater Community Council at that time, saying that normally this is their platform. And they’re rather powerful. If we could talk to them, they could put that issue on their platform then that would help her to do something about it. At that time, Edgewater Community Council was working on the save the mansions on Sheridan Road. On Granville and Sheridan road, there were Victorian mansions owned by the Viatorian fathers and they put it up for sale. So the offers were for developing more high-rises, but the community and Alderman wanted to Don’s own on Sheridan road to stop the canyonization of the street and allow people and residents west of Sheridan Rd. to have visual and of course physical views of the water, and access to the lakefront. The save the mansions effort was going on and when I was referred to go and talk to them I met with Kathy Osterman, which she personifies the political instinct, the know-how to get things done…a very powerful personality. She got a lot of community projects in her bucket. She understood the issue because she has a family as well…and knowing that I have an architectural degree, she said, “Here is a project that can meet both of our concerns. Would you like to run it?”

And so I visualized the end result and said, “Of course, so long as I have the backing of the ECC all of the way through.” And they did; and we all agreed and we were all happy. And that’s how the nine-year journey of my volunteerism for the community started. So, the Save the Mansions became convincing Congressman Sidney Yates to file for an urban grant. And then Alderman Orr, who was vice president..vice Mayor with Harold Washington, convinced the mayor to allow this grant to come to Edgewater and purchased the property for a couple of million dollars under the auspices of the Chicago Park District. So I went to work; we started the buy a brick campaign, fundraising a considerable amount of money. We restored the second mansion and the coach house.

The bottom line is today we have a park that has the last two remaining mansions on the north lakefront with coach houses for a waterfront café. A beautiful park where the community socializes. Neighbor meets neighbor for a beer. Senior citizens meet young parents and kids of all ages and all ethnic backgrounds…they meet. It’s a highly successful park.

DN: Actually, my son went to a summer camp there. It was a wonderful setting. I think it was a drama camp. Maybe? Very unusual, most unusual.

RA: It’s a very creative program by the Chicago Park District as well as the North Lakeside Cultural Center that we funded. I was the first president of that and just presented all kinds of programs for the community. But by that time my nine-year journey ended. My kids were old enough and they didn’t really take advantage of it. But now my grandchildren do.

DN: And your grandchildren are now living much closer I understand.

RA: Yeah.

DN: So your nine-year journey started as a mother compelled to find a good place for her children to be outside and pursue outside activities. Now from that you became more than just the architect you became very involved in the whole project.

RA: Of course, it was a day-to-day, 24/7 operation. And of course I had the backing of the Alderman, the ECC and all the neighbors in the community. It was hard, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be able to be done.

DN: What helped encourage you when you are feeling that this budget wasn’t coming through or that budget wasn’t working? I should deal with my children and my career. What kept you going?

RA: Well, I could visualize the end product. I think the hardest part was when the condominiums on Sheridan road were opposing the work – suggesting that the wrong “element" would come to Sheridan Road. We are wasting taxpayer dollars. There was a considerable opposition, including the condominiums to the north of the park concerned with losing property values. But I could visualize that the end result would be a positive result and that things would turn around. At that time, being a young mother, my architectural practice was not that successful. I had just started the practice. I was just able to keep myself occupied with a pursuit that was very conducive with my background and I could see the success day by day and the support and so that kept me through. It was a great experience.

DN: Once you saw the project underway and the Park district and summer camp area, and so on. You still kept going and participated.

RA: For the other mansion and the waterfront Café. Being Greek, I know a lot of restauranteurs that knew how to approach the idea of the waterfront Café. And we were able to get community theater groups. The north mansion, that was the North Lakeside Cultural Center, it was really the center where small theater groups started, such as the Looking Glass Theater, which is down of the Water Tower now. It started at Berger Park.

DN: I didn’t know that.

RA: Yeah, and we had several art exhibits and music classes, and several art oriented events. We were able to lease the mansion for weddings and private parties to make some money. We rented the waterfront café. So we were able to get going until we were able to get enough income to hire a permanent staff to run the show.

DN: Now what’s happening with the Lakeside Cultural Center? Are you still involved with that?

RA: No, I left at about the 10th year of that because it was underway. You know. The intent was not for me to be there forever. The intent was to start do something and then let the thing progress. The Chicago Park District eventually was strong enough to say we need the second mansion, we are going to run the second mansion. And the community group was not really doing that well financially. The building was having problems, you know water penetration and all that. So my understanding is that the North Lakeside Cultural Center is giving away to the Chicago Park District to run things.

DN: When you look back on your involvement and the whole effort, what do you see as the most successful aspect of it

RA: First of all, having an open space. Iit’s about 3.3 acres of land . We had an open space that people from apartment buildings could now have the chance to actually walk about outside of their own sidewalks. This is a place where everybody – kids, senior citizens, adults, everybody that’s younger – Café provides a wonderful venue in the good weather months for people to get together and have a drink, listen to music on the weekends. I think it’s one of the treasures of the community.

DN: I agree with you Roula. You worked with many people to make this effort happen. What would you say is the difference between the people who want to participate and do things for the community and the ones who are just content to stay at home and not do anything?

RA: I think it has to do with opportunity as well. Obviously people’s individual talents and interests and curiosity differ. But it’s also a matter of an opportunity that comes your way that fits your particular talent. So I think a lot of people contribute in different ways. This one just happened to be a very visible project.

DN: I mean in interviewing people - the people I’ve interviewed have busy lives, often with family. But they feel compelled to do something outside of the family – outside of their individual life, to do something collectively. Whereas other people are content just to stay at home and watch TV.

RA: Yeah, well….It’s relevant to drive and ambition. It’s personalized. I mean I was lucky because my mother came from Greece to help me raise the kids. So I had some time to devote and do my own thing, my own contribution for the community. I think this is one of the best communities. Actually Edgewater and Rogers Park are the only two communities in the city of Chicago that actually have residential units on the water. And Edgewater has the largest percentage of its residents right on the water because of the high-rises. So, so this is a jewel that no other neighborhood in the city has these physical attributes that we have here.

DN: It makes it very beautiful but we also have the diversity in terms of economic groups and in terms of ethnic groups. And it would seem that your effort was not just to have a lovely place on the water for yourself, but also to provide a lovely place on the water for people of less fortunate means, for all people….

RA: Yes, for all children. I love the grounds. It’s so beautiful. And now they started the organic gardens with self gardening. That’s pretty…So yes, I’m proud of that.

DN: Well, you have a right to be proud. It is a jewel. What do you see the future of Edgewater being? As far as green space and diversity and balance of different groups and so on?

RA: Well I think physically, I think this whole effort of The Last Four Miles. I’d don’t know if you are familiar with it…two miles on the North Shore and two miles on the South Shore….

DN: Yes, I’m familiar with it. Maybe you could talk a little about it for the purposes of this interview.

RA: Well as you know, the waterfront park stops at Hollywood and the study and the interest of a certain group of people is to extend the park and to connect the parks all the way to the North Shore by walkways and bicycle ways and, you know, to extend the park, not to a large degree like the rest of the park, but at least have a continuation where people can walk along the lake all the way up to the North Shore beyond Chicago, connect that Evanston to the city. I think that would be one of the tremendous improvement of our neighborhood. It would connect North with the main city. It would allow for motorless boats to be active in summertime. I think that it would help all these condominium high-rises whose back house is really, you know, a waste of space. They’re all garages that are bricked up and yet you have a beautiful lake in front of you that you can you can use, you could do (unintelligible)…for activities. You could do a lot of things with that.

I think the next thing that would be helpful is to do something with Broadway, which is basically the market street of this part of the city, of Edgewater.

We need to bring nature with every improvement that we make because the one is not exclusive of the other. Whatever improvements you make, as long as you bring green space and allow the wildlife to exist with the city at the same time, whether it’s birds, or small mammals, or whatever the wildlife that would survive.

But I think that Broadway has a long way to go and even though now we have a brand new library coming up, although I like the old neighborhood library. It was so intimate. And of course we have the Armory. We have some businesses that with beautification of that street should be able to provide a little more energy and ambiance to the community. So that’s the other project that I think would be wonderful.

But there are other projects that have occurred like Bryn Mawr…. the historical society. It’s a beautiful street, I mean the historical district. It’s beautiful. Loyola is a next-door neighbor we should be able to invite the student body and the faculty body to Broadway and Sheridan Road for energy and more business.

DN: It sounds like you want to get people out of their homes and out of their dormitories out into nature and enjoy public activities more.

RA: Well, yeah. The beauty of the city, and avoid loneliness of students and senior citizens and families and adults. It’s being able already like to bring them out and give them something to be happy about whether it’s an outdoor café, some waterfalls, some green space for sitting, nice-looking area with trees for birds to come in. And so there are a lot of surgeries that have already gone out already like the one across from Thorndale Park, Rabbi Schaalman Park, on the west side of Thorndale and Sheridan. That’s a nice little park that encourages people to go…. So small surgeries throughout Edgewater, physical surgeries in Edgewater should be able to bring an ambiance and energy to the people on the street, for all people.

DN: What you see as being your greatest personal achievement? Not making $1 million or for an architectural project but personal looking back so far in your life?

RA: Well, I think the overall journey. I was poor child…one of of five children, family in Greece. So, my opportunities were very limited. But when the right opportunity came along. I was able to capitalize on that. My father was in America for 16 years. He used to describe to me as to what America looked like. He would say you can’t see the tops of the buildings without your hat falling off. And that did architecture for me. My curiosity was developed right there and then.

DN: The other question I would ask you is, what advice would you give the younger generation?

RA: I think the younger generation is much better than my generation. I don’t think they need my advice. They’re smart people… just keep on fighting. Things work out always.