Marge Britton - Transcript

Transcript of Marge Britton
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren, Robert Remer
Date: January 17, 2014
Place: Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N Ashland, Chicago, IL.
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Time: 41:23

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is January 17, 2014. This is Dorothy Nygren at the Edgewater Historical Society with Bob Remer interviewing Marge Britton, one of our 2014 living treasures. Marge I’d like to start the interview off by thanking you so much for all your efforts on behalf of Edgewater. Over the years you’ve really made significant contributions and we’re more than happy to acknowledge them for 2014. So, the first question I would ask you is how did you come to Edgewater?

MB: Well, I was about three years old. My parents rented a house at 5535 N. Wayne and we moved in there, my sister and I were there and I think my grandmother was with us at that point. But I’m not sure. We lived there for three years. My dad died of a heart attack very suddenly and my mom started looking around for another place. Oh, we looked in all the suburbs and everywhere. She found a little place. Well, originally it was a two flat at 5510 Magnolia. And we eventually moved in there and…it was with some extended family. The place had been cut up into smaller units and so it worked for us at that time. I lived there until I was in my twenties and got married. Went to St. Ita’s, which was across the street, for grammar school, then St. Gregory’s for high school and Mundelein for college. So I was in the neighborhood for all of my education, which I said the world came to me (chuckle)…I didn’t have to go. And got married and my husband and I, my husband to be and I, looked around for a place to live and ended up at Glenwood and Catalpa. Nice apartment with a porch and the building’s still there. I had my first two children there. And then we moved to Wayne, 5400 block, and I had two more kids. We had a wonderful apartment there with a wonderful owner of the building. And then we found our current house on Magnolia. Well, somebody called up and said… they knew we were looking, and said that there was a house for sale there. We went over and looked. It belonged to… originally… we bought it from Dr. O’Donahue’s widow. Dr. O’Donahue was sort of a neighborhood institution. And we walked into the house and I fell in love with it instantly. It’s a wonderful, wonderful house. I call it neo colonial, which isn’t too far off. And we’ve lived there since 1968. Had two more kids when we lived there, so a total of six.

DN: So you have been a lifelong resident of Edgewater. That’s great. How did you happen to get involved in community activities?

(3:35)

MB: well, I think it was when we moved to Wayne. That’s where it began. There was this great group of families in the neighborhood. And at that time Lakewood-Balmoral was in pretty good shape but there were some rooming houses and there were buildings like I grew up in that had been broken up into smaller units. And it was starting to get a little rough around the edges. So the group of us who still are friends… we still get together about once a month… were interested in doing things that would make the neighborhood revive. It wasn’t until after we bought our house that we really got involved. The first meeting of what became the Lakewood-Balmoral Residents Council [L.B.R.C.] was in our living room. We were surprised to hear that there was an earlier organization called the Lakewood/Balmoral Zonal Center that had existed from the 1940s. Charles Bronin was involved and the lady who formerly owned our house, Mrs. O’Donahue and Ethel Hatie Bright. Do you remember Ethel? Oh my god, she was something else; a wonderfully lady.

DN: Could I interrupt you? Bob could you just slide over here because that way we can both be involved. I’m sorry about the interruption. Go right ahead.

MB: So that’s how… I mean that’s when Lakewood/Balmoral formed. We pulled together a committee to look at a constitution and bylaws and all that. All that necessary stuff. We had a lot of help from another wonderful person in the community, Meg Langdon. I know Bob remembers Meg, who had been involved in Lincoln Park, setting up some of those community groups. So she gave us a lot of help at that time. And Ed Marciniak would sit on the floor and be the devil’s advocate. (chuckle) He would keep asking questions and he always used to say you couldn’t put a fence up around the neighborhood. When we bought our house there was definitely redlining. We had a hard time finding somebody would give us a mortgage. And here was this wonderful house. Eventually we got one. And they had some stipulations about work that had to be done. But… then we were able to buy the house. For a while we were not sure we were going to get a mortgage. It wasn’t because of us. It was because of the neighborhood.

DN: Can you talk a little bit more about why the neighborhood was redlined?

(6:28)

MB: Well, I think for a number of reasons. First of all, what was going on the periphery? At one time Winthrop and Kenmore were not the streets that they are today. They had the beautiful buildings but not a good area. And there were some street gangs active in the area….which was kind of scary. Lakewood- Balmoral with the big houses was a target for people who wanted to buy them. It was after World War II. So there was a housing crunch and people were buying the houses and breaking them into two flats or smaller units. And there were boarding houses in Lakewood- Balmoral…On both Wayne and Magnolia, the streets we lived on; there were boarding houses on the streets, well run, but not necessarily neighborhood residential. And other people had trouble getting mortgages at that time too.

DN: So… but you did get your house. You did get involved with setting up the Lakewood Balmoral Residents Council and from there where did you head?

(7:54)

MB: Well, L.B.R.C. had a couple of early battles. When we first started there was an effort to find a place to locate what became Truman College. And one of the places was Catalpa and Broadway. So we looked at that first of all. It didn’t happen, but we looked at that. There were concerns about Bryn Mawr even back then. But the big catalyst for what happened was a proposal by North Shore Baptist Church to take down a house on the Northwest corner of Lakewood and Berwyn and use the property for a parking lot. L.B.R.C., I mean what became L.B.R.C., people were very opposed to that and that really acted as a catalyst for the beginning of the organization. What did we do after that? I remember a lot of meetings. Eventually Bob asked me to mention this. LeRoy [LeRoy Blommaert] and I decided that neighborhood organizing was a good idea. So we went to East Andersonville, which wasn’t East Andersonville then and encouraged people to start a community organization there. And we went up to what became Edgewater Glen… same thing. The elements were there. People were ready. There may have even been earlier organizations. At that time the Edgewater Community Council was in existence although it wasn’t as effective. People really didn’t know. And the Uptown Chicago Commission was also there. And L.B.R.C. actually sat in the middle of what was no man’s land because it was claimed by both organizations. Eventually the boundary with set at Foster and L.B.R.C. became part of Edgewater at that point and has stayed that way. But still strong interest, at least I’ve always had a strong interest in what’s going on in Uptown, it’s our closest neighbor.

DN: Now putting in some background, Bob told me that there was more or less a kitchen rebellion of the house wives about the…

BR: In Pat Butler’s book there is a chapter about you and Marion…

MB: I haven’t seen his book yet and his girlfriend is one of my best friends…

BR: In his book he credits the two of you as igniting the political rebellion as to who would run as alderman against the establishment.

(11:01)

MB: The establishment was, well, Marilou Hedlund was alderman and to this day…she is somebody I still have respect for. But there were other people on the City Council who weren’t so fantastic. (chuckle) You know Chicago corruption and all that. The committeeman at the time was also someone who we didn’t have any respect for at that point and eventually he was incarcerated for trying to bribe a developer. We….what occurred to me very strongly at that point was that you can have community power but unless you’ve got political power that cooperates with the community, you don’t gain as much. Really, the political power, I thought, was key to developing the kind of community that we wanted to see this become. And so, Marilou Hedlund decided not to run. It was in the newspaper and Marion…Marion Volini had come over to borrow some sugar. I think it was near Thanksgiving. And we were sitting in the kitchen and talking about it and I think LeRoy called. He suggested one of us think about running. Well, at that time I had six kids and my youngest was a two-year-old. Marion had five and her youngest was about five. So she said, “Well, why don’t you run?” And I said, “I can’t. My kids are too little.” And I said, “Why don’t you run?” She said, “All right, I will.” (chuckle) And neither of us knew very much about it. So we began to put together a political organization. Marion’s husband, Carmelo Volini, was “Oh no, what are they doing?” And we came out of the woodwork. Nobody knew who we were. Eventually there were little stories in the newspaper about this group and so on. Well, we lost that election. But it gave us some experience and some backing. I mean, people began to recognize that we were serious about it and people like Bob [Remer] eventually joined the force and Marion ran again. She won. We began to be able to exert some influence on what was going on.

DN: What were some of the issues that you focused on after Marion became alderperson?

(14:13)

BR: Well, part of it still exists today – improving the commercial streets was one, we had development issues. The building at 5320 Sheridan was a major controversy. It did go up. But it was major. Foster and Sheridan where the Dominick’s went, that was another major controversy…what would happen to that property. As I said, there were a lot of development issues at that point. A lot of condo conversions going on particularly on Winthrop and Kenmore and throughout the whole community… looking at Granville, Broadway. Clark Street has always been sort of okay. It’s a wonderful street that has its own charm and character. So we didn’t see the deterioration so much on Clark Street. Those were some of the kinds of issues. Of course, when Marion was alderman it was Council Wars and there was a real split in the City Council. And Marion was aligned with pro-Washington people. It became real interesting. I can remember being down town in the City Council Chambers on New Year’s Eve and they hadn’t passed the budget. And we sat and sat and sat while deliberations were going on. I was thinking will be sitting here singing Auld Lang Syne before we were through because it wasn’t moving forward. So there was a lot of intrigue and a lot of challenges during that time for Marion, who was alderman, and for the city certainly.

BR: Marge, one of the things going back to the development and I know you were part of that in the beginning was…. Marion started the 40th Ward Zoning Land Use and Development Committee, which was a process for community input on development issues. And I know you are very active in that and also with Mary Ann Smith. I know you worked for her. You were very much involved in that process. I was wondering if you could talk about how that stayed alive and how that process works and what your observations have been about that community relationship to the political as regards to development issues.

(17:05)

MB: Um, hm. I think it’s been very important. When Marion was alderman, as I said, there were major, big development issues that were on the table and she really wanted the community input. So this committee was convened and when there was a hot issue, and this happened with Mary Ann too, and Kathy [Kathy Osterman], when there was a hot issue on the table, there were crowds at those meetings. I mean lots and lots of people. As it developed we began to go to delegate form so that each organization would name a delegate and an alternate to the committee. And that worked pretty well. The committee continued under Kathy. When Mary Ann became alderman she made the decision of the committee binding on her, which was a little different. Marion, it was advisory and for Kathy it was advisory too. But with Mary Ann she wanted to make it mandatory so that she would do with the committee asked her to do. And there were some really, really tough issues. (chuckles) We went through a lot and at that time I was on the staff part-time. Planning and development was one of my areas I worked in. And we had some things that aren’t built yet that were very, very controversial like a building on Sheridan Road, 5400 block… and you know, some other things that came up at that time. And as I say very controversial, very hard. Because when the community is split on something and emotions run very very high, when some of these issues come up, it’s difficult to steer through. And we were working with the committee and the pledge is to do what the committee asks but there isn’t unanimity at the committee either, so some of those committees got pretty hot. I think some good decisions were made and some were as a said, incomplete.

DN: Bob you have some other questions….

(19:38)

BR: Ordinarily, you were very active on the Edgewater Community Council. You were vice president. You were chairman of planning and development. And I remember when you and Fabio Lucan and I were on a subcommittee to look at remaining lakefront property that we needed to preserve. That was sharply interesting because it was fortuitously that that committee that you wrote the report that preceded the whole Berger Park project. Because shortly thereafter somebody said, “Hey, you guys want to support a high-rise there?” and we said, “No.” But you’ve been very much involved in a lot of those kind of issues. Also with Kenmore-Winthrop, you were very much involved. You did a lot of writing material… You could talk a little bit about those experiences.

(20:29)

MB: In a way it was a wonderful experience. Winthrop and Kenmore as I mentioned before, it was kind of seedy actually. And Ed Marciniak was always an influence on us. Of course Ed wrote his book, which is sort of a history of what happened with Operation Winthrop-Kenmore, which is what he called it, and we were able to …well Matu Levin came in and purchased buildings that were deteriorated and it became the kinds of Edgewater. That itself was somewhat controversial. There were many many, many meetings with residents of the buildings and committee people. But I think that helped, really helped to turn things around because the buildings rehabbed, well-managed because the tenants were selected more carefully and so it had a positive impact.

One of the things I didn’t mention that was an issue was the fact that at the time that Lakewood Balmoral [L.B.R.C.] was formed and after that, the State of Illinois was releasing people with mental health issues into the community. And there were quite a number of halfway houses in the Edgewater and in Uptown and a very needy population. So one of the issues that we worked on, both Marion Volini and myself and other people, was trying to get rid of the really bad places and improve the ones that were doing a good job. But it was difficult. There was a committee, a mental health committee that Marion had. They actually went into all of the halfway houses and checked them out and talked to people. There was a big exposé in the Sun-Times about the conditions. We made a lot of progress there but just a few years ago the Tribune did another exposé and as a result the Sommerset was closed, one of the largest halfway houses. And on that we opposed very vehemently when the proposal was made before it was completely developed, because we really felt the number of people who were expected to reside there was way too large to offer good services. We actually held the first middle class protest march in the community. We would march from St. Ita to the Sommerset House. We were met by Mr. Tuchow’s [Martin Tuchow] precinct captains who were holding signs opposing the signs that we had.

DN: What year was that? You recall that?

MB: It was before ‘68. It was probably in the late 60s

BR: It was before my time. What happened was politically, the machine was very reliant on the votes from the halfway houses and the flop houses. These were all solidly controlled blocks of votes. So they were actively fighting the community’s efforts to upgrade the housing, because this was their source of control and power.

MB: Right.

BR: And I know that subsequently… I know you were involved with Marion and Mary Ann and Jean Hiner in efforts to fight voter fraud in nursing homes. You were involved in that weren’t you? You want to talk a little bit about that?

(24:55)

MB: Now I’m drawing a blank on it…some of the things in the nursing homes. You mentioned some of the political influence? In one of the elections Mary Ann and I would go steaming around in the car, you know, with a placard on top on Election Day. We had a lot of fun… but anyway we arrived at, I can’t remember if it was Lawrence House or Chelsea House in Uptown, but somebody was in the lobby handing out candy bars and repeating the candidates’ names. Now this is electioneering and it’s not allowed, not within so many feet of the polling place. But it was going on. Now we actually issued some complaints and the police were called. It was quite a scene. But that kind of thing was going on Election Day where people were strongly encouraged to vote for a certain candidate.

Another thing I didn’t mention too, and Marion was almost more involved in this than I was, was the adult bookstores and massage parlors. They were on Broadway and on Bryn Mawr and on various places. You know, not the kind of establishments you want kids passing by when they are going to school exactly. So there were again some protests and marches and all kinds of things to encourage the owners to find a more suitable place to operate their business. But that was another issue that crept in.

DN: You were the Vice President of Edgewater Community Council and very involved in Edgewater Community Council affairs. What would you say the primary focus of your efforts on the Edgewater Community Council committees and as Vice President was towards? You had mentioned housing, developing good housing stock in Edgewater, but were there other areas you are interested in as well and actively involved with?

MB: Well of course I mentioned the development areas because that was of major importance. I never got totally involved in the schools although I was raising six kids and the schools were a very important part of the community. And so, I felt supportive but I also felt that my…

DN: You had to be focused on one particular area to be effective.

(27.45)

MB: I did a lot of writing. My background, I majored in journalism in college and went to foreign newspapers and did newsletters and various things for organizations and started doing PR for the Edgewater Community Council as a contribution. And we got quite a bit of coverage in the newspapers and it worked out well. As a result, I was offered a position with the North Side Real Estate Board. And there was a guy named Whitey Kohlberg, who was an Edgewater, Sheridan road resident, and got to know me and he suggested to the board that they talk to me about PR. And so I went with the Board and was with them for 12 years. They merged with the Chicago Association of Realtors eventually. Some of these things weren’t pro bono. I worked in public relations, writing and editing for most of the years that I was raising my kids

DN: Well that was your area of expertise. But many people would not have gotten involved in community affairs. They would have just done their job and just gone home afterwards and said, “That’s all I have time for. I’m sorry.” So, you were one of the ones that stepped up and did more. And that’s why we really want to really acknowledge your contributions. Now, you’ve lived in Edgewater all your life so, if I were to ask you if there is anything special about Edgewater of course you would say there was, because you’ve lived here all your life. You’ve been committed to being here all your life. But aside from that, do you think that the neighborhood as any special character? Or do you think it’s very similar to other neighborhoods in Chicago?

(29:46)

MB: Oh, I think it’s unique. That’s my opinion. It’s a wonderful area: The lakefront, transportation, Andersonville, and the business district on Clark Street. I think there are a lot of unique, wonderful qualities about the area. The best thing is people. It’s an amazing community. The number of people who have been able to get involved, to really care about what happens, I think is fantastic. There are many neighborhoods I know where there is community involvement. But here it…we really became friends and reached out other people. And I think that’s been one of the most satisfying things about Edgewater. As I mentioned, there’s still a group of us who get together once a month, some of them still live in Edgewater…

BR: You, Pete, Julius….

MB: Julius, Marion Volini, Sonia Rienstrom, Ricia Dom, Bunny Speck. It’s a great group.

BR: I see you there at Nookies every now and then.

MB: Yeah we go to Nookies Francesco’s, Semi-Pronto and it’s really fun to get together. We’re still really good friends.

DN: It’s very affirming to have that common experience with it as a group. What would you say is left be done for Edgewater, in Edgewater?

(31:33)

MB: Um…well, the interesting thing about community organizing is that when there isn’t a pressing issue, things get kind of quiet. And I don’t think we’ve had as much of the pressing issue in the last few years. And so, groups like Edgewater Community Council are not as high-profile as they were at one time. I think the block clubs keep going because there’s ancillary activity. I mean, there’s all the wonderful things the block clubs do.. the social activities and the commitment that they have. Some of the things I’d like to see… I’d love to see Edgewater Glen become an historic district. We had talked with them when I was with Alderman Smith’s office a number of times. There isn’t quite as much of an incentive to do that anymore because the property tax freeze that’s available for home owners is based on the fair market value. And of course now the fair market value is way high. So you have to put in a quarter of that in improvements that preserve the property. But, I’d love to see that happen. I think a strengthening in the consciousness of the historic district, in the historic buildings, is necessary. There is a house in Lakewood-Balmoral that is slated to come down because it has structural problems, various problems that are, over a hundred years old… those houses… and the people who bought it don’t want to rehab it. They want to take it down. I think that that’s the beginning of something that I would not like to see happen… one house, maybe okay. But if the idea is degenerated further we may see more demolitions. And I think that is a problem.

I think the schools are much improved. I think Peirce is doing a great job. I was sorry to see Trumbull close. Goudy is improving. I think there is still work to be done in the schools, definitely. And that’s real important. I mean, my own kids have moved to places where they are confident in the school district. Two of them are lucky enough to have tested into selective enrollment schools in Chicago and that’s fantastic. I’m so impressed by what these kids are doing. But the other kids have moved to suburban school districts because of, you know, educational opportunities primarily. So, the schools are important.

(34:54)

The commercial districts…when I sit with Marion and Dee, Marion lives on Sheridan in the 5400 block, Dee lives at the Edgewater Beach Apartments, and I hear what they’re talking about. I hear about the (not comprehensible) are doing. It’s like switching back to a former era because the problems aren’t solved over there. There are still things happening that you don’t want to happen in your neighborhood like stores being held up and people being accosted on the street. And it’s not that there is an objection to having people with needs in the area. That’s not what it is, but what you want is law-abiding citizens. And that’s been something that I think the neighborhood continues to have to look at: Granville, Bryn Mawr, Thorndale. I think all of those streets need attention… Argyle, and again we are straying into Uptown, but they’re not separable really…and I think that’s a major concern and I’d like to see a lot of attention being paid to what’s going on there.

DN: Looking back at your life what would you say is your fondest or most significant, happiest possible achievement? Not making $1 million or being interviewed by us, but what would you say personally has given you the most satisfaction?

(36:28)

MB: Raising six kids. (chuckles)

DN: That’s really a tough job, but a very rewarding one.

BR: And nine grandkids…

MB: …and nine grandkids. I have nine grandkids. That’s right. That’s the highlight experience of my life. My husband and I have a wonderful family and so when we lost one of our sons to cancer, about 2-1/2 years ago, and that was one of the hardest things that’s ever happened to us. But our family is great. They’re a lot of help to us. And grandkids – I’m just…the best thing that ever happened to me.

DN: As a grandmother I agree too. What advice would you give the younger generation?

MB: Get involved. Not just because of what you can accomplish, but because it does a lot for the individual… making friends… doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment, besides your work. Today, it’s not unusual to have two-person families that work. Almost everybody’s got a job. But, if there’s enough time, you have to learn to use it well. But if there’s enough time, get involved with the neighborhood or with a volunteer organization or something because as I said they not only do a lot of good, but you also do a lot of good for yourself…and I think it’s worth it.

DN: I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful response. Bob do you have any more questions you want…

BR: One of the areas I know that you worked on was, you wrote the report for the Lakewood- Balmoral Historic District application, I think?

MB: Yes, also Uptown Square.

BR: When you were with Mary Ann did you work on the Bryn Mawr Historic District?

(38:40)

MB: That preceded Mary Ann. That was when Marion Volini was Alderman. And what I did…that was written by a consultant professor. But we reviewed the nomination very thoroughly and endorsed it. And, I remember, the Edgewater Community Council voted yes to go ahead and submit it. That was the first district that was done.

BR: Lakewood-Balmoral…

MB: No, Bryn Mawr.

BR: But you also worked on Lakewood Balmoral. What kind of…so you’ve been kind of attached to Andersonville.

MB: I didn’t have a lot of involvement with Andersonville. But, as I said, I did with Uptown Square and did a lot of writing on that. One of my fondest memories of that proposal, I did the photography for Uptown Square which was wonderful…you know, great buildings. We went up on the fire escape at the bank building, all the way up to the top… on a windy day.

DN: You were really after the perfect shot!

BR: As we’re a historical society and as you know we’re involved in historic districts and issues, any lessons or things you’ve learned or things you would recommend for the future going forward for Edgewater or people who are interested in historic districts?

MB: Do it. I think one of the best ways to proceed is to enlist the assistance of someone over there at Loyola or the Art Institute, someone who is taking classes in historic preservation. It’s helpful to have somebody younger who can do some of the leg work. Educating people about what it means and what the benefits are, I think that that’s important too. Because there are benefits….commercially, definitely. As I‘ve said, the benefit for residents may not be quite as easy to get these days because of the…you know, what they base it on is the fair market value which keeps going up. But, I think it should be done. And then continuing preservation efforts and helping help people appreciate what they have. I think that’s important too.

BR: You know, the students at Loyola did a project on what was called the Canada addition which was actually has the oldest remaining housing and actually did an application for their class; but I guess there wasn’t a lot of interest in the block clubs in terms of proceeding. But it’s interesting just to let you know that they did that and they did nice job on the project documenting.

MB: One other thing that happened especially when Mary Ann was the alderman, we encouraged buildings to go ahead with historic districts. The Aquatania at… on Marine Drive, the Renaissance… I mean, there were other buildings too. We really encouraged them to go ahead and get the application in. Get somebody to work on it and to apply for “historic district” because, as I said, there are benefits to the building. And it’s also, there’s a PR advantage to being historic. I mean, the Edgewater Beach Apartments is one of our premier buildings. And really we need to take a look at other buildings in the area that might qualify for that designation.

BR: Well realtors promote the fact that, “Oh, historic L.B.R.C. historic district…historic district” … and it’s funny that properties even in L.B.R.C., realtors say, “Historic Andersonville.” …

MB: Yeah, we’ve been annexed. (chuckles)

BR: …Have you seen that? They’re fighting over who wants to be the historic district.

DN: Are there any other questions?

BR: Marge is been there at so many important junctures and done so much. I’m happy that we finally got this Story because you’ve made so many contributions.

MB: I’ve had a lot of fun and I’ve made many good friends. It’s been quite an experience. And looking back on it is there anything I’d do differently? Ah yeah, there might be, but on the other hand things turned out pretty well.

DN: I agree and on that note I am going to terminate this interview. Thank you so much Marge for taking the time to share your story with us. It’ll will really add to our archives and enrich our…..

BR: Yeah, she had more gossip she could have told us. (chuckles)