Tom Murphy - Transcript

Transcript of Tom Murphy
Interviewee: Tom Murphy
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Robert Remer
Place: 5358 N Ashland, Chicago, IL
Date: December 12, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 35:33

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is December 12, 2014. This is Dorothy Nygren with Bob Remer at the Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N Ashland, interviewing one of our 2015 Living Treasures, Tom Murphy. Congratulations, Tom, on being a Living Treasure in Edgewater. We’re here to hear your story about how you came to Edgewater and what was important once you got here. So we’ll start of by asking you to give us a little bit about your background and how you came to Edgewater.

TM: I grew up in Pittsburgh; my wife grew up in Chicago. I was teaching at DePaul [University] and we were living in the Wrigleyville area. We had a daughter a couple of years old. We were looking for a house. So my wife looked around a lot. She found this neighborhood here. She found it because Loyola had a walk to work program tried to promote people living within walking distance of the school. So Ceci walked the neighborhood a little bit and found houses. We looked around and found a house and have been there. That was 1980. Prices were just escalating then; mortgages were in the 13-14% range and we were able to assume a mortgage on the house. So….

DN: What did you like about Edgewater beside the price availability?

TM: Well they were escalating, let me tell you. Well, the neighborhood. We’re in Edgewater Glen. It’s principally a single family neighborhood. Our street happens to be twice the length; it’s a quarter mile long without a cross street on it. So it looked like…. The neighborhood had a reputation, these four square houses, for being a family neighborhood, although by the time we got there the big families had left and the neighborhood was renewing itself.


DN: Once you got to Edgewater with your family, you settled in. Once you settled in you became involved in community work. Can you tell us how that happened?

TM: I knew a lady who had been active with environmental things and lake things. She organized a PCB Gone program; she was the first staff member with the Lake Michigan Federation; her name was Mary Ann Smith. She wanted to get something going to clean up the lake out there, so she had a good friend, Kathy Osterman, who was the beach lover – she used to spend her summers on the beach – and now has her own beach named after her…. So they started Operation Watch and Mary Ann knew water scientists of sorts. The three of them and the lawyer formed this Operation Lake Watch and we would meet weekly or so during the active season in Mary Ann’s dining room and plan or plot as some would say. The question of what can we do? Beach clean ups were done. There’s not too much about beach clean ups. The big issue with water quality really is disease. Are you going to get pink eye or thyroid or something like that from the water? The emphasis was on chemicals; Mary Ann’s emphasis was on chemicals. The bottom line is to keep from getting sick? SO what can a bunch of random neighborhood people do to test for disease? There’s a big industry in THAT. They made these little samplers; they’re sterile. You just take a syringe and draw a fixed amount of water through it. The water is filtered on a filter paper. You take that and add some nutrients to it and some specific dyes to it and you incubate it for forty-eight hours. The chloroform bacteria and the fecal chloroform bacteria grow into little cloudy things if they’re there and they pick up the color and you count them.


DN: Now what impelled you though to give this extra time to the effort? Why was important to you instead of playing with your kids or watching TV or playing golf or reading Scientific American to put your time into it?

TM: Well, the lake is very important to Chicago. I was involved with Great Lakes research and wanted to keep the lake good for Chicago. It’s wonderful. There’s really no significant problems with the lake itself. Anyway, when you have Mary Ann Smith and Kathy Osterman beating on you, you don’t say no. (Chuckles)

DN: So you brought your expertise and scientific attitude toward Operation Lake Watch. Now what’s the story I heard about people going out on boats to get samples?

TM: Okay. That was one aspect. But the idea was also to have eyes on the lake, to see things that are going on, to have observers on the scene. Now who are the observers: people who use the lake, fisherman, boaters, and we tried to get airline pilots; they’re flying over the lake; they could see something; people in high rises who faced east. We hired a person who was a real find, John Berson. He was a fisherman, a big burly fisherman who could talk the language of fishermen with a very accommodating demeanor. Well anyway, he’d talk to the fishermen and then they’d talk to him about they’d say what they were seeing. Boaters would report things that they saw.

That was surprisingly successful. Everyone presumed that somebody’s in charge of the lakefront but they had other things to do. Boaters have a toilet onboard that they would have to pump out. They’re not supposed to dump it in the lake. The harbors have pump out facilities. Well it turns out that most of those pump out facilities weren’t working. So what’s your choice? So we beat on the Park District to have the pump out facilities working.

One of the most surprising things we found were that boaters in Burham harbor along the east bank were reporting that in the morning there’d be a lot of debris in the water; stuff in the water. They didn’t know where it was coming from and why it was there. There was a pipe there. We reported that. The Sanitary District… Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago showed up and they really did a marvelous job. They traced that pipe back to some manholes in the parking lot. When they talked to McCormack Center [Place], they’d say, “Well there were some painters out there and put their stuff in there or something like that.” Well the District followed up with the manholes and found out that McCormack Place had a big tank where they’d accumulate their waste from cleaning and stuff. At night they would pump that into the sewer that went into the harbor. Absolutely illegal; it wasn’t on their diagrams. The Metropolitan Reclamation District was just livid that they were doing that; this public body would be dumping this debris in the lake. They had a big fine about it. Then the other thing about that time was that Taste of Chicago started. It was called something different at the time.

RR: Chicago Fest.

TM: Chicago Fest. They did at Navy Pier and Jane Byrne…. It was a good show. The problem was that Navy Pier was a narrow building with a big flat surface to unload ships. It was during that time at the turn of the century, 1900s. Lots of ships brought in their cargo. But this big flat area, the drains in it just went into the lake. So Chicago Fest, at night they’d hose the place down, or during the day. Anything that fell on the ground was hosed into the lake so we complained about that. Within a year or two they moved it to Grant Park for a variety of reasons. Navy Pier at that time; it was before renovation and not a place to hold something like this. That probably inspired the renovation of Navy Pier. You probably know Navy Pier is now the premier tourist attraction in the country. Anyway….

DN: What years was Operation Lake Watch active?

TM: I think three years, 1981 and 1983.


DN: Your first effort in Edgewater was Operation Lake Watch. But it certainly wasn’t your last. What was next?

TM: The Metropolitan Water Reclamation took over the program. It became more proactive with things. I don’t know. Other things… well I became associated with …. I joined the Board of the [Edgewater] Historical Society. It seemed to be a neighborhood organization that was much involved in doing a lot of things in the neighborhood. Probably everybody has some interest in history. I’d been in Edgewater for a few years by that time. I wanted to get more involved with the Historic[al] Society.

DN: Actually since that time, for the past twenty several years, you have been on the Board and even when haven’t been on the Board, you’re kind of like the caretaker of the museum and this building. If something goes wrong or if somebody needs help, Tom’s always there to pitch in and help with it.

RR: Our senior consultant. (Chuckles)

TM: I don’t know…. I have a brother, a year and a half older and he’s just somebody technical and can do absolutely anything; electrical; mechanical; he understands everything. I grew up with that and picked up minor parts of it. There are always things that need to be done towards the building.


DN: So once again my question: why you? Why don’t you say, “I’m too busy to do things?” It seems you are always doing something.

TM: There are a lot of organizations that do a lot of good in society that society isn’t willing to fund or fund appropriately. Certainly neighborhood organizations always rely to some extent on people volunteering. So why do people volunteer? Well they get something out of it. They’re appreciated; they get accomplishments seeing things working…. Places like Care for Real; I’ve had little involvement with that - some through the Chamber ([Edgewater Chamber of Commerce] and the Edgewater Community Council. They have paid staffers but much of it is done by volunteers. They provide a real service for the community, I think. Yes and to give back a little bit.

DN: When you were on the Board of the Edgewater Historical Society, I think you were contributing on the Collections Committee, is that right?


TM: Yes. Why support this historic society? Well they are the repository of the history of the neighborhood and they try to be in our community and doing that and collecting. So I think that preserving the history of the community is important. They had a lot of materials, some objects and lots of paper and records. They were just in the beginning of trying to organize it. So I had some interest in that and tried to get things going so that they knew what they had which is always useful; and then it would be accessible to those who wanted to use it.

DN: So once again you brought your training as a scientist to problems of materials collection and how to organize it in a way that would be useful. Besides Edgewater Historical Society you’ve always been involved with the Edgewater Community Council as well so could you speak a little bit about why you were involved with that?


TM: That came later after I became involved with the Historical Society. We were members of the community. We were always members of the Edgewater Community Council and liked what they did. They were a lot of people involved doing a good job and when they were doing a good job you didn’t have to get in there and muck it up. But I did become involved in it for better or for worse and it turned out to be towards the end of it. It was through direct involvement through my interest in sustainability and the environment and issues involving global warming, greenhouse gas transmission. The Edgewater Community Council had started a project involved with that.

DN: What year was that?


TM: About 2008.

DN: What was the need for that?

TM: There’s evidence that we have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by eighty percent. So that means using one-fifth of the gasoline we’ve been using; one-fifth of the natural gas we’ve been using to heat our houses and our buildings; one-fifth of the electricity we’ve been using. It’s going to be a tough job.

DN: That’s a global issue. You’re attacking it from the local level.

TM: That’s right.

DN: Why do you feel that’s an effective method?

TM: Well, you have to cut all the emissions. So I have a single family house. Single family houses are inherently not so efficient because you have four walls and a roof. If you live in apartment in a big building you pretty much have only one outside wall. So a big building is inherently more efficient. We bought the house and the house was built in 1912. Construction methods were different then. One of the early things I did, within a year or two, was we insulated the house. We had insulation blown in. That cut our natural gas emissions by a half, maybe forty percent; fifty percent. I keep working on the house. I keep working on the house. Every year there are things you can do to cut your energy.

DN: But this is a good example of your role as a community activist. You could have just said, “OK. I’ve just worked on my house. I don’t need to do anything else. But yet you didn’t stop there.”

TM: But there are other houses out there and you want to raise people’s consciousnesses and cut the energy use in the neighborhood. Do our bit to begin to cut…to limit climate change.


RR: What were some of the activities that the sustainability group did when you got involved in when you first started?

TM: We had a number of focus areas: energy efficiency; renewable energy, solar, thermal; transportation, energy use , getting people to use mass transportation; improvement of energy usage, driving less, combining your shopping trips; greening the parks, maintaining the parks. That had been a long term interest of the [Edgewater] Community Council. Most of the other very early people in starting that sustainability project were people like Allen Stryczek and Anne Comeau who had been with the community for a long time cleaning; and keeping the community orderly and tidy; trying to get the trees trimmed that needed to be trimmed. Anne Comeau had been involved with the parks and green areas.

I think it was Historic Society people, but Thom Greene in particular, who years ago put a community garden in…. When Hollywood was connected to Ridge back in the ‘50s, they had to take out four or five properties to make the connection. It left odd sized lots. But the one lot in particular… Hollywood would go straight and then it would curve and where it curved, they put in a community garden. So there’s a sign there “Welcome to Edgewater: and there are roses and trees. All of those sites need to be maintained. While the local people initially agreed to maintain it, they don’t get it all done. They need help; Anne Comeau in particular’ she organizes her volunteers.


DN: Going back to the Sustainability Project: is that is a committee of the Edgewater Community Council or is a separate organization?

TM: Well it has been. It was under the umbrella of the Edgewater Community Council. But it went out of business a year and a half ago, so we’re now on our own.

DN: How many people are involved in the project?

TM: There are Anne and Allen are the co-chairs of it and active. We have about six or so active co-chairs for the different… transportation, planning and recycling. We meet monthly and try to work on whatever the problems are. They always change.

RR: They have been really effective with using volunteers; students, working with Loyola students on a number of environmental projects.

TM: Yes, we do get volunteers. Specific projects… typically they are self-starting. Somebody has an issue they want to deal with: putting containers in the schools. We do what we can to work with them. There is experience with the organization. There are a lot of people involved with very different experiences. They help out with the gardening aspects of the green infrastructure for controlling the water and things like that. It’s a loose organization of cats. When the time comes you round up the right cats and do their thing. (Chuckles)


DN: Over the last thirty-five years of your life in Edgewater you’ve been an educator and an activist, given a lot of your time volunteering. What is the basis that makes you volunteer? Where does this come from over the years? You’ve not just continued in one project over the last thirty-five years.

TM: Who know? Why do people…. The nation runs. There are certainly… the community runs on volunteer efforts. People want to make their community better; to make Edgewater more sustainable; more attractive place to live; increasing their housing values so we can get offered bigger stacks of money. No, I think just to make it a more liveable community; to make it a more attractive place for those who are there.

The [Edgewater] library – we do have the busiest library in the city. Part of it is we do have people who support the library; to improve the library and its services; try to get them open more hours. There are big cutbacks. They’re only open two nights a week. That certainly isn’t a lot for the library. The library is a big place for meetings, so that certainly limits the library for meetings. It’s a big community for meetings… (Chuckles) if you like to go to meetings….

RR: And you like to go to meetings…. (Chuckles)

TM: Nothing better than sitting through…. Anyway, yes.


DN: How can we get more people involved in volunteering?

TM: You have to find what their interests are. You have to pick their interests. We need help with this; can you do that? They’ve grown up with people doing things for them and somehow they have to transition to adults. We’re not….you’re the ones who have to do things. There are things that need to be done out there and you can put your time and expertise in making an accomplishment to make the community better. It’s tough to do.

DN: What advice would you give young people?

TM: Well to get involved; to find something you like. Find an activity; find somebody who’s doing something that you’re interested in. Volunteer. You’ll start off learning what’s going on and how to do things, but you’ll become involved and you’ll find other things and people will drag you into other things. It’s terrible how they take advantage of you. (Chuckles)

DN: A lot of younger people are trying to multi-task their lives: work, raise kids, etc.…. You’ve done that. But it seems like this generation is very focused on their own individual needs. Yet people can go and work out or play golf or some other activity. How do we get people to think that individual effort needs to be used for the community?

What would be a good reason or a compelling reason?


TM: I don’t know. Certainly times change. Times are difficult for many of the young people who have graduated from college, who have a college degree but finding a meaningful job in your area is difficult. So they do spend, I think, more time than earlier generations in internships and part-time work, in looking for work. They aren’t as settled in their private lives typically. I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage. There are more pressures on them and certainly this is a time of change: keeping up with the social media. We didn’t have to do that….make a couple of phone calls a day; now we get a hundred texts a day. It’s deciding what’s important and that’s the hard part I think. It’s finding that first volunteer effort, the first project to work on and then usually getting people involved initially. I don’t know. For the sustainability group, Allen Stryczek is a very outgoing person. He expects everyone in the community to become infinitely involved and do projects. It doesn’t all work out but it works out to a large extent. You have to have people like that to push things and then people like Anne [Comeau] to organize people once they get involved.


RR: One thing that strikes me from attending some meetings. Environment is one thing that young people seem to being really attuned to. Do you think that’s an avenue that we could use to encourage to get more participation?

TM: Sure. Yes it is, because they’re going to have to live in the future. Some of us have a shorter lifetime. Anyway…. So they realize it is to their benefit: to volunteer

DN: Do you have any other questions, Bob?


RR: Yes. One of the things we like to ask people: Looking down at Edgewater; one of the characteristics that you know very well is Edgewater being very welcoming to different groups. We’re always exploring the answers. What do you think makes Edgewater welcoming? Do you find Edgewater welcoming? If so, how can we keep it that way?

TM: It does seem to be a welcoming community. Perhaps because there are so many people there that they don’t have a solid area that has, you know…of insular groups.

RR: No one group dominates….

TM: That’s right. As you know Senn High School has forty-six native languages. It’s always been a diverse place. I’m surprised at the people who went there in the’60s. It was very diverse then. Well anyway. The housing is there; there are a lot of apartments between Sheridan Road and Broadway. People coming first to the city, it’s a place to get started.

RR: Port of entry.

TM: Port of entry. So it’s a safer community than some although certainly there are safety concerns; good transportation.


DN: This is your story, Tom Murphy, so we’ve asked a lot of questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add to this interview which will become a matter of public record about any aspect of your life or the community?

TM: When I was involved in ECC [Edgewater Community Council] and Sustainability, the building was on Broadway and Care for Real had the first floor. Care for Real is the food pantry that arose out of the troubles Edgewater was having in the ‘60s and ‘70s serving people who had been burned out of buildings and fallen on hard times. There were some problems with the building and I got involved. They called in someone to do a survey; someone volunteered. The basement was a terrible place, about a twelve foot that you can walk in. The whole rest of the building was a four feet crawlway, dirt floor, forty-six thousand cobwebs that had been living there one hundred years and the problems were in the front. So this person crawled up to where she could see a little bit and took a picture of that; sewer pipes sticking out that just looked terrible; debris in the area. So she wrote this report about how this was a terrible thing. I went down and looked at it myself. The pipes were construction debris; they were not functioning pipes. There was a leak.

Somebody leaked the report to the alderman’s office; this is Care for Real, our food pantry, and it had this sewage, terrible problem. They called a meeting. I pointed out that flooded basements were not a big issue in Chicago, weren’t an unknown issue in Chicago. Our neighborhood used to flood twice a year. What do you do when your basement floods? Well you call your mother-in-law and tell her to put on her boots and bring her bucket to clean up the basement. The food pantry wasn’t serving any food. They were just bringing in food packages and sending on package materials. The problems were in the basement and the food pantry was on the first floor. It was a terrible job to get into the basement. There was a trap door on the floor that wouldn’t open and food boxes were stacked up on that. There wasn’t a lot of traffic between the first floor and the basement. That report could have caused Care for Real to close and find a different location. They did find a different location. They had to find a new location. It was too small. The [Edgewater] Community Council sold the building at some point. So just something that morphed into a big problem.

DN: But one that got solved.

TM: The problem was caused by Glenlake [Avenue] jogged and Glenlake was facing the building. They put a traffic light in. When they put the traffic light in, that broke the sewer pipe. To their credit the City came out and moved the traffic light. I don’t know why they just didn’t fix the sewer pipe. They moved the traffic light.

RR: So that’s why they did it? I didn’t know that.

TM: Yes.

DN: A little piece of local lore. Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to the interview?

TM: No. It’s a good community, I think, and it’s got a lot of people are involved. It’s one of the strengths of the community, why it’s a welcoming community… so many people involved….

DN: Like you Tom.

TM: A lot of others.

RR: You’ve raised a family here. How do the kids like it?

TM: My daughter has lived in Fort Wayne and now in North Carolina. Her husband teaches ceramics. It’s hard to get ceramics jobs. But she says that’s her house, where she grew up, and we can’t get rid of it. The chance of her coming back to Chicago is not very good, but….

DN: At least not right now so you better live a long time and do a lot more community work.

TM: Her friends are the same, the kids that grew up with here. In the 6300 block, Dawn Wyman’s mother sold many of the houses in the neighborhood down the street. Many of these kids won’t leave.

DN: So I think we’re going to stop the interview here Tom. Congratulations on being a 2015 Living Treasures.

TM: It’s a real honor on my behalf to be recognized by one of the premier organizations….

RR: That you helped make premier.

TM: Very little.