Marion Volini - Transcript

Edited Transcription of Marion Volini Oral History
Interview: Marion Volini
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Interviewer: Robert Remer
Date: Nov. 27, 2012
Place: Chicago, Il
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Edited by: Marion Volini, May 6, 2014
Total Time: 34:52 minutes

Copyright @ 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: So we are with Marion Volini at her office on Nov. 27, 2012 which she graciously has allowed us to come and talk to her a little bit about her contributions to Edgewater. Thank you so much Marion.

MV: It’s a joy to be with you.

DN: How long have you lived or worked in Edgewater?

MV: I have been in Edgewater for more than 55 years. My husband and I came here as newlyweds. We lived at 5334 Kenmore in a small apartment. He was finishing his studies for his law degree and we had three children there. We moved to a large 3 bedroom apartment on Wayne Avenue and spent a number of years there and two more children came along. With our five children we moved to Lakewood Avenue where we bought a beautiful old home and found ourselves on the loveliest street you could imagine anywhere in the city or suburbs, We loved our home, renovated it, got to know our neighbors and thought Edgewater the ideal place to raise a family.

DN: So when did you first become involved in Edgewater outside the house?

MV: We became involved with our children through the church and the schools and we found there was a lively community here already. But we wanted to bolster it and make it stronger. Many of our friends had begun to move to the suburbs and we wanted to find ways to make the neighborhood more stable and attractive.

DN: When was that?

MV: Early 60’s. We loved the neighborhood. It had everything we wanted for our family. First of all, these wonderful old Victorian homes were so spacious. You had room for everybody. All my children, each one, had his or her own bedroom. Where can you find that? Then of course we had wonderful yards, side drives and lots of space. We liked St. Ita’s Church and school. The children could walk to school in the morning, come home for lunch in the afternoon. I always knew where they were. I thought that was positive information to have – to know the children were walking back and forth within the confines of this little community. When our friends were moving out of the city, we thought, “What can we do to try to keep them here?”. So we inaugurated new programs at the school and at the church, got everyone involved. But then about that time something happened in the neighborhood that was troublesome.

Something new, that was really so troublesome, was the presence of people on the street whose behavior was actually quite bizarre. We found that during the 60’s and early 70’s there was a movement to de-institutionalize many of the state psychiatric hospitals. President Kennedy, I believe in the early 60’s, began that movement, calling state hospitals “snakepits” and wanted to see them closed. Many of the states were encouraged to move their patients into community settings. About that time psychotropic drugs were discovered that could keep some of the acting-out behavior in check. They thought the use of these drugs in a community setting would be beneficial to the former patients.

The problem was they didn’t really plan ahead for the kinds of facilities that would actually house the former patients. Apartment hotels and multi-unit buildings in urban settings were chosen, under the supervision of building owners and managers who had no training for care of these former patients. The funding that was supposed to follow the patients to the community was greatly reduced. Then to make things worse, many of the former patients found, once they started taking the drugs, they felt better and stopped taking them. We found people wandering the streets who were really quite lost. Their behavior was frightening and parents worried about the safety of their children. So for us it was important to get involved. I was a representative of our church to the Edgewater Uptown Mental Health facility, which was being instituted at that time. I became very active there. First of all, a group we formed to respond to the crisis, stopped the proliferation and licensing of additional facilities. We showed that Edgewater, Uptown and Rogers Park had a disproportionate number of these homes, or halfway houses, and succeeded in stopping additional ones.

Secondly, our group of local neighbors, some of them licensed nurses, went into each of the existing halfway houses to find out if the quality of care was consistent with the standards of the neighborhood. I think that was my first time to become actively involved in the larger community.

DN: And then from there?

MV: From there, we became involved in politics. We supported the person who ran for alderman, Marylou Hedlund, because we realized our elected officials had been asleep at the switch when all this was going on. She promised to bring about change and worked very hard to do so. However, after one term, she decided not to run again for the office.

Because we wanted to see this and other neighborhood issues addressed, we decided to jump into the political race. I consulted my husband, who was at that time a young, aspiring attorney, to encourage him to run for the seat. Funds were short and he was the family bread winner, so we decided I should make the bid. There were others in the community who were extremely qualified to make the run, especially Marge Britton, who had long been a community leader. Marge decided I should run, since her children were younger than mine and, instead, she would be the campaign manager. The first time I ran for office (1975) I didn’t win. Three years later, the man who won the aldermanic seat, Dennis Block, decided to resign from office a year short of his four year term and we jumped back into the fray. We organized residents in Edgewater and Uptown to volunteer as precinct captains. We even had our kids out on the street passing out literature. It was truly a community effort. When we won, it was a victory for the entire community. One year later, 1979, I ran for a full four year term and won, then won another four year term in 1983.

During my time in office I inaugurated a Zoning and Land Use Committee. We wanted to see that the people of the community were empowered to have a voice in the destiny of the neighborhood. Dick Simpson, Alderman of the 44th Ward), had had a committee we modeled ours after. But we established our own guidelines and our own structure. It became so well regarded that the city’s Department of Land Use and Zoning used our committee to hold their neighborhood hearings.

Our office was run as a neighborhood resource. We had meetings there during the day and at night. I had community hours, where as Alderman, I would meet individually with people from the ward. Today that sounds like something everyone does, but in those days, that was very, very unusual.

But we showed by empowering the people in the community, making them part of the political process, making them stakeholders in what happened in their neighborhood, they could impact the outcome. And they did. If a developer wants to do something in this neighborhood, he knows he has to do the entire circuit of blocks clubs and community organizations. I imagine it is rather daunting for them. But people had learned they had to have their say, that it made a difference, and that they could change the outcome if they became involved.

DN: You’ve done an excellent job of describing how you, as an individual, saw a need at a familial level and helped transition to the community level to involving people in making that connection happen.

MV: It was exciting. It was exciting for all of us. Many of our children have gone into politics in one way or another. Danny Luna, who is Ald. Osterman’s chief of staff, was one of our precinct captains. He and his family were out there helping us with the leafleting. People would go to the bus stops with me. I was the candidate, but everyone was running for office. My son, Michael Volini, was later elected Ward Committeeman of the 48th Ward. He served for 17 years.

RR: Before you became alderman, after you ran the first time, you became President of the Edgewater Community Council.

MV: I did have that honor.

RR: Could you talk about that and what you and Marge, and others as well, did with some of the block clubs?

MV: Yes, that was a very important time. Marge Britton, LeRoy Blommaert and I started a movement through the Edgewater Community Council to try to inspire block and neighborhood groups to form block clubs, to have that kind of stake we talked about.

So many others were involved as well, Diane Postilion worked on that as well. Marge and LeRoy helped form block clubs throughout the entire ECC area.

RR: Were you President for two years?

MV: It was about a year and a half. I had no idea that Dennis Block would resign. We were all just stunned. It was never meant to be a political statement to serve as President of ECC after I lost the first election. I had taken a job teaching at the time at St. Rose School for Girls. My background is in speech therapy and I was happily doing that and tutoring when I received a call from someone on the ECC Board who asked me to run for President of the ECC. I thought it over and decided it would be a better opportunity to follow through with what we started in the neighborhood to do that. I took a leave of absence from my job and never went back. I think I met you, Bob, at a meeting of the Edgewater Community Council.

RR: I was in …my…I was Vice President of the Triangle block club and I met you at some community meeting and I said, “Boy, this woman needs to run for office.” I was the chairmen in that election and I dragged you through the whole area there. We went through the one whole section of the 48th ward…dragging you for hours going from door to door. Do you remember that? You had a bus and everything?

MV: I do remember it. And in fact, I remember saying at one point, “Bob, I’m so tired”. And you said “You’ve got to finish the job”.

RR Do you remember I asked you a question?

MV: What was the question?

RR: You don’t remember the question I asked you?

MV: You’d better ask me again.

RR: Do you want to win?

MV: That’s right. You were right! And you know you were another person who could have become Alderman. You became ward committeeman, a superb ward committeeman. There was electricity in our community that seemed to grow from the energy we were creating through the political process.

RR: How do you think the process you set in motion was bottoms up response to the elected officials? You think this continues since you left as alderman?

MV: Absolutely. I think what Kathy Osterman did, what Mary Ann Smith did and now what Harry Osterman is doing is exactly that. . being responsive to the people who live and work in the community, always with an ear to their interests, rather than those of downtown. Kathy went on to become Commissioner of Special Events for the city and did a magnificent job. Who knows what Harry might go on to do? But I think the first mission of all of these elected officials has been to take care of neighborhood needs. Neighborhoods First! I think that was Kathy’s slogan. And I think we have kept that as part of our political belief during the last 30 years.

RR: What were some of the big battles that you have had? You were in the forefront of many of them. Can you tell us about some of them?

MV: Well, we have had many battles, many regarding our lakefront. We’ve had so much high rise development in Edgewater that there were many battles regarding access to the lakefront for all. At ECC we considered ourselves guardians of the lakefront. Sheridan Road had become a traffic nightmare with high rises creating a tunnel which trapped exhaust from the cars. The few open spaces along the lakefront were prized by developers but we fought many battles to keep access to the lake free and clear. This is an on-going challenge, one residents still face today.

RR: Didn’t you also stimulate an effort for down zoning, not just for going to the beach from Sheridan Road, but for that whole area east of Broadway?

MV: I did much of that through the Organization of the Northeast…ONE. They began the down zoning process along the lakefront and we all got involved in it. Then I went on to rezone Broadway to limit the number of auto body shops which proliferated there. The mechanics would use all the parking spaces and park cars on the sidewalk near their shops. The curb cuts prevented Broadway from becoming pedestrian friendly. I also had ordinances prepared to eliminate the reversible lanes on Ridge, used to divert traffic at rush hour, but which made our neighborhood a speed zone

RR: Now, you’ve had some battles against slumlords as well.

MV: Yes, we did.

RR: I remember when you were on TV… It was one of the drug dealers or somebody, one of those buildings on Kenmore…and you were on the seven o’clock news that night talking to the drug dealers saying “Get out of my community”. Do you remember that?

MV: (Chuckles). You know, we had many absentee landlords, slum landlords and drug dealers. Kenmore/Winthrop had most because of the nature of the housing. These were multi-unit buildings. Often times these would be the buildings owned by slum landlords who would allow anyone to rent without screening, keep them for as long as they could pay rent, then kick them out. Often, drug dealing would be carried out right in the buildings. We had people who witnessed this and so we went to court as advocates of the community against the drug dealers and the slumlords. The police became our friends because we were calling them constantly. I’m not sure they thought about it that way, but we wanted to press charges, swear out warrants and appear in court. We spent more time in court than I probably did in City Council. We wanted to show solidarity to let those people who had been using our community to enrich themselves that we were now taking over and becoming the new proprietors of the community. Yes, we were always in the middle of some pitched battle as I remember.

RR: That was the start of community policing.

MV: Yes, that’s true and that’s something that ECC did.

RR: As a matter of fact Reggie Griffin and Warren Friedman became the leadership of the citywide coalition of what actually created community policing, which was right here in the community.

MV: I do think that – yes, I saw that.

RR: And that’s where the Edgewater Uptown Safety program, which was the ECC, when we were…

MV: Yes, that’s right. Yes, Bob, you have the history down pat. You must be the Executive Director of the Historical Society…or President…or both in one. (chuckles). And you know we had so many battles going on, especially trying to do something about the conditions in what was called the Kenmore/Winthrop corridor. There were so many fires there they called it Arson Alley. Sometimes the slumlords would start fires in their own buildings to collect insurance. Sometimes the batteries in the smoke detectors would be taken by the residents to use in their transistor radios, so when fires would start residents would not be alerted. Residents, sometimes, couldn’t get out of buildings.

It was really a nightmare. There were fire engines going into the area on a nightly basis. Much of that has changed since the fire department started enforcing the smoke alarm code and many of the buildings have been rehabbed.

But in addition to the problems with the buildings, with the violations of the building code and the fire code, we also had a considerable number of homeless people who were sleeping under bridges and in the park. Rest shelters were opening up and this was another contentious issue, with some neighbors of shelters complaining about their presence and human rights advocates supporting the shelters. Many of the homeless were former psychiatric patients. At a later time, the city came in, creating their own shelters. But there were about 5 years when we fought over those issues, trying to find a happy medium, trying to find ways to serve the homeless, and plug them into the right programs and still preserve the needs of the community. I think that through the city’s programs and other kinds of shelter providers for the homeless, it is not as much a problem now as it was then.

DN: What would you say is the toughest problem you’ve faced… politically?

MV: You asked that question, and for me there were so many. One of the problems was the fact that when I served under Mayor Jane Byrne and Mayor Harold Washington, there was so much political in-fighting it was really hard to focus on the needs of the city and the need to keep the middle class in the city. We expended so much energy on this pointless fighting that was going on. I think that was one of the most frustrating things for me. We really wanted to see city programs come to the community. We were able to do a lot, nevertheless, and I have to say we were able to empower the community in determining future directions of their neighborhoods. If I have one legacy it is the empowerment of the people here. We encouraged everyone to raise their voices, be heard, make a difference and become the leaders of the community . So that is what I see is what we began and what I think is a lasting legacy.

DN: …And I think that whole concept…I would love to see it translated nationally…that they are participatory.

MV: Exactly, exactly. There is one other thing too. We did have this influx of people in the Argyle area. These were people who…many of them, were boat people. This was from the time people were coming from Viet Nam. Many wore one gold coin around their necks on a chain. There were a number of gold jewelry shops on the street. I found that many of the new arrivals had traded all their belonging for this gold coin when they left home and traded it in at the gold shop to open a small business or shop on Argyle Street. And we helped them get the information and training from the city they needed to be successful in business.

There had been a small Chinatown development on Argyle to begin with and it was a natural place for the new arrivals to begin. And they were the best citizens. Those who had immigrated from Viet Nam, Cambodia, and other nearby places, many with total language barriers, learned to speak the language. Goudy School, where most of the children attended, was one of the lowest ranked schools in the city. After four or five years, the refugee students raised the school’s ranking considerably. I remember speaking at a Goudy School graduation ceremony, where the valedictorian was a young girl from Viet Nam who had come in fourth or fifth grade with no knowledge of English but managed to finish first in her class at graduation.

And then I remember that Senn High School at that time had a soccer team that was made up of people from so many countries who all played soccer. They couldn’t communicate with each other through spoken language at first, but they could on the soccer field. They had an award winning team. That is the kind of community we had – everyone working together. And I think that has been the strength of Edgewater.

Another question was “What was the most unique thing about Edgewater?”? To me the answer is its diversity. We’ve always found strength in that diversity. People have learned to cope with the city in general by learning how to do things through neighborhood organizations and through our schools, and they’ve contributed their culture, the strengths of their background to our melting pot here. And I think we’ve all thrived because of it.

DN: I also wanted to ask you about the change in the community. You’ve invested so much in the community. What do you see happening in the future for Edgewater? Will we continue to be diverse? Populations change. But will we still have this diversity? What direction do you see Edgewater heading in? What sort of problems will the community face?

MV: A city is organic and a neighborhood is, too. It continues to grow. It can flourish but still have problems as it did in the past, but resurfacing in different ways. I’ll take Bryn Mawr Business District as an example. When we first worked with the Bryn Mawr business area, it had so many problems. We had out and out prostitution on the street. I introduced and passed an ordinance against street solicitation for prostitution because of what was happening on Bryn Mawr. There were people drinking openly on the street, gang recruitment, drug dealing. And over the years, by the efforts of the community, elected officials and police Bryn Mawr has turned around..

If you walk down the street today, you’ll find wonderful restaurants, outdoor cafes and unique businesses. This was all made possible by the efforts of neighborhood activists and community organizations, such as the SSA, who provided the beautiful plantings on the street. To a newcomer you might think Bryn Mawr has arrived. But we have new problems: drug dealing, gang recruitment, people standing on the street and approaching passers by for money, It seems like some of the same old problems revisited. And the only answer I have to that is to say Edgewater is going to continue to thrive and to become one of the most desirable communities in the city, but are always going to be facing new problems related to old issues.

If you look at Lakewood Balmoral…when I moved there, these wonderful old Victorian homes were pretty much in need of recovery, rehabilitation and recovery in many ways. The gardens were basically tended, but they weren’t what they are today. Today, being in Real Estate I can tell you, many of those homes sell for over a million dollars, some close to 2 million. It’s just the most desirable neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. It is a small, 12 block square enclave of families that love the city , the way we all do, who thrive on diversity and who want to be downtown in 20 minutes rather than taking a two hour drive from the suburbs.

And yet, they still have urban problems. There still will be some people who you know will be on the street who may be causing problems. Because we are the kind of community we are, able to absorb newcomers, show them the way we do things and work with them rather than against them, we will win them over. We thrive in our neighborhoods, we thrive in our business districts. Look at Andersonville. It is one of the best commercial districts in the city. Bryn Mawr, I think is coming up and is doing very well. Look at all the funding Ald. Osterman got for the CTA and for new “el” stations, the rebuilding of the sewers and old water mains. All that is rebuilding the infrastructure of the community, making it look as beautiful as it has ever looked. But we are always still going to have some of those old problems. We have to be vigilant. We have to keep working at it. In fact, we recently organized business people on the street to address security issues.

RR: When did you do that?

MV: Within the last several months.

RR: Oh, OK.

MV: And we were able to get two new foot patrolmen on the street as a result of a petition drive.

RR: Once an organizer always an organizer.

MV: you can’t stop. I mean, we went door to door and got every business on the street to sign yup. We’re now going to form a business organization to keep Bryn Mawr as fabulous as it is now, as vital, and always growing. And that’s what I think you have to do, to continue to look for ways to continue to grow. Never stay the way you are, just because your think it should be that way. Always find new ways to grow. And bring in the new people. We have to bring in a lot more new people into our organizations, into politics, our business groups. We have new people in this new business association that we’ve just formed and new people from the neighborhood working with us, too. Residents who are new to the neighborhood, who are young and excited about the community want to get involved. And this is how you keep a neighborhood vital.

DN: Is there any one job left undone…that you want to accomplish? You have done so much, Marion.

MV: Well no. I’ve had more fun than anybody. (Chuckle)

DN: I see, well there’s tomorrow. I’m sure there’s something tomorrow that is going to comer along.

MV: Well I think we just have to keep vigilant. I just want to stay involved. As I said, we are3 forming a new business organization. The community on Bryn Mawr, the business district, is so mobilized, so organized. I feel a new vitality. It’s just an energy that comes when people see things happening. The foot patrolmen have been phenomenal and Bryn Mawr is so much better in two months. And to me, it’s just a matter of continuing to see what has to be done and continue to try and meet the need. As far as Edgewater is concerned, I believe the goal is to keep building on what the community groups, the Alderman and others have already accomplished and try to bring in the new along with the old.

DN: And to keep empowering.

MV: And to keep empowering. That’s the key. That’s the key.

DN: Do you have any more questions Bo?

RR: No, I think that’s a great way to end it.

DN: Before we end, I want to just give you a few minutes to say whatever else you might like to say because I gave you a small set of questions to address but there might be a few things you might like to add.

MV: Well, I’d like to compliment the Edgewater Historical Society because you have kept us aware of our past and our future. And that’s how people learn because it has been said that the people who continue to make mistakes, don’t know their history ,continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. And you’ve done so much to make us aware of our history, to continue to remind us about what was good about us, and what is great about us, and what we need to accomplish in the future. So thank you, Bob.

Thank you, Dorothy for doing all this for us.

DN: Well I think we’ll conclude the interview now.

RR: Well, thank you for having been one of the great subjects for us to study…to celebrate.

MV: (Chuckles) I don’t know. It was really fun for me.

DN: I love the idea of empowerment.