A lot has changed since 1975. It was a time when young people knew the music of Seals & Croft. It was a year when 35 percent of the residential space in the St. Ben's neighborhood, around Damen Avenue and Irving Park Road, sat vacant.
Gene Schulter took office as 47th Ward alderman that spring at the age of 26, making him one of the youngest aldermen ever elected to that post, and he's been there ever since.
These days it's difficult to find a home to buy or apartment to rent in much of Schulter's ward. He believes that's because of the improved 'quality of life' he has pursued in the schools and parks, and in the businesses drawn to this part of the city. He highlights Winnemac Park, a 40-acre campus formerly 'loaded with gang-bangers,' which now is a well-utilized green space near the ward's northern border. The city at one time was considering knocking down the CTA brown line, Schulter said, but a 10-year cooperative effort among city officials, the CTA and aldermen preserved the highly traveled vein that runs northwest from the heart of downtown to the intersection of Lawrence ( 4800 North ) and Kimball ( 3400 West ) .
'Affordable public transportation is a major priority for our ward,' said Schulter, who speaks fluidly about ward achievements over the past 28 years.
Most of his conversation, however, seems to end up on the topic of developmentan issue his opponent, Jack Lydon, emblazons as the 'hot button' in this election.
'I've led the drive to downsize the whole ward and make it more manageable,' Schulter said. 'Starting 18 years ago, we began downsizing the zoning on our side streets. Through my initiation and hard work, we have meaningful retail.'
The incumbent explained how the height of new 47th Ward retail space is 14 feet, not eight feet, and that minimum square-footage requirements also exist for floor space. Translated, that means no stores are allowed to open in an area more appropriately sized for large closets.
'Every zoning change we have undergoes elaborate, sophisticated ( meetings ) ,' he said. 'A vote is taken and the people in the ward who are affected make the decision. I reflect always, always, the view of the people in the ward. I've taken a leadership role. I've empowered the people in my ward to become sophisticated enough to make the decisions.'
Accused by political activists of favoring developers over residents, Schulter steps to the podium with examples that rebut those charges. The park at Addison and Rockwell attracted individuals who thought that would be a great place for condos, yet Schulter teamed with neighbors there, raising $600,000 needed to save it. Schulter has been blamed for the loss of seniors, low-income owners and renters in the cross-section of the 47th Ward, yet he lists projects at Clark Street and Irving Park Road, and Western Avenue and Irving Park Road, that are providing about 650 units for senior housing. He points to 15 units under his ward's roof that are part of the Chicago Affordable Partners Program which requires developers to include lower-priced residences in their construction. Then there's the Silent Co-op at Belmont and Rockwell for seniors with disabilities and individuals with hearing impairments.
One of Schulter's most vocal critics has been Therese Quinn, who has organized with Queer to the Left. In 2001, Schulter's attorneys filed suit against Quinn and others for defamation.
'I hope it's resolved soon,' Schulter said. 'It goes beyond being defamed. It also had to do with the security of my family and never before have I had the security of my family be an issue. It was recommended to me that action be taken.'
The law firm of Winston and Strawn is handling Quinn's case pro bono.
When asked if real estate developers, brokers and their attorneys comprise the bulk of Schulter's healthy re-election campaign account, the incumbent says flat out that information is false.
'I've raised money from a lot of different supporters,' he said. 'They're supporting Gene Schulter because they believe in good government.'
Schulter, 55, grew up in Chicago. His grandparents were farmers, but his parents moved to the city in 1934 where Schulter's father worked as a union machinist.
'We were renters growing up,' the alderman said, 'so I know what that's like.'
He and Rosemary, his wife, live with children Philip and Monica, and the family's Irish Terrier and cockatiel.
'I was born and raised to be frugal,' said the man who voted against an aldermanic pay raise ( from $85,000 to $98,000 a year ) last November. 'I know I'm not going to be a millionaire, but when you take on a job as important as this, you have to put your heart and soul into it.'
The St. Ben's, North Center and Ravenswood neighborhoods on Chicago's North Side sit basically at the center of the 47th Ward. These areas, relatively inexpensive in the mid-1980s, have become their own sort of 'gold coast,' or maybe a 'gold isle' that's surfaced during a storm of development. Property taxes have increased 60 percent or more over the past seven years, putting strain particularly on fixed- and low-income residents, including many seniors.
'Development is, of course, a hot-button issue,' said aldermanic candidate Jack Lydon, who is challenging long-time incumbent Gene Schulter in the Feb. 25 elections. 'Houses are being purchased and torn down, bigger houses taking their place with very little backyard, a deck on top of the garage.'
Two houses built over the past six months on the 4100 block of North Oakley exemplify Lydon's concern. One household on that block has watched taxes increase to $4,000 and the residents now have a gargantuan new home next to them situated so that the neighbors' views into and onto the next-door property is nothing less than intrusive.
'I want to amend the zoning ordinance,' Lydon said. 'The one we're using is nearly 50 years old. It was a different society then. We need to scrap the FAR ( floor-area ratio ) .'
Lydon, whose parents both grew up in this ward, wrote an article about 18 months ago for the Ravenswood Reporter newspaper highlighting the dramatic loss of senior citizensa 30 percent decline, according to Lydonin their neighborhood.
'There's significant gentrification beginning to overwhelm the community,' he said. 'We need to remedy the bad things that are coming with that. It's had a traumatic impact on decreasing the number of senior citizens, long-time residents and renters.'
Website address 'lydonforalderman.org' gives good insight into Lydon's approach to the $98,000-a-year job. His campaign focuses on property taxes, development and City Council reform, specifically campaign finance reform. Hoping to raise $100,000 in his own run for office, Lydon faces a seven-term incumbent whose contribution coffers took in approximately $1.5 million over the past 11 years.
'A lot of that ( $1.5 million ) has come from real estate brokers, real estate developers and their attorneys; that's a matter of public record,' Lydon said. 'I propose we prohibit anyone who is making a zoning change or applying for a zoning change two years before or two years after the date of the application from making a campaign contribution to the candidate who is running for ward alderman.'
Lydon also proposes a new zoning classificationsomething that would fall between R-2 and R-3 that wouldn't be as 'intense,' he said, as current development. He seems firmly grounded in the power of community activism and how it can effect change.
'About three years ago, there was a proposal to close the Davis Theater,' he said. 'Five hundred people on short notice came out to a meeting at the Sulzer Library because they didn't want to lose the theater and have another 22-unit condo building there. We're going through change. I want change for the better. I think we can decide where we want to go. If we get together, we can make our own community.'
Paving stones in Lincoln Square's Giddings Plaza cost the city $1.9 million, Lydon said, a project on which the 47th Ward community was given little voice. The new gazebo in Welles Park is nice, he said, but Lydon believes money spent on these aesthetics might be better spent, for example, on repairing or rebuilding the Western Avenue bridge that crosses Belmont.
'I can point to a number of wasteful ( projects ) ,' the challenger said. 'I received notice the day before that there was a public meeting about ( Giddings Plaza ) . There wasn't enough input taken into consideration and the input wasn't followed.'
Lydon, who grew up in Elk Grove Village, returned to the 47th Ward where his mother and father were raised after graduating from DePaul's School of Law. A commercial litigator, Lydon also serves as a Democratic Party precinct captain, trekking door to door conversing with voters and working a polling place on election day. Although this is his first run for political office, the name Lydon is well-known throughout the city, particularly among Irish-Americans.
Lydon's father, Daniel P. Lydon, was the coordinator of Chicago's popular St. Patrick's Day parade for 39 years. Also director of information for the city's Department of Planning, the elder Lydon passed away two days after Christmas in 1993. Lydon's six-year-old son was named after his grandfather. Jack and Carol, his wife, also have a nine-year-old daughter, Mary.
'I've been involved in politics a long time: because of my father, when I was in college, as precinct captain since '98 … '' he said. 'Last summer, when no one else stepped forward to run ( against Schulter ) , it was an opportunity and I took it.'
47th Ward Committeeman Ed Kelly, who fought off a heated challenge by Schulter two years ago, is backing Lydon's campaign.