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Dollar by Dollar: The Tragic End of Chicago's 1st Major Gay Center
by Tracy Baim, News Analysis
2002-10-02

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April 2, 1977. Another gay man brutally murdered. But somehow, this man's life came to symbolize something different. Like a Stonewall Riot for Chicago, the murder of Frank M. Rodde sparked change.

Within weeks, the Frank M. Rodde Fund was established, with the goal of creating a gay and lesbian community center.

Dollar by dollar, day by day, that dream was realized in 1985, when the 3223-3229 N. Sheffield property was purchased and became the Rodde Lesbian and Gay Community Center of Chicago.

Serving as an incubator for non-profit organizations, and a small meeting place for activists, Rodde Center finally put Chicago in a class with other cities large and small, some which had major community centers for many years.

But that dream soon turned into a scandalous nightmare, and some questions remain unanswered to this day. What happened, when did it happen, and who is responsible—simple questions with complicated answers. It would be easy to point the finger at one individual or board, but in essence the failure is multi-layered and played out slowly, over several years, sometimes behind closed doors, sometimes in the spotlight.

Over the past few weeks, Windy City Times has interviewed past Rodde Center board members, including former Board President Michael Harrington, who took over after the Sheffield property was sold. Many of the major players, including past treasurers and executive directors, are dead or too ill to speak. Some took their knowledge with them to their graves.

But there are some records available to serve as a starting point. Despite the fact that the state has no records of the Frank M. Rodde Fund since the late 1980s, and the fact that the sale of the Sheffield property was recorded as a land trust, there are some financial records which provide a peak into the problems facing the agency.

Why are these questions relevant nearly a decade after the Rodde Center folded during a last-gasp attempt to create a new home?

Perhaps time lends a perspective to the issues. But most relevant is the fact that the agency's last significant board president, Michael Harrington, who served four years as the non-profit's leader, is now running for alderman of the 49th Ward. Because of this, during the past several months the questions about Rodde have reached critical mass. Activists from that era want to re-address their concerns, and newer activists want to know just what happened to the "Center" of our community.

Will this article, and the accompanying 8,500-word interview with Harrington, answer all of those questions? No. But by distilling dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents, we hope to at least provide more analysis of the issue.

The Spark

Bartender Frank M. Rodde was not a unique or powerful man. He was not a political leader or well known to the general community. But his vicious murder in 1977 was one of those important "lines in the sand" that Chicago GLBTs have drawn over the years. Like the shooting of Ron Cayot, the onset of AIDS, Ron Sable's run for 44th Ward alderman, or the police raid on Carol's Speakeasy, certain events created major turning points in the local community.

What was important about the after-math of Rodde's murder was the grassroots nature of the response. The entire community seemed to come together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars—$1 at a time. That sense of community "ownership" of the Rodde Center, led by impassioned bartenders and bar owners through the Tavern Guild, made the later sense of betrayal all the harder to take.

Founded in 1977 as a 501 ( c ) 3 non-profit, the agency received official incorporation as an Illinois non-profit in August 1979. By May 31, 1985, the organization raised $150,000, enough to purchase a $422,500 three-building property on Sheffield. Over the years, more than $30,000 was put into the property for improvements.

But the Sheffield property, which in 1986-1987 also housed the Windy City Times offices, was not an ideal building. While situated at Sheffield and Belmont, close to the Belmont El stop and blocks from "Boys Town," the physical layout did not lend itself to large community gathering spaces. Rather, the model was to provide space for community non-profits and businesses, such as Horizons Community Services, which had space on the first floor front space of the building complex. Behind that front building was a multi-story complex of offices and residences.

The property needed major renovations, and within a few years it was clear that the building code violations, property taxes, and other operating costs were exceeding the revenues generated by low rents and scarce fundraisers for Rodde Center.

With what appears to be very little communication of these concerns to the general community, the Rodde Center board made a quick move to sell the property in late 1989. In fact, they accepted the very first offer on the property, and a sale was rushed though. Several gay business owners, among them Tom Tunney and Art Johnston, tried to stop the board from making a critical mistake by rushing into a deal. But the sale apparently had already been sealed, with the board seeming to want to just wash their hands of a complicated financial problem.

Instead of going to the community for a solution, they went to real estate agents for a quick fix. As a result, the property was sold for what many believe was far below market value, for about $540,000. ( Real estate estimates at the time said the property could have gotten more than $700,000 if shopped around aggressively. )

After the mortgage was paid, in addition to other fees, that left about $169,000 from the sale, according to an Aug. 31, 1990 Rodde Center tax return. When other assets were added in from that tax year ( individual contributions of $12,000, program fees of $47,000 and interest of $14,000 ) , that left the Rodde Center with $287,332 in assets at the end of their fiscal year, according to the Aug. 31, 1990 tax report.

The board president at the time of the sale was Kathleen Ineman. She and her partner, Mary J. Graden, also a former board member, currently live in Chicago and would not return Windy City Times' phone calls or e-mails.

In a Feb. 8, 1990 article in Windy City Times, Ineman said, "It was hard. Our responsibility was to protect the Fund. In October [ 1989 ] we thought we might lose the Fund. Our capital base was depleted."

Other former board members during that time say they were only doing what was necessary to make sure the agency did not lose the property due to property taxes and building code violations. They said there were not revenues to do the necessary repairs or cover costs.

The problem, apparently, was the model by which Rodde Center operated—to its dying day.

Landlord

Rodde Center itself was more of a landlord than community center, especially because of the layout of the facility on Sheffield. Most of the property was rented to tenants ( some not even gay ) , who did not pay enough to cover the expenses of the Center. This model of subsidizing new and emerging non-profit straight, GLBT and AIDS agencies came back to haunt the agency's budget year after year.

Unfortunately, when the property was sold, the model was simply translated to a new property—but this time the group was paying rent at the Uptown Bank Building, instead of owning the property.

And now, at the Uptown property, 4753 N. Broadway, Rodde Center did not even have its anchor tenant from the Sheffield property—Horizons had moved on to its own space. So the remaining tenants, such as ACT UP, Association of Latin Men in Action, Dignity, AIDS Walk, Men of All Colors Together, Open Hand and Lesbian Chicago, were small groups with limited budgets.

But the lease for the Uptown space was just for one year; many believed the Center could still use the proceeds from the sale to make a downpayment on a better facility.

There was almost a complete turn-over in board members between the time of the sale Jan. 10, 1990 and the mid part of 1990. There was little institutional memory, and the new board was left holding major negative baggage from the relatively "secret" sale of the Sheffield property.

Thus, the community's sense of betrayal was at its peak, and confidence extremely low. Into that mix stepped Michael Harrington, first as an at-large board member in 1990, and soon as board president for the agency's final four years.

Confidence Schemes

In many ways, the writing was on the Center's walls from the very beginning of the Uptown scenario. Not one budget Windy City Times viewed during these early 1990 years showed anywhere near a break-even operating plan. Funds were leaking out at a rate of more than $5,000 a month to rent, staff and overhead costs.

Board minutes from 1992 show that members were concerned, some of them issuing dire warnings. One board officer resigned, saying he could only foresee the "inevitable insolvency of the Fund."

Mid-Town Bank, which took over management of $100,000 in CDs for Rodde Center, recommended the agency "operate like a business" rather than subsidizing these small groups.

Some board members voted to not renew the Uptown lease, saying funds should be kept for the day when the right property could be found. But they lost their vote for change, and the Uptown lease was renewed.

A late 1990 memo was ominous: "Right now there is virtually no money coming in. we are operating at a tremendous loss month by month. ... Living off our capital is not wise."

But that is exactly what happened over the next four years.

Prior to the Sheffield sale, Rodde Center also had trouble having revenues keep pace with expenses. An Aug. 30, 1989 tax return showed a negative cash flow of $6,185, after a $16,000 negative cash flow in 1988.

In 1990, with the Uptown lease and no property, the losses became staggering. The Aug. 30, 1990 tax return showed $104,000 in expenses on revenues of just $73,000 ( not counting the $169,000 gain on the property sold earlier that year ) .

The next year, the Aug. 30, 1991 tax return showed just $54,000 in revenues ( $16,000 from a grant, $3,000 from individuals, $20,000 from program fees and $15,000 in interest ) . But expenses were $129,000 ( program services $84,000, administration $30,000, and fundraising costs $15,000 ) . This means there was more than $75,000 spent above revenues during that first full fiscal year after the sale of the Sheffield property.

At the start of that 1991 fiscal year, the Rodde Fund balance had been $285,396; and at the end it was $210,163. These were in a combination of CDs, money market and checking accounts.

Just as the pre-sale Rodde Center board was very lax on soliciting donations, the new board also was not adept at raising outside funds. This despite the fact that the Rodde Center itself originally came to life from the grassroots donations of the community.

By 1992, board members continued to complain that there was still no workable budget, and Michael Harrington's leadership was called into question over the direction and choices he was making. His role in the ouster of Executive Director Al Wardell was widely criticized internally and in the community. At least one board member resigned as a result. Wardell had managed to get the agency some financial support through individuals and grants, and that was lost once he was gone. Both Wardell and his successor, Dale Mueller, later died of AIDS.

Harrington also led the charge, as board president, for three high-visibility projects that ultimately were the final, last gasps of the agency.

One was the proposed March 1991 purchase of the Resurrection Lutheran Church, 1034 W. Barry, at Kenmore. Harrington held a very public community meeting in the space, which had once housed the now-defunct MoMing Dance Co. Many community members viewed this as folly from the start, given that the church would need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and renovations. This provided a distraction of time and energy, and despite making a $390,000 offer for the property, the deal eventually fell through and the Uptown lease was renewed.

Harrington also spearheaded "Designing a Dream," a community-wide design contest that was supposed to generate revenues via entry fees. Designers were to submit drawings of the ideal future community center. There were only a handful of entries, and the project again took time and money away from the central focus of creating a workable budget and plan for a new property.

The final project that Harrington, as board president, tried to rally the troops and community behind was the purchase of a property at 2863 N. Clark St., just north of Diversey. This was going to be it—finally a Rodde Center new home. But again it was not an ideally designed property, and it needed hundreds of thousands in renovations. The Rodde Center moved temporarily to the location, but would have to close during renovations. The "lease to own" deal fell though when the downpayment could not be raised.

Mayor Daley attended an April 1992 march that ended at the new proposed Center, an anti-violence rally that marked the 15th anniversary of the murder of Frank M. Rodde. Harrington tried to harness community and political support for this dream of a new home, but once again there was little confidence in the Center's leadership.

By July 1993, when Rodde Center said occupancy was about to happen at Clark Street, the agency was nearly out of cash, and the downpayment well out of reach.

Harrington said he stepped down in February 1994, just before that downpayment was to come due. But he says he can't remember what happened, and how soon after that the agency folded. In fact, it seemed to die a secret death, once Harrington, a master at public relations, stepped down, leaving a leadership and communications void. The Center was never to physically exist again, first becoming just a P.O. Box, then fading into the sunset.

Lessons Learned?

Is Harrington a dreamer who simply could not implement his grandiose plans? Was the community culpable for not lending enough support to a new board trying to smooth over the damage done by the sale of the Sheffield property? Were the fundraising and volunteers needed to fight AIDS a priority for an already drained community?

Friends and colleagues of Harrington offer a mixed response. Some view him as a strong coalition builder and great communicator. Some call him arrogant and egotistical. One former Rodde staffer said he was constantly starting projects without budgets, and then failed to follow through.

Clearly, dozens of people played critical roles in the failure of the Center. Those who clandestinely sold the Sheffield property, even if their motivations were not evil, certainly played a role in the agency's eventual demise. The lack of confidence created from that sale had ripple effects on fundraising for the rest of the Rodde Center's life. Major community donors—those who can write checks for $100,000 as easily as a bar patron hands over their $1 at Tag Night—had no confidence in the Center. Their checkbooks were locked tight.

And Harrington, while he had absolutely no role in the Sheffield sale or the initial signing of the Uptown lease, still did have a major role in Rodde's eventual demise. From the reading of minutes and treasurer's reports, with a decade to ponder the mistakes made in the heat of activism, it appears there were some very community-minded people involved. It does not appear there were things done with the intent to deceive or steal. Rather, it was a quick slide down as spending continued to exceed revenues, as dreams continued to be deferred, and schemes were hatched to "put on a show" that eventually raised no money, no confidence, and no physical Center from the ashes.

"Isn't that in the past?" some would ask. It was less than one decade ago. Its damage can be felt today, as the new Center on Halsted hopes to finally take its place in the community's hearts and minds. The people who gave those dollars starting in April 1977 want answers still. They want to know their efforts did not get buried in an unmarked grave.

Rodde Center, despite its ultimate failure, was a success for so many. It served as a meeting ground for the anger of ACT UP, the services of Open Hand, the politics of Lesbian Chicago, and as home to more than 40 agencies, many of them, like Horizons, who now have their own homes. Ironically, it is now Horizons which is spearheading the drive for a new permanent Center on Halsted. The property they are purchasing and renovating on Halsted north of Addison is one of the many that the Rodde board had sought to purchase for a new home.

The past comes alive every day through these individuals and organizations, many who first got their start through Rodde Center. Our history is paved with the lives of so many activists, dead and alive, who helped create Rodde Center. So yes, the past is relevant today.

But the community can also move on, learning expensive lessons, and creating new, and perhaps stronger, institutions.

Research assistance by Sukie de la Croix


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