Community Organizer Says Olympics Will Bring Long-Awaited Improvements | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Community Organizer Says Olympics Will Bring Long-Awaited Improvements

Chicagoans are just two days away from knowing if their city will get the 2016 Summer Olympics. The vote by the International Olympic Committee Friday will end more than three years of work and a $50 million bid effort. Polls show residents are divided. Today, we have two stories of how that divided opinion is playing out in Washington Park on the South Side. It's the area most affected if the Games come. WBEZ's Lynette Kalsnes has the story of one key supporter.

South Side Resident Fears Chicago Olympics Will Uproot Community

BUTLER: We're in the midst, the heart of Washington Park.

Cecilia Butler looks out at five lanes of traffic zooming in front of her on Garfield Boulevard. She's a tiny woman in a brown plaid cap that plays off her clothes and hand-carved jewelry. We're trying to cross the street, to get to the playing fields where an Olympic Stadium and an aquatics center might one day sit. We decide to run for it.

ambi: sound of running

KALSNES: We made it.
BUTLER: Yes, yes. You can't cross it safely. If we get the Olympics, the one thing we know for sure is that there will be pedestrian crossing on 55th Street. Infrastructure is needed, and it's going if we get the Olympics to a lot faster, than the wish list of year to year to year.

At first glance, Butler's an unlikely supporter. At 61, Butler's been the head of the Washington Park Advisory Council for years. She's a vocal community organizer who fought the closings of ramps off the Dan Ryan Expressway and helped save a nearby Green Line station. She's been standing up loudly for her park and her neighborhood since the 1980s.
BUTLER: I heard two kids walking down the street, and one little boy says to the other, 'At least my momma feeds me.' I said, 'Wow.' And that has always stayed with me. And that's when I realized this community needed something.
GRIMSHAW: Power concedes nothing without a demand. She was that demand for the community.

Jacky Grimshaw knows something about power. She worked with Harold Washington's administration and is now with the Center for Neighborhood Technology. She says Butler is like a savvy town crier, warning neighbors and then positioning them.

GRIMSHAW: If the community was going to be disrupted for several years with the construction of that stadium, there had to be some community benefits.

It's the kind of power politics that can get you critics, and Butler's been accused of cutting deals for supporting the Games. Many neighbors worry they'll be pushed out by rising property taxes and rents.

Butler shares those concerns, but she's pragmatic.

BUTLER: I knew that this would not be a winning fight. Am I going to convince Mayor Daley that this isn't what he should do, or is there something bigger out there that I need to support for the bigger picture?

ambi: Starting car

Butler takes me on a driving tour to show me that bigger picture. The population in Washington Park's dropped from 57,000 in the 1950s, to about 13,000. Roughly half the people live below the poverty level. We pass boarded-up houses, and block after block with no stores, and a lot of vacant land.

BUTLER: All this is a big box, a shopping center waiting to happen.

To make sure that happens, Butler and other community members drew up a list of 26 demands. In return for their support, they wanted the promise of things like jobs, and job training. Butler hand-delivered the list to Patrick Ryan, the head of 2016. Many of the items are now part of a community agreement that pledges things like affordable housing.

But she says the real fight will be making sure the city and the Olympic committee come through with what's promised.

BUTLER: Like the stimulus package, we spent money to boost the economy. What do you think the Olympics is? It's a process to spend money to boost the economy. And if we don't get it, I don't know what we're going to do.

She's not giving up, either way. Butler figures more people know about Washington Park now, and that will jump start development regardless of the Olympics. She says it would just take a little longer.

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