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The New Regents Park Controversy

Where Does One Go to Protest?

November 5, 2011 (December 17 update)
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

One can say that the fate of Hyde Park was determined, in no small measure, by the fate of the Regents Park Apartments. In 1975, within a year after the two towers were built, their 1,039 units, less than a half occupied, were quickly filling with prostitution and drug-dealing. HUD had insured a 26 million dollar mortgage and was afraid of losing all the money. It looked for someone to turn the buildings around. It found that person: Bruce Clinton, much to the good fortune of our neighborhood and of the city of Chicago as a whole. Clinton, well-known in the area for managing huge apartment complexes, renamed the buildings Regents Park, added the health club, the pool, the stores, the roof garden, and put a lot of his own money into structural repairs and refurbishing. The building became a model of integration of people of all ages, races, creeds and nationalities.

Bruce Clinton was a great success. And there were good reasons for his success. He was an excellent manager, a brilliant one, and he was totally dedicated to Regents Park and to Hyde Park. He is a native Chicagoan who grew up in the Northern suburbs. Some years back he found Hyde Park, fell in love with it, and moved both his residence and his business here.

In 1992, almost four years after I arrived in Hyde Park, I was to learn a lot about Regents Park and Bruce Clinton, and our congregation was to play a key role. On July 27, 1992 an important story became one of the longest front page articles in the history of the Tribune (July 27, 1992). It told of Clinton's triumph and also of betrayal—HUD’s refusal to make a commitment to him. HUD had not kept its promise to renegotiate Clinton's mortgage, and was out to burden him with insurmountable debts. Clinton owned the buildings, but received nothing back from HUD. Whether out of a fear of making the wrong decision, or out of personal vendettas, HUD was giving Clinton not only the runaround, but an outright barrier. To make matters worse, the situation was further stymied because both Clinton's advocates and detractors within HUD had faced scandals and indictments.

The irony is that Regents Park, originally known as the Chicago Beach Towers, did not originate with HUD. It began with private entrepreneurs out for a quick profit who bit off more than they could chew. HUD came in for the rescue. But HUD’s only plan was to turn the buildings over to Clinton, at great expense to him, and then to stymie Clinton's own plans, by laying financial burdens and court pressures upon him. Jonathan Kleinbard, of the University of Chicago, who was one of our members until he took a position in St. Louis, was quoted in the Tribune article as expressing his shock and outrage to HUD officials who, after promising to renegotiate with Clinton, turned around and suggested that the University buy the buildings after Clinton loses them to foreclosure. So dishonesty as well as irresponsibility had been HUD hallmarks in the Regents Park matter.

If Regents Park had failed, it would have been a failure from which Hyde Park would not have easily recovered. And it would have been HUD's failure.

In 1992 I wrote Secretary Jack Kemp,then in charge of HUD, telling him that it must not be said that, under his administration, the remarkable and unique neighborhood of Hyde Park was compromised for petty political reasons: "Regents Park remains synonymous with excellence in the public eye, not to mention in Chicago real estate management circles. It is impossible to guarantee that other administrators would be able to continue the quality of management which comes only through familiarity with the community, total dedication, and rare talent, all of which grow out of individualism rather than bureaucracy."

I also wrote him that there must be a way for him to work things out with Bruce Clinton. I noted that as a conservative, he ought to be committed to the concept of Federal agencies empowering local entrepreneurs to do the work more effectively and efficiently. The issue, I wrote, was that the real political leader is the one who can utilize different economic visions best under different circumstances.

I’m proud to say that, after our requests fell upon deaf ears, we at Rodfei Zedek did more than to write letters and to sign petitions. We set up a structure of protest. We took sides and vigorously supported Bruce Clinton. The first to step up was Harry Moskow, who was president of Rodfei Zedek at the time, and who recognized the importance of Jonathan Kleinbard’s concerns.

We decided to hold a community meeting in support of Bruce Clinton in our old Newberger Auditorium. The work of organizing it fell to me. I had already become active in the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, and at my request they pushed it big time. With Jonathan’s advice and the Council’s, we arranged for speakers. Then we heard that the CBS News exposé, Sixty Minutes, was coming to film it. Newberger Auditorium was filled, and the meeting was broadcast a couple of weeks later. Rev. Bernard Brown, the Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, spoke at that meeting and said that that was the first time he had ever spoken out for a landlord.

It took several months before the impasse over Regents Park was resolved by a Federal judge who forced HUD to keep its promises to Bruce Clinton, whose full control over the buildings was upheld and entitlement to financial considerations confirmed. Our meeting won national sympathy for Clinton’s cause and confirmed his claims of having run his business with all due diligence, with sterling integrity and with full attention to community responsibilities. I still regard our efforts as one of the most effective synagogue social action programs anywhere.

As a result of our success, we became close to Bruce Clinton, who helped to fund some synagogue programs of community interest. In time Regents Park was purchased by a firm in Florida, Crescent Heights.

Then, only days ago, a deal was closed on Regents Park with the Antheus Group, a New Jersey company which has purchased and renovated many Hyde Park buildings, including the Del Prado and the large building at 53rd Street, on our side of the block, and buildings in West Hyde Park, all of which were down to 50% occupancy, and are now finding renters.

This was no small achievement given the complaints about the scarcity of rentals during a time of conversion to condos throughout the city. Now that condominiums are not selling, rentals are more of a hot item, but the principals of Antheus, particularly Eli Ungar, have promised repeatedly that they are in Hyde Park for the long haul to provide decent rental apartments.

Through the years, I came to know the staff at Regents Park—the doormen, the parking garage staff, some of the office staff, maintenance staff and others. I always said that no one knew how to pick employees like Bruce Clinton. The Florida firm had kept the employees. Yet last Thursday and Friday I was shocked and saddened to see few of the employees I had known for so many years. Most had been replaced by new employees, who were struggling. There had been some kind of meeting with long-time employees that spilled into the lobby, and I saw new management trying to placate justifiably angry individuals who cried that they were sent off at a day’s notice and were not sure what to do or where to go.

The usually cheerful lobby felt like a funeral parlor. I saw one employee, who worked in the garage and whose son, a student at a Christian seminary, also worked there. I thought of another employee, a well-read man who was planning to visit Israel and who wanted to make sure that I defended Israel at every turn because, he would say, he advocates for Israel among his fellow African‑Americans.

I have to say that I became tearful and very angry in behalf of the workers, and could understand in ways I had not before, the frustration of those on the streets under the “Occupy Wall Street” banner—not that I didn’t sympathize with some of their concerns before, even though I remain unimpressed by their methods and by their rhetoric. I did say a few weeks ago that we need a new kind of protest for the 21st century, that while taking to the streets is a cherished right, a flash mob version of the methods of the Sixties is not working in Greece or in Italy, and will not work here.

Do we have a case in Regents Park of the 1% disenfranchising the 99%? By all reports, the Florida owners fired the employees before the New Jersey company took over. But the New Jersey company, in a buyer’s market, could have asked that all the employees be retained. They did not. Also, I have heard from some reliable sources that there have been some discussions about placing as many of the forty employees as possible in other jobs.

Yesterday I spoke to Eli Ungar, a new Regents Park owner, and he insisted that there were certain factors that led him to decide that re-staffing and reconfiguring were necessary in the Regents Park building, whereas in other Hyde Park buildings the employees were retained. He suggested to me personally, as in an interview in the Hyde Park Herald, that he working toward a long-term good relationship with Hyde Parkers, and that long-range plans for Regents Park and for the other buildings dictated the current changes. He was certainly amenable to helping in the placement of out-of-work employees.

Interestingly, the union or unions involved have not issued any statements, at least since I checked with community leaders late afternoon Friday. That may be telling. Are the unions now protesting differently, in the wake of the Teachers Union gaining more by not resisting too much Mayor Emanuel’s mandate to lengthen the school day, and working with the mayor even as colorful language flew about?

I’d like to think that, in Chicago, we have the most constructive unions. We need to put in place incentives for employers of all kinds to keep employees, whether ownership changes or not. Some simple guidelines between the unions, owners and local government could go a long way. Going forward, the wronged must be able to negotiate with those whom they believed wronged them. They should go to the same place and negotiate vigorously until they are at a good place. Isn’t this the ideal of unions and of a democracy?

I would suggest that we can’t get anywhere in a democracy until people are negotiating in the same room with other people, even, or especially, if everyone has entered that room wanting to tell the other people where to go, both programmatically and in the hereafter. You don’t get that kind of diversity of opinion in the street protests.

This is, in fact, a sermon about going. On Tuesday night Alderman William Burns has wisely called for a community meeting at Kenwood High School, at 7:00 p.m., to discuss these issues. Mr. Ungar will be there. Rodfei Zedek should be represented as well. The way to solve our problems, even thorny problems of employment, is not to take to the streets, but to take local government seriously. The gem of American life is still the town meeting; the mitzvah at the heart of good government is going to such meetings.

God’s great mandate to Abraham is Lech lecha, which I would take the liberty of translating for my purposes today: “Go to the kind of going which is beneficial to yourself and to others.” In reading about Abraham, we also find the first significant Biblical usage of the word, zedek or zedakah, as in the name of our congregation, Rodfei Zedek, “pursuers of zedek.” Abraham is told to do zedek, which means doing the right thing.

We know that in Hebrew zedek means “justification” as well as “righteousness.” When a community thinks that a wrong has been done, for whatever reason, under whatever circumstances, and discusses ways of making things right, that, I would say, is a form of justification. There can be “justification” in righting the circumstances of those who cry out for justice.

God grant that we can always say to one another: Go to the right kind of goings. If you think there has been a wrong, go to where it can be righted. Amen.

NOTE: I am proud to report that, as of December 17, 2011, the Antheus Group-Mac Corporation, through the good offices of Eli Ungar, had restored the Regents Park staff to their positions. The residents’ support for the employees was wholehearted, moving, inspiring, and effective; and the unions acted honorably and cooperatively in the negotiations.

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