Jefferson Park Neighborhood Assoc. has had colorful history; officials praise group for its 20 years of community engagement
by BRIAN NADIG
The 20th anniversary celebration of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association on Nov. 18 was a festive occasion compared its first anniversary when a brawl almost broke out.
“Much to my surprise, (president Pete Conway) said he was resigning and running for alderman, and I was the president,” recalled Susanna Ernst, who was the vice president at the time. She added that she “ran” out of the room as soon as the meeting was adjourned as tensions were growing between association members and supporters of then-alderman Patrick Levar.
At one point, a supporter and opponent of Levar were nose to nose but no punches were thrown. About five months later Levar was re-elected by a significant margin.
In sharp contrast, at the Nov. 18 meeting there was a line of officials who praised the JPNA for its dedication to the community. They included Alderman James Gardiner (45th), state Senator Robert Martwick (D-10), state Representative Lindsey LaPointe (D-19) and county Commissioner Bridget Degnen (D-12).
Another former JPNA president, Bob Bank, often characterizes the group as a “watchdog” of the community’s elected officials and has said that incumbents seeking re-election should have challengers. Bank himself made unsuccessful bids to be the 45th Ward committeeman and alderman.
Bank said at the meeting that he is the only association member to be elected the group’s president in a contested election.
In 2015 there was “a divide” in 192-member group, as described at the time by then president Judy Skotzko. Newer members tended to be more supportive of dense development and then-alderman John Arena while older members tended to be more conservative on development issues, putting them at odds with Arena.
Bank was elected, but some members left and formed the Jefferson Park Forward, which pushes for transit-oriented development in the community.
Skotzo said that the association has played an important role in providing a forum for issues, such as the proposed “road diet” on Milwaukee Avenue in 2014. “People just want to be heard,” she said.
Merril Miller, who served three terms as president, recalled the spirited aldermanic debates which the association hosted in 2011 as well as the group’s relationship with the 45th Ward aldermen. “We always had interesting aldermen,” she said.
Under Miller’s leadership, the association took a lead role in organizing the Jefferson Park Sunday Markets and creating the Olive’s Neighborhood Garden for the Hungry at Ainslie Street and Laramie Avenue. In addition, during its early years the association formed an historical committee, which is now the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.
Gardiner said that the association’s achievements are the result of dedication to the community. “It encourages others to step up to the plate,” he said.
Martwick said that “true democracy” occurs at the community level when residents get together and discuss issues and that groups like the association help give everyone “a voice.”
LaPointe thanked the association for its hard work. “Your energy has served this community,” she said.
“You are all leaders,” Degnen said. “Thank you for your service.”
Other invited guests to the celebration were 16th (Jefferson Park) Police District commander Maureen Biggane, Jefferson Park Library branch manager Eileen Dohnalek, Beaubien principal Michelle Ludford, Jefferson Park supervisor Andrea Woppel, garden volunteer Bill Zelenka, Copernicus Center executive director Kamila Sumelka and Ed Paschke Art Center co-founder Lionel Rabb.
Also honored were former longtime association treasurer Ed Irsch and former board member and secretary Lotty Blumenthal, who passed away in 2020.
LaPointe and Martwick presented state resolutions honoring the association to president Colleen Murphy and vice president William Wardman.