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70 years of nuclear waste

Seventy years after the first sustained nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago, the nuclear industry has produced up to 200,000 tons of highly toxic radioactive waste — but made no progress toward finding a way of disposing of it.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s the subject of an international conference taking place at the U. of C.’s International House, 1414 E. 59th Street, on Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2 (here’s a schedule).

Speakers from Japan, including survivors of Hiroshima and Fukushima, and from native lands here will provide a ground-level view of living with radioactive contamination, and experts will explore a range of concerns, including possibilities for a nuclear- and carbon-free energy future.

Dr. Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, will give a keynote address at 7 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the Chicago premier of “The Atomic States of America,” a new film that features a segment on the tritium leak at the Braidwood nuclear plant in Will County that was revealed in 2005.

On Sunday at 3:30 p.m., a commemoration of the first reaction will be held at Henry Moore’s “Atomic Energy” sculpture at 56th and Ellis.  That’s the site of the lab under the university’s football stadium where the Manhattan Project build the world’s first nuclear reactor, which went critical on December 2, 1942.

Red Gate Woods

On Monday, a caravan will visit the site of the first Argonne National Lab in Red Gate Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserve near Willow Springs.  After initial tests, the first Chicago reactor was reassembled there, and ultimately dismantled and buried in a huge hole, along with highly radioactive waste generated between 1944 and 1946.  In the late 1940s Argonne was moved to DuPage County.

In the 1990s, radioactive contamination was found in ground water around Red Gate, and after residents organized and protested, the Department of Energy cleaned up one radioactive dump on the site, though a second was too dangerous to disturb.

Along with this long history, the issue of nuclear waste is playing out in a number of ways in the Chicago area today, said David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the main sponsor of the conference.

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Penny Pritzker’s TIF

School board member Penny Pritzker’s Hyatt Hotels Corp. is benefiting from a $5.2 million TIF subsidy on 53rd Street – while CPS’s proposed 2013 budget cuts seven schools surrounding the hotel project by $3.4 million, which is roughly the portion CPS is losing from the TIF deal.

“This one example shows the fundamental corruption in the way things are done here,” said David Orlikoff of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, a labor and community coalition growing out of Occupy Chicago’s labor committee and supporting the Chicago Teachers Union.

CTSC will hold a press conference and speakout and picket the project at 53rd and Harper on Wednesday, August 8, starting at 5:30 p.m.

“As a member of the Board of Education, it’s Penny Pritzker’s job to find money for our schools, not to take our money for her business,” Orlikoff said.

The $5.2 million subsidy is part of $20.4 million in TIF funds going to the University of Chicago-led redevelopment of Harper Court (see here for some background).  In addition to the hotel, the university is building a 12-story office building in the first phase of the project.

CTSC points out that Pritzker has a net worth of $1.8 billion, and the University of Chicago – now engaged in a huge campus expansion – has an endowment of $6.6 billion.

“They have plenty of money,” said Lorraine Chavez of CTSC.  “They don’t need a taxpayer subsidy to pay for it.  It’s outrageous.”

At Catalyst, Penny Pritzker clarifies that she’s not personally receiving the $5.2 million, and in a statement to Newstips, Hyatt points out that the Hyde Park Hyatt will not be owned by the corporation but, like many Hyatts, operated under a franchise agreement, thus “neither Hyatt Hotels Corporation nor Penny Pritzker…is receiving TIF funds as a result of this project.”

Conflict of interest

“The school board should be defending school funding when the mayor wants to take it for TIFs; it’s the only body in a position to do that,” Orlikoff said.  “But they’re appointed by the mayor, and they look the other way.

“Then they tell teachers they don’t have any money for anything, except the mayor’s pet projects.  It’s a conflict of interest – and it will be a conflict until the school board is elected.

“We need representation on the school board, and we need to end the chronic underfunding of our schools,” Orlikoff said.

CTSC, which exists “to support teachers and fight for equitable quality education,” calls for increasing school funding “by reclaiming TIFs and taxing the rich.”

TIF is “a failed program,” Orlikoff said.  “It’s not fighting economic blight, it’s a way of taking from everyone and giving to the One Percent.”

Questions on 53rd Street

There are lots of questions right now about the 53rd Street TIF, especially with a new TIF district now being carved out of it by a second developer.

Antheus Capital, planning an upscale residential and retail development at 51st and Lake Park, wants to break its parcel out of the 53rd Street TIF to form its own TIF district —  in order apply for $10 million or more in TIF funds.  The 53rd Street TIF advisory council has okayed the proposal.

But after ten years of operation, the 53rd Street TIF fund has a balance of just $3.7 million.

Now, with thirteen years to go, it’s on the hook for a $20-million subsidy, while revenues are slowing (due not just to a lousy economy but to the County Assessor’s new formula, which shifts the property tax burden from commercial to residential taxpayers) – and the TIF district is getting smaller.

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Black history: Jazz ‘Awakening’

Ken Chaney’s Awakening with Ari Brown – and an award for longtime jazz advocate Geraldine de Haas – are highlights of a Black History Month program Saturday presented by the jazz staff of WHPK-FM.

Also featuring vocalist Milton Suggs and excerpts from the film “A Great Day in Harlem,” the program starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 25, at the International House, 1414 E. 59th.  General admission is $10.  Food and drink will be available.

An underground favorite in the early 1970s, featuring hard bop originals with overtones of soul and the musical freedom of the period, Chaney’s band Awakening was a big hit at a 25th anniversary reunion at the 1998 Chicago Jazz Festival and has continued to work together since.

Chaney and Brown, who are among Chicago’s top jazz masters, are original members of the band, and they are joined by the powerful Pharez Whitted on trumpet, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Ernie Adams on drums. This show is highly recommended.

De Haas, known as the “Jazz Lady,” has a long and varied career. In the 1950s she and her brother and sister formed Andy and the Bey Sisters, a popular jazz vocal group, and in the 1970s she began a successful career in theater.  In the 1980s she founded Jazz Unites, which has presented the South Shore Jazz Festival for nearly 30 years.

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To tell the truth

A former editor of the Chicago Tribune has a neighborhood newspaper mad at her for withholding information.

You’d think Ann Marie Lipinski, who became Vice President for Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago last September, would have learned something from her first assignment, which was to smooth things over after Alderman Pat Dowell discovered that the University was secretly buying up tracts of land on West Garfield Boulevard.

On August 13, Lipinski met with Gabriel Piemonte, editor of the Hyde Park Herald [and Herald general manager Sue Walker].  He asked “five different ways” for information on the demolition of Harper Court (which we discussed here last year).  Lipinski was not forthcoming.

The next day the bulldozers appeared and began demolishing the building housing the Dixie Kitchen (the restaurant recently made famous by Barack Obama on WTTW’s “Check Please”).

The demolition seems gratuitous, in that no developer has been chosen and the restaurant in the building next door has a lease that runs several more years, which (along with a lousy economy) would seem to make redevelopment anything but imminent.

The refusal to inform the Herald seems gratuitous too, especially since the Thursday meeting was a week away from the paper’s Wednesday publication date.

When the Herald complained in an editorial on August 26, Lipinski wrote back that the demolition schedule had been presented at the Hyde Park TIF Council’s June meeting, “a public gathering typically covered by the Herald.” She went on to emphasize “the very public nature of the Harper Court development.”

A editor’s note following the letter pointed out that the TIF council hadn’t met in June.

Piemonte says the reporter who covers the council remembered no mention of Harper Court demolition.  They searched the minutes — no record of any mention in May or July meetings.

So it would seem a refusal to inform is followed by an explanation that involves outright misinformation.  It’s probably better to tell the truth in the first place.

Preemptive strike

Over the years Newstips has covered story after story about local groups seeking input into development plans and being completely shut out.  Now there’s a group that’s found serious leverage.

Hyde Parkers who are opposed to the University of Chicago’s efforts to bring in a hotel developer to demolish the shuttered Doctors Hospital and build on the site are poised to block the project by voting the precinct dry.

In the print version of its story, the Tribune quotes Ald. Leslie Hairston calling the referendum “an abuse of the process” and suggesting neighbors should see “what the company came up with in response to community suggestions.”

In fact they’re resorting to this “nuclear option” — voting the precinct dry would effectively block any hotel options at the site — because all community attempts at influencing development plans have been rebuffed.

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Harper Court rebate?

Could the University of Chicago get a few million dollars back on the $6.5 million purchase price for Harper Court

The Harper Court Arts Council, which is selling the nonprofit shopping center to the University, has said it will disburse its assets to local cultural charities, and earlier listed the University’s multimillion dollar drive to build a new performing arts center as a possible recipient.

A spokesperson at the Attorney General’s office thought that might be legal.

The bigger question, though, is whether the resulting redevelopment will be worse than the University’s first development disaster, the urban renewal program of the 1960s (see Jane Jacob’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities” for details; Arnold Hirsch explores the racial motivations in “The Making of the Second Ghetto”).

The track record of the dominant parties is not promising.

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Hyde Park Co-op president ousted

Hyde Park Cooperative Society board president James Poueymirou was ousted, and three advocates for opening the books were elected to the organization’s board, it was announced today.

Poueymirou, a mortgage broker who led the board in closing the Co-op’s 55th street grocery during the 75th anniversary of the organization’s founding, hadn’t been elected to the board in the first place; a member of the organization’s nominating committee, he’d been appointed to fill a vacancy on the board.  He came in last place in the election, with 41 votes.

Turnout was low in an election run on a very small scale, with no direct communication with the membership.

New board member Joan Staples, who previously served on the board in the 1970s, said she hopes for answers to questions that were never addressed during the closing of the store, including the nature of an agreement with the University of Chicago to finance the closing.

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HP Co-op Vote Underway

Bolstered by the possibility of a new financing package, supporters of the Hyde Park Co-op have launched a new website,, just days before ballots in a membership vote on the future of the financially-beleagured organization are due.

All along, Co-op supporters have been playing catch-up to a well-orchestrated campaign by the University of Chicago to shut down the organization, including what Co-op supporters call bluffs and threats by the university.

Ballots on the future of the 75-year-old cooperative society have been mailed to 19,000 members and must be received by December 12.

 “The university set it up to make it almost impossible to organize against them,” said Jay Mulberry, a retired principal who is the Co-op’s webmaster and creator of

“There’s no time,” said Amelia Tucker, president of the Chicago Joint Board of RWDSU, which represents Co-op employees.  “I think they planned it that way.”

Tucker has sought union financing to keep the Co-op afloat, “but two weeks is not enough time — especially when you are talking about $2 million.”

Everyone seemed surprised by the amount of support for saving the cooperative grocery at a town hall meeting November 18 (see our previous post).  Mulberry said he went to the meeting prepared to support the university’s offer of a $4 million “debt workout” plan, which would forgive rent owed by the Co-op for its 55th Street store (located in a shopping center owned by the university), pay off other debtors and bring in a new store.

He was won over by presentations by two Co-op board members for an alternative plan to seek financing to keep the organization going — ideally through Chapter 11 debtor-in-posession financing that would enable it to shed a longterm lease for a shuttered store at on 47th Street. (This is dubbed Proposal B on the membership ballot; the University’s, backed by board president James Poueymirou and a majority of board members, is Proposal A.)  Judging by the audience response, hundreds of others were also won over to the alternative plan.

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