How Helen Shiller Made Uptown a Little More Uptown

To Uptown’s “Anybody But Helen” crowd, Alderman Helen Shiller was a would-be commissar of the Uptown Soviet Socialist Republic who was determined to keep the neighborhood poor so she could keep herding winos and welfare moms to the polls to guarantee her narrow election victory.

To those who love her -- and everyone in the 46th Ward either loves or hates Shiller -- she was the only line of defense against an economic cleansing that threatened to sweep out low-income renters so the yuppie hordes could move north from Lake View.

Shiller, who plans to announce her retirement, did begin her political career on the far left. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1969, the New York native moved to Uptown to work with the poor in what was then a neighborhood populated by hillbillies, American Indians and mental patients. She was elected to the City Council in 1987, as one of Harold Washington’s few white allies.

Mayor Daley couldn’t stand her. Maybe because she never lost her New York accent -- she described her office as “awl-duh-man” -- and the way she clung to her New York abrasiveness, but more likely because Shiller made an annual practice of voting against his budgets, ensuring they only passed 49-1. He tried to beat her on several occasions, every one of them comic failures. In one election, beefy Southwest Siders in White Sox jackets handed out palm cards for Shiller’s opponent. Shiller’s supporters stood alongside them, wearing buttons that read “I Live in the 46th Ward.”

A fire helped changed Shiller’s politics. In 1996, a CTA maintenance building just south of the Wilson "EL" stop burned down. Redeveloping the vacant land it left behind became Shiller’s passion. As a result, she reached a rapprochement with Mayor Daley. She supported his budgets, and he supported her Wilson Yards campaign. In 2006, she even stood with Daley against the big box ordinance, fearing it would scare away the Target that is now the centerpiece of the new development.

That Target opened this spring, so Shiller may have felt that her work in Uptown was finally done. You rarely hear anyone accuse Shiller of holding back the neighborhood anymore. A dozen years ago, real estate agents wouldn’t even use the word “Uptown” in ads, fearing it would call up images of a newly released mental patient panhandling in front of a redneck bar. They came up with such euphemisms as “East Ravenswood” and “Lincoln Park North.”

Uptown isn’t as funky as it used to be -- young white families feel comfortable there these days -- but it still makes room for SROs and halfway houses. Shiller was always adamant that both the poor and the wealthy would always have a place in Uptown -- the Wilson Yards project included 80 units of affordable housing. On the other hand, the Clarendon Park neighborhood has some of the finest mansions in the city. Jim Thompson lived there when he was governor.

Holding together a mixed-income ward was a tough job, but for 24 years, Helen Shiller did it.

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