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Why I Fought to Bring a “Radical” Book Publisher to My Neighborhood

The fight for Haymarket Books is over, but this writer says there’s more to be done to bring the neighborhood together.

The author and his wife moved to Buena Park this spring.   Photo: Courtesy of Renner Barsella

This past March, my wife Audrey and I bought our first home: a cozy vintage condo in Buena Park. We’ve lived in Chicago for a decade, and had always been drawn to the tree-lined sidewalks and historic mansions nestled in this lesser-known corner of Uptown. As someone who grew up in a small town in Central Illinois, I felt like Buena Park was the perfect place for us to start our family. So with the excitement of first-time homeowners, we dove into our new community.

Toward the end of our first neighborhood association meeting, a question arose about a nonprofit group hoping to buy a nearby mansion. Haymarket Books, a left-leaning publisher, wanted to move into 800 West Buena Avenue, use the top floors as office space, and open the first floor and grounds to the community as a gathering place. Vocal opposition quickly emerged.

“I don’t want skinheads walking down the street,” I recall someone saying, confused about the political bent of the self-described “radical publisher.” Others worried they’d plan protests in the streets or plot to overthrow the government. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by such opposition; Chicago is, after all, a city of small towns. Each of our neighborhoods has a distinct character, and residents are fervently proud of their own corners of the city.

And, just like in small towns, that “hometown pride” can sometimes inspire a territorial resistance to change.

When a neighborhood leader recruited Audrey and I to the pro-Haymarket campaign, we thought it would be a good way to get to know Buena Park while working to bring in a community resource. We joined a diverse array of supporters, many of whom had been in the neighborhood for decades. Audrey and I imagined that the Haymarket space might become a place to organize a neighborhood cookout or a children’s reading group. A resource like this would help young families like ours stay in the community longer, instead of moving to the suburbs when they began longing for more space. That longer-term investment, by old and new families alike, is exactly what keeps small towns strong.

800 West Buena Avenue Photo: VHT Studios

But the three weeks that followed turned into a storm of leaflets, town halls, and vote wrangling. Some of the loudest opponents pointed to Haymarket’s “socialist” and “radical activist” identity as all-caps proof that the “international conglomerate” was up to no good. Others that opposed it simply wanted to see the building restored to a single-family home. Coming from a college town, where I watched neighborhood homes get sacrificed to creeping student housing, I empathized with that concern. But I also don’t see Chicago as a place with a shortage of mansions, or Uptown as a place millionaires are eager to move into.

To get Alderman James Cappleman’s endorsement, we rallied residents who lived near the property to vote in favor of the purchase—and won. With his support, we presented our case to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which approved Haymarket’s use for the space.

With Haymarket set to move in next year, I am left wondering what’s next. Haymarket may have gotten approval, but the whole affair exposed me to an underlying friction, and conflict around our neighborhood’s future will undoubtedly erupt again. Easing that friction is where I hope to put my energy next.

Small towns work best when residents recognize that they are all invested in the same things. That unity brings folks together and builds relationships that ease resolution when conflict does arise. Had I known any of Haymarket’s opponents on a personal level, perhaps our neighborhood’s recent upheaval could have been avoided with a conversation over a beer or two. Divisiveness is at its worst when “the opposition” is nothing but a faceless other.

Building that collective interest—like a small town rallying around its football team—has the power to bring people together. My hope is that the Haymarket space and the gatherings organized there might begin to fulfill that need. By investing in our shared resources like parks, libraries, neighborhood schools, and community centers, we can begin to create space for divided communities to overlap, to see their own interest in the interest of others, and over time nurture a community that resolves conflict with—maybe—a little less divisiveness.

Many people have asked what I intend to do with the Neighbors for Haymarket Books Facebook group now that the permit has been approved. “Continue our effort,” I tell them. Not just to support Haymarket, but to advocate for a community that works for all of us, to connect neighbors around their passion for the neighborhood, and build a community where conflict is a healthy part of our relationships, not a force that divides us further. That’s what I saw Neighbors for Haymarket being about all along, and that’s what it will remain—as soon as I can think of a new name.

Renner Barsella is a block captain and community organizer. He created and moderates the Neighbors for Haymarket Books Facebook group.

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