Urban billboards fight gentrification

Written by By Sara Mattison, CNN Chicago, Illinois, US Hers are a striking words. “Jailing layabouts, hustlers and losers, even homeless. Bringing new people to work.” In their simplest version, the billboard reads, as…

Urban billboards fight gentrification

Written by By Sara Mattison, CNN Chicago, Illinois, US

Hers are a striking words. “Jailing layabouts, hustlers and losers, even homeless. Bringing new people to work.” In their simplest version, the billboard reads, as do the accompanying illustrations. But in their most optimistic, it reads, “Paving away the holes in development. Ending blight and building a new community.”

The group behind the art work, Amalgamated, is made up of artist Walter DeMaria, screen printer Jim Smiglewski, and designer Paul Carney, with large-scale billboards supporting anti-poverty initiatives being erected in cities across the world. Their work has inspired protests at locations as big as the White House and as small as a street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (The company’s billboards will play a major role in commemorating the centenary of World War I in the coming months.)

“The billboard is visual currency, ” says Smiglewski. “It symbolizes the message and forces the reader to reflect on his/her own life choices.”

This brings us to the billboard which appeared in Markham, on the corner of Deale and Woodlawn Avenues, just before dawn on Saturday morning, December 15. The developers behind this billboard, Markham Properties Group, were joined by DeMaria, Smiglewski, and Carney in their battle with the Markham Anti-Housing Society over a message marking the 40th anniversary of their development, on Woodlawn Avenue. The print was accompanied by statements such as “America without black people is no America,” and “Half of Markham is abandoned.”

The billboard has since been covered over. Within hours of publication, Markham Properties had enlisted the services of a team of local lawyers, and Mike Dowler, the chairman of Markham Properties, issued a press release announcing his innocence, his company’s decision to fight the allegations, and the need to “educate” the community about the “wisdom of how we proceed.”

Markham Properties claim innocence Credit: Markham Properties Group

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It all started in 2015.

On March 4, 2016, three court documents were filed in an attempt to shut down the Markham properties group. Specifically, an eviction action was filed against 106 Woodlawn Avenue and 106 Eldridge Avenue, two plots of land each now rezoned for residential development. At the same time, a file was filed in court claiming that Markham Properties Group had failed to adhere to the terms of the Land Transfer Agreement signed in 1994.

The court papers were lodged on the day the Markham Residential Development Tax Inc. was due to pay another $150,000. The tax, made by Markham Properties Group, is meant to fund police and fire, fixing council budgets, and infrastructure. In this instance, however, the company had failed to pay.

In the days that followed, two other landmark lawsuits were filed: one against Markham Properties Group, claiming breach of contract; the other against Alderman Keith McDaniel, who was listed as an enemy of the development and who, during an interview with the CBC, had proclaimed, “You can’t spend taxpayer money on projects that you can’t keep promises about.”

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The single largest court case of its kind, Markham Properties was represented by notable Chicago attorneys Lester Opper and Peter Doyle, who returned in late October, claiming that the allegations and the lawsuits were completely groundless.

Markham Properties hired the skills of some of the Chicago’s most prominent attorneys and drew up its legal argument. The initial suits were dismissed, on a technicality and the Markham Commercial Development Development Tax Inc. was served with an injunction by Judge Michael Lozano on October 30, 2018, to stop payment of its October 28 tax and to pre-condition an independent forensic audit of the group.

These parties meet once again in court on January 16, 2019.

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