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In 1995, as a result of complications from thyroid cancer (and poor care from doctors) I developed carpal tunnel in both wrists. I arrived in class one night with two assistants to help me teach. I had carpal tunnel surgery on both of my wrists that morning at 7:00 AM. But at 7:15 PM, with helpers to write for me on the chalk board, I was teaching my Photo I class. It never occurred to me that maybe I should be at home recuperating. It was one more reminder to me the kind of dedication and love I had for teaching photography at the Jane Addams Center (JAC). For twenty six years no matter where my career as a professional photographer and photo journalist led me, most evenings at 7:00 PM I walked into a classroom to teach photography.
I started volunteering at JAC in September of 1969. The first task I accomplished that month was a Film Festival of old black and white movies to help raise money as part of a Center-wide "Fiesta" fund raiser. In October 1969 I started creating a Photo Program, with the intention of working with teenagers that were abusing drugs, a common problem in the late 60's. That was the genesis of the most important work I would do in my life. In 2002 Hull House Association was compelled to sell their most valuable asset, the building that housed the Jane Addams Center. Hull House had mismanaged their funds to the point that selling the building was necessary in spite of the hundreds of families that depended on their services. The Photography Program alone had served more than 10,000 adults and adolescents over its 33 year history.
In 2001 a few students in the JAC Photography Program approached me with the purpose and intent of moving the Photography Program to a new venue. Their words were, "we think this program should continue" and "we would like to help you move the program". A committee was formed, a name was chosen and a not-for-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization was formed. We found another 501 (c)(3) to act as our fiscal agent. We rented some space at Montrose and Ravenswood and started to hold non-darkroom classes while we figured out where to set up permanently. When we chose the name we all put a lot of emphasis on the word "Center". That third word was very important to all of us because it said "community". After 33 years of managing a program with just volunteers, we had created a community. A very resourceful community of dedicated women and men who thought that what we had at JAC was worth working to recreate, and worth working hard for. And work they would and they did.
There we were in 2003, we were a 501(c)(3), we had a name and, we were in a space holding non-darkroom classes. We had a community of people that were waiting to see what was going to happen; how was our story going to turn out? We were turning the city inside out looking for money, resources and a way to continue the program. All we had was heart, a will to work hard and a way to make money once we built the darkroom space. None of that qualified us for a loan, and who would donate money for a middle-class photography program? The hallmark of the program at Jane Addams Center was that we never received any money from foundations or the City or State or Feds. The photography program was self-sufficient, class fees and volunteers were able to keep the program going for more than 33 years. (The decision I made in 1969 to not go after monetary grants resulted in keeping the program going for all of those years while all of the other similar programs in the city folded as grant money just dried up in the 1970's.)
One of my friends in the program was a real estate agent and came up with a building at the corner of School Street and Lincoln Avenue. It was a flat iron building. The first floor and lower level had been vacant for more than 10 years, we were told. The building had been converted into condos, but the first floor and lower level (that had been a bank when the building was built) just did not sell when the building was converted. Sometime after the conversion someone thought they might put a restaurant in the space, but after the first floor was gutted their circumstances changed and the space was just boarded up and left empty. For some years the space sat, stripped to the brick and mortar, windows broken and boarded up, no heat or electricity, the space was just cold and dark.
It was our gallery director who first saw the inside of the space; she fell in love with the space immediately. When I got into the space a few days after her, the space was dark, very cluttered and dirty, needing more work than I had ever imaged doing in my lifetime. As I walked down the stairs to the lower level I was thinking, how could we ever make such an odd shaped space work? It was a pie shape. When I got to the bottom of the stairs and let my flashlight move across the space, I saw it. The space was larger underground than above ground. The space extended under the sidewalks. The old bank needed much more space than a pie shape could accommodate, so the city had let them continue the lower level under the sidewalks. The floor was Terrazzo and the bank vault with its nine foot round door was intact.
The spaces under the sidewalks on the East and West sides of the building were the right size for darkrooms and would eventually be turned into six darkrooms with five or six enlargers in each. The counters and sinks of two of the darkrooms, were constructed in such a way and at a height, that people in wheelchairs would be able to use them. But I'm getting ahead of the story, first we had to get the space and find the money to build out and buy the building. A lot of work still had to get done before we could do that.
My friend, Kahlid was the real estate broker who had found the building. He now turned his attention to figuring out how to buy it. Kahlid was from St. Louis, and had graduated from high school in a class of eight students. One of his fellow students, Philip, had later joined his father's real estate development business in Chicago. Kahlid started to talk to Philip about the Photography Program. Kahlid would convince Philip to buy the condo space. With the volunteers, we would clean out the space and do whatever work we were capable of while Philip and his construction crew would built out the space more or less to our projected needs. After we were able to open and start having classes and an income stream, we would buy the space from Philip's holding company and everyone would live happily ever after. And so it was so,...almost.
The Photography community we had at the Jane Addams Center was large in number and larger in talent. One of the volunteers was a structural engineer who worked for Skidmore (now SOM). He checked out the girders for the mezzanine, the floors, the walls, the vault. He worked tirelessly for months, every weekend, until he went to Madison Wisconsin one weekend and met the woman he is now married to. Another volunteer is the daughter of a plumbing contractor. She worked with me soldering a thousand copper joints for the highly specialized darkroom plumbing. And yet another volunteer's father owned a large advertising agency that he was closing down and he contributed all of the furniture to us. Twenty volunteers spent three days moving the furniture into 3301 North Lincoln.
There is not enough space here to name the hundred plus people who helped over that year to make the space possible, I thank them and I am eternally in their debt. There was at one time a plaque with the names of all of the volunteers on it at CPC; we titled them The Foundation's Club. To open the doors and begin doing business we also needed cash. Our community came through again with donations of $500.00 each and we established The Founders Club. Some people's names are on both plaques. At this time (8/25/09) the two plaques are no longer displayed at CPC (more about that later).
Typically, the construction of the space went on and on. It started in the Spring and went on through the Summer and into the Fall. As Winter approached there was still no HVAC. The non-darkroom classes were losing attendance and our community was drifting; it had been 18 months since we had darkrooms. Everyone had taken all of the non-darkroom classes they were going to. We had attracted some new students and new volunteers but without darkrooms we were almost out of business. We decided to move into the Lincoln Avenue space and start classes even though there was no heat. We put space heaters in the darkrooms and ran the hot water to keep the temperature up. In the classroom the ceilings were 18 feet high and the space heaters were just not adequate. The contractor promised the heat would be working in 30 days (or so), so we decided to just tough it out. As I stood in front of the first Photo I class I saw that everyone was dressed in down coats, we could see our breath; there was no wind inside but it was cold. At that time in all of my years of teaching, I never saw a happier group of students. Many of the students in the room had volunteered to help make this new space. For everyone this was high adventure, the realization of their work and our shared dream. Damn the cold, they were going to learn about Film Photography.
After the 9/11 tragedy, President "W" declared war on the world and in the name of security the airport baggage checkers would not let anything past them that did not go through the X-ray machines. People returning from vacation were coming home and finding out that their film and later their photographs were ruined in the X-Ray machines. One of the results of the extra security was that people were switching to digital cameras so that their pictures would not be ruined. The use of film was going away fast and people were intrigued and excited by the new digital technology. Within 15 months we went from 80% of our students using film cameras to 80% using digital cameras. Once again some of the volunteers came through.
Two of our more advanced students took me out for an Indian dinner and convinced me (insisted, (beat me)) that we start offering digital photography classes and they were going to help put a program together. We started to have meetings and with a lot of help from very many people, after our water broke, and a very difficult labor, we had a bouncing seven week digital program. We started with donated computers that were not quite up to the task and old monitors whose color was not quite good enough, and forged ahead.
As the program grew we gradually added better computers and monitors and printers. We started out with assumptions, evaluated our work, fine tuned the program and continued getting a little better each session. We had shows with a few digital prints and then with more digital prints and finely shows with only digital prints. The class numbers grew each session. I started to teach on Mondays increasing the Photo I classes to three a week. We were on our way to our goal of saving money for the down payment on our space. Then one day we got the news that threw us for a loop.
The owners of the space had a buyer and if we wanted to keep the Center we had to agree to buy and close in 60 days and pay a price much higher than we had anticipated. Nothing personal, they said, but if we wanted to stay we had to pay more than the buyer was going to pay and we had to do it right away, Period.
Collectively (me, the board, the volunteer staff) we had been focusing all of our attention on keeping the Center going. I suffered an illness that ultimately left me disabled. I was absent from the Center for almost nine months and when I returned I was still sick and in tremendous pain 24 hours a day. We still had to buy the space or move out in 60 days.
It was a Harris banker who came up with the scheme we followed through with. For my entire work life I had not sought out contributions for the program, (I was willing to make an exception for a Film Wheel Chair Program). My whole idea was to have a Center that was self-sufficient with class fees and volunteers. Now we had 60 days to come up with a $350,000.00 down payment. I was very uncomfortable about any of us asking for contributions. And there was no time to write a grant application, which I wasn't crazy about either. With the insight of the Harris banker we had a plan that could work.
The scheme was basically this: We would set up an LLC (limited liability company). We would ask for supporters to invest up to the $350,000.00 we needed. The LLC would buy the condo space and hold it for CPC. CPC would rent the space for five years. At the end of five years CPC would buy the condo from the LLC. The principle that was paid to the bank from the rent that was collected by the LLC, would be returned to the investors as interest on there investment. Our estimate was a 5% return on their investment, which was about what banks were paying on CD deposits that year.
Somehow we made it. We got 10 investors to invest $20,000.00 each. Who were they? Me, my mother, my best friends David and Dan. Heidi and Michael, who each have been volunteering for over a dozen years. One board member was the first 20K investor and another board member's friend was the last 20K. Finally but not least, David Joel, a Chicago professional photographer who is the son of a Life magazine photographer and my new best friend. The rest of the money came from an assortment of five and ten thousand dollar investors, all from people currently or formally in the program. With the agreement of the board's executive committee, we set up our own Key Club to thank our investors. Each $20,000.00 investor would have unlimited access to the Center and would be able to take classes for free. For the $10,000.00 investors, half off all class fees.
We were a committed community. And the community showed their faith in me and in each other and came through. Just before Christmas, on the 20th of December we closed on the sale of the space. Now all we had to do was to continue on, and pay for it.
In September of 2008 the cpc board terminated Richard Stromberg's employment. Because Richard was an "at Will" Employee, there was no reason given.
Richard found out from a third party about the termination. It made the papers – "Reader Story".
Twenty Five of the volunteer staff disassociated from the cpc.
All but Three of the board members that fired Richard left the board by January 2009.
Inspection of the public income tax statements of cpc reveals that under Richard Stromberg's direction cpc experienced 30% growth each year for five consecutive years.
UPDATE; In December of 2009 The cpc board informed the LLC that cpc would NOT fulfill its agreement to buy the building in December of 2011. The board refused to sign the document that would allow the LLC to try to recoup their investment by putting the building up for sale.
In October of 2010 the board of cpc signed the necessary paper work so that the LLC could put the building up for sale.
In November of 2010 the building was listed "For Sale" with a real estate broker.
cpc never made good on their settlement offer to Richard and as of Christmas 2010 withdrew the offer completely.
Watch This Space For The Continuing saga Of This Story.