Helen Shiller’s Chicago Uptown legacy
Was the 46th Ward alderman Uptown's savior or its scourge?
Long before she was a politician, Shiller was deeply involved in Uptown’s future. She came to the neighborhood in 1972 with her infant son, Brendan, and husband, Mark Zalkin. (Zalkin died from multiple sclerosis in 1998; he and Shiller were separated, and she hasn’t remarried.) Raised for most of her life on Long Island, Shiller landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965, as the student movement against the Vietnam War started heating up. That’s where she got her first taste of community action. In 1969, she and Zalkin moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where they helped set up legal and health clinics for the poor. Shiller also drove a cab to make ends meet. In 1971, the Uptown activist Walter “Slim” Coleman took a trip up to Racine to speak to various organizers and was impressed by Shiller, who was pregnant at the time. “Helen wanted to get things done,” says Coleman, now a minister at churches in Humboldt Park and Pilsen. “She seemed to be the one who did all the work.”
A year later, Shiller and Zalkin moved to Chicago to join Coleman in Uptown. Together, they established a tenants’ organization to protect residents against slumlords, founded the Uptown People’s Community Health Center and set up all-night watch groups to break up an arson-for-profit ring. She first ran for 46th Ward alderman in a 1978 special election, but lost. In the ’79 general election, she ran and was defeated by 200 votes. She vowed that it would be her last attempt. In 1980, she and Coleman started All Chicago City News, a left-wing street journal that eventually became the main booster publication of Harold Washington’s successful 1983 mayoral campaign. Shiller became close with Washington, campaigning for him in white-majority wards. In 1987, Washington persuaded her to run again for 46th Ward alderman.
“When I became alderman, Uptown had well over 100 vacant lots, we had lots of empty, dangerous vacant buildings, we had over 500 abandoned cars on the streets, we had less than one-quarter of the streetlights we currently have on the streets. On some streets, you couldn’t see anything,” Shiller says. “We had a very small, strangled retail community. The area under the El tracks south of Montrose, now Challenger Park where people walk their dogs, was a common dumping ground for bodies. We had an entire four-block stretch where the sewer had collapsed. We had babies dying from salmonella poisoning because the sewer system was screwed up. It was necessary to rebuild the ward, and start from the ground up.”