As shoppers at Trader Joe’s, 483 N. Harlem Ave. in Oak Park, inspected vegetables and produce and meat, filling their shopping carts on the last Sunday before Thanksgiving, a group of roughly a dozen activists held up signs and shouted slogans that varied on a single theme: Save Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago’s Uptown community.
Weiss is owned by Pipeline Health, a California private equity company that earlier this year agreed to sell one of Weiss Hospital’s parking lots to Lincoln Property Company, which hopes to develop an apartment complex in Uptown.
The protesting residents and organizers — some of whom were affiliated with the community organization Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside, or ONE Northside — said their gripe isn’t with Trader Joe’s or the shoppers.
Over the last several weeks, however, they’ve been on a mission to bring their message to retail areas located within buildings owned by Lincoln Property, of which Oak Park Place (the formal name of the Trader Joe’s building) is one.
The protesters said they believe that Lincoln Property’s parking lot acquisition is indicative of Pipeline’s gradual attempts to close Weiss and sell off its parts. They also believe the proposed 12-story, 314-unit apartment complex will only exacerbate the affordable housing shortage in Uptown. Block Club Chicago reported earlier this year that eight of those units will be designated affordable.
Between 2012 and 2019, affordable housing units in Uptown declined by nearly 9 percent, according to a pair of University of Illinois Chicago professors who discussed the data with WTTW last month.
Once one of Chicago’s most ethnically and racially diverse community areas, the white population in Uptown has gone from around 42 percent in 2000 to 54 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, the community’s median income has more than doubled, from around $20,000 three decades ago to about $55,000 in 2020, according to census data.
In an email statement, a Pipeline spokesperson defended the sale of the parking lot, explaining that it will help bring in revenue necessary to fund improvements and enhancements at Weiss Memorial.
“Weiss Memorial Hospital has served this community for more than 65 years. Our unwavering commitment to caring for our community is evidenced by the recent expansion of various clinical service lines and significant investment in high-tech equipment, facilities renovations and infrastructure,” the statement read.
“For example, our beautiful state-of-the-art orthopedic floor is scheduled to open in January, and patients will benefit from the minimally-invasive surgery made possible by two surgical robots. The flat parking lot adjacent to our hospital is a dormant asset for which we have no purpose. In contrast, the sale of that lot allows for additional investment in our current facilities and continued growth of our clinical programs. Our staff and physicians look forward to serving our community for many years to come.”
Attempts earlier this week to reach a spokesperson with Lincoln Property Company were unsuccessful.
Marc Kaplan, a longtime Uptown resident who protested at Trader Joe’s in Oak Park on Sunday, said Pipeline’s past actions don’t give him any optimism about the company’s intentions.
Kaplan pointed to Pipeline’s decision in 2019 to close Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, a few months after the firm purchased the hospital, along with Weiss and West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, from Tenet Healthcare for $70 million. Pipeline closed the hospital despite telling state regulators that they would keep it open for some years. Last year, Pipeline settled a lawsuit brought by the village of Melrose Park for $1.5 million.
“For Pipeline, that’s chump change, that’s an investment,” Kaplan said. “We feel that [the parking lot sale] is a big piece for dismantling the hospital.”
Kim Jeffries said she’s lived in Uptown since 1993. Since then, she said, the neighborhood has changed.
“It’s gentrifying,” Jeffries said not long before she walked into Trader Joe’s on Sunday to make Oak Parkers aware of her experience.
“They’re trying to keep us people out,” she said, “I mean Black and Brown people, so they’re looking for any excuse to do so.”
Jeffries, a diabetic who relies on Weiss Memorial for medical services, said she once tried touring one of the many new luxury apartment buildings going up within Uptown — to no avail.
“I was just being nosey, but they wouldn’t even show me anything,” she said. “You have to show ID to get into one of the showings, but they rejected my ID. That made absolutely no sense.”
Angela Clay, a lifelong Uptown resident who ran unsuccessfully for 46th Ward alderman in her community, said that while Uptown is about a half-hour from Oak Park, the two communities are strikingly similar.
“Oak Park is kind of like a reflection of Uptown in a lot of ways,” Clay said. “We have a wide variety of income and nationalities. We have a variety of pretty exclusive properties, but we also have people with no income whatsoever. We’re coming to Oak Park to tell our neighbors that we’re really not that different.”