A View Behind a Victory

February 1, 2008

The Castle Coalition is sticking to its roots—the grassroots, to be exact—to work with citizens and legislators around the country to reform the nation’s woeful eminent domain laws.

The Institute for Justice cannot litigate to stop all of the many abuses of eminent domain across the country, so we formed the Castle Coalition in 2002 to help property owners keep their homes and small businesses by winning in the court of public opinion. Our website is filled with stories of ordinary citizens doing just that—and now we have another to add.

Thanks to the efforts of Castle Coalition Coordinator Christina Walsh, businesses in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood have been removed from the city’s “involuntary acquisition” list and are not subject to eminent domain for the time being. Although we will continue to monitor the situation, people like Imre Hidvegi and Edgar Alvarez of Chicago Soccer, Tim and Kim Van Le of Decorium Furniture, and David and Nancy Smarinsky of The Dental Corner can now focus on growing their businesses, not saving them from misguided, city-led attempts at redevelopment through government force.

This success story is emblematic of the initiative and entrepreneurial spirit the Castle Coalition brings to the fight to end eminent domain abuse. Chicago property owner David Smarinsky contacted us through our website, and Castle Coalition staffer Chris Grodecki gathered more details. The city planned to place 16 properties—housing more than 30 businesses—on an acquisition list to make way for future private development, and the property owners rightly suspected eminent domain. Our involvement began in earnest with a telephone call from Christina to Imre—and from there, things moved quickly.

Following initial conversations, Christina met with the affected property owners in Chicago to assess the situation, educate them and discuss grassroots strategy. That night, the business owners formed Save Lincoln Square, and a website was born, filled with information about the ill-conceived project.

The conflict reached a fever pitch in early December, when nearly 300 members of the community gathered for an evening meeting, which featured speakers sharing their personal stories about how eminent domain would affect them, as well as a talk by Christina, who had, by that time, been dubbed a “big gun” by at least one area media outlet. Tim Van Le shared how he and his wife fled from Vietnam in pursuit of the American Dream, only to encounter injustice here. The event culminated in an impromptu, nearly mile-long march of many attendees to the office of the local alderman, who ultimately met with some of his constituents while the rest chanted “Save Lincoln Square!” and “Stop eminent domain!” from the snowy sidewalk. Another meeting between business owners and the alderman occurred less than a week later, and he introduced the ordinance to de-list most of them.

Buoyed by this development, Save Lincoln Square and its hundreds of members have vowed to continue their fight until the threat of eminent domain is lifted from all properties in the neighborhood. The Castle Coalition will remain there every step of the way—not only in Chicago, but wherever home and small business owners need protection.

Steven Anderson is IJ’s Castle Coalition director.

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