There’s another group that has changed the face of protest in Chicago, and they’ve done it indoors, sans picket signs or fake blood: the data nerds. Tom Tresser is a former Shakespearean actor who moved to the city in 1980 and soon found himself making his way into arts administration, which sparked an interest in policy. “You start asking questions. You start to look at zoning laws, city planning,” Tresser says.
When Republicans started going after the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, Tresser began attending the Midwest Academy, a legendary training ground for Chicago organizers. In 2007, he noticed a neighborhood outrage: the Latin School of Chicago, one of the city’s toniest private high schools, was carving out a corner of Lincoln Park as its own private soccer fiefdom; the public would be permitted access only 10 percent of the time, during winter. On a shoestring, he and some neighbors filed a lawsuit. On their day in court, they were shocked to find that among the twelve lawyers lined up on the other side, one was a partner in Chicago’s most high-powered white-shoe law firm and another was the city’s chief corporation counsel.
Tresser quickly realized that “something bigger than a soccer field was at stake” in his Lincoln Park suit. At the time, Chicago had been named a finalist for the 2016 Olympics. “If we got a legal ruling that you can’t privatize a park, the Olympic bid would have been dead before it was unsealed,” he recalls. For privatizing parks on behalf of corporations were what the Games would be all about, and “we would have got nothing for it except bankruptcy.” Tresser and his neighbors weren’t going to stand for it.
“We have a massive global movement of capital,” he told me, “which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”
In the summer of 2009, he used his credit card to finance a trip by his core activists to Switzerland, where the International Olympics Committee was deliberating. They were armed with a book composed only of articles from the Chicago press about why a corrupt and incompetent city government would botch the Games. When the dust cleared, the Olympics went to Rio, and a consultant with knowledge of the IOC’s deliberations told Tresser that his group’s efficient presentation of information had played a significant role in the decision. Tresser, the son of a public school teacher, began conceptualizing himself as a “public defender.”
“I believe what we call ‘the public’ is under attack in America today: public housing, public education, public health, public transportation. All these things have become precious and scarce, and have actually become dirty words,” he tells seventy-five activists one April evening at a meeting of his next venture, the TIF Illumination Project.
TIF, or tax increment financing, was a potentially noble solution to fix a market failure. Developers don’t want to build in blighted areas where banks won’t lend money, thereby guaranteeing their continued blight. TIF districts are supposed to subsidize development in these underdeveloped areas essentially by borrowing against projected gains in tax revenue generated by the new construction. But in Chicago, the idea has metastasized in a particularly wicked way. TIFs became a scam to funnel public funds to wealthy private interests; the allegedly “blighted” areas came to encompass the Lyric Opera, which got TIF money to spruce up its bronze door handles, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which was pledged $15 million, in part to refurbish its bathrooms. In response to the latter scandal, activists from the anti-TIF movement marched on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange bearing a golden toilet, embarrassing the company into publicly rejecting the money.
Tresser’s work is to create more stories like that one. But to get TIF money returned, you have to find it first—a frightfully difficult task. Each TIF district goes through a review panel composed of representatives from various city agencies, all of them appointed by the mayor. There is supposed to be one public representative on each panel, but that person is appointed by the local alderman and usually doesn’t have much of a clue about what’s happening. A TIF developer seeking public favor can promise to hire a certain number of locals, but there is no mechanism for evaluating whether the developer holds to the deal, and no penalty if it doesn’t. TIF projects are discussed at Chicago Development Commission meetings, but by that time they are basically done deals. No one knows the backroom process by which TIF-worthy projects are determined, though there does seem to be one constant: “If the mayor wants a project,” Tresser notes, “the project will happen.” What’s more, TIF amounts are excluded from the tax bill that property owners receive each year, which itemizes how the city is spending their money.
Finding that crucial hidden information is where the data nerds come in. “This stuff is enough to glaze your eyes over,” Tresser warns his audience, picking up his PowerPoint remote. He’s wrong; Tresser describes his first encounter with the TIF page on the city website, and the audience is rapt. His presentation features a city spreadsheet of individual projects with an unmanageable 4,588 rows, sortable by name, type or by amount of money allocated—but not by ward or neighborhood, the only information relevant to citizens who want to find out whether their community is being ripped off.
To get at that, Tresser’s team sat around his kitchen table and worked through the spreadsheet line by line, compiling their own database—a task made harder by the fact that the TIF districts bear no logical relation to the city’s fifty wards or seventy-seven official planning areas. He flips to a slide of the city’s map of 163 TIF districts. “It looks like a lady with varicose veins!” he says. The map is even harder to work with; when you click on each district, you get a PDF document. Chicago city bureaucrats love PDFs—you can’t enter information on them into database programs unless you do it by hand, which is what Tresser’s data team did. Only then were they able to arrive at some basic conclusions about a program that ate up no less than $455 million in 2011, out of total city property tax receipts of over $1.3 billion. Another even more stunning find was that each TIF district includes a fund balance, an unspent surplus that totals $1.7 billion citywide. That’s a lot of business for whichever bank gets to hold those funds—but the identity of the bank is secret, too.