As members of the IGSS community at New Trier High School we have the opportunity to research and act on any subject that interests us in the yearlong “CREATE” project. Myself and two other students had heard about what happened in Winnetka two years ago and it intrigued us. We decided to focus on uncovering what had happened and who was involved. Two of us had written our CREATE essays on issues of urban planning and development, so an issue of local politics and housing seemed like a natural step to take. While we dug into the issue, interviewing trustee members and members of the community, we discovered that Winnetka, while undoubtedly being a close knit community, has underlying tension and political negligence regarding the issue of affordable housing.
Due to technical error, we found ourselves needing to retrieve over three gigabytes of footage from Winnetka resident Jennifer McQuet’s home computer. While we were worried that she would point out our amature mistake and the inconvenience that it posed to her, Jen was very calm and logical about the blunder. Jen was the founder of Winnetka is Neighborly, a group dedicated to promoting friendly relations between neighbors and the necessity for affordable housing in Winnetka. Jen McQuet recognized our tight schedule and told us to pick up the footage from her computer whenever it was convenient for us. She went so far as to leave her doors unlocked the next day in case she was at work when I stopped by. Seventeen hours later, I found myself standing in the foyer of her house during my lunch period. Jen had helpfully left her computer on a kitchen counter. I stood in the kitchen for twenty minutes downloading the footage, in disbelief at the immense amount of trust Jennifer put in a stranger. I walked out of her house after those tense minutes, thinking about how Winnetka truly is neighborly.
In total, we interviewed seven people, and in every home we entered for interviews, each room was spotlessly clean and tastefully organized. Art hung on every wall, and decorative chairs guarded the entrance to every room. Everyone was incontestably polite, and let us fiddle with their blinds and lamps to capture the perfect balance of light. Every interviewee was well spoken and extremely helpful. With a camera focused on their faces, they gave well-thought, educated answers. Much was different among the forums of the Winnetka Patch. With no face or identity, people are much more disposed to doll out vicious critiques of their neighbors, often descending into full out flame wars. With some preliminary research we discovered how charged the topic really was. Our interviews with Gail Schechter, executive director of Open Communities, and Jennifer McQuet confirmed our notion.
Winnetka has low political involvement, which allows the most vocal and active citizens to guide the village’s agenda. The affordable housing debate was a prime example of this phenomenon. To the uninformed, Affordable housing was an alarming proposition, bringing up images of the projects in Chicago. This intrinsic fear of affordable housing itself made it possible for groups to scare Winnetka citizens with lies about the plan, bringing up massive tax increases and the post-office site which were never even discussed. Had the Winnetka populace been educated on the actual affordable housing plan, a real discourse could have occurred, debating ideas instead of fallacies. The discrepancies between fact and fiction prevented the plan from being seriously considered, and instead, through public misconception, let it fizzle out and die.
True Markham,17, is a junior at New Trier high school. Click here view the trailer to the film “Neighbor to Neighbor”. True is also a contributor to Youth Political Engagement