Relocation and Creating Home: How the American Indian Center Got the Legal Help to Survive

Community members' tribal nations' flags line the new AIC gymnasium.

Community members' tribal nations' flags line the new AIC gymnasium.

By Rachel Schwartz and Timna Axel

In October last year, an old Masonic temple building in Uptown, leaking heat from a broken boiler and partially restricted because of asbestos, was sold for almost $2 million to a developer with plans to gut the building and fill it with condos.

But not everyone was ready to leave.

For 64 years, the old marble building had been home to the American Indian Center (AIC), a community space for tens of thousands of Native Americans and their descendants who’d been forcibly relocated from reservations scattered around the country.

When community members founded the AIC in 1953, “It gave them a place where they felt—a safe place really—where they could go and be with other Native people and feel like they were still part of a community,” explains Les Begay, a member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe and Chairman of the AIC’s Board of Directors. Since its founding, thousands of Native Americans representing about 80 different tribes have participated in the AIC’s food and clothing banks, health clinics, pow wows, archery lessons, beading classes and storytelling nights.

 “A lot of people grew up at the Center,” explains Begay. “People talk about when they were small children they met some of their best friends, they met their husband or wife there, so it’s difficult for them to say goodbye.”

Yet by 2014 the once-pristine building, which was donated to the American Indian Center more than 50 years ago, was crumbling around them. The two top floors were blocked off due to asbestos. In the winter, staff used blowers to stay warm and heated water in their industrial kitchen.

Les Begay, Chairman of the AIC's Board of Directors

Les Begay, Chairman of the AIC's Board of Directors

As it became clear that the costs of keeping their Uptown building operational would soon reach astronomical heights, AIC applied for a spot at Clinic in a Box™, a program run by Corporate Pro Bono, in conjunction with the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, DLA Piper and the Community Law Project of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

At Clinic in a Box™, nonprofits in need of transactional legal assistance are paired with pro bono attorneys who assess their needs and begin working on a range of issues. The Community Law Project works to recruit and screen participating nonprofits and to coordinate their on-going legal assistance with pro bono counsel. When they arrived at DLA Piper for the clinic in July of 2014, the AIC staff was paired with two real estate attorneys and a corporate attorney who would soon play a major role shaping the organization’s future: Marjorie Zessar, Katie Donnelly and Kristi Hayek.

Zessar and Donnelly are attorneys at GGP Inc., a large retail real estate company that buys, sells, owns, and operates properties such as Water Tower Place, Oakbrook Center, and Northbrook Court. Each of them handles a portfolio of 20-25 malls and conducts purchase and sale, lease, finance and other deals that run the gamut from several to hundreds of millions of dollars. Zessar and Donnelly, who worked together in private practice before joining GGP, seem to be so comfortable with each other that they often complete one another’s sentences.

“Ultimately in the state of Illinois you do need a lawyer to buy and sell property,” explains Zessar.

 “A lot of people in exactly the same situation [as AIC] would have vacated their building and leased space,” Donnelly jumps in. “But they didn’t have enough money to lease space without selling their building, and they were very clear that because of who they are, they are Native American and they owned this property, that they did not want an interim solution that involved leasing.”

Marjorie Zessar, left, and Katie Donnelly, right, of GGP, Inc.

Marjorie Zessar, left, and Katie Donnelly, right, of GGP, Inc.

Les Begay agrees, recalling that the Urban Indian Relocation Program of the 1950s forced and “encouraged” Native Americans to leave their reservations and move to U.S. cities. Tens of thousands came to Chicago, creating a need for a common space at the American Indian Center. “When they came to Chicago, now this became their reservation,” says Begay. “So now we’re telling them, ‘you’ve got to move again.’”

Knowing that the organization needed to move quickly, Zessar and Donnelly put their GGP connections to work. Early on, they brought in attorneys from Foley & Lardner LLP to assist with the project. They arranged for top-of-the-line commercial brokers from Transwestern and CBRE to vie for the opportunity to represent AIC. Once selected, the brokers from Transwestern assisted in chasing down listings, examining everything from ACE Hardware stores to vacant Chicago school buildings, and even negotiated a few deals that didn’t ultimately work out for AIC. Zessar and Donnelly also brought in financial consultants to look at AIC’s finances and determine whether unique financing options were available for the purchase of a new building, and enlisted environmental consultants to handle the asbestos and lead paint issues at the new building. When they found a buyer for the old building, Zessar and Donnelly were able to negotiate an agreement so AIC could stay in their old building while they pursued their zoning needs for the new building.

Finally, AIC found space just a few miles west at the Albany Park Community Center, an accessible building just a block away from the CTA with classrooms, a small kitchen, and a gymnasium. By selling their old building for $1.8 million, AIC was able to cover the $1.1 million purchase of the Albany Park Community Center, plus the cost of renovations and operations.

Zessar and Donnelly didn’t stop there; they reached out to the Community Law Project’s Director Jody Adler for help finding zoning counsel and local tax counsel. “There were a lot of times during the course of couple years that we called Jody and got counsel,” Donnelly recalls. “When all else failed, we called Jody.” Adler helped Zessar and Donnelly build up AIC’s legal team, recruiting Andrew P. Scott, an attorney from Dykema to help AIC with a special use permit for community center use, and attorneys from Jenner & Block with special help from Rafi Mottahedeh and Brendan Donahue to obtain property tax exemptions.

Begay speaks highly of Zessar and Donnelly’s work. “The time and expertise they put in was amazing,” says Begay. “They were on top of everything [...] and I really felt like, not only were they doing this because they were very good at it, but I felt like they were doing this because they had a real connection with us, and it was something they felt good about doing.”

On March 20, 2017, almost three years after their first meeting with pro bono attorneys at Clinic in a Box, AIC closed on the purchase of their new building. During a cool morning that month, AIC invited its members for a symbolic two-mile walk from Uptown to Albany Park to inaugurate the new center. In a ceremonial transition, older community members turned the lock on the new building, and younger members opened the doors to the new one. Community members performed a blessing, and then they began to hang up the dozens of tribal flags on the walls of their new gymnasium.

“Once we did that, I think people really felt that the transition had taken place,” recalls Begay.

Les Begay beneath the Diné (Navajo) flag

Les Begay beneath the Diné (Navajo) flag

For Zessar and Donnelly, working with AIC to secure their new building turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

 “I feel that we have a duty as lawyers to give back to the community,” says Zessar. “There are so many organizations and individuals out there that don’t have access to the legal system based purely on cost.”

For Donnelly, working with AIC brought dividends that were unlike any commercial client. 

 “We have billion dollar projects,” says Donnelly. “There’s something to walking out the door and just talking to regular people getting through the day trying to do the right thing […] What this did was open up effectively an entire community that I had never been involved in, and it’s a spiritual community.”

For more information about the American Indian Center (AIC), visit https://www.aicchicago.org/