On a chilly late-April morning with temperatures hovering around freezing, it is hard to get out of bed, let alone to pick up litter in your neighborhood playground. An then particularly if your idea Saturday morning fun doesn’t involve picking up cigarette butts.
But this is a normal day for Bea Tersch, 68 year-old who has lived the past 39 years in a Virginia Avenue brick home overlooking the Chicago River. In 1976 she paid $35,000 for the home. In 2013, she could probably sell it for quite a bit more
What makes Tersch different from most of us property price-watchers, is that she can claim some responsibility for her area’s real estate price boost. It took more than 30 years of diligently bettering the area through beautification, fighting big condo developers, resisting gang influence, and organizing the community, including an annual yard sale that now draws as many as 50 participants each year.
Tersch is the last surviving charter member of the Greater Rockwell Organization, a community group committed to bettering a small 14-block area, bordered by Wilson (south), Lawrence (north), Western (east), and the Chicago River (west). Tersch and her neighbors founded GRO in 1979 to combat gang influence, then over-development and now to the beautification and improvement of the neighborhood.
“It’s awesome that she’s been devoted for so long,” said Patti Huetteman, current GRO president. “This neighborhood wasn’t always this nice. I’m really indebted to the people like her who started GRO and worked on the community when it had serious problems.”
On this particular Saturday morning, Tersch led a neighborhood clean-up to recognize Earth Day. Her long, white-blonde hair tucked under a white visor, Tersch stooped to the ground to remove bits of trash and debris from the Jacob Playlot at Leland and Virginia, with the enthusiasm and energy of a much younger person.
One recruit for the morning, Jan Cohn, had lived in the area since 2007 but had only met Tersch a week or so earlier, while Cohn was working on a corner garden on Washtenaw. Tersch stopped by to give some advice.
“She stopped and commented about where I was locating a few things and how certain things would do well there, and where something was clearly dead and I should just take it out,” said Cohn.
Tersch suggested growing a trellis of morning glories along a piece of mesh around a utility pole.
“She gave me advice on what kind of mesh and said she had a lot of extra at her house,” Cohn said. “She told me, ‘Give me 15 minutes and I’ll find it and pull it out for you.’”
Cohn stopped by Tersch’s home shortly after. Tersch wouldn’t accept any money for the materials, but said if Cohn wanted, she could pay her back by helping with GRO’s clean-up day the following Saturday. Cohn agreed.
“Unsolicited, frank advice which can be very hard to come by,” said Cohn of Tersch’s methods. “Others would walk by and say they were glad someone was finally doing something with this corner, but she actively wanted to help.”
Tersch is the secretary of GRO and has held held the position since the group’s formation.
“She’s been the secretary forever,” said Huetteman. “It’s never even a question when we re-nominate officers. Bea will continue.”
She’s gotten some practice over the years when it comes to documenting meeting proceedings in her own distinctive voice.
“She’s famous for her lengthy detailed minutes, not necessarily without editorial comment,” joked Tom Kosinski, a GRO activist.
Tersch’s mother taught her how to garden, and later she took some training and even became a certified Tree Keeper. She often takes her tree-trimming kit along with her on her day job where she maintains plants and landscaping for hotels and offices in the Gold Coast.
In the 14 blocks within GRO’s boundaries, she is a champion of the unique corner gardens. She applied for the Green Corps grant that established them more than a decade ago, and each spring, Tersch picks up the perennials the city provides to community organizations, finds volunteers to maintain the gardens, and acts as a resource for those in need of a green thumb.
“Her greatest love has been plants and flowers,” said Annalisa Lunn, a former GRO president and activist who is now retired. “I can remember seeing her gardening not just our neighborhood, in others. I’d see her planting flowers at the Montrose ‘L’ stop. She has a real passion for how to beautify a community.”
Huetteman also feels Tersch’s attention to detail adds to the group’s efforts.
“Recently at a GRO meeting she was talking about how the south side of the tracks at [the] Rockwell [‘L’ stop] have plants growing, but if you look at the north side there’s nothing growing there,” said Huetteman. “It was clear that it was bothering her. I looked a few days later, and she’s exactly right. If you look at it, it’s just much nicer on one side.”
Huetteman notes that not everyone sees the litter around them, or the out-of-date yard sale ads taped to light poles, but Tersch sees these things. Whether or not this is a blessing or a curse is debatable, but Tersch is willing to do something about it.
“She kind of [set] the palette [for] the neighborhood,” said Lunn. “When people walk around there are pretty things to look at besides trees. People say, ‘what a beautiful community,’ and they don’t necessary know why one area is more attractive, or why when you walk through there it’s got color. That’s all her doing.”
Tersch grew up in rural north central Missouri but moved to Chicago for work in 1970. While she had only been to Chicago once before, it was coincidentally during Chicago’s annual Sheffield Garden Walk, which warmed the avid gardener considerably to the idea of making the move.
“I was just blown away by how beautiful Armitage was and that whole area,” said Tersch of her visit.
She met her late-husband Joe soon after, and in 1976, the Tersches got married and bought the home on Virginia, where she remains today.
Tersch decided to help found GRO after experiencing dissatisfaction within a different neighborhood organization she and her friends were involved in. The area was also experiencing gang violence and activity, an area GRO focused on early.
“There were frequently men who would walk up and down the street being loud,” Tersch said. “There was a liquor store on Lawrence where the Laundromat is now and there were people causing trouble there.”
Tersch said she never felt personally unsafe in the area, but she remembered vividly an incident during which a friend’s husband was mugged and beaten on Washtenaw after getting off the Lawrence bus.
To discourage gangs, groups of GRO members would gather on a member’s porch together near where gangs were standing around and members would call the police if they witnessed any activity to call in. A volunteer patrol would drive around the area looking for gang activity to report. In lieu of EveryBlock at the time, they also had a phone tree in place to alert neighbors of any concerns.
“The important thing, was these people all decided this community was worth saving was during the Rockwell/Leland Latin Kings,” said Lunn. “We decided we were going to take a stand.”
Their efforts paid off. Chicago Police Department records show that, in the area GRO covers, there were 874 crimes in 2001, many of them violent, including arson. In 2011, there were only 521 crimes, most of them property-related. GRO’s intervention efforts helped paved the way for this trend.
“It’s better now,” said Tersch. “I always knew it would be. I was never worried because of our location between beautiful Lincoln Square, the beautiful Chicago River, and right along the brown line.”
By the mid-1990′s crime had begun to drop and condominium developers had their sights set on the GRO area, which also began to change neighborhood demographics.
Tersch says the area really started to improve once the condos started going up, but neighbors demanded downzoning to keep developers from tearing down all the area’s houses for taller, bigger condos.
“Just a couple on Leland Ave. succumbed to that,” she said.
Lunn agreed, saying Tersch and the group had to act fast to keep developers out.
“This community has a nice variety of housing stock,” Lunn said. “It was one of the reasons we moved here, but it also has long-term owners. The problem was developers would come and offer someone who owned a house more money than they thought it was worth, then tear it down and put up a red brick building. We got two in our neighborhood before we got it downzoned.”
Tersch was active in letting her community know about developers’ plans. She held informational meetings at her home, and encouraged her neighbors to make their views clear to the alderman. Ultimately there was a vote to downzone in 2005, and this helped the area maintain the character it boasts today, where homes in the area are valued at an average of $248,000 and up, among the highest in the city. Without Tersch’s intervention and that of those she helped lead, they would not exist now.
Tersch said her mother also impressed upon her the importance of recycling and not being wasteful. While it may be en vogue today to reduce, reuse, and recycle, Tersch has been putting these concepts into practice her whole life.
Tersch’s advice to those who may be new to the area is the same that she offers regularly at GRO meetings to its membership: If you see litter, pick it up.
This oft-repeated line has stuck with Huetteman over the years.
“The thing that stands out most in my mind is Bea saying at GRO meetings, ‘If you see litter, pick it up,’” said Huetteman. “’If you see trash, pick it up.’ And that’s exactly what’s she’s been doing. She’s just been quietly cleaning the neighborhood the whole time.”
Another former GRO president confirms this view of Tersch.
“She’s a one-person war on graffiti, whether it’s painting over mailboxes or removing paint,” said Kosinski.
Tersch concedes that, even in her Gold Coast day job, she grabs litter when she sees it and tries to strip utility poles of outdated signs and tape.
When it comes to reusing, Tersch demonstrates this principle to its fullest by organizing GRO’s annual yard sale each summer. This June marks the 33rd year of the event. The sale is an opportunity for Rockwell-area families to hold individual yard sales under one Ward permit, and on a weekend when several other families are doing the same. Individuals are spared the hassle of getting their own permit and advertising their sale, and they are included in a map of participating sales that Bea creates and distributes.
Tersch secures the required permit through the 47th Ward office, recruits those interested in having their own sale, creates the map given to shoppers, and promotes the event. This year’s sale will take place June 8 and 9.
Reducing the group’s carbon footprint is important to Tersch as well.
Huetteman said that, at GRO events like the group’s regular picnics, potlucks, and block parties, Tersch is always firm about the group avoiding disposable plates and utensils.
“If we have an event and we want to use paper plates, she’ll remind us why we shouldn’t,” said Huetteman. “When she’s hosted teas at her home, she always used real dishes.”
At GRO clean-ups, Tersch will separate the refuse found by volunteers into different buckets: one for recyclables like discarded drink cans; one for trash; and one for sticks and stones, which, rather than tossing, she will take home in her car to lay on the bed of the Chicago river, accessible from her backyard.
This has made an impression. Huetteman admitted she’s been hanging on to some miscellaneous stones she has dug out of her yard to give to Tersch, rather than just throw them away.
“She makes what is old new again,” said Huetteman.
Tersch has two sons: Walter, 31, who lives in Washington, D.C., and Dave, 28. She and her husband Joe were married for 36 years. For 34 of those, he was an English teacher at Glenbrook North. During his tenure there, he took three sabbatical leaves, during which the couple traveled internationally, including trips to Bangkok to see family of Joe’s, and Australia and New Zealand to see friends living in Sydney.
While Joe didn’t participate in GRO events aside from attending potlucks and helping with the yard sales coordinated by Tersch and friends, she said he was there when she needed him to do the heavy lifting.
Joe passed away last summer, just after Fathers’ Day and not long after retiring.
Tersch said her husband had suffered from a myriad of health problems, including diabetes. In the end, he passed away from congestive heart failure.
Tersch admitted she didn’t inform her neighbors at GRO at the time of Joe’s passing, but clearly word got out – many of her local friends attended Joe’s service. She was surprised and touched by the show of local support.
She said she has become even more active in her volunteerism since Joe’s passing. Tersch compared herself to friends in other cities, and said she feels fortunate to have her GRO network.
“Some, compared to me, are a little alone, with no organization affiliation or job, or family close by,” she said.
In all her years here, and even now without Joe, Tersch said she has never thought of leaving the area.
“It’s ideal here,” she said.
Her love for the area is infectious.
Cohn spent that cold April Saturday with Tersch cleaning, not just the playlot, but also Rockwell Crossing, with a larger group that afternoon. Tired and wearing gloves caked in dirt, Cohn was admiring of Tersch’s devotion to her surroundings.
“She is a neighborhood gem,” said Cohn of Tersch. “It’s a thankless job. She cares so much about this community.”